Shanxi

literally means ‘Mountains’ West’, referring to the fact that it lies west of the Taihang Mountains.  Its one-character abbreviation is Jin, after the state of Jin that existed there during the Spring and Autumn period.

Shanxi borders Hebei to the east, Henan to the south, Inner Mongolia to the north and the province with nearly the same name, Shaanxi, to the west.  Shanxi’s capital is Taiyuan.

For centuries, Shanxi was a trade and banking centre and the term ‘Shanxi merchant’ was synonymous for wealth. The well-preserved city of Pingyau still shows signs of its former glory as a centre of trade and banking.  Today, coal mining has overtaken trade and banking as the mainstay of the Shanxi economy.

History

The powerful state of Jin was located in Shanxi during the Spring and Autumn Period (772 BC – 403 BC).  Jin split into three parts, Han, Zhou and Wie in 403, the beginning of the Warring States Period.  By the beginning of the Qin Dynasty in 221, all of these states were under Qin rule.

During the Han Dynasty, Shanxi was administered as a province of Bingzhou.  When northern nomads invaded during the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-439 AD), the area that is now Shanxi was ruled by various regimes including Later Zhao, Former Yan, Former Qin and Later Yan.  This succession of rulers was followed by Northern Wei, which had one of its capitals at present-day Datong and went on to rule nearly all of northern China.

In the Tang Dynasty, the area was given another named based on its geographical location, but this time it was named ‘East of the Yellow) River’ or Hedong.

Shanxi provided three of the Five Dynasties and the only one of the Ten Kingdoms during the Ten Kingdoms Periods to be based in northern China.  The province was home to the jiedushi (commander) of Hedong, Li Cunxu, who overthrew the first of the Five Dynasties.  Another jiedushi of Hedong, Shi Jingtang, overthrew Later Tang to establish the third of the Five Dynasties.  In the Later Jin Dynasty, yet another Jiedushi of Hedong, Liu Zhiyuan, founded the fourth of the Five Dynasties (Later Han Dynasty).  When the fifth of the Five Dynasties was established, the current jiedushi of Hedong, Liu Cohong, rebelled and set up his own independent state called Northern Han,one of the Ten Kingdoms.  This area now constitutes northern and central Shanxi.

Shi JIngtang who founded the Later Jin Dynasty gave a large portion f northern China to the Khitans in return for their military aid.  The parcel he gave them, called The Sixteen Prefectures of Yanyun, included part of northern Shanxi. The entire ceded territory became a major problem for China for the next 100 years because it lies south to the Great Wall, making it difficult for China to defend itself against the Khitans.

The Sixteen Prefectures continued to cause problems between Song China and Liao Dynasty during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127 AD).  The Southern Song Dynasty that followed abandoned all of north China, including Shanxi, to the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in 1127. The Mongol Yuan Dynasty parcelled up China into provinces but did not designate Shanxi as one of them.  It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) that Shanxi was formally established and given its present name and approximate borders.  During the Qing Dynasty, Shanxi was extended northwards beyond the Great Wall to include parts of Inner Mongolia.

Shanxi was held by the warlord Yen Hsi-shan during most of the Republic of China’s rule over mainland China (1912-1949) despite the political upheavals that rocked the rest of China.  During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Battle of Taiyuan was fought in Shanxi; Japan’s victory in that battle led to Japan’s occupation of a large part of the province. Shanxi was also a major battlefield between the Japanese and the Chinese communist guerrillas of the Eight Route Army.

After Japan was defeated, the Communist People’s Liberation Army set up bases throughout much of the Shanxi countryside during the Chinese Civil War.   Yen enlisted thousands of former Japanese soldiers into his own forces for his failed defence of Taiyuan against the People’s Liberation Army in early 1949.

Geography

Shanxi is on a plateau but it is not flat, but higher in the east and the west where the Taihang Mountains and Lulang Mountains rise (the highest peak is Mount Wutai, or Wutai Shan) in the northeast, with an altitude of 3058 metres), and has a series of valleys in the centre where the Fen River runs through. 

The Great Wall of China forms most of the northern border between Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, while the Huang He or Yellow River forms the western border between Shanxi and Shaanxi.  The Fen and Zin rivers, tributaries of the Huang He, run from top to bottom of the province, draining much of its area.  The largest natural lake is Xiechi Lake, a salt lake near Yuncheng in the southwest of the province.

