As one of the many different national and/or ethnic types of traditional Chinese female costumes, the Qipao – alternately known as the Cheongsam – originated as a traditional women’s formal-dress costume within the Manchu ethnic minority. During the early part of the 20th century, the Qipao was also adopted by women in the majority Han Chinese ethnic group, who made a number of alternations to the then-existing Qipao in what, in hindsight, can be said to represent the beginning of the sexual emancipation of the Chinese female, which emancipation would first be achieved with the emergence of the People’s Republic of China, when women gained equality.
The transformed Qipao, having thus become a pan-Chinese costume, was officially designated in 1929 as a Chinese national formal-dress costume for females by the government of the Republic of China (1912-1949), the successor government to the last Imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE QIPAO
After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and the spirit of freedom that this monumental event unleashed, Han Chinese women from the cities of Shanghai and Beijing began to make alternations to the Qipao, gradually transforming what was essentially a standard Manchu costume for females into a formal pan-Chinese costume which would thereafter serve as a symbol for a woman of learned background, irrespective of ethnic heritage. By the time it was approved as a Chinese national formal-dress costume for females in 1929, the Qipao had undergone a number of significant changes that elevated its status as a stylish, yet sedate costume for the Chinese female.
However, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the wearing of the Qipao in mainland China gradually fell into disuse – though it did not disappear entirely, and, in fact, away from the major cities the Qipao was worn frequently – since it was equated with the feudal, hierarchical society of old that, in the view of the government of the PRC, oppressed women. Later, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the wearing of the Qipao in mainland China all but disappeared, as it was considered an unacceptable bourgeois symbol.
Fortunately, with the advent of the reform period of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and the opening up of China as a result of the visit to China by the U.S. president, President Richard Nixon, the Qipao made a gradual comeback, being re-considered, as it were, as one of the exceptional representatives of traditional Chinese formal-dress costumes.
On the Chinese island of Taiwan, on the other hand, the Qipao continued uninterruptedly to enjoy popularity as a traditional Chinese formal dress for women, and is still very popular throughout Taiwan, though today one sees Western-inspired female formal dress on Taiwan as often as one sees traditional Chinese models of formal dress, such as the Qipao.
In Hongkong, a girl’s school-uniform version of the Qipao that stems from the early 20th century transformation of the Qipao into a pan-Chinese dress costume for females continues in an unbroken chain to this day, i.e., ., it is a 100-year-old tradition that still thrives in Hongkong.
Moreover, the Qipao continued – and, indeed, continues – to thrive as a beautiful, traditional Chinese formal-dress costume for women among the Chinese diaspora the world over.
THE SALIENT FEATURES OF THE QIPAO AND HOW THEY EVOLVED
The Salient Features Of The Qipao
The elegant Qipao is characterized by a stand-up collar (this is a general feature of Chinese dress, i.e., it is a feature that often applies to both male and female dress), a tight waist design (as can be understood, not all women can fit into the Qipao!), and buttons made of silk or cloth. Additionally, the Qipao is slit on either side, exposing glimpses of the legs during movement.
Other features of the Qipao that are optional (do not apply to all Qipao styles) are that the dress either extends to just above the feet (the most traditional style) or to just below the knees, that it has long sleeves (the most traditional style) or short sleeves. These modern options, though they may not please traditionalists, have ensured that the Qipao remains popular.
The Development Of The Styles Of Qipao
As a result of over a thousand years of deeply-rooted cultural mores of Imperial era feudal China, a woman’s dress was not allowed to reveal her figure; all was straight, vertical lines that concealed the bosom, the waist and the hips. It was a strict taboo for a woman to wear any form of dress that even hinted at her actual shape. This began to change toward the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the post-Imperial period immediatly following, i.e.., the period of the Republic of China.
This change was gradually ushered in during a period of much social upheaval in China as a result of widespread contact with Western culture, to which China responded alternatingly with acceptance and rejection, in a ‘two steps forward and one step backward’ fashion. At the beginning of the 20th century in China, lined, short gowns with loose, broad sleeves – over which a long, sleeveless waistcoat (think of a vest) was worn – were quite popular among Chinese women.
It was at this time that the Chinese female began to alter her clothing in subtle ways that suggested the beauty of her curvature. Using the traditional Qipao, certain alternations were made to the sleeves, the collar and the borders, with adornments added at the same time. These small stylistic changes added up, over the space of 10-15 years, to rather complex changes to the original Qipao, subtly suggesting the female form underneath, yet somehow this classic Chinese dress, with its Manchu ethnic origins, managed to retain an air of austerity about it – especially its broad shoulders, its upright collar and its vertical lines in general – which formal features no doubt helped it to gain official recognition by the government of the Republic of China in 1929.
