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The Wonders of Wuhan


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Right in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, mighty Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province – for centuries a rich agricultural basin bisected by the Yangtze River. Wuhan is a tri-city, a conglomeration of Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang, so it stands to reason that the present headcount is over ten million souls, making it the most populous city in central China. Nowadays Wuhan is a thriving student town with a plethora of higher-education institutions attracting the region's best and brightest. Driving Hubei’s economic wheels Wuhan produces many of the world’s automobiles, as well as pharmaceuticals and steel. But it’s along the thread-lines of Hubei’s 3,500 years of history that we uncover what has made Wuhan the core Chinese city it is today.

Hanyang rose to prominence as a port city during the Han dynasty but when the dynasty collapsed the empire divided into the Three Kingdoms and warfare engulfed the region. Of what was, arguably, China’s bloodiest epoch, perhaps the most famous battle, the Battle of Red Cliff, played out not far from Wuhan. This was chronicled in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Yuan-Ming era epic novel credited to Luo Guanzhong (though most Chinese people today know the narrative through TV dramas and cinema). Wuhan’s beguiling riverside Yellow Crane Tower, built around this time, inspired another latter-day wordsmith, the Tang poet Cui Hao, who waxed lyrical about the architecture, bringing it national notoriety. 

Wuhan’s fortunes continued to develop through ensuing dynasties. By the Mongol Yuan dynasty it had won provincial capital status and by the Manchu Qing dynasty its economy had entered into the Chinese top five. This prosperity attracted the attention of encroaching Europeans bent on tapping the resources of the vast Chinese interior. After the Second Opium War, eleven more cities were ceded to the Western powers as treaty ports, including Hankou. This has left an indelible mark on Wuhan’s cityscape today. In the colonial quarter, located between Zhongshan Boulevard and the river, there’s a fine collection of Neoclassical European buildings to wander around. But the humiliation of living side-by-side with these foreign interlopers provoked Wuhaners into finding their patriotic zeal. The Wuchang Uprising of 1911 is said to be the spark that lit the fuse of the Xinghai Revolution, which toppled the Qing rulers and established the Republic of China, ending 2,000 years of imperial rule and sending China into a tailspin of chaos, war, and revolution. Here are Wuhan's top historical attractions.

Yellow Crane Tower

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This 50-metre tower overlooking the river is the most popular tourist attraction in Wuhan. Though it was over enthusiastically rebuilt in 1981 near the site of twelve previous incarnations – the present edifice is a Qing dynasty replica – it is still considered one of the four great towers in China. The tower sits atop Snake Hill near the Number One Yangtze River Bridge affording visitors a commanding view of the Yangtze River as well as the point where it converges with the River Han. Legend has it that Snake Hill was once home to a Taoist Immortal who settled his bill at a Wuhan inn by drawing a picture of a crane on the wall, which then flew down at intervals and entertained the guests. A few years later the sage flew off on his crane so the landlord built the tower in his honour.

Memorial Hall of Wuchang Uprising

On the south side of Snake Hill, the Wuchang of the uprising of 1911 is commemorated in an imposing colonial-style red-brick mansion that housed the Hubei Military Government during the 1910 uprising. It was inside the Red Chamber (the main building) that they issued the edict to bring down the Qing Dynasty. Just outside in the Uprising Plaza a bronze Sun Yat-sen has been erected though at the time he was abroad raising funds overseas.

Jinghan Customs Museum

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A solid Renaissance edifice bearing an iconic clock tower, the British built Customs House was recently turned into a museum. With an exhibition area of 2,300 square meters, the museum boasts nearly 10,000 historic articles, which combine to tell the story of the emergence of modern Wuhan, from colonialism through revolution and reform.

The East Lake

Flanked by the Hubei Art Museum and the Hubei Provincial Museum, both worthy of a visit, the vast East Lake park has some lovely scenic areas including the city’s botanical gardens. Five times the size of Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, this park offers genuine respite from the chaotic concrete jungle that comprises much of the metropolis.  

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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