Starting in the Shang Dynasty in 1600 BC, China has kept written records of its civilization’s progress through the ages. Despite the rise and fall of dynasties, from the poetry of the Tang to the porcelain of the Song, the central characteristic of Chinese society has stayed intact for millenia. This cultural richness makes the Middle Kingdom a great place for history buffs.
China probably has the oldest continuous history of any country or civilization. Long-lost artifacts, ancient archaeological sites and other historical gems still lay hidden within its vast lands waiting to be discovered.
Photo by JQ Li via Flickr
Sights like the Great Wall outside Beijing and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an are classic destinations for the history buff. But for those who think of themselves as more of an Indiana Jones type, rare treasures of Chinese history rest just off the beaten path. With thousands of sights to thrill the history buff, we dug up some of the best places around the country that will give you the Chinese history lessons you never took.
Old Summer Palace
The capital city has served as the backdrop to some of the grandest narratives in Chinese history. Lying northwest of the city center, the Old Summer Palace (圆明园) tells a story of cultural destruction that occurred not just once, but twice over the short course of 40 years. First built by the Manchu emperors in the 18th century, the European-styled summer residence was first ransacked by Anglo-French troops during the Second Opium War, then further destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion. Piles of marble chunks, broken columns and empty lawns with foundation stones hint at where the buildings used to stand and are all that’s left of its former glory.
The Zhalan Cemetery contains the decorated graves of dozens of Jesuits who traveled to China during the 16th and 17th century. Besides introducing Christianity to the Middle Kingdom, the group was pivotal in creating important cultural and scientific dialogues between China and Europe.
Photo by Yi Su via Flickr
Architecture fans will love the splendid mix of Islamic and traditional Chinese influences of Niujie Mosque (牛街清真寺), Beijing’s oldest and largest mosque. The mosque was originally built in 996 A.D. and continues to be a cultural and spiritual hub for Beijing’s Muslim population.
If you’re interested in the history of China’s modern capital, plan an Essence of China tour.
In 2001, a construction project led to the wondrous discovery of the Jinsha Site (金沙遗址), where thousands of artifacts including stone daggers, elephant tusks, jade, gold and bronze objects have since been unearthed, suggesting an ancient civilization lived there over 3,000 years ago. Much remains unknown about the enigmatic Jinsha culture, except for the fact that its people were masters of bronze metallurgy for their time.
Photo by Robert Young via Flickr
Get to the heart of Sichuan’s culture and history on our Chinese Treasures tour.
Get educated at the Shanghai Museum with its massive collection of precious historical relics. You can easily spend half a day here enjoying high-quality artifacts of Chinese bronze, ceramics, paintings, furniture, calligraphy, seals, jades, ancient coins, and sculptures. Inside the museum, the Chinese Minority Nationalities’ Art Gallery deserves a special mention for its informative and extensive selection of works featuring traditional costumes, dyed and woven embroidery, handcrafted metalwork, ceramics, and bamboo wares used by the minority groups. To make your trip to the Shanghai Museum even more special, enlist the guidance of WildChina’s Shanghai Museum expert, Lucy Liang.
Photo by Xuan Che via Flickr
Shaanxi History Museum
Having served as the imperial seat for centuries, the city of Xi’an has plenty to offer when it comes to ancient history. Get started at the Shaanxi History Museum, which explores the history of the Shaanxi region in chronologically-ordered galleries dating back to the Neolithic Age. Watch how Chinese civilization grew from the earliest fossils of the Lantian Man, to the budding dynasties of Shang and Zhou, the Qin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty and the flourishing Tang Dynasty.
Han Yang Ling Mausoleum
North of Xi’an city is Han Yang Ling Mausoleum (汉阳陵), the burial tombs of Liu Qi, a notable emperor of the Western Han Dynasty, and his wife, Empress Wang. The emperor is most well-known for crushing the Rebellion of the Seven States in 154 BC. The emperor and his wife are buried under two large burial mounds and 86 smaller burial pits surround the complex. Interestingly enough, the Mausoleum makes up the largest underground museum in China. You can even find a criminal’s graveyard on the site.
Get to know the rich diversity of China’s history, including a stop in Shaanxi, on our Red Dragon and Lhasa tour.
Trace the historical path of Buddhism and Buddhist art in China at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. Created, revised and built upon through the rise and fall of dynasties, Mogao’s religious statues, paintings and murals document the evolution of Buddhist art in China for 1,000 years.
While early murals displayed a strong Indian and Central Asian influence in the painting techniques, composition, style, as well as costumes worn by the figures, a distinct Dunhuang style emerged during the Northern Wei Dynasty. As you explore the caves, relive the daily lives and important events of days past, eternally captured and etched onto the walls.
Step deep into the Mogao Caves and immerse yourself in the history of Buddhist art on our Marco Polo’s Silk Road tour.
Flying Tigers Memorial in Tengchong
During World War II, retired American pilots banded together with the Chinese to defeat the Japanese invasion of Yunnan. These fighter pilots were given the name “Flying Tigers” after the bottle nose of their planes were painted to resemble tigers.
You can explore the 80,000 relics on display at the World War II memorial, built to commemorate these Chinese and allied soldiers. For a true WWII history buff, continue along the Burma Road and retrace the supply lines that equipped the two air forces. In the mountains of the province, you can even speak with elders who survived the ravages of the war.
Have a hankering to nosedive straight into World War II history, our Flying Tigers tour would make a perfect match!
China’s a veritable feast for the history buff. If you’re interested in these sights from the past consider planning a trip with us. Yunnan’s Flying Tigers might be the perfect journey for you. We can customize your journey to include the memorials and museums that you want to see!