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Exploring history: Jianshui through the ages

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Of all of Honghe Prefecture's (红河州) thirteen major cities, Jianshui (建水) is by far the most interesting. Lying on a broad plain, with mountains only a bit distant, it hasn't got the striking natural settings of cities south of the Red River that lie on ridges flanked by slopes of irrigated terraces. But those places — Lüchun (绿春), Xinjie (新街), Honghe and Jinping (金平) — are all relatively new, built adjacent to existing Hani (哈尼) or Yi () villages. Aside from a couple of nice parks, there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them, aside from the population, which is mostly composed of colorfully dressed minorities.

Jianshui, however, is the oldest city in the prefecture, founded under the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏) in 810, with the name Huili. It became a main trading link between Kunming and everything south and southeast of the new city. That role continued during the centuries of the Kingdom of Dali (大理国), Nanzhao's successor, as well the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. It came to be called Jianshui under Mongol rule, Lin'an under the Ming, and back to Jianshui with the Qing.

Alone among Honghe cities, Jianshui has retained much of its classical architecture. The mosque and the Confucius Temple (孔庙) date from the thirteenth century. The imposing Chaoyang Tower (朝阳楼) was erected in the late fourteenth century. Buddhist temples and pagodas have been standing since the Qing Dynasty. The city has expanded much since dynastic times, especially in recent decades, but still features a large old quarter of traditional houses and neighborhoods.

The most impressive of Jianshui's old buildings is the massive, three-tiered Chaoyang Gate, towering over a long, high red wall. Erected in 1389 — not long after the Ming Dynasty had expelled the last Mongol forces in the province — it is the sole remaining vestige of the old walled city, and served as its eastern entrance. In style, it resembles Tiananmen in Beijing, though it was built 28 years earlier. Similarly, it is the single building most associated with the city.

Jianshui's next most famous monument is the Confucius Temple in the southwest quarter, originally constructed in 1285, when Yuan Dynasty Muslim governors of Yunnan had a policy of promoting both Islam and Confucianism. Expanded and renovated several times since, it is the country's second grandest Confucian temple, after the one in Qufu (曲阜), the sage's birthplace in Shandong. The long rectangular compound encloses not only the temple buildings but also a gymnasium and middle school. In the front part of the compound lies an oval pond called Xuehai (学海) — the Sea of Learning. A causeway and arched bridge connect a small island in the rear of the pond, with a graceful pavilion in its center.

Behind the pond an ornamental gate, with carved dragons curled around its posts, marks the way to the halls. The smaller of these are lined up facing each other across the compound garden and its manicured lawns. Small paintings of Confucius hang from the walls and one building contains a modest collection of gilt bronze images from the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.

The Great Hall of Magnificent Achievement, which houses statues of Confucius, is the most impressive building. It is supported by 28 pillars, 20 of them of black stone, with the front two entwined by stone dragons. Wooden screen doors are intricately carved and on the temple porch stands an incense burner, with dragons wrapped around each of the four posts supporting the multi-gabled roof.

Within the city limits, Jianshui authorities have listed over fifty buildings as historical monuments. Ming and Qing dynasty temples makeup a good proportion of these, but the list includes secular buildings and private houses. The quiet, winding lanes in the old quarters feature traditional urban architecture, with tiled, upturned roofs and compound gates embellished with wood carvings. Occasionally a stroller passes by a larger, more ornate building, drafted for contemporary use as a schoolhouse or neighborhood library.

Among Jianshui's legacy of religious architecture are its two Qing-era pagodas, each totally distinct from the other. Two blocks south of Chaoyang Gate, in a courtyard of old temple buildings no longer in use, stands the Chongwen Pagoda (崇文塔). It rises to 14 thin tiers and its style differs completely from the Wenbi Pagoda (文笔塔), which stands in an open field south of the city. That pagoda is shaped like an ink-brush, with smooth sides and no tiers. From a distance it resembles the smokestacks of the kilns used in Jianshui's thriving ceramics industry.