Shanxi has a continental monsoon climate and is fairly dry.  Average rainfall is 350 to 700 mm, with over 60 percent of this falling in the rainy season from June to August. Average January temperatures are below 0 degrees Celsius, while in July the average temperatures are between21 and 26 degrees Celsius.

Major cities in Shanxi include Taiyuan, Datong, Changzhi and Yangquan.

Economy

Coal mining is the most important economic activity in Shanxi.  There are some 260 billion metric tonnes of known cola deposits, which is about one-third of all of China’s coal.  Shanxi is the leading producer of coal in China, with an annual production of more than 300 million metric tonnes.  Shanxi also has about 500 million tonnes of bauxite deposits, again about a third of the total deposits in China.

Related industries centre about heavy industries such as coal and chemical production, power generation and metal refining.

Agriculture is made difficult by Shanxi’s dry climate and limited water resources which are dwindling, yet the province has rich soil and still yields significant amounts of wheat, maize, millet, legumes and potatoes. It also grows cotton, tobacco and grapes.

Shanxi’s nominal GDP in 2004 was 304.2 billion yuan (37.74 billion USD), placing it 18th among China’s province.

Demographics

Shanxi inhabitants are mostly Han Chinese, although there are minority groups including Mongol, Manchu and Hui.

Culture

In most regions of Shanxi, Jin dialects (subdivisions of spoken Chinese) are spoken.  Jin dialects are unique in all of northern China because they have retained the ‘entering tone’ from Middle Chinese, which the surrounding Mandarin dialects have lost. (It is more common for the entering tone to be heard in central and southern China)  Jin is also known for its extremely complex tone sandhi systems. Dialects in the southwest border region are not classified as Jin dialects but are part of the Zhongyuan Mandarin Subdivision of the Mandarin group.

Lots of vinegar is used in Shanxi cuisine, where it is used as a condiment and poured over noodles.  A soup from the provincial capital is called Taiyuan Tounao and is reputed to have medicinal properties. People enjoy the soup by dipping pieces of unleavened cake into it, and it is made of mutton, lotus roots, wild yam, tuber onions, milk products and cooking liquor.

Shanxi Opera is the form of Chinese opera popularised during the late Qing Dynasty by Shanxi merchants who travelled around China and shared their native cultural tastes.  Also called Zhonglu Bangzi, it is a type of bangzi opera which is known for its use of wooden clappers for rhythm and an energetic singing style.  Shanxi also has a more melodic opera style called quzi.

Shanxi merchants created a historical phenomenon that lasted for centuries from the Song to the Qing Dynasty. The merchants travelled from Central Asia to the east coast of China and by the Qing Dynasty they were trading on both sides of the Great Wall.  During the late Qing Dynasty small banks were created to provide services like money transfers and transactions, deposits, and loans.  After the first of these banks or piaohaos was established, the Shanxi bankers dominated across China for nearly 100 years before larger more modern banks began to take away some of their business.

Tourist Attractions

The Ancient City of Pingyao is a World Heritage Site near Taiyuan which in many ways has preserved the way of life, the architecture and the northern Han Chinese cultural traditions of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.   It was once a great financial centre.

The Yuangang Grottoes is also a World Heritage Site and consists of 252 caves with 5th and 6th century Buddhist grotto sculptures and reliefs.  The grottoes are located in Datong.

Mount Wutai (Wutai Shan) is the residence of the bodhisattva Manjusri and therefore a major Buddhist pilgrimage destination as well as the province’s highest peak.  It is a place of scenic beauty and has numerous temples.

Mount Hengshan (Heng Shan) is one of the Five Great Peaks in China and is a major Taoist site.  The Hanging Temple is located nearby on the side of a cliff where it has survived for 1400 years despite earthquakes in the area.  Mount Hengshan is located in Hunyuan County.

The Yingxian Pagoda in Ying County was built in 1056 and is the tallest wooden pagoda in the world at 67 metres. It is octagonal with nine levels, five of which are visible from the outside.

Hukou Waterfall is the second highest waterfall in China, at 50 metres.  It is part of the Yellow River on the Shanxi-Shaanxi border.

The village of Daxhai was made an national example of the hardiness of the proletariat during the Cultural Revolution and was famous across China.  The village certainly fosters hardiness, as it is located in hilly, difficult terrain.  

Colleges and universities

There are more than 17 major colleges and universities in Shanxi  which are under the authority of the provincial government and offer full-time bachelor programmes.


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