Central China Travel Guide
An important ancient city, Changsha was the capital of the Chu kingdom until the unification of China under the Qin in 280 BC. Much later, the city’s profile was raised once more when in 1903 it became a treaty port, open to foreign trade. During the Sino-Japanese war in 1938, it was damaged by the Kuomintang. The town is associated with Mao Zedong, who attended college here from 1912 to 1918.
The excellent Hunan Provincial Museum houses many items of interest, including a collection of painted neolithic pottery and bronzes from the Shang and Zhou eras. However, the principal displays were excavated from three Han-dynasty tombs at Mawangdui, to the east of the city. The first tomb belonged to the wife of the Marquis of Dai, the second was that of the Marquis himself, while the third contained their son. The Marquis, Li Cang, became prime minister in 193 BC, and died in 186. The tombs contained a wooden outer coffin, surrounded by a protective layer of clay and charcoal, within which were four other coffins, lacquered and handsomely painted. The bodies had been dressed in several layers of silk. His wife’s body (on display in a liquid-filled tank) was so well preserved that her skin retained a certain amount of elasticity. Amazingly scientists were able to determine that she died at 50, and was suffering from tuberculosis and arthritis. According to the customs at the time, the tombs were filled with foods and furnishings to comfort that part of the soul that remains on earth, and a silk banner that mapped the Han belief system. Close by is the pleasantly landscaped Martyrs’ Park.
Among the numerous sites related to Mao Zedong, the most interesting is the Hunan First Normal College, where he studied from 1913, when he was 19, until 1918. Although he famously failed his art exam, by drawing a circle and calling it an egg, he was declared student of the year in 1917. At college, he devoted much of his time organizing student societies, a useful practise for his future role as leader. Mao returned as a teacher between 1920 and 1922. Visitors can follow a self-guided route through the rebuilt college, which is still active, visiting the dormitories, the well where Mao bathed, and the halls where he held political meetings.
Hunan Provincial Museum & Martyrs’ Park
- 50 Dongfeng Rd.
- 0731 451 4630
- 8:30am–5:30pm daily
Hunan First Normal College
- 207 Shuyuan Rd.
- 0731 512 6089
Shao Peak, Shao Shan
The birthplace of Mao Zedong, China’s leader from 1949 until his death in 1976, Shao Shan is really two towns. The newer one is near the railway station, while the village of Shao Shan Dong, where the “Great Helmsman” spent his early years is 4 miles (6 km) away. At the height of the Mao phenomenon during the Cultural Revolution, special pilgrimage trains, crowded with Red Guards, brought almost 8,000 worshipers a day. Shao Shan is still popular and any buildings connected with Mao are now preserved as museums. Mao’s Family House, where he was born in 1893, is typically rural, except for its displays of memorabilia. Next to it lies the Mao Zedong Exhibition Hall and nearby to that sits the Mao Ancestral Temple. Overlooking the village is Shao Peak, accessed by cable car. About 2 miles (3 km) from the village is Dripping Water Cave, where, legend has it, Mao pondered over the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Mao’s Family House & Mao Zedong Exhibition Hall
- Shao Shan Chong
- 0732 568 5157
- 8am–5pm daily
Cult of Mao
When he became Chairman in 1949, Mao Zedong was already a figure of almost mystical stature, having led the Red Army since 1934. He was an ideologue and whilst his impatience at the pace of reform led to decisions that often brought disaster, skillful maneuvering by the party meant that he remained a heroic figurehead. The Cultural Revolution 1966–76, was, at the expense of millions of lives, a calculated attempt to make Mao a deity. The years after his death saw a diminution of his status, but since the 1990s his popularity has revived. Once again Mao is considered by millions to be weida – Great.
|Since Mao’s death the Party has had to tread a delicate line between condemnation of his excesses and praise for his achievements. His portrait still hangs at the north end of Tian’an Men Square and his image is on all Chinese banknotes; perhaps his posthumous function is as a symbol of a united China.||Pilgrims at Shao Shan , Mao’s birthplace ), pay their respects. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, several trains a day pulled into Shao Shan to disgorge thousands of fervent pilgrims. In the 1980s this traffic all but ceased but has revived in recent years.||Domestic shrines with a figure of Mao to whom family members would address their revolutionary prayers started replacing Daoist and Buddhist shrines during the 1960s. Mao shrines are still seen, although the Party disapproves.|
|The thoughts of Chairman Mao were collected in 1961 in a volume, known as the “Little Red Book,” which was distributed to all Red Guards.||“Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts” according to this poster. The uppermost characters say “the East is Red,” the name of a piece of music that became an anthem of the Cultural Revolution.||Mao memorabilia is widely available in China, although many of the pieces on sale at markets today have been produced specifically for the tourist market.|
In the 1960s the Chinese propaganda machine turned out posters featuring Mao by the million. He was often portrayed as a benevolent avatar, a god come among the people to transform their lives.
