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Introducing Shāndōng

In today’s China of dolled-up attractions and hyped-up travel fads, the decidedly northern province of Shāndōng – its name means ‘East of the Mountains’ – manages to maintain an alluring authenticity, despite being one of the nation’s most visited regions.

Shāndōng’s glittering CV makes for an impressive roll call. Native son Confucius, philosopher/social theorist extraordinaire, lived here as did that iconic champion of Confucian thought, Mencius. Wang Xizhi, China’s most famous calligrapher, and Zhuge Liang, the supreme military strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, hail from these parts, and film icon Gong Li, who set new benchmarks for Chinese beauty, grew up in Jǐ’nán.

The Yellow River (Huáng Hé), the massive and muddy waterway that enjoys an almost mythical status among Chinese, reaches the sea in Shāndōng after its serpentine journey from the Tibet-Qīnghǎi plateau. Tài Shān, the holiest of China’s five sacred peaks, is by far China’s most climbed mountain. Qīngdǎo is a breath of fresh air on the Shāndōng peninsula, with its remarkable German heritage intact and a slot secured for the sailing events of the 2008 Olympics. Its eastern seaboard location also guarantees that Shāndōng is one of China’s wealthiest provinces.

Yet neither fame nor fortune has gone to its head. Shāndōng folk are celebrated China-wide for their honesty and forthrightness. No-nonsense Shāndōng food is to the point: wholesome, salty and devoid of fancy trimmings. The peculiarities of the local Putonghua are not enough to confound most speakers of Mandarin, and for those anxious to eke out the province’s bucolic side, the earthy textures of the ancient village of Zhūjiāyù are ideal.

History

From the earliest record of civilisation in the province (furnished by the black pottery remains of the Lóngshān culture), Shāndōng has had a tumultuous history. It was victim to the capricious temperament of the oft-flooding Yellow River, which caused mass death, starvation and a shattered economy. In 1899 the Yellow River (also aptly named ‘China’s Sorrow’) flooded the entire Shāndōng plain; a sad irony in view of the two scorching droughts that had swept the area that same year and the year before. The flood followed a long period of economic depression, a sudden influx of demobilised troops in 1895 after China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in Korea, and droves of refugees from the south moving north to escape famines, floods and drought.

To top it all off, the Europeans arrived; Qīngdǎo fell into the clutches of the Germans, and the British obtained a lease for Wēihǎi. Their activities included the building of railroads and some feverish missionary work (for a historic Jesuit map of the province from 1655, go to www.library.csuhayward.edu/atlas/xantung.htm), which the Chinese believed angered the gods and spirits. All of this created the perfect breeding ground for rebellion, and in the closing years of the 19th century the Boxers arose out of Shāndōng, armed with magical spells and broadswords.

Today Jǐ’nán, the provincial capital, plays second fiddle to Qīngdǎo’s tune, a refrain picked up on by the other prospering coastal cities of Yāntái and Wēihǎi. Shengli Oilfield, inland, is China’s second-largest producer of oil.