Straddling the Yellow River that was the birthplace of Chinese civilization, Henan is an old province, within it are two of the ancient capitals of China: Luoyang and Kaifeng. Mountains to the west and center separate the Yellow River from the southeastern area (the Nanyang plain) which is drained by the Huai River. Floods from both the Yellow and Huai Rivers have punctuated Henan’s long history. Indeed, Henan had cities right back in the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) with its capital at Anyang just west of Zhengzhou. The meandering Yellow River in ancient times followed a course further north near to Anyang. Remains from one of the earliest Chinese civilizations – the ancient Yangshao Culture can be seen at a museum near Mianchi. It boasts the Longmen Grottoes, full of Buddhist sculptures and the Shaolin monastery well known to followers of kung fu and Tai Chi.
Popular Cities: Zhengzhou, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Pingdingshan, Xinxiang, Anyang, Nanyang
Average temperature: -3ºC to 3ºC (26.6ºF to 37.4ºF) in January, 24ºC to 29ºC (75.2ºF to 84.2ºF) in July.
Places to visit
1. Luoyang just south of the river was the capital of China for ten dynasties before it was sacked by Jurchen invaders in the 10th century. The philosopher Laozi is one of the many great figures associated with the city. It is sometimes known as the ‘eastern Imperial city’ but has few remaining ancient buildings after centuries of plunder. The City museum has many fine exhibits of Luoyang’s days of pre-eminence. There is an annual Peony Festival which was brought into being by famous Tang Empress Wu Zetian. Baimasi (White Horse Temple) at Luoyang claims to be the oldest Buddhist monastery in China dating back to 68CE. The name refers to the legend that it was founded by two monks who arrived on a white horse.
2. The Longmen Caves, 7 miles [12 kms] south-west of Luoyang in Henan has a fine set of Buddhist carved figures dating back to Wei and Tang dynasties (500-900CE). There are over 1,300 grottoes with nearly 100,000 Buddhist statues of all sizes. Tang Empress Wu Zetian built the famous seated Buddha 56 feet [17 meters]. Longmen Caves provides evidence of China’s long excellence in porcelain manufacture at the Jun Royal Kiln, Xuchang; dating back to Song dynasty times.
3. Kaifeng became capital city after the abandonment of Luoyang and was at its zenith up until the invasion of the Mongols in the Song dynasty when it was pillaged. The Prime Minister’s Temple (Da Xiangguo Si) has been rebuilt on the site of the main Buddhist temple in the Song capital city. It is most famous for a large statue of the Buddhist Goddess Guanyin. Longting Park has been built in the Song style for the benefit of tourists. Near Kaifeng is the Baogong Temple in memory of Bao Zheng renowned for his fair administration of justice. Guanlin Temple commemorates Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms period who has been worshiped as a ‘god of War’. The Dragon Pavilion at Kaifeng is another ancient temple.
4. The sacred mountain of Songshan is a famous scenic site south east of Luoyang. At 4,902 feet [1,494 meters] it is an impressive peak with scary paths leading to the summit. The Temple of Songshan is the oldest stone pagoda in China as it dates back to Northern Wei times (523CE). The Daoist ‘Temple of the Central Mountain’ is older but has been rebuilt over the centuries since its foundation in Han times. On the foothills of Mount Song is the Gaocheng Observatory, a World Heritage site. A gnomon was erected in the Tang dynasty here to help measure the circumference of the Earth. The measurements were not surpassed in Europe for hundreds of years.
5. Close to Mount Song is the world famous Shaolin Monastery (literally ‘Small Forest Temple’) immortalized by the ‘Kung Fu’ series of the 1970s. The temple is of Zen Buddhism and dates back to the Wei dynasty when Indian Da Mo founded the monastery and instigated the Wushu martial art. There is also the Pagoda Forest (Talin) of 200 tombs dating back as far as the Tang dynasty.
6. Anyang is the most ancient of the cities, and it is built on the remains of the Shang dynasty capital of Yin. There is a museum housing many remains from this period including the oracle bones inscribed with early Chinese characters.