Historical passage through Henan

Kings and emperors have been known to prefer living in the central plains of Henan in China. On a whirlwind tour of three ancient capitals, TAN BEE HONG still manages to soak up the historical heritage of the various dynasties.

FOR those interested in Chinese history, their journey must surely start in Henan Province, the central plains of China where over 200 kings and emperors set up capital cities in a period spanning 4,000 years.

Of the eight ancient capitals in China, four were in Henan — Anyang and Zhengzhou (Shang Dynasty), Luoyang (Nine Dynasties) and Kaifeng (Seven Dynasties).

Often referred to as the “museum of Chinese history and culture”, Henan is located in central China through which the Yellow River flows. There are not one but two World Geoparks here — Mt Yuntai and Mt Songshan and the mountain ranges of Funiu (where large deposits of fossilised dinosaur eggs and bones were found) and Taihang.

The newly-launched CNGi (the English edition of the 60-year-old magazine, Chinese National Geography) chose to focus on Henan for its inaugural edition. After the launch event in Beijing in April, our media group boarded the bullet train for a comfortable three-hour ride to Anyang, speeding through jade-green fields of winter wheat.

Anyang Tombs & Bones

Dragons on the vermillion gate at the Yinxu Ruins in Anyang, the site of royal tombs, carriage pits and palace foundations

Steeped in ancient civilisation, Anyang is also known as the Home of Oracle Bone Inscriptions and the Book Of Changes. During 255 years of Shang rule, eight generations of 12 kings ruled in this capital.

At the Yinxu archaeological site, the outlines of the huge underground royal tombs are marked by hedges

Here is where you can visit Yinxu (Yin Ruins), a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site. Yinxu is the most important archaeological discovery in China in the 20th Century and the Anyang Yinxu Museum displays both the glories and horrors of the Shang Dynasty. The museum is located in the largest archaeological site in China (30sq kms) discovered in 1899.

Sacrificial pits containing skeletal human remains minus their skulls

Workers have uncovered over 80 sites of palaces, shrines, tombs and workshops. The royal cemetery comprises tombs of 12 Shang kings and more than 2,000 sacrificial pits of both humans (minus the heads) and animals. Visitors can view the tomb of a Shang king to appreciate the enormity of royal tomb design then. Buried in the tomb was the largest bronze object made during the Shang Dynasty, the Simuwu Ding (four-legged vessel) weighing 875kg. It was commissioned by the king to commemorate his mother.

Visitors admiring the Simuwu Ding, the largest bronze artifact ever found in the world. It weighs 875kg and stands at 133cm in height.

The best preserved tomb of the Shang Dynasty (discovered in 1976) is that of Fu Hao, wife of King Wu Ding, a woman born before her time. She was said to be a military general who led wars in the frontier. Fortunately, it escaped the looting that had damaged most other tombs here and 1,928 artefacts were recovered, including 460 bronzes, 750 jades and 6,800 cowry shells.

Sacrificial chariot pits are remarkable evidence of the use of such transportation during the Shang Dynasty

Here, you can also see the Exhibition Hall of Chariot Pits, the earliest samples of animal-pulled carts in China. There are six chariots uncovered, buried together with horses and human sacrifices and the remains of a 8.8m wide Shang Dynasty road.

Then there are the oracle bone inscriptions, characters written on tortoise shells or animal bones, representing the earliest writing system in China.

Zhengzhou Relics

From Anyang, we headed for Zhengzhou to visit the Henan Provincial Museum, one of the three largest museums in China, established in 1927. While renovations are on-going still, there is enough to keep one occupied for hours. Ask for a guide as there are no descriptions of the displays in English at present.

But don’t let this deter you from admiring the over 130,00 pieces of cultural relics, of which 40,000 are national treasures from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Of particular interest is an 8,700-year-old bone flute from the Peiligang Neolithic Period. Believed to be the earliest musical instrument in the world, the crane bone flute has seven holes that makes seven different notes.

Then there is a rectangular bronze ding (vessel) with a beast mask from the Shang Dynasty and wine drinking vessels and the famous sancai (tri-colour) glaze pottery from the Tang Dynasty.

A gold tablet (AD700), discovered in 1982 in the forest of Mt Song by a research student, is carved with a prayer for absolving the sins of the ruthless Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, the only female emperor of China.

Jade has always played an important role in Chinese lives and at the museum, there is a jade mummy, jade face mask from the Western Zhou Dynasty, jade pendants and hair accessories.

Archaeological digs too have unearthed building models in tombs which are an invaluable insight into the homes of the past.

I just couldn’t get over the high standards of workmanship of these ancient artisans as I stood and admired an Ivory Cabbage and Ivory Radish from the Qing Dynasty. These looked so real, down to the earthy discolouration of the tendril roots.

Songshan Cradle Of Shaolin Arts

Bruce Lee made it famous with his film, Shaolin Temple. However, the temple had existed since 495AD during the Wei Dynasty.

Called the cradle of Chinese martial arts and Zen Buddhism, it is located outside Zhengzhou, near Dengfeng City, in the Songshan (Mt Song) region.

Next to the temple is the famous Forest of Stupas, the resting place of eminent monks throughout the years. Each stupa holds the remains of one monk. There are over 200 stupas of various designs, with the latest being that of Su Xi who died in 2006.

Luoyang Burial Grounds

There must be some truth in the ancient proverb that says Suzhou and Hangzhou are good places to live in while Luoyang is a good place to die in. After all, emperors, kings, princes, generals and other eminent figures built their tombs in Luoyang to ensure they would be buried there after their death.

In those days, people built tombs for themselves and their families before they died and sometimes, as many as three generations were entombed together.

These tombs date from the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) to the North Song Dynasty (960-1127AD) and a museum was built at the site where many ancient tombs were excavated.

The Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum, on Mangshan (Mang Hill), 10km north of Luoyang, is also the first of its kind in the world, with 22 excavated tombs brought here and restored brick for brick, with a good presentation from the early Han Dynasty.

Upon entering, visitors are directed down underground where a corridor leads to reconstructed tombs on both sides, sectioned off according to historical era and styles. The tombs, neatly lined one after the other, belonged to royal families or emperors, so the items found here were of impressive quality, and represented status symbols of their time.

Of particular interest is a Roman coin (AD602-610) found clasped in the hand of a General Anpu from the Tang Dynasty, indicating that travel existed way back then between China and the West.

During the excavation of another tomb, workers accidentally broke through a brick wall and discovered a concealed wall at the back, decorated with paintings of the life of a man who apparently was an official of sorts. Obviously, the paintings were made when he was an important personage but at the time of his death, he was no longer an official, so the paintings were no longer relevant and thus bricked up.

Also not to be missed is the actual tomb site of Emperor Xuanwu of northern Wei. Visitors can actually walk down the slope leading to the burial chamber. Unlike most other tombs, this one was spared looting by tomb robbers, so a lot of original artifacts were preserved.

A little to the south is another Unesco World Heritage Site, the Longmen Grottoes which contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese stone carving of the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907) and is entirely devoted to Buddhism. There are 2,345 caves with carvings flanking both sides of the Yi River. These religious carvings were commissioned by royalty, officials, monks and rich residents. However, between 1920 and 1940, many of the statutes were hacked out by locals and sold to foreigners.

How To Get There

You can fly directly to Luoyang and Zhengzhou from most major cities in China. Rail transportation is well developed and the bullet train offers a fast and comfortable ride. Near the railway stations, special tourist buses go to the tourist spots in the suburban areas.