The tripartite river city of Wuhan was supposed to be the last stop on my Spring Festival trip, a relaxing coda to the frantic public transport hopping of the middle two quarters. Until the airport blunder, it worked out, too.
Wuhan, or rather the fomerly three cities — Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang — that now make up the single city, lays claim to some of the oldest heritage in all of China, stretching back much further than Beijing. Sadly, most of the visible history was destroyed by American firebombing during World War 2, after Japan took control of the city. These days due to its central location at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han rivers, Wuhan is known mostly as the hub for most of China’s transnational transportation spokes, and I get the feeling that many people stop in Wuhan but few really visit it.
That’s a shame because at least for a couple of days, Wuhan has a lot to offer both culturally and historically.
With a population exceeding 10 million, Wuhan is one of the more cosmopolitan cities in all of China. It has a reputation as being one of the hottest and most humid summertime cities, but for our three days in Hubei, it was pleasantly chilly with spats of rain. Much cleaner than most cities we’ve visited, the planners also have made a point of carving out green space and bike paths that make for pleasant wanderings around town.
(It could be that my observations here are colored rose by the six-hour bus ride to Wuhan that featured the used diaper leaking urine all over the flemmy-spit-covered floor upon which screaming children ran up and down, contributing their sweat to the already nigh-unbearable breath-and-rain-induced humidity and bouncing along with the bus over construction-torn roads. But I think Wuhan was genuinely pleasant, not just relatively so…)
And insofar as history goes, it may be the most important city in modern history. Wuhan is where imperial China died.
The Revolution Will Be Telegraphed
On October 9, 1911, a bomb exploded and launched a revolution. The bomb exploded in Wuhan’s Russian concession where followers of career agitator, aspiring revolutionary, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen were making munitions in preparation for an anti-Qing Dynasty revolt, spurred by resentment over the Qing administration’s decision to nationalize privately paid-for railway lines meant help industrialize the Chinese economy. The premature explosion alerted local Qing Dynasty authorities to a revolutionary plot to overthrow their rule in Hubei province. Scrambling to keep their revolution from unraveling, the anti-imperialists opened fire in Wuhan’s streets on the night of October 10 and stormed the Qing Dynasty’s government offices in downtown Wuhan. By the next morning, the entire city was under revolutionary control. The leaders declared the end of Qing rule in Hubei Province, declared establishment of the Hubei military government, and declared the foundation of the Republic of China. They called for the rest of China to join the revolution. Over the next two months, 14 other provinces did so as China’s last dynasty crumbled.
In a tie to my home, Dr. Sun was in Denver, Colorado, throughout the revolution as part of a fundraising trip through America’s overseas Chinese communities. Representatives from the newly independent provinces together officially founded the Republic of China on January 1, 2012., electing Sun, who also founded the Kuomingtang political party that’s a major party in Taiwan to this day, it’s provisional president. Wuhan remained important through the mid 20th century as the wartime capital of the KMT during WW2, then as a major Japanese operations center following the Battle of Wuhan.
Today a red-brick museum flanked by the black-star, red-background flag of the Wuhan military government details Wuhan’s revolutionary role in what’s now called the Wuchang Uprising and Xinhai Revolution and the end of imperial China. The building had a short-lived stint as a Qing government building before it became the headquarters of the Wuhan military government after the revolution. It was here, too, that Sun Yat-Sen declared the Republic of China.
The museum is one of Wuhan’s major historic sites and does a good, if sometimes red-colored, job of detailing the players in the revolution and the events that led to led to the fall of Qing control in Wuhan. In addition to the exhibits, many of the offices and meeting rooms have been set up to mimic 1911 China so it’s not hard to imagine the museum as the revolutionary nerve center as the revolutionary army tried to hold off the Qing army in the months following the Wuchang uprising.
It’s not the only good history museum in Wuhan, either. Jordyn and I also visited the Hubei Provincial Museum, which features and excellent collection of Chu civilization artifacts dating back far beyond the unification of China in the 2nd century B.C., as well as a collection featuring what may be the world’s largest instrument: a bell set found mostly intact in the tomb of a Warring States-era nobleman.
Rising from the Ashes like a … Yellow Crane
If Wuhan is famous for any site, though, it’s the Yellow Crane Tower. Perched on Snake Hill near the confluence of Wuhan’s three original cities and the Yangtze, you can get a nearly 360-degree view of Wuhan on a clear day. We got that clear day, too.
According to a legend detailed at the site, Yellow Crane was tasked with stopping the floods that frequently swept through Wuhan causing reaping souls and destruction. He got help from the gods of Snake and Turtle, who formed their two namesake hills in Wuhan, one on each side of the river, directing the Yangtze along its course and helping staunch the floods. I’ve read that there are a few other legends about the yellow crane, but one way or the other, the tower was made famous by an 8th-century poem written by one of the Tang Dynasty’s most famous poets, Cui Hao.