Depending on its function, an Imperial era piece of Chinese furniture typically belonged to one of three different categories: bedroom furniture, study room (library) furniture, and hall furniture, where a hall itself might belong one of a number of categories such as a state (official government) hall, a temple hall, a garden hall and a residence hall, the latter of which was further subdivided into a royal residence hall and a residence hall for a high-ranking government official, an artist, or a wealthy businessman. The ancient Chinese term for a hall, covering all of the above applications, was “ting”.
In the following, a short description of specifically Imperial era Chinese hall furniture will be presented, followed by a presentation of the general features that characterize first Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty furniture, then Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty furniture – both viewed from a general style & materials perspective, i.e., irrespective of the bedroom-study-hall distinctions outlined above.
In time, the hall became more widespread, such that even lesser government officials and general members of the literati as well as sucessful artists had large enough residences to justify the inclusion of a hall. The Chinese name to describe this type of hall was usually “tang”, or chamber. However, both the “ting” (hall) and the “tang” (chamber) served as the room in which to receive guests, and was used almost exclusively for this purpose, much in the same way that a “living room” (American) or a “drawing room” (British) is used to receive guests; on almost all other occasions, the family would dine in the kitchen.
Of course, there was a world of difference between the “living room”/ “drawing room” of an artist or a government official, even a high-ranking government official, and the “living room”/ “drawing room” of an emperor, though the difference was more one of degree than of kind, i.e., the same furniture pieces – one is truly tempted to say “set pieces” in this instance – based on function, were seen in the hall of both the emperor and his subjects, albeit, the set pieces of the emperor naturally outshone the set pieces of his subjects by a large margin (it would probably have been dangerous for a subject’s health were the reverse ever to have been rumored to apply!).
Just as with the “living room” and “drawing room” of America and Britain, respectively (and a similar reception room is common to every European country), the hall, or chamber, of Imperial era China was the room in the house with the most exquisite – and most expensive – furniture. Since the garden was central to the residence of a royal Chinese personage or to a distinguished member of Chinese society, the residence hall was constructed so as to present a view on, and an entrance way to, the garden.
Generally speaking, what one today would call the interior design of an Imperial era Chinese hall followed certain laid-down principles. In the center stood 4 tea tables, each with a set of 2 chairs (8 chairs in all), the walls, on two sides, featured specially carved wainscoting, while the walls on the other two sides were plain, though on each was hung a decorative panel.
In addition, ranged alongside the walls in a certain specific order were serving tables, clothes racks, folding screens (i.e., room dividers) and traditional Chinese-style beds, known as arhat beds. Most hall furniture of Imperial era China was made of mahogany, though Chinese pear wood and its later substitutes, red sandalwood (zitan) – a form of rosewood – and blackwood (hongmu – sometimes referred to as wu mu), were used to some extent. Chinese red sandalwood, initially in abundance, eventually became a very rare wood by the middle of the Qing Dynasty, therefore Ming or Qing Dynasty furniture made of these two wood types fetch a very high price at international auctions.
References to Ming Dynasty furniture and other furnishings such as vases – invariably signifying things of rare beauty that carry an extremely high price tag – were common in early British and American cinema, and they occasionally occur still, at least on television, such as in the 1986-94 British TV series, Lovejoy, about a somewhat unscrupulous but lovable art dealer who was not only good at producing counterfeit art items himself, but was unparalleled at distinguishing between the genuine and the counterfeit work of others.
To give an idea of the extent to which Imperial era Chinese hall furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties is valued today, the following examples:
In Hongkong, a Ming Dynasty mahogany folding screen (folding screens are highly prized, exquisitely crafted, and – where made of mahogany – fetch the highest prices) was in the recent past auctioned off at the price of 1.2 million Hongkong dollars ($155,000 USD, circa), while another mahogany folding screen from the Ming Dynasty period – auctioned off outside China at about the same time – fetched a whopping price of slightly over 2 million Chinese Yuan ($290,000 USD, circa).
More recently, in the city of Shanghai, an auction house sold a group of Imperial era Chinese hall furniture pieces for 300,000 Chinese Yuan, or about $45,000 USD, a near-complete set of Qing Dynasty hall furniture consisting of the standard 4 tea tables and 8 chairs, plus a single armchair.
