A Weekend in Fuzhou

Fujian Province, China

May 24th - 25th, 2015

Fuzhou is the capital of the Fujian province. It is located on the coast about half way between Hong Kong and Shanghai, right across from the Taiwan Strait, on the estuary of the Min River.

With a population of over 7 million, Fuzhou would be considered a major metropolis in any other country in the world, but in China this makes it a medium size provincial city. Dragon Air and Hong Kong Express have direct flights from Hong Kong to Fuzhou-Changle International Airport (FOC), which is a 1.5 hour flight. The taxi ride from the airport into the city centre takes about 45 minutes on what looks like a very new highway. There are several large western hotel chains here, and they seem to be quite a bit cheaper than in the major cities in China. I am staying in the Intercontinental in what is one of the largest hotel rooms I have ever seen. (I generally tend to stay in Western hotels in China whenever I can, mainly because of my complete absence of Mandarin language skills. I feel if I get myself in any trouble at least I’d find someone in the hotel who speaks English.)

A bit of history about Fuzhou:
Fuzhou is one of the oldest cities in China, with a written history going back 2200 years, but with evidence of neolithic cultures as far back as 7000 years. It was first mentioned in 202 BC (although not named Fuzhou until the 8th century) when a walled city was built here. The city really started to thrive during the Tang dynasty (618 - 907), and continued to prosper under the Song dynasty (960 - 1279). Many scholars moved here during this period, one of which was Zhu Xi (1130-1200), who is considered the second most influential Chinese philosopher after Confucius.

Fuzhou was also a major ship building centre and port. In fact it is from here that General Zheng He's famous fleet sailed between 1405 and 1433 reaching as far as the East Coast of Africa on at least three occasions. Centuries later following the First Opium War with Britain, Fuzhou became one of the so called 'treaty ports' as stipulated in the Treaty of Nanjing (1842), which meant it became completely open to Western merchants and Western missionaries.  

Here is a fascinating photograph showing the city in the late 19th century with the white pagoda in the background:

Sunday, May 24th 2015:
I start my day of sightseeing a bit late, since Hong Kong was hit hard by its frequent spring thunderstorms yesterday, which caused my evening flight to be delayed by four hours (two of which were spent sitting in the plane on the runway). So I did not get to the hotel in Fuzhou until well past midnight.

Most of the sights I was planning to see today are all within reasonable walking distance of the hotel. It was a fairly grey and overcast day, but not a lot of rain, a bit hazy, but air pollution didn't seem to be too big a problem here today. My first destination was the Yushan Mountain, a large rocky outcropping in the middle of the city, with several temples and palaces including the famous White Pagoda. To get to Yushan mountain, I had to cross Wuyi square, a large city square flanked on one side by a bright white and monumental Mao statue (one of the very few left in China today) and on the other side by a very modern building housing a theater and concert hall.

The stairs up towards Yushan mountain begin just next to the Mao statue.  It is a very tranquil place, with paths through dense forests. It's also a very historical place, having been occupied since the Warring States period (5th to 3rd century BC). There are lots of odd shaped rocks and boulders, such as the lion rock, some of which have inscriptions going as far back as the Song dynasty.

There are several temples, pagodas and a few museums up here. I visit one of the small museums, which seems to be about the history of the city and the region, but it was not very interesting to me as the descriptions were only in Chinese. Qi Gong temple is a beautiful little temple, built during the Qing dynasty but dedicated to celebrate a Ming dynasty military hero named Qi Jiguang, who successfully fought back Japanese pirates in this area in the 16th century.

The most important monument on Yushan mountain is Bai Ta, or the White Pagoda, which is a large 7 story pagoda originally built in the 10th century. The original building however collapsed after being struck by lighting in 1538 and was rebuilt in 1548. It can be seen from far away and has become the symbol of the city of Fuzhou.

Not exactly a native Chinese animal  relief  on the temple wall.

The second slightly larger hill in the city is the Wu Shan mountain. At the Eastern end of the mountain is the second famous and ancient pagoda, the six-tiered Black Pagoda, which is even older than the White Pagoda, having been first built in the 8th century during the Tang dynasty and rebuilt in 936. For being 1100 years old it is an astoundingly impressive and intricate building.

From there I make my way up to Wu Shan mountain, which again is dotted all over with various pagodas and temples. In one of them I saw this interesting model of the old walled city:

The so-called 'Scenic Spot of the Stone Heaven' is a large area on the steep side of the hill, criss-crossed by lots of paths and stairs, interspersed by the occasional pagoda and several massive overhanging rocks with some large Chinese inscriptions. This area was considered the most scenic spot in the city during the Song dynasty. It is a real oasis of tranquility, but also bit of a maze with lots of dead ends, and it took a bit of time to find my way out again. 

I also found this 'Spring for Clearing Secular Worries' (if you have religious worries, find some other spring):

From Wu Shan mountain it is about a 30 minute walk to the Xichang Temple on the West side of city. This turns out to be quite a spectacular temple occupying a large area and consisting of 38 buildings (pagodas, pavilions, temples and halls) as well as several lakes, beautiful bridges and extensive gardens. Although most of the buildings are much younger or have been extensively restored, the temple itself dates back to the late 6th century, just before the Tang dynasty. (Buddhism was adopted quickly here during the Tang dynasty, which saw many more Buddhist temples being built during the subsequent centuries.)