In 1994 Mao’s private physician, Li Zhisui, wrote The Private Life of Chairman Mao, in which Mao is portrayed as vain, cold, and contemptuous of his colleagues and of the suffering of the Chinese people. The book was instantly banned by the Chinese government. At the time of publication, Li was living in the United States and so escaped persecution. The book provides some surprising insights into Mao’s habits and opinions. However, many critics, even those unsympathetic to Mao’s politics, claim that the book is simply opportunistic.
One of the five holy Daoist mountains, Heng Shan at 4,232 ft (1,290 m) is a cluster of wooded peaks, dotted with temples that were established some 1,300 years ago. The gateway to Heng Shan is Nanyue, a five-hour bus journey from Changsha. It is a pleasant little town with two main streets, and a couple of significant temples. Nanyue Damiao has been a place of worship for both Buddhist and Daoists since the early 8th century AD, although the current buildings, modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, date from the 19th century. The other, Zhusheng Si, is an 8th-century Buddhist monastery, rebuilt in the 18th century.
The mountain can be explored on foot or by minibus, but it is a 9-mile (15-km) walk to the top. There is a cable car to the summit from about halfway. A number of monasteries and temples lie along the path that meanders through lush countryside before reaching the Martyrs’ Memorial Hall, honoring those who died in the 1911 revolution. Next is the 7th-century Xuandu Si, Hunan’s main Daoist temple. The route finally leads to Shangfeng Si, also the minibus terminus. Just beyond is the summit marked by Zhurong Gong, a tiny stone temple. Visitors can stay at a hotel near the top for views from the Terrace for Watching the Sunrise.
- 249 miles (400 km) NW of Changsha
- to Mengdonghe, then bus or boat
- from Mengdonghe
Mengdonghe is the jumping-off point to Furongzhen (Wang Cun), the location of the eponymous 1986 film, A Small Town Called Hibiscus. Furongzhen means Hibiscus Town and the film was an adaptation of the novel A Town Called Hibiscus by Gu Hua. It was one of the first books to show how the political upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s affected people in rural China. Furongzhen is an attractive town with stone streets and old wooden buildings. Its Tujia Museum on Hepan Jie is devoted to the culture of the indigenous Tujia people. Visitors can also go rafting near Furongzhen, on the Yuan Jiang River.
Often called Zhangjiajie, this 243-square-mile (391-sq-km) scenic preserve is a karst landscape of enormous beauty, with rocky pinnacles rising from a coverlet of dense sub-tropical vegetation. Wulingyuan covers three natural reserves – Zhangjiajie, Tianzi Shan, and Suoxi Yu – and contains well over 500 species of tree, including the dawn redwood, which was believed to be extinct until it was re-identified in 1948. It is also a haven for fauna, including giant salamanders, rhesus monkeys, and a wide variety of birds. The park is often cloaked in fog, adding atmosphere but obscuring most views. Summers are excessively humid.
- 155 miles (250 km) NW of Changsha
- at Zhangjiajie Shi (Zhangjiajie City)
- to Zhangjiajie Shi
- to Zhangjiajie Shi; 1 hour minibus to Zhangjiajie Cun (Zhangjiajie Village)
- 26 Ziwu Zhong Rd, Zhangjiajie Shi, 0744 828 0832
- valid for 2 days
- Huang Shi Zhai
- Xianren Qiao
- Huanglong Dong
The main entrance is just past Zhangjiajie Cun. Follow the left path for a four-hour walk that includes Huang Shi Zhai. The right path presents several options, taking you, eventually, away from the crowds. Accommodations are available in Zhangjiajie Cun, as well as Suoxiyu Cun, which is a good base for exploring the east and north of the park. Simple inns are scattered throughout the reserve.
- 62 miles (100 km) N of Changsha
- at Chenglingji
- 25 Yunmeng Rd, 0730 821 8922
Situated on the banks of the Yangzi and the shores of Dongting Hu, China’s second largest freshwater lake, Yueyang is an important stopping point for river ferries and trains on the Beijing to Guangzhou line. Its main sight, Yueyang Tower, was once part of a Tang-era temple. The current structure, dating from the Qing era, is an impressive sight, with its glazed yellow-tiled roofs overlooking the lake. Nearby are two pavilions, Xianmei Ting and Sanzui Ting; the latter was where Lu Dongbin, one of the Taoist Eight Immortals (see Religion and Philosophy), came to drink wine. To the south is Cishi Ta, a pagoda built in 1242 to propitiate flood-causing demons.
A 30-minute boat ride from Yueyang is the small island of Junshan Dao, a former Daoist retreat that is now famous for its silver needle tea.
- Dongting Beilu
- 0730 831 5588