The Defining Features of Ming and Qing Dynasty Furniture
Ming Dynasty Furniture
Ming Dynasty furniture is usually simple, if somewhat rustic, in design, projecting an image of sturdiness combined with simple elegance, while the furniture of the Qing Dynasty period is more complex and more varied in design, with intricate and luxurious embellishments, projecting an image of delicacy combined with sophistication.
The Ming Dynasty is considered, in hindsight, the golden era in the development of ancient Chinese furniture. This is partly due to the abundance, as yet, of the hard woods used to make furniture during the period, hard woods such as Chinese pear wood (the pear tree, genus Pyrus, which has been cultivated in China since the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty, originated in China in the foothills of the Tianshan Mountains of Central Asia, from whence it spread north, south and westward, and today grows on every continent) and its later substitute, sandalwood; the increasing demand for furniture had, toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, seriously depleted the stocks of the Chinese pear tree, which was of course also prized for its fruit.
But the later recognition of the Ming Dynasty as the golden era of Chinese furniture was also partly due to two other features of the furniture of this period, namely, the development, on the one hand, of mortise and tenon joinery (think of the way that two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together) – which required no nails, screws or other metal joining devices – and, on the other hand, the dovetailing of design to the intended practical use of the article of furniture in question; in other words, Ming Dynasty period furniture was not fancifully designed for the sake of design itself, meaning that design was not divorced from function. In this same spirit, Ming Dynasty period furniture was neither lacquered, delicately designed, nor embellished with ornate carvings, but was deliberately designed to be simple and sedate, where the natural color and grain of the wood was allowed to speak for itself, as it were. Typical articles of furniture made of Chinese pear wood were large-surface items such as tables, chairs and commodes.
With the depletion of the stocks of pear wood, Chinese furniture craftsmen turned inceasing toward sandalwood and blackwood, as indicated. Unfortunately, the largest sandalwood trees were no more than 25 cm (9.84 in) in diameter, therefore the furniture items made of sandalwood tended to be smaller. The decline of pear wood in the production of furniture continued into the Qing Dynasty, with a gradual shift toward the aforementioned alternative hardwoods. In the meantime, the quality of sandalwood varied both with the variety (there were a dozen or so of these, with red sandalwood being the best) and with the individual specimen, the latter of which also applied to pear wood. This put the ingeniuity of the Chinese furniture craftsman to the test, but he responded creatively to the challenge, reserving the best quality wood – appearance-wise – for the most visible surfaces, while making use of lesser-attractive pieces of wood for the rest.
The main difference between Ming and Qing Dynasty period sandalwood furniture continued to be along the style lines set forth above, where Ming Dynasty furniture was more simple and functional in design, while Qing Dynasty furniture tended toward more elaborate design – perhaps sometimes, design for design’s sake – and ornate embellishments. The most exquisitely crafted – and most expensive – red sandalwood furniture made in China is the so-called Jinxing sandalwood furniture.
Qing Dynasty Furniture
Any analysis of the features that characterize the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty would be remisss if it did not view the artistic trends of the Qing Dynasty period in light of what had occurred in this sphere during the previous dynasty, the Ming Dynasty.
For example, in spite of the Qing Dynasty’s problems with foreign governments in general – and with foreign trade within regions of China in particular (it was during the Qing Dynasty period that the humiliating trade and territorial concessions were forced upon China in connection with what China termed the “Unequal Treaties”) – the Western influence on the Chinese furniture artisan that had begun during the Ming Dynasty only increased during the Qing Dynasty.
There were of course other trends and realities that influenced the art of Chinese furniture making during the Qing Dynasty that were wholly divorced from “precedence”, such as the fact that Qing Dynasty rulers were of Manchu/ Jürchen ethnic origin, whereas Ming Dynasty rulers were of Han Chinese origin, and such as the fact that many of the most prized wood types that had made Ming Dynasty furniture famous the world over were either depleted or near depletion by the middle of the Qing Dynasty, meaning that they were in severe decline from the outset of the Qing Dynasty, and this of course had a profound influence on furniture making in China.
The most over-arching features that define Qing Dynasty furniture are outlined below.
We can be certain that Chinese furniture craftsmen continued to perfect their skills, irrespective of the ruling dynasty, sometimes introducing innovative styles, some of which, during the Qing Dynasty especially, were quite bizarre, such as a bed that attempted to pass for a complete boudoir, as it included clothes racks, hat racks, bottle racks, lamp stands – even a spittoon – and other “accoutrements” whose original purpose cannot be divined today, all of which extra features could be adjusted for height, swung in or out, etc. (this bed puts to shame the modern American reclining chair, with its swing trays for holding glasses, cups, a TV dinner, etc.).
