Quanzhou: China’s forgotten historic port

Quanzhou: China’s forgotten historic port

Plenty of history and culture but no armies of tourists, this is China at its most authentic

Quanzhou was the Shanghai of China ... 1,000 years ago.

The city in southeast Fujian was known as the largest port in Asia during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan dynasties (1271-1368).

According to legend, Marco Polo bid farewell to the nation from this town in late 13th century and described it as "the Alexandria of the East."

Today, Quanzhou is a regular seaside city of 8 million. It’s off the radar even for Chinese travelers -- most head to Fujian’s tourism magnet Xiamen, 90 kilometers to the southwest.

But with an amiable age-old charms and a tangible Maritime Silk Road legacy, this is the place to see coastal China at its most local.

Here's how.

Maritime Museum

What to do in Quanzhou -- inline 1Exotic gravestones bear witness to Quanzhou's multicultural past.

This Soviet-style structure showcases Quanzhou’s fascinating maritime past under one roof. It’s the one of very few maritime-themed museums in China.

The building’s old wing houses an assortment of remains of Song Dynasty ships, which were dug out of Quanzhou Bay in the 1970s.

Chinese visitors often find the tombstones in the new wing too spooky, but this magnificent collection of historical gravestones and steles, most dating from the Yuan dynasty, is a reflection of the Quanzhou’s maritime heyday.

They were carved to commemorate the death of foreign merchants, of various cultures and religions, living in Quanzhou during Song and Yuan Dynasty, and are a true celebration of the city’s multi-culturalism.

One interesting example is the angel reliefs on the Christian headstones. Resembling Asparas (feitian飞天; the curvaceous female spirits in Buddhist mythology), the six-wing Seraphim looks more like Siddhartha.

The dancing Siva and the dignified Vishnu, on the other hand, were crafted by Indian masons in Quanzhou in the 13th century.

Maritime Museum (泉州海外交通史博物馆), 425 Donghu Lu, Quanzhou, Fujian, 福建省泉州市东湖路425号; +86 595 2210 2655; open Tuesday-Sunday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; free admission

Ashab Mosque and Islamic Cemetery

What to do in Quanzhou -- inline 2Stretching in front of a mosque, naturally.

Muslim merchants have been coming to Quanzhou via the Maritime Silk Road route since the Tang dynasty (618-907).

The evidence of their clout and wealth is still clearly visible in the Ashab Mosque (aka Qingjing Mosque, or Mosque of Purity), which was built in 1009 by the Arabs.

This is China's only surviving mosque from the Song dynasty.

Although the structure is now defunct, the mosque’s former glory lingers in the towering arched gate and the seemingly impregnable walls.

Both look particularly stunning at sunset.

Not far from the Maritime Museum, the serene and overgrown Islamic cemetery is the final resting place of some mighty Muslims, including two of Mohammed's disciples.

The intact Ming Dynasty steles crafted in both Chinese and Arabic managed to survive the Cultural Revolution.

Ashab Mosque (清净寺), 108 Tumen Jie, Quanzhou, Fujian 福建省泉州市涂门街108号; +86 595 2219 3553; open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m; RMB 3 (US 50 cents)

Islamic Cemetery (灵山伊斯兰教圣墓), at the corner of Donghu Lu and Lingshan Lu 福建省泉州市东湖路和灵山路路口 open daily, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; free admission

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Temple hopping

What to do in Quanzhou -- inline 3Pray to Guandi for good fortune (and weather).

A large number of temples dedicated to various deities dot throughout Quanzhou. They testify to the pious folk beliefs of Fujian's seafarers and their hopes for peace, health and fortune.

Being the commander