The most venerable Buddhist temple in the city is Zhilin Monastery (指林寺), in the vicinity of the Confucian Temple in the western quarter. It dates back to the Yuan Dynasty and features intricate woodcarving on the brackets and compound gate. But it is no longer in use. The most active Buddhist sanctuary is Randengsi (燃灯寺) — Lighting the Lamps Temple — on the other side of town in the northeast quarter.

Not far from this is the city's biggest mosque, in the classical Chinese style, originally serving early Muslim immigrants and traders from southeast China. After Kubilai Khan conquered Yunnan, Central Asian Muslims, who were part of the occupying army and later settled permanently, augmented the original Jianshui Muslims and eventually became part of the Hui minority nationality (回族). The mosque now dates only to the Qing Dynasty, but the original, constructed before the Mongol conquest of Yunnan, was certainly one of the oldest religious buildings in the city.

The list of historic secular buildings includes neighborhood gates, old administrative buildings converted to contemporary police stations, law offices and the warren of connected compounds called the Zhu Family Garden (朱家花园), the third most famous attraction in Jianshui. Originally the property of a rich merchant from the late Qing, the compound covers over 2,000 square meters, with 218 pavilions. The buildings are simple, with clean, regular lines, almost minimalist in their spare furnishings and lack of adornment. But they provide a perfect backdrop to the variegated shapes of plants and flowers in pots and gardens adorning every compound. It's like a setting for the eighteenth century novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

One of the halls features a display of large color photographs of the major attractions of both the city and the county. Among the spots featured in the photo collection are secluded hillside temples in the remote corners of the county and three of the finest extant traditional bridges in central Yunnan. One of these — Daxinqiao (大新桥) —crosses a small river five kilometers east of Qujiang (曲江镇), in the northern part of the county. Tianxiangqiao (天香桥) spans a stream several kilometers northeast of Jianshui, while Shuanglongqiao (双龙桥) — Double Dragon Bridge — lies a few kilometers west of Jianshui's Confucius Temple, just past a village of gravestone makers.

Shuanglongqiao is the most picturesque. Originally built in the late eighteenth century, expanded to a length of 153 meters a hundred years later, it features 17 spans, eight to each side and one under the graceful, three-tiered central tower. A smaller, two-tiered pavilion stands at the end of the bridge on the north bank. The bridge seems to have been put there for its aesthetic value rather than any commercial reason. The waters beneath often do not flow, and didn't when the French were there in 1867. They deemed the span purely ornamental. Vegetable gardens lie right against its base. It sees little traffic all day and probably never did bear much. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful bridge.

Another county attraction, of growing popularity, is the historic village of Tuanshan (团山), about 13 kilometers west of Jianshui. Situated on a leveled hillock, it was originally Yi, but has been a Han majority village since the Qing Dynasty. Tuanshan has preserved its original architecture and provides a perfect opportunity to see what practically all Chinese villages in Yunnan used to looked like, undiluted by modern buildings.

While the classical Han legacy dominates the attractions of Jianshui and its immediate vicinity, the county is also home to, besides the Hui, some of Yunnan's ethnic minorities — in particular the Yi, Dai(傣族), Hani and Miao, mainly in the east and south. Most of them still largely follow their traditional lifestyles and their colorfully dressed women often turn up at Jianshui's daytime markets.

Jianshui was one of the first counties opened to foreign travelers in Yunnan. Until then, the only Westerners Jianshui people had seen were members of the French Mekong Expedition who passed this way in November 1867. The party had split up in Yuanjiang (元江) to allow Francois Garnier, second in command, to explore the Red River. But rapids forced him to abort his journey and arrive in Jianshui two days earlier. Quite soon he was subjected to the intense scrutiny of a swelling crowd of local residents, whose curiosity knew no bounds. Shut up in his room, nothing Garnier did could satiate this crowd, which eventually started hurling stones at him.

At that point Garnier took out his pistol and fired into the air. After a pause the crowd resumed throwing stones, so he fired again. That surprised them because they did not see him reload. One man sniffed that he had seen pistols with double charges, so now the foreigner was finished. It was time to rush him. But Garnier then fired off three successive shots, which terrified and scattered the multitude. They had not heard of any kind of gun that could do that.

