If you’re coming to Zhejiang, you’ll almost certainly be visiting its star attraction, the lovely provincial capital of Hangzhou. While it’s true that this achingly good-looking city is not to be missed, there’s still plenty more that this mountainous province (known as the Land of Fish and Rice) has to offer. Situated on the country’s east coast, Zhejiang is typefied by its lush countryside and a series of sparkling canals that dissect the region into a peppering of quiet islands and jagged coastlines. Some of the best places to catch the wonders of magnificent Zhejiang are around the canals of Wuzhen and Nanxun, and the stunning archipelago that leads up to Putuo Shan, Zhejiang’s ancient, island-bound Buddhist refuge.
Zhejiang’s inhabitants can actually be traced back to ancient times. Neolithic (New Stone Age) relics such as pottery and artisan tools discovered in and around the province date back to as early as 7,000 years ago. One such notable excavation was in Liangzhu, a small town in the north of the province where archaeologists dug out rice seeds, pottery and other ancient articles dating back 4,000 to 5,000 years.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 476 BCE), Zhejiang was a favorite place for emperors to build their kingdoms, and at that time it was predominantly dominated by the Wu and Yue Kingdoms, two rival states which over time saw the rise and fall of many dynasties.
During the Eastern Jin (317 – 420 CE) and Southern Dynasties (420 – 589 CE), Zhejiang was blessed with an emergence of vibrant culture as skilled artisans and intellectuals fled the war-torn regions north of the province, bringing with them a great diversity of religion, calligraphy, poetry, porcelain and philosophy.
By the time the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618 CE) rolled around, the area was politically united, allowing the Song to rebuild and expand the Grand Canal, which still links Hangzhou to Beijing along the North China Plain. The canal was originally built to transport grains from Zhejiang’s famous southern granaries to the more depleted regions in the north, and today it still serves as an important transportation and trade link.
The Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279) brought the imperial capital to Hangzhou and propelled the province to fame when they made Zhejiang ground zero for the production of celadon, China’s world-renowned light green and blue ceramics. This breathtaking porcelain was exported all over the world, from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and Africa, and the vast majority of it came from Zhejiang’s famous kilns, one of which still stands in Hangzhou. Besides porcelain, Zhejiang also became renowned for its silk and paper production.
Tea was one of many important crops in the Tang (618 – 906 CE) and Song Dynasties (960 – 1279), with tea farms covering more than 200 countries. Dragon Well tea (Lóngjǐng Chá; 龙井茶), a famous green variety from Zhejiang, was believed to have been granted Imperial status during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368). Increasingly popular during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644 – 1912) and boasting a 1,500-year history, Longjing tea can still be found on the hills of Hangzhou.
In spite of the Japanese occupation in World War II and a stagnant economy during the Cultural Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s, Zhejiang today flourishes as one of the richest and most succesful provinces in China.
Linguistically speaking, Zhejiang is extremely diverse. Most inhabitants speak Wu, one of the many varieties of Chinese, though Wu itself has a large number of dialects that vary greatly from village to village. Non-Wu dialects are also spoken mostly along the borders: Mandarin and Huizhou to the north and Min dialects towards the south.
With so many dialects in one single province, it can be rather tongue-tying when trying to communicate. Fortunately, most people throughout Zhejiang can speak Mandarin, though with a fairly strong accent.
On a musical note, Zhejiang is the original home of Yueju (越剧). Though it wasn’t officially created until 1906, it along with Beijing Opera is the most popular form of opera in the entire country, so definitely try to catch a show while you’re here.