Wuhan Impressions: High Mountains and Flowing Water

During the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时期 770-476 BC), there was a man called Yu Boya (俞伯牙), who was a famous music master at that time. He had a good temperament and superb skills in playing musical instruments. It is said that whenever Boya played the lute, the wonderful music would draw the horses away from their grazing to listen to Boya’s sweet musical sound.

Once, on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, Boya was sightseeing by boat. The moon was bright and a cool breeze was blowing gently. With myriads of thoughts swirling in his mind, he began to play the musical instrument. The melodious music became more and more beautiful when a man on the bank shouted “bravo!” Hearing the man’s shout, Boya disembarked from the boat, and saw a woodcutter standing on the bank. He knew that this man was keenly appreciative of his talents as he understood his music.

He immediately invited the woodcutter to his boat and, full of enthusiasm, he played the musical instrument for him. When Boya played a piece of music eulogizing the high mountains, the woodcutter said: “Wonderful! The melody is as magnificent and dignified as Mount Tai (泰山) which reaches the sky!” When he played a piece of music depicting the turbulent waves, the woodcutter said, “Wonderful! The melody is as vast and mighty as the great rivers!” Boya was excited, and said, “Intimate friend! You are really my intimate friend!” That woodcutter was Zhong Ziqi (钟子期). Since then, they were been very good friends. They made an appointment to meet each other at the same time next year.

Boya kept the appointment, but Ziqi did not show up on that day. Boya was very curious, but he got the news that Ziqi had passed away. Boya was so sad, as nobody would understand his music like Ziqi did. He played for the last time over the grave of Zhong Ziqi, then smashed his lute because the only person able to appreciate his music had died.

Based on this story, people are taking the set phrase “High Mountain and Flowing Water(高山流水gāo shān liú shuĭ) ” to refer to understanding and appreciating a close friend. ‘The Lute platform’(断琴台duàn qín tái) was built to memorise the deep friendship of Boya and Ziqi. The birthplace of this renowned legend is the city Wuhan (武汉).

For most Europeans, when talking about Wuhan little may come to mind. Regarded as the ‘Chicago of China’, there is more to Wuhan than meets the eye. One reason for this saying is the key role it plays in domestic transportation. When looking at a map of China, Wuhan is located at the geographical heart of China, as well as on the coast of Yangtze River (长江 cháng jiāng). With its important geographical position, dozens of railways, roads and expressways passing through the city, it makes for a major transportation hub in China. Another reason is Wuhan’s robust industrial sector and the education resources. Wuhan’s GDP ranked number 9 among Chinese cities in 2012. It is also the third science and education centre after Beijing (北京) and Shanghai (上海).

In the feature interview column, Professor Engberts mentions the yellow crane fairy tale. This fairy tale is, indeed, set in Wuhan. Today the Yellow Crane Tower(黄鹤楼 huáng hè lóu ) still stands tall on Snake Hill(龟山guī shān) on the banks of the Yangtze River. It has become one of the must- visit spots in Wuhan, enjoying the reputation of “the first tower under heaven” and “one of the Four Great Towers” in China. Most Chinese people who learn about The Yellow Crane Tower may not know of the yellow crane fairy tale, yet they will know the two famous poems: one is written by Cui Hao (崔颢) called Yellow Crane Tower (《黄鹤楼》) in the eighth century; and the other is written by Li Bai (李白) called Seeing off Meng Haoran for Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower (《黄鹤楼送孟浩然之广陵》) in the seventh century. The famous legend of the Yellow Crane Tower provides information about the ancient and civilised metropolitan city of Wuhan.

The city is recognised as the political, economic, financial, cultural, educational and transportation centre of central China. Wuhan comprises of three parts – Wuchang (武昌), Hankou (汉口) and Hanyang (汉阳), commonly called the ‘Three Towns of Wuhan’ (hence the name ‘Wuhan’, combining ‘Wu’ from the first city and ‘Han’ from the other two). The consolidation of these three cities occurred in 1927, establishing Wuhan as we know it today. These three parts face each other across the rivers and are linked by bridges, including one of the first modern bridges in China, known as the ‘First Bridge’.

Like Wuhan’s geographical position in China, the political role in China’s history is also impressive. Going through history, there are two big events which took place in Wuhan. In the third century AD, one of the most famous battles in Chinese history and a central event in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms—the Battle of Red Cliffs(赤壁之战 chì bì zhī zhàn)—took place by the cliffs near Wuhan, the culmination of which led to end of the Han Dynasty(汉朝206BC-220). Originating in the city, Wuhan recalls a big event, “Wuchang Uprising”(武昌起义 wǔ chāng qǐ yì), which took place in October 1911 and saw the overthrowing of the Qing Dynasty(清朝1644-1911). This was the beginning of the Republic of China.

I guess these historical feats more or less are reflective of Wuhan people’s characteristics and culture. The people in Wuhan are more open-minded, very wise, very to the point and possess a hot temper, which is probably down to the hot weather. Their accent sounds like they are shouting even though they are not. A Wuhan friend of mine, explained to me, in a funny way, the reason why Wuhan people have a hot temper: “There are many ports in Wuhan which can bring fortune, people are so eager to occupy the ports that easy to fight with others.”