That night Garnier escaped over the wall and joined the rest of the expedition encamped beyond. The arrival of the French came to the attention of Liang Daren, Jianshui's strongman, who took the group under his protection and issued edicts, widely announced, that anyone bothering his foreign guests would be executed.

Travelers visiting Jianshui in the 1990s, when it was opened to foreign tourists, did not experience anything like that. Jianshui was 'Hello City' and its people friendly, polite and hospitable. The journey from Kunming took much longer then, so most visitors used Jianshui simply as a stopover on the way to the stunning terraces of Yuanyang (元阳). If they did stay an extra night it was to visit Yanzidong (燕子洞), or Swallow Cave, about 40 kilometers east.

Supposedly the largest Karst cave in all of China, its entrance is a huge mouth with stalactites dripping overhead like irregular icicles. Attached to some of these stalactites are message banners, mounted by sure-footed cave climbers. Nowadays local youths demonstrate for Yanzidong's tour groups how it was done. The same technique is used to gather the edible bird nests built by swifts high up on the walls. This is a bustling business here, for the dish is one of those exotic foods irresistible to Chinese. Restaurants along the road and even inside the cave serve a soup made from it.

A subterranean stream runs through the grotto and small boats take back those who at the end of the walking tour are too tired to return on foot up and down the same walkways. The touring trail glides by unusual limestone formations, often given fanciful names like Two Elephants Playing in the Water or Jade Pillar Supporting the Sky. Lights of different colors illuminate the scenery and there's a refreshment bar halfway along the walking route. At the end of the cavern is a stage where every hour or so a troupe of Yi perform lively dances.

However salubrious it might be, bird's nest soup is not very filling. But back in Jianshui are a number of Hui restaurants serving beef specialties, several noodle shops, grilled tofu stands and a variety of Chinese restaurants. One local specialty here is qiguoji (汽锅鸡), a chicken soup flavored with pseudo-ginseng, cooked in an earthen pot. The local vegetable specialty is caoya (草芽), a water-grown tuber resembling an elephant tusk, with a taste and consistency similar to bamboo shoots. As for fruit, pomegranates from Jianshui are considered the best in the province.

Local food specialties, natural attractions and ethnic culture do not make Jianshui County much different from other parts of Yunnan. What distinguishes it from all the others — even those Han majority counties that have modernized to the point of nearly obliterating their heritage — is that Jianshui has proudly preserved its history. In a province dominated by either the ethnic minority aspect or the modernized Chinese entity, Jianshui represents that original Han culture, one that began in the north, spread to the center and southeast and eventually encompassed Yunnan.

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Jim's article is, as usual, excellent, but although he mentions renovations, perhaps he has left off a few that are really quite extensive. For example, there is a tourist street in Jianshui that has all the 'traditional' curved Han-style shop roofs you might like to see, but they were all built since the first time I went there some 10 years ago. More recently, the old South Gate has been built from scratch - wasn't there 10 years ago either.
The significance of the Confucian temple should not be missed - the conquerors of Yunnan were Mongols, with Central Asian troops, many Muslim. The fact that a Muslim ruler built such a large structure in this far-away province is a good example of the nature of the rulers: they were big supporters, not only of Islamic learning, but of Confucianism and Buddhism as well. And by the Ming Dynasty, if not before, the fact that this was the second largest Confucian temple in China, after the one in Qufu, the Kong (Confucius) family home in Shandong, is a clear statement of the attitude of the dynasty towards this frontier, Han-minority province, which had been very much independent, and under non-Han rulers, before the Mongols: This place is Ours now, and b'god we're here to stay!
And then note the role played by Lin'an (Jianshui) during the massive 'Panthay Rebellion' against the Qing (Man, or Manchu rulers), led by Muslims but with numerous Yi and Han followers, which went on for 18 bloody years in the 19th century...
Yunnan's history is unique, and it's fascinating.

Surprised that there's no mention of zitao purple clay or pottery. Jianshui purple clay is one of the "4 famous clays of China", along with yixing zisha.

I went to a workshop one evening there several years ago, was interesting to see the pottery being made.

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