The largest structure is the huge pagoda, which has 15 tiers and is 67 meters high. It is not a particularly historic building though, having been built in 1986.

The large and also fairly modern building next to the pagoda is the ‘Hall of the 500 Arhats’, which is filled over several floors with 500 rather strange and slightly creepy looking life size sculptures, which are meant to represent the Arhats. Arhats in various Buddhist traditions are the people who like the Buddha have reached full enlightenment.

The lakes around here are teeming with little water turtles:

Here is an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. (Just as in most Chinese cities there is a huge amount of residential highrise construction going on here.)

It started to rain a bit more now, so I make my way back to the hotel walking along the canal. One interesting thing I've seen here, is that almost everyone of the thousands of little motorbikes and scooters are battery powered. I guess that helps to make the air pollution here more bearable, but they are a bit of a menace for pedestrians, since you can't hear them up until right before they are about to hit you, when they honk loudly so you can jump out of the way in the last second. I have also noticed that red lights seem to apply only to cars not to the scooters.

Monday, May 25th, 2015:
After checking out of the hotel I take a taxi up to the West Lake Park located to the North-West of the city.

The first lakes and canals were built here in 282 AD, but there are not many historical buildings left. It is a beautifully laid out park over several islands criss-crossed with paths and bridges. It is not quite the same level of scenery as the Hangzhou Westlake, but it is quite a beautiful and tranquil place to walk around.

After the West Lake I make my way over to the nearby Haolin Temple, only to find the gates to the temple closed. Even though the sign on the gate seems to suggest the temple would be open at 1:30. (Important notice: A lot of the sights here seem to close for lunch.) I wait until 2, but nothing happens. Maybe the Chinese sign also said closed on Monday, or they just couldn't be bothered today, since I was the only person waiting to get in. It was quite disappointing though to not see it, because even though it is quite a small temple, it is one of the oldest (or possibly the oldest, depending on where you read about it) surviving wooden structures in all of China. Haolin temple was founded in 964. I could see the roof of the main building from outside the walls, but nothing else.

However, I got over my disappointment fairly quickly, when I made my way over to ‘Three Lanes and Seven Allies’, and quickly realized that this is the main sight in Fuzhou, a really amazing place. This is a whole neighborhood that has been left completely untouched by development (an extraordinarily smart decision by the city planners here) and beautifully restored. It is now kind of a living museum, covering a fairly large area over several city blocks full of ancient residential buildings dating from the late Ming to Qing dynasties.

This area was first settled during the late Western Jin dynasty (265 – 316 AD). The basic street pattern was laid out during the Tang and Song dynasties (618 to 1279), and has been left unchanged since then. The buildings themselves (and there are 159 of them left) are a bit younger and are mostly from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 to 1911).

The main lane is lined with largely wooden buildings full of gift shops, galleries, and even the tiniest McDonalds I have ever seen, but the very narrow and quiet side allies have no shops and have been left untouched.

Several of the large residential compounds have been designated as key cultural relics and are open to visitors. They all charge a small entry fee (10 or 20 Yuan). I visited four of them, and they were quite amazing. These are large compounds, with numerous rooms, halls, open courtyards and gardens, all arranged very symmetrically. Many of the rooms have the original furniture and decorations, which are all very subtle and elegant. In one the buildings they have life size figures providing an impression what life for the wealthier citizens of Fuzhou would have been like a few hundred years ago:

All the buildings seem have one or several beautiful little rock gardens, many of them with water features:

Decorations on the buildings are only visible from the inside. From the outside they all have the same plain white walls with no windows. So no one could see the elegance and splendor of the building from the street.

These separation walls with upturned little roofs between the building are not just there for decoration, they were also fire walls. The buildings inside the compounds are large made of wood, and these separation walls were meant to prevent a fire in one building to engulf the whole neighborhood.

Apparently Three Lanes and Seven Allies is currently under review for a Unesco World Heritage designation. And I hope they get it. It would be well deserved and would hopefully ensure its continued preservation and restoration.

I walked back to the hotel from here, spent a relaxing hour in the hotel lobby writing this blog, and then took a taxi to the airport for my evening flight back to Hong Kong. A final travel advice: When leaving for the airport during evening rush hour, calculate some extra time. The airport is fairly far outside of the city (about 50 km) and even though it is connected to the city with a very good and new express way, getting out if the city to the express way can be challenging in rush hour traffic. The trip normally takes 45 min by taxi. I left the hotel on a Monday afternoon at 5:30 and it took about 1.5 hours.


The statement that Fuzhou is not a major international tourist destination is not an exaggeration based on my experience this weekend. In fact I think I may have been the only international tourist here. There were a handful of local tourists at some of the sights, but I don't think I saw another Western tourist during the whole weekend. I think that is a bit of a shame though. I really quite enjoyed my brief visit to Fuzhou, and I think it is very underrated as a tourist destination. For instance, the DK guide for Southern China describes Fuzhou rather dismissively as "a clean and well-maintained sort of place, but there is little in the way of sights". That seems like a rather harsh description. I think the sights I saw, the ancient Black and White Pagodas, the Xichang Temple, the West Lake and most of all Three Lanes and Seven Allies, deserve to be much better known tourist attractions. I would not recommend anyone flies halfway across the world to just visit Fuzhou, but if one is in the region, the city is well worth a detour for a couple of days.

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1 comment:

  1. Nice blog. I never heard about fuzhou before. Thanks for sharing the informative blog.