If any place in the world deserves to be called ancient, it’s Yangzhou. This city is so old, in fact, that when it was first conceived the Romans were just coming up with their 12 tables of law, the Maya were devising their first solar calendar, Alexader the Great was over a hundred years away [...]
If any place in the world deserves to be called ancient, it’s Yangzhou. This city is so old, in fact, that when it was first conceived the Romans were just coming up with their 12 tables of law, the Maya were devising their first solar calendar, Alexader the Great was over a hundred years away from invading Egypt, and Jainism was just being founded in northern India. Yangzhou is old, for the past 2,500 years it has existed in some form or another.
The history of Yangzhou is, in very large part, a history of China itself, as the city has rarely skirted the wars, rebellions, technological advancements, and economic upsurges that the country has experienced throughout its past. Due to its location on the Jiangsu plains at the confluence of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal, Yangzhou has pretty much always served as an epi-center of trade and commerce. In various economic high points the city had been overrun with foreign traders and those digging into the local salt industry. Marco Polo claimed to be among them, stating that he was the city’s governor for a time (a fact which is not backed up by any records).The port of Yangzhou was important in antiquity and it is still triving today, standing at the intersection of two of China’s most important water transportation routes.
As is typical of an old Chinese city, Yangzhou has also had its share of catastrophe as well, being razed to the ground by various sets of marauders — Tartars, Qing Mongols, local rebels — and has faced a handful of massacres: most notably in 760 where thousands of foreign merchants were butchered, and in 1645 where as many as 800,000 people were slaughtered.
Throughout its time Yangzhou has found itself intermittently decked out in riches and bathed in blood: the two extremes of human history.
I traveled to Yangzhou to have look around. What I found in this ancient place was a very modern city. I went looking for an old city, an ancient part of town that was spared the demolition squads, the marauders, the rebels, the fires — maybe even a neighborhood that was restored for tourists — but not much other than a couple of old pagodas rising up in the middle of avenue roundabouts, a handful of museums in old restored residences, a historic lake front charging a $15 admission fee, and a few parks was all I could find which represented the city’s claims to antiquity.
I walked along the avenues of Yangzhou, the shopping districts, the canals, I ate pizza, and had a good time, but it became apparent that for the visitor looking to while away a day or two looking at some sites, well, there just isn’t much of that left any more. Yangzhou is a city of concrete and rebar, brick and mortar, neon lights and bright advertisements, shopping malls and trendy clothing shops. I was taken aback that a city that is so old could look so new.
That’s modern China.
I could not complain. Simply put, the modern cities of China are often nice places to be. The shops are usually all in business, there are people bustling every which way — these are alive, happening places. You can tell that China is a country on the rise just about everywhere you go: there is always something happening, things, places, and people are being changed, transformed, and renewed. Very little is left alone long enough to corrode or decay.
Most of the modern cities of eastern China look exactly the same: one could be a stand in for a thousand of them. I don’t mind monotony when traveling, I don’t mind the modern, I’m in no rebellion against the tidings of my own time, but I have to admit that I was surprised that Yangzhou could so cleanly wipe away 2,500 years of history in a few decades.
This is the Chinese way: cities are destroyed and rebuilt, demolished and reconstructed. Yangzhou has been through this round over and over again throughout its time, and this modern era is just another roll of the dice for a city that continues to win the gamble against the onslaught of time. Where other great cities and civilizations of its time have fallen into ruins, Yangzhou still remains and thrives in modern form — perhaps, as it always has.
Yangzhou is a very modern ancient city: the paradox of China.