A couple of other Qing Dynasty Chinese furniture oddities, credited to the Chinese author, Li Yu (1610-80), was a “warming chair”, i.e., a chair with a tray under the seat in which hot embers could be placed, and a “cooling bed”, i.e., a bed with a water-tight device under the thin mattress into which cool water could be poured, ensuring a cool, restful sleep even on the hottest summer night.
Another tendency that influenced the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty was the fact that the middle class was growing in size, with an ever-greater distribution of wealth, and this not only increased the demand for furniture, but created a demand for new furniture types hitherto unseen, and more embellished furniture, as the bourgeois class began to assert itself. There are many furniture items from this period whose purpose, or function, remains a mystery today, though that doesn’t detract from their value, as antique furniture is of course not purchased for its utilitarian value.
SCARCITY OF RAW MATERIALS
As indicated in the above, the supply of mahogany ran out during the middle of the Qing Dynasty, but it had been in serious decline ever since the end of the previous dynasty. The main Qing Dynasty subsitute for precious mahogany was red sandalwood, which, though slightly less hard than mahogany, was considered by most to be even more beautiful, due to its bright red hue and its distinctive grain patterns in the form of stripes. Red sandalwood was a rare wood, however, so its price guaranteed that it was used only for the most exclusive types of furniture destined for sale to the most exclusive customers. Pear wood was also on the decline, leaving the various other sandalwoods and blackwood as the remaining hardwoods.
These realities influenced the type of furniture that could be made, since many of the trees were small in diameter. Yet, where large specimens were available, Qing Dynasty furniture artisans would go to extremes, sometimes “sculpting” an article of furniture from a single block of wood. Other examples of exorbitance in the art of furniture making during the Qing Dynasty period included fussiness regarding the choice of the individual piece of wood – if it had the slightest blemish, it was rejected. There was also an unwritten taboo against mixing wood types – a given furniture item was made solely of a single type of wood.
This naturally created a great deal of waste of perfectly good furniture-making raw materials, and at a time when the stocks of good furniture-making raw materials were rapidly being depleted, which only drove prices higher, but there was no lack of clientele willing to buy the most exquisite furniture produced by Qing Dynasty furniture artisans (in hindsight, this ‘only the best is good enough’ fussiness regarding raw materials is one of the chief factors that made Qing Dynasty furniture such a lasting, prized work of art the world over, to this very day).
The Qing Dynasty furniture artisan turned his imagination loose, where both delicate design (Ming Dynasty design was simple and stout by comparison) and the use of color, inlays and engravings were given free rein. Decoration, which had been looked down upon during the Ming Dynasty, was deliberately pursued during the Qing Dynasty. In general – in almost every category from design to embellishment – Qing Dynasty furniture eventually went in bold new directions. Since much of the wood available at this time was of slight diameter, Qing Dynasty articles of furniture tended to be smaller, while the range for what constituted furniture seemed limitless, with some articles bordering on what one today might deprecatingly refer to as bric-à-brac.
A COMBINATION OF CHINESE AND WESTERN INFLUENCES
As indicated above, even though the Qing Dynasty eventually placed a ban on the export of Chinese-made furniture, the Chinese furniture artisan continued to allow himself to be influenced by Western traditions, for once the artistic genie is out of the bottle, as it were, it resists being re-bottled. Western-made articles of furniture had made their appearance in China with the arrival of foreign diplomats and foreign merchants, and well-to-do Chinese merchants as well as high-ranking Chinese government officials and members of China’s literati developed a taste for Chinese-made furniture that incorporated elements of both Chinese and Western furniture art.
In a sense, this new, Western current in the the art of Chinese furniture making was part and parcel of the furniture artisan’s unending quest for renewal, and as such was qualitatively no different than the challenges that the transition from Ming to Qing Dynasty styles had presented, which transition was decidedly not abrupt, but gradual, and where much of the Ming style was preserved in early Qing Dynasty furniture. Once begun, however, this Western influence was also encouraged by the Chinese consumer of the era, who considered furniture with a Western influence “in”.
Yet, as regards the incorporation of Western furniture-making techniques and features into Qing Dynasty Chinese furniture making, the Chinese furniture of the Qing Dynasty period remained solidly within the realm of Chinese aesthetics, even though it increasingly incorporated certain Western elements, especially as regards adornment.
Imperial era Chinese furniture made of red sandalwood fetches a staggering price today. As an example of the high price that Qing Dynasty period red sandalwood furniture commands today, an 18th century red sandalwood Chinese table was auctioned off in 1994 by Sotheby’s for the princely sum of $35 million USD, or 239 million Chinese Yuan.
