This month’s weekender takes us deep into the heart of the middle kingdom for an insight into a province with over three thousand years of recorded history.
Literally meaning “south of the (yellow) river,” Henan is home to approximately 94 million people and would be the 14th most populated country in the world, if independent in its own right. The region played a continuously active role through the Shang and Xia dynasties. It is the birth place of Lao zi—founder of Taoism and is associated with the origin of Chinese calligraphy.
The area has a diverse landscape with floodplains in the east and mountains in the west, hence why it is colloquially known as the “bread-basket of China.” Much of the province forms part of the densely populated North China Plain and due to this particular topography, the region has always been synonymous with flooding issues. Tragically it experienced one of the worst dam disasters in history during typhoon Nina in 1975, killing tens of thousands.
After millennia of strife, like most of China now, Henan is on the up. In 1978, when leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the open door policy and embraced capitalism, Henan began an economic boom that continues today. By the 1990s Henan’s economy was actually expanding at a faster rate than that of China overall. Though still relatively impoverished on a national scale, Henan’s nominal GDP makes it the fifth largest economy in China.
My first stop was the southern city of Luohe and I decided to try the local cuisine. Countless dishes I had never seen before were served, but the star of the show was an edible basket which contained fresh river prawns and a bright yellow fruit known as gingko, similar in texture to a soft nut. After the meal we went on to see a bird sanctuary which apparently has the largest net cage in Asia. I quietly consider myself the amateur ornithologist, so needless to say marveled in the endless variety of birds swooping about the place.
Avian activities over and it was time to move slightly north to the capital Zhengzhou. What immediately stood out to me was the number of tiny electric cars buzzing around. Eco-friendly and maximization of limited space; maybe other cities should take a leaf out of Henan’s book.
Henan has many UNESCO world heritage sites, so I was a bit spoilt for choice with my limited time frame. Mount Song and the Songyue pagoda to name but a few. After some deliberation I settled for the Shaolin monastery, south of the capital in the Dengfeng region of the city. After an hour and a half bus ride, I immediately felt I had made the right decision.
I discovered the word “Shao” derives from the “Shaoshi” mountain, one of the seven peaks in the Song mountain region. Apparently the first abbot there was a man named “Batuo,” who arrived from India in 464AD to spread Buddhist teachings. There is some speculation about exactly how and when martial arts were incorporated into the monastery’s disciplined exercise regime, but it is generally accepted that it appeared sometime in the 17th century.
Regardless of the “who’s and the when’s,” it was still awe-inspiring to watch the monks perform their various displays of mind-boggling feats. The whole “mind over matter” issue is questioned when you see bare chested men propping themselves in the air on spears and swords.
I was the only foreigner there so when I heard them ask for a volunteer to come on stage I had a sinking feeling. One of the elder monks had been throwing knives at another man and guess what? It was my turn! Somewhat reluctantly I made my way up as the crowd bayed, at which point I was handed a carrot. The master told me to stand about 12 paces from him and hold my arm outstretched.
Fighting the tremors, I watched as three blades consecutively whittled away the vegetable between my fingers. Relieved to still have all my digits I humbly returned to the crowd’s applause with new found face. I took a brief amble around the nearby “pagoda forest” before leaving, which consisted of many small pagodas dating from the 8th century.
I could have explored more, but once again time was against me. All I can say, is I have never experienced anything quite like it. Transport is a toss-up between plane and high-speed train. I did the latter direct from Humen in roughly six hours for around 600 RMB each way. Henan is not on the perceived top ten bucket list for China tourist spots, but sometimes it’s just good to try something different.