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Dive into the legends and history of Jiangxi’s Capital, Nanchang

Wedged between Fujian and Hunan the landlocked southern province of Jiangxi is often overshadowed by its more boisterous neighbours. This has had the converse affect of preserving a lush environment of rice fields and forested hills, not to mention leaving Jiangxi’s many cultural and historic sites unburdened by marauding tour groups.

The laid back, hill-flanked capital Nanchang in particular, is something of a gem for those seeking an authentic taste of Chinese life. Bisected by the Han Jiang, the city has a long history of river trade, an affluent past, which splendid monuments like the Tangwang Pavilion and Shenjin Pagoda attest to. Indeed, the city’s significance as a regional transport hub continues to this day though now it is China’s burgeoning railways, not river barges that converge in Nanchang. 

Nanchang has also seen its fare share of drama over the centuries, most famously perhaps following Chiang Kai-shek’s break with the Communists in 1927 provoking Zhou Enlai and Zhu De to mutiny, seizing control of the city and resident thirty thousand troops. They were soon forced to flee into the mountainous south, but the anniversary of the uprising – August 1, 1927 – is still celebrated as the birth of the People’s Liberation Army or PLA. Indeed, those “first gunshots” fired against the Nationalists has won Nanchang “the city of heroes” moniker and a spattering of nostalgic Red sites are now open to tourism.

Despite its revolutionary legacy, Nanchang is actually a very relaxed place, a provincial capital far from the political fray. Though malls and glass towers are now supplanting the cruder soviet style of buildings erected in Mao’s time, Nanchang hasn’t quite kept pace with some coastal boomtowns. As such, it offers insight into a far more temperate and traditional way of urban Chinese life. Your best bet is to walk the backstreets, soak-up the atmosphere and binge on the spicy morsels of Gan cuisine as Jiangxi fare is known. But if you do plan to check out the big hits, here’s what’s on offer.

Shenjin Pagoda

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Legend has it that the city will fall if this seven-storey, 60 metre Tang-era pagoda is ever destroyed, a warning still taken quite seriously despite the fact that Shengjin has already been toppled a few times, often by fires or earthquakes and most recently in the early eighteenth century. But rather than submitting to the gloom of prophecy the good people of Nanchang have rebuilt time and again. Nowadays the many episodes of history the pagoda (and by proxy the city) have gone through play out in a stunning light and sound show projected onto the towers and surrounding historical buildings each evening at 8pm. It’s free and thus garners quite a turnout. Indeed, the Shenjin Pagoda has become a centrepiece of a mini tourist neighbourhood bustling with snack shops and home to a few bars, restaurants and hotels.

Prince Teng’s Pavilion

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Located on the east bank of the Gan Jiang the mighty Tengwang Pavilion is one of the great Three Great Towers of southern China. Alas, it too has had mixed fortune. There have been 26 consecutive towers built here since the first was raised more than a thousand years ago as an exhibition inside the present tower explains. The contemporary building, constructed in the Song-style, only dates back to 1989 but has an impressive exterior nonetheless. Climbing (or taking the lift) to the top of the tower affords panoramic views of the cityscape whilst outside there’s an impressive made-to-look old plaza and adjoining classical gardens are also worthy of a wander.

August First Uprising Museum

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Source: China Daily

In the vein of self-congratulation the Nanchang August 1st Uprising Museum is classified as one of the country’s most important commemorative museums. It is set inside a former  hotel, the exact site where the nascent PLA made their 1927 headquarters. It is in fact mostly of interest as an example of Nanchang’s colonial architecture, though modern history buffs will enjoy the visit. Inside, the meeting room has been preserved, and there is a collection of the artefacts and annals of that period, including military memorabilia such as guns, medals and uniforms. Highlights include a golden inscribed board written by Supreme Commander Chen Yi.

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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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