Place: The city of Jinghong, Xishuangbanna Prefecture, southwestern Yunnan Province
Featured: Splashing, spraying and dousing each other with water
The annual Water Splashing Festival of the Dai ethnic minority falls during the New Year celebrations of the Dai Calendar. It is the most important festival observed by the Dai ethnic people of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and, similar to neighboring Thailand’s Songkran Festival, it involves three days of celebrations that include sincere, yet light-hearted religious rituals that invariably end in merrymaking, where everyone ends up getting splashed, sprayed or doused with water.
During the first two days of the festival, a dragon boat race is held to ring out the old year (the first day of the festival) and to ring in the new (the second day of the festival). The third day, the climax of the festival, is reserved for water splashing. On that day, the Dai people put on their newest and best clothes, then assemble at the local Buddhist temple, where the monks chant Buddhist sciptures. Afterward, a symbolic water splashing ritual is enacted whereby a Buddhist statue, with pomp and ceremony, is first coaxed out of the temple to the courtyard, then is splashed with water. This important ritual is called ‘Bathing the Buddha’.
The completion of the ‘Bathing the Buddha’ ritual serves as the signal that encourages ordinary mortals to themselves engage in mutual water splashing. Accordingly, people flock to the streets with pots, pans, bottles, or whatever, where they uninhibitedly splash, spray and douse each other with water, with the same gusto with which Westerners engage in a good snowball free-for-all.
The Water Splashing ceremony, however, is more than just good-natured fun; it also contains a religious element: water is regarded by the Dai as a symbol, firstly, of religious purity, but also of goodwill among people. Therefore, splashing a fellow human being with water during the Water Splashing Festival, whether a close neighbor or a fellow villager – or even a stranger – is an expression of the desire for good luck and prosperity to that person.
For the tourist interested in interacting directly with the Dai ethnic minority of Xishangbanna Prefecture in an informal and fun-filled manner, the annual Water Splashing Festival that takes place in the month of April is the perfect occasion. China Highlights offers a special tour to the city of Jinghong each year to coincide with the Dai ethinic minority’s annual Water Splashing Festival.
Featured: Thousands of select exhibits by Chinese and international photographers
The Pingyao International Photography Festival, held in the ancient section of the city of Pingyao in Shanxi Province, is not only an event for photographers of all skill levels, from the neophyte to the seasoned photographer, it is also a rare event for those simply interested in photography, including both curiosity-driven local residents and tourists from far and wide, both within and without China.
During the festival, Pingyao’s old town, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1997, becomes one large, indoor and open-air photo gallery, with photo exhibits from professional and amateur photographers from every continent, representing upwards of fifty countries on average, and including the works of many renowned Chinese and international photographers.
The festival is organized around a chosen central theme each year. Under the umbrella, as it were, of the chosen overarching theme, the exhibition is divided into a number of sub-themes, usually 4-5 such sub-themes. To facilitate these subdivisions, the exhibits – some of which may be large montages – are situated in each its physical area, though in some cases (if the subdivision is very large), a single subdivision may be divided into two or more physical areas, so as to create more space for the large crowds that attend this popular annual festival, which is China’s preeminent photography exhibition. Within each subdivision, there are further subdivisions for works from China, works from Europe, North America, etc.
In addition, a number of academic activities – from forums to conferences to training courses to special workshops – are staged in conjunction with the festival. A special feature of Pingyao International Photography Festival, for photographers, is that the arrangers of the festival maintain a staff of twenty some professional photographers to greet newcomers and show them around. Not surprisingly, the festival is a place of great buzz and excitement for the photographer especially.
Pingyao International Photography Festival has been running for less than ten years and just seems to get bigger and better for each year, attracting the works of increasing numbers of serious photographers from around the world, as well as from renowned and lesser renowned photographers from the four corners of China itself.
Another curious thing about the Pingyao International Photography Festival is that it is ‘art observing art’ in the sense that the photographers who attend it are as busy clicking away during the festival as on any professional assignment – indeed, some of the montages have concerned aspects of previous festivals. As indicated, the festival gets larger each year. For example, the number of photos on exhibit during the recently completed (2009) festival was of such a magnitude that it would have taken at least three days to even have had a brief glimpse of each of them, much less study them in detail.
For those interested in this unique annual photo festival, UME Travel has put together a special a festival tour package that will appeal to the photographer and the photo aficionado alike. If you are interested, just contact me.