The park that wends across the top of Snake Hill is lovely in its own right, shaded by trees lanky and thick and lined by plum blossoms in the spring, but Yellow Crane Tower is the main attraction. The tower as it currently stands is a modern construction, build of concrete in 1985. But the original tower, located about a kilometer away, was first built in 223 A.D. during the Han Dynasty. Over the centuries, the tower was destroyed by fires and warfare more than a dozen times, the last one in 1884. Inside the tower is a small exhibition of models showing how the tower’s architecture changed with the times from the squat-and-square Han construction to the modern-day swooping eaves. It is considered one of China’s four great towers.
Jordyn and I were sad to see that the tower was under renovation as we summited Snake Hill but it wasn’t a big surprise, as it seems like China itself is under something of a permanent renovation. And anyway, the real reward in climbing the tower steps is the gray high rise apartments vanishing into the distant clouds on the periphery of vision; the yellow-tiled courtyard that fans out below; the rail-and-road bridge swooping over the coal barges and cross-river ferries churning through the turgid, brown waters of the lower Yangtze; the lights of Wuhan’s business district and former foreign concession just beginning to glow upriver; and turtle hill, crowned by a neon-flashing TV-tower pinnacle, swelling over the horizon across the water.
Vegetarian Food: Made with Real Hotdogs
When we were finished with museums and towers and walking, Wuhan has its own style of food that spills out into the alleyways from dawn until far after dusk. Unlike Sichuan’s pepper-loaded, mouth-numbing approach to eats, Wuhan is subdued.
It’s most famous breakfast dish is hot and dry noodles, which are pretty much exactly what their name implies: hot noodles strained of water and topped with a salty, bitter fermented bean curd sauce that makes the noodle texture so dry they’re almost hard to swallow. I picked up a paper bowl of them one rainy morning in Hubu Alley, the cities most famous snack street. One line of the cobblestone road is lined with restaurants and fruit juice stalls, the other with stand after steamy stand of Hubei snack hawkers. They specialize in snacks ranging from hot and dry noodles to frog on a stick. They’ve got bowls of sauteed snails you’ve got to suck out of their shells. They’ve got boiled then oiled crayfish. They’ve got deep-fried bananas and sauteed potatoes and something like an egg, rice, and beef casserole.
Hubu is busiest in the mornings, but across the river the city’s other well-known street eatery gets busy after dark. In the alleyways that fan out behind the former foreign concession, a market starts to hum along with the nighttime neon. On the main drag local shoppers dig through racks of cheap clothes and underwear, tennis shoes, and phone cases, mostly. On the smaller side streets, carts roll in to keep the shoppers fed and street performers wander the rickety tables offering up a saxophone song or a mini opera performance in exchange for a wad of yuan.
A lot of the food there was similar to Hubu Alley. Barbecued frog legs or the ubiquitous skewers of lamb that can be found anywhere in China. They also add a big stands of fresh fish and crabs, dumplings, and whole varieties of noodles.
I ordered a bowl of noodles soup and asked the cook for no meat. Then I told the cook definitely no meat. Then she asked if I wanted the meat jelly, and I said no meat. She was very attentive. I got my noodles vegetarian style … with slices of Chinese hot dog.
The best food in Wuhan, however, was truly vegetarian and wasn’t found on a street.
One afternoon Jordyn and I spent an hour or so climbing the steps of Wuhan’s largest Daoist temple. Daoist temples are usually my favorite with their strange assortment of deities and often-mind-boggling cosmology. Daoist monks are often the least stuffy kind, too, happy to chat with me about their city, their temple, and why I’m visiting before trying to offer me some cosmological assistance by coercing me into bowing before their wooden gods. This temple, Changchun, was notable for its statute of Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism who wrote the religion’s foundational text, Tao Te Ching, around the 6th century B.C.
Changchun also had it’s share of dimly lit, incense shrouded temple halls, lush courtyards, and friendly monks but unlike most of the temples in Beijing, it has its own vegetarian restaurant. And unlike Western vegetarian restaurants, Changchun’s doesn’t pride itself on making sure guests know they’re not eating meat but on making sure they think they might be eating meat. Aside from a few straight tofu dishes, most of Changchun’s restaurant’s offerings are meat dishes like Kung Pao Chicken, but the chicken is made by a combination of mushrooms, tofu, beans and other ingredients. It’s got the texture of meat, the taste of meat, and the look of meat, but it isn’t meat.
At least that’s what they say. But that’s what they said about my veggie noodles, too.