Despite mountainous terrain and a generally inhospitable climate, Shānxī was long a coveted square on the chessboard. Wedged between ancient capitals of the Chinese heartland and the grasslands to the north, the area was a key centre of trade and cultural exchange – as well as bearing witness to centuries of war. But continuous fighting brought more than just destruction; it provided an impetus for Buddhism’s philosophy to take root. No other part of China devoted so much early patronage to the religion, and the vestiges, from the Yungang Caves to Tang dynasty temples near Wǔtái Shān, are among the oldest Buddhist sites in China.
One of the major reasons Shānxī has such an impressive collection of rare old buildings and cultural relics is undoubtedly the parched landscape. Left only to farm, Shānxī’s inhabitants would have had a dismal time of it, as there is little here that facilitates agriculture. What kept the economy alive over the years was a booming trade in salt, tea, silk, grain and wool, carted back and forth between southern China and Mongolia.
Unfortunately, the province was poorly positioned to take advantage of the 20th century’s changes. Isolated by mountain ranges, the region began a long slide back into obscurity, and has found itself having to rely entirely on its enormous resources of coal and ore.
Visiting Shānxī is thus somewhat akin to sitting on a seesaw: the high end rises to see northern China at its traditional best – sacred Buddhist mountains, ancient architecture and the Great Wall – while the other end dips perilously into a future shrouded in coal dust, refinery smoke and all the other environmental ills of the energy-hungry dragon.