The ostensible goal of the annual Luoyang Peony Festival is to celebrate the beauty and charm of the peony, a flowering shrub belonging to the genus Paeonia, the only genus, in fact, within the flowering plant family, Paeoniaceae. The broader goal with the festival is to promote the widespread cultivation of this beautiful plant, and, indirectly, to promote cultural exchange among peoples the world over, through a shared interest.
Time of Peony Culture Festival
Date: Annually, April 15th – 25th, open daily during the period from 8 AM to 5 PM
Each year from mid-April to mid-May, the peonies in the garden in Mongshan Town are in full bloom, generally reaching their peak during the period April 15th-25th, which is the date set for the annual festival. From mid-April to mid-May each year, the garden is awash with colorful flowers – mostly reds mixed with whites, yellows and purples – set against a background of thick, vibrant, dark green leaves, like a myriad of precious stones set in bright, shiny rings.
Where is the Peony Culture Festival Held
Venue: Luoyang International Peony Garden, Mongshan Town, Luoyang, Henan Province
The venue of the annual Luoyang Peony Festival is Luoyang International Peony Garden, located in the town of Mongshan on the outskirts of Luoyang, and situated across the street, as it were, from Luoyang Ancient Tomb Museum, the “street” in question being the highway that leads from the city of Luoyang proper to Luoyang Airport.
Luoyang International Peony Garden covers an area of roughly 1/3 sq km (1/8 sq mi), an area which is planted with over 400 peony varieties, many of which are native to countries beyond China’s borders, a deliberate aim of the garden and the festival, given Luoyang International Peony Garden’s broader objective.
The Luoyang Peony Festival is very popular among Chinese tourists and peony lovers around the world. During the holiday season, the hotel room quickly filled up and the price rose accordingly. If you care, please avoid this time or choose to go to other places to enjoy the scenery; if you especially want to see this beautiful scene, then try it. Traveling out, the last thing you can’t leave is regret, isn’t it?
The city of Golmud, a treasure basin of oil and minerals, including an abundance of salt (there are 20 salt lakes surrounding the city, some large, some small) and natural gas and oil reserves, as well as reserves of precious metals and precious stones, is the second-largest city in Qinghai Province. Golmud lies on the southern edge – roughly midway, east to west – of the Qaidam Basin, a large depression that lies south-southeast of, and almost adjacent to, the much larger depression, the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang, for short). The two basins are separated by a thin mountainous strip of the Kunlun Mountains as they trail eastward (this phenomenon is called a yardang – see below), while the main expanse of the Kunlun Mountain range in this part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau skirts first south, then back north, or around the Qaidam Basin, continuing on eastward into the northwestern corner of Qinghai Province.
A Bustling Industrial City: Golmud’s Economic Base
The area around Golmud, as indicated, is blessed with extensive natural resources, which has led to the development of a chemical industry in Golmud which, among other things, produces magnesium, potassium and salt, prime components in the manufacture of artificial fertilizer. In fact, nearby Qarham Salt Lake supplies China’s largest production facility, located on the outskirts of Golmud, for fertilizer as well as for separately produced magnesium, potassium and salt for other industrial and consumer oriented purposes. Thanks partly to the fertilizer of Golmud (and partly to a special tree-planting initiative), the seemingly inexorable march of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts has been arrested in many places, and in some instances, has been reversed. The more than 20 salt lakes in the area have earned Golmud the nickname of “China’s Salt Lake City”, as in the famous city of the same name located in the U.S. state of Utah.
Golmud, and the Qaidam Basin in general, are rich in deposits of coal and oil, as well as in natural gas. For example, Golmud’s natural gas reserves have been estimated at a trillion cubic meters. The city is also home to an oil refinery and various related petrochemical industries. In addition, this uniques treasure basin is rich in copper, gold, lead and zinc, as well as in jade and other precious stones.
An Emerging Cultural City
Golmud’s rocket-like industrial growth would inevitably provide the economic wherewithal to also grow the city as a cultural center, and this process has only just begun. The area around Golmud is no stranger to culture, however, as the ancient cities that ringed the Qaidam Basin, as an “upland” area to the Silk Road trade route (one route of the Silk Road followed the southern rim of the Tarim Basin just north of the aforementioned yardang – a yardang is an irregular ridge with a sharp crest barely separating two deep, round-bottomed troughs that have been carved out by wind erosion; in this case, the Tarim Basin to the north and the Qaidam Basin to the south). Moreover, the ancient city of Dunhuang (think of the grotto art of the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty period), which was a major stopping-off point on the Silk Road, lies only about 450 km northeast, as the crow flies, of Golmud.
