Unassuming and poor, agricultural Hénán lets its western provincial neighbour take credit as the ‘cradle’ of Chinese civilisation, yet here, Henanese could argue, is where it truly all began.
Neighbouring Shaanxi (Shǎnxī) garners acclaim as the wellspring of Chinese history, yet it is Hénán, smack in the middle of China’s nine original regions, that was originally dubbed ‘Central Region’ – in both a cultural and geographical sense. The land lured settlers – trailing the fickle course of the Yellow River (Huáng Hé) – to take root and populate the fertile plains of its basin. Ancient capitals rose and fell and northern Hénán (particularly time-warped Kāifēng and overlooked Ānyáng) is an east-to-west melange of Chinese dynastic antiquity.
Spirituality blossomed within this dynastic milieu. The province witnessed the initial blooming of Buddhism in China proper; Luòyáng’s White Horse Temple is arguably the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the country. Later, Muslim traders and pilgrims intermarried with Han Chinese and established an Islamic presence. So welcoming were the early emperors that Hénán even found itself the site of China’s oldest settlement of Jews.
Hénán today is looked down upon by much of China as a backward, tǔ (rural) region where the reform drive has seriously lost steam. But the province plays its history card with assurance and is eager to flaunt its indisputable dynastic credentials.
And it’s not all about ancient cities and mouldering ruins: intrepid travellers can eke out some fabulous terrain, including the dizzying high-elevation perch of rural Guōliàngcūn. The province also swarms with pilgrims heading to two of China’s drawcard sights, the Shaolin Temple and the stunning Buddhist artistry of the Longmen Caves.