There is a saying that ‘nine-headed birds live in the sky. On earth live the cunning Hubei People’ (天上九头鸟,地上湖北佬 tiān shàng jiŭ tóu niăo, dì shàng hú bĕi lăo). People with nine heads can see things from numerous perspectives. This is a fitting phrase to describe Wuhan people’s wit. Considering Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province. The metaphor comparing Hubei people to nine-headed birds can be traced back to Chu (楚) culture in the Spring and Autumn period, which represents the history and culture of Chu state which is located at the middle of the Yangtze river. The nine-headed bird is the red coloured god bird of Chu State. Its body is shaped like a duck and it has the characteristic nine heads. There is a legend that the ancestor of the Chu people, Zhurong (祝融), is the embodiment of Phoenix. The nine-headed bird is the half man and half bird totem image of Chu State in ancient times.

Based on archaeological finds, Chu culture was initially quite similar to that of other Zhou states(周1046-771 BC). Later on, Chu culture absorbed indigenous elements as the state expanded to the south and east, developing a distinct culture from the traditional Northern Zhou states.

Chu province is known for its distinct music. Archaeological evidence shows that Chu music was annotated differently from Zhou music. Chu music also showed an inclination for using different performance ensembles as well as unique instruments. For example, the ancient musical instruments, Zenghouyi Bells (曾侯乙编钟), which were unearthed in 1978 in the Zenghouyi Tomb (曾侯乙墓)in Sui County(随县), Hubei Province. According to historical records, “it is the largest scale and best reserved unearthed bell in China so far. Each bell in the Bells can play two tones with three degrees interval between them. The tonal range of the Zenghouyi Bells is from C2 to D7. In the middle area of the tonal range, it can play all twelve half tones. In addition, there are more than 2800 characters related to temperament and music terms engraved in bells, which shows the advanced level of Chu music”.

Chu culture is also known for its affinity for employing shamanistic rituals, strongly supporting Taoism(道 dào) and native shaman folk beliefs supplemented with some Confucian ideals and the vivid depiction of wildlife, mystical animals and natural imagery, such as snakes, mystical dragons, phoenixes, tigers and free-flowing clouds and serpent-like beings.

The special Chu culture is grown from the local natural environment that is full of mountains, forest and lakes.

Because there are a great number of lakes and pools, Wuhan is called ‘hundreds of lakes city’. Lakes are very important in Wuhan people’s daily life. East Lake(东湖 dōng hú) in Wuhan is the largest lake within a city in China. It is six times the size of West Lake(西湖xī hú) in Hangzhou (杭州). Zhu Yinan (朱乙南), a Wuhan native who is currently a PhD student at the University of Groningen said: “East Lake is more beautiful than West Lake, but West Lake is more famous. In the springtime, the shores of East Lake become a garden of flowers with the plum blossoms (梅花 méi huā) as the king and the cherry blossom(樱花 yīng huā) as the queen among the species. Another famous flower is the lotus(莲花 lián huā) At East Lake, you find fascinating gardens like the Mei Blossom Garden, Forest of the Birds, Cherry Blossom Garden and monuments from ancient times, beautiful hills and green nature.”

Lakes are not only important because of the beautiful scenery that surrounds them, but they also affect the people’s food intake. People in Wuhan enjoy fresh things from the lake, like freshwater fish, and the lotus flowers and lotus root. “Lotus root soup with ribs” is the most typical home cooked dish.

Also, there is a special Wuchang fish, known as Tuantoufang (武昌鱼,wŭ chāng yú), which is very famous because Chairman Mao Zedong (毛泽东) wrote a poem about this fish. In one of his poems, Mao Zedong said with pleasure: “No sooner had I drank water from Changsha than I savored Wuchang fish (才饮长沙水,又食武昌鱼 cái yĭn cháng shā shuĭ,yòu shí wŭ chāng yú)”. According to historical records, “Chairman Mao lived in Wuhan for a very long time, he liked it a lot. He liked to swim in the Yangtze River”. Wuhan has a festival every year where people swim across the Yangtze River. This festival is in the winter, and the river is very wide and very deep, so it is quite challenging.

It is generally said that Guangzhou (广州) is the paradise for eating and Shanghai for dressing, while Wuhan is a combination of both. Sitting favourably at the heart of China, Wuhan has gathered and mixed together various traditions and customs from neighbouring cities and provinces in every direction. In Wuhan, there is a local tradition called guozao (过早), in which local residents go out for breakfast and taste all the new dishes brought by traders. For guozao, no place in Wuhan is tastier or livelier than Hubu Alley (户部巷). This breakfast street has dozens of stalls set up with food ranging from tasty pastries to spicy fried frogs. It is said that for three whole months you could go there for breakfast every morning and have a different breakfast every day. The most typical local food for breakfast is Hot Dry Noodles (热干面 rè gān miàn) consisting of long freshly boiled noodles mixed with sesame paste. There is a story behind it: in the early 1930s, there was a small restaurant operated by Li Bao (李包), who made a living by selling bean noodles and noodle soup near a temple in Hankou (汉口). One day, by accident, he spilt sesame oil over his noodles. The next day, he eventually boiled those noodles and added shallot and other condiments. Next morning, his noodles soon became very popular because of their unique taste. Many people asked Li Bao what kind of noodle it is, Li Bao answered: Hot Dry Noodles.

If you want to go for dinner in the evening, then you should choose another famous street named Jiqing Street (吉庆街). It holds many road-side restaurants and street performers during the evening. The signature dish of Jiqing Street is Duck’s neck (鸭脖子yā bó zi) which is a local version of this popular Chinese dish, made of duck necks and spices.

High Mountains and Flowing Water, hot weather, spicy food, smart people, splendid history and culture, they characterise Wuhan as one of China’s most colourful cities.

By Teng Jiaqi(滕嘉琪), Ingrid Fischer