Golmud is a modern city with a modern housing and transportation network, and with a budding education and cultural environment, thanks to the city’s rapid economic success. Already Golmud is the second-largest city in the province, and continues to expand as it prospers, branching out in other economic areas such as tourism, and, in time, the city is set to also become a major educational center for the region. Golmud is also a major hub on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which connects Qinghai Province (the cities of Xining and Golmud) to Tibet Autonomous Region (the city of Lhasa).
There are 25 ethnic minorities living in the greater admistrative region of Golmud, whereof Tibetans are the largest such group, followed by the Tu, the Hui, the Salar and the Mongols, while the Han Chinese majority group dominates. The area offers several other highlights such as Wangzhang Salt Bridge, the headwaters of the famous Changjiang (Yangtze) River, Tangula Mountain Pass in the Tangula region of the city, Geladandong Snow Mountain, Plateau Wild Animal Park, and the aforementioned yardang, a thin sliver of mountain range that has been all but covered in sand, with only the crest showing.
The weather pattern of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, aka Dali, is defined by its latitudinal and topographical features. Firstly, because Dali lies on a low latitude in the northern hemisphere (it lies at a latitude of 25 degrees N, circa, only 1.5 degrees above the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5 degrees N) it tends to have a warm, subtropical monsoon climate, but because it is situated on a high plateau, it tends to be cooler than more low-lying regions, such as neighboring Kunming, about 315 km (195 mi) to the east. Therefore Dali has a relatively temperate climate year round, with no extremes in summer or in winter.
In fact, as is true of most of Yunnan Province except for mountainous terrain, the daily temperature variation tends to be greater than the seasonal variation in temperature, which calls for layered clothing, or jackets and sweaters early in the morning and again during the evening. The climate of Dali is generally characterized as a subtropical highland monsoon climate, with lots of sunshine and fresh air. In fact, quite a lot of both – and especially the latter – given that the city is located on a flat plateau between a mountain range (the Cangshan Mountains to the west) and a large lake (Lake Erhai to the east), creating a natural wind tunnel, Dali gets a great deal of wind, year round. In fact, like the city of Chicago in the U.S., which is also located nearby a large lake (Lake Michigan) and therefore gets a lot of wind year round, Dali is nicknamed “Windy City”.
The best time to visit Dali is from March to June when springtime is in full swing and all of nature seems to be in the process of rebirth, as it were.
Chengdu provides a lot of convenient shopping places to tourists who are from different provinces or countries, offering a wide range of Chinese and Tibet-style “souvenir items” appeared from traditional Chengdu (Shu) brocades and embroidery to great splendid art objects (mostly replicas, some antique), and more traditional Chinese ornaments and souvenirs.
Brocades – usually silk brocades – are one of the most popular “souvenir items” among tourists, as they are not only typically Chinese, but also have high their own value. The Shu brocade style was regarded as the age-old brocade style developed over the aeons in the Chengdu area. The Shu brocade style is one of the four famous and legend brocade styles in China, the other three being Hunan, Cantonese and Su brocade styles.
Popular art objects include: silk prints with literary, landscape and calligraphic motifs; bamboo and ivory carvings; porcelain; and jade. Popular ornaments include Tibetan-style jewelry items such as highly colorful beaded bracelets and necklaces (sometimes also worn as a head adornment), tassels and more traditional jewelry such as earrings, pendants and bracelets made of precious metals such as gold, silver and copper. Souvenir items range from postcards and key-ring trinkets to the aforementioned art objects such as wood and ivory carvings, etc.
Shu Brocades and Embroidery
Shu brocade has a long history dating back to the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty; In that era, the Shu brocade, as a Silk Road trade commodity, was sold by haberdashery merchants in shops in Japan to the north and in shops as far away as and Baghdad, Damascus and Constantinople to the west. Shu brocades were – and are still – richly colorful and complex in pattern. Shu embroidery – then as now – is used to embellish such familiar items as quilt covers, pillow cases, articles of clothing, women’s shoes, and a host of other articles of both practical and non-practical, or artistic, use, such as tapestries.
Shu brocades and embroidery can be found in the shops of Chengdu that specialize in such items – For example, in the Hongqi Shopping Store chain, one of which stores is located on Shudu Street, the other on Zongfu Street – with prices as low as 300 Yuan (roughly $44 USD). Shu brocades and embroidery can also be found at the Shu Brocade Academy in Chengdu, located at 1 Caotang East Road, which also serves as a historical exhibition dedicated to the history and art of brocade weaving in Chengdu.
