Encompassing the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, China’s eastern seaboard stretches for almost 2000km between the mouths of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers. These waterways have played a vital part in the cultural and economic development of China for the last two thousand years, and the area today remains one of the country’s economic powerhouses. Including Shanghai, a city flanked by Jiangsu and Zhejiang, the eastern seaboard is home to nearly 250 million people – meaning that, if somehow cleaved from China, it would be the world’s fourth most populous country. This makes for great transport infrastructure: comfortable, modern buses run along the many inter-city expressways, while the area has the country’s highest concentration of high-speed rail routes. Yet, however modernized the eastern seaboard might be, with cities which rank among the most sophisticated in the land, there’s plenty of visible history to get your teeth into as you journey around the region.
Shandong province is home to some small and intriguing places: Ji’nan, a large city in which you can go swimming in a hutong spring; Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, with its giant temple and mansion; Tai Shan, one of the major pivots of the Taoist religion; and the coastal city of Qingdao, which offers a couple of beaches, swath of colonial architecture, lots of beer and seafood, and a ferry service to South Korea. Over in Jiangsu province there’s Nanjing, China’s large but likeable “southern capital”, and wonderful Suzhou, whose centre is crisscrossed by gorgeous canals, and dotted with classically designed gardens. Heading further south to Zhejiang province one will undoubtedly stumble across Hangzhou, which Marco Polo termed “the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world”; its Xi Hu (West Lake), still recognizable from classic scroll paintings, is deservedly rated as one of the most scenic spots in China. The same can be said of the enchanting island of Putuo Shan, which juts out of the sea just east of the mainland.
The region’s prosperity means that its accommodation is on the expensive side, though there are excellent youth hostels in almost all tourist centres. The climate varies a fair bit from north to south: Shandong’s is similar to that of Beijing; while the Yangzi River region, despite being low-lying and far from the northern plains, is unpleasantly cold and damp in winter, yet also unbearably hot and sticky during the summer – Nanjing’s reputation as one of the “three furnaces” of China is well justified. If possible, try to visit in spring (mid-April to late May), during which a combination of rain showers, sunshine and low humidity gives the terrain a splash of green as well as putting smiles on the faces of residents emerging from the harsh winter.
The murky Yellow River oozes slowly across Shandong province and into the sea, and its dusty basin provided China with its original heartland – human settlements have existed in Shandong for more than six thousand years, with Neolithic remains indicating a sophisticated agricultural society. In the Warring States Period (720–221 BC), Shandong included the states of Qi and Lu, and the province is well endowed with ancient tombs and temples, not least thanks to the efforts of its most illustrious son, Confucius.
The Yangzi basin
It was the lower Yangzi basin, however, which provided the power base for China’s first empire. As early as the sixth century BC, the basin’s flat terrain, large crop yield and superb communications offered by coastal ports and navigable waterways enabled the principal towns of the area to develop quickly into important trading centres. These presented an irresistible target for the expanding Qin dynasty, and in 223 BC the region was annexed, immediately developing into one of the empire’s economic hubs. After the end of the Han dynasty in the third century AD, several regimes established short-lived capitals in southern cities; however, the real boost for southern China came when the Sui (589–618 AD) extended the Grand Canal to link the Yangzi with the Yellow River and, ultimately, to allow trade to flow freely between here and the northern capitals. With this, China’s centre of gravity took a decisive shift south. Under later dynasties, Hangzhou and then Nanjing became the greatest cities in China, each serving as capital of the country at some point, and acting as counterweights to the bureaucratic tendencies of Beijing since its own accession to power.
The area’s recent history, though, has been dominated by foreign influence and its ramifications. The Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain, was signed in Nanjing in 1842, after which the city itself became a treaty port. In 1897, the Germans arrived in Shandong, occupying first the port of Qingdao and then the capital, Ji’nan, their influence spreading further as they built a rail system across the province. Resentment at this interference, exacerbated by floods and an influx of refugees from the south, combined at the turn of the twentieth century to make Shandong the setting for the Boxer Rebellion. Moving on a few decades, Nanjing was to suffer one of the world’s worst ever massacres, with an estimated 300,000 civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in what is now known as the Rape of Nanking.