Regarding of how the academy came into, it is an interesting story in itself. In the early 1990s, the last remaining silk brocade factory in Chengdu closed its doors, due to falling demand (the once-stable Japanese market even dried up). A few years later, a local entrepreneur, bemoaning the loss of this last vestige of an ancient Chinese cultural institution, purchased the defunct factory, hired a limited staff, and tied the factory to an academy, or museum, dedicated to preserving the history and art of brocade weaving in Chengdu.
Thus the Shu Brocade Academy in Chengdu is part museum, part commercial enterprise. Thanks to the exposure to foreign markets that tourism has indirectly provided and orders from abroad, the production of brocades has picked up due to increased demand (yet another good reason for you to pay a visit to the Shu Brocade Academy when in Chengdu, then tell your local haberdasher about it when you get back home).
The Shu Brocade Academy in Chengdu preserves ancient brocade-weaving patterns, techniques and designs new ones. They have some wonderful old looms on display, and the attached brocade and embroidery factory has a boutique that offers everything from tiny souvenirs to large, beautiful brocades as well as some magnificent, hand-woven brocade articles that simply can’t be woven by machine.
Art Objects – Replicas & Antiques
Chengdu offers a large range of art objects, including silk prints (various motifs from human figures to landscapes to pure calligraphy), replicas of ancient Imperial era rubbings (of coins, seals, etc.), carvings (wood, bamboo and ivory) and replicas of Imperial era porcelain as well as jade and agate figurines, mask, etc. In some shops one might be lucky enough to run across a genuine antique exemplar of these items.
Chinese and Tibetan-Style Ornaments, Souvenirs & Other Handicrafts
There are many Tibetan-style ornaments & souvenir gift shops concentrated near Wuhou Temple. These offer unique beaded jewelry items such as highly colorful bracelets and necklaces – including a special variant that is wound around one’s head as a distinctive and colorful adornment – tassels, and more traditional jewelry items such as earrings, pendants and bracelets made of gold, silver and copper. There are souvenir & handicraft gift shops concentrated near Lotus Pond that sell more traditional Chinese gift items ranging from trinkets to carvings to brocades.
If you need to pick up gift items for several friends back home but do not wish to fill up your luggage with heavy and/or bulky items, then either of these shopping areas, as well as the Shu Brocade Academy (the latter have many small brocade articles that weigh hardly anything and fold away to nothing) and the Hongqi Shopping Stores mentioned above, are ideal places to look.
Longqing Gorge, located about 80 km (50 mi) northwest of Beijing, and sometimes referred to as the “Little Three Gorges” (As in the three gorges of the Three Gorges Dam project), is named after Emperor Longqing of the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty, during whose reign (1567-1572), the Great Wall had been penetrated by a Mongol force under the command of the Altan Khan, reaching Beijing itself, though the emperor managed to repulse the khan’s army. Later, the emperor, seek to neutralize the Mongol threat by peaceful means, signed a trade and security pact what one might today call with Altan Khan whereby the khan purchased silk from China in exchange for horses. Peace ensued.
Today, Longqing Gorge, confidently shaded between two tall mountain peaks, is known mainly as the venue for the annual Beijing Longqing Gorge Ice & Snow Festival where, among other things related to snow and ice, massive blocks of ice are sculpted into all kinds of interesting, beautiful and sometimes spectacular shapes, including representations of animals (including the dragons in mythical), human figures and lanterns. There is a number of fixtures among the ice-art works, such as the Peacock Welcoming Springtime (Kongqueyingchun), the Soaring Dragon (Longteng), the Smiling Face (Xinchunxiaokaiyan) and Nature’s Annual Revival (Wangxianggengxin). Besides the ice sculptures that can be admired here, there are fireworks ceremonies, folk dancing, and pageants. In addition, there are other nearby ice sports activities separate from the sculptural exhibits, such as ice fishing.
The Beijing Longqing Gorge Ice & Snow Festival, which, at night, is illuminated by a flood of colorful lights, is held each year from the 15th of January through the 29th of February. During the rest of the winter season, the area is closed to tourists, but opens for the summer-autumn season (April 10th to November 15th), where the gorge is known for, among other things, its bungee jumps.
If you are at Longqing Gorge during the summer-autumn season, don’t forget to have a look at the nearby Kangxi Grasslands, named after the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty emperor, Emperor Kangxi, who reigned from 1661-1722. And of course, regardless of when you visit Longqing Gorge, you absolutely must visit the Great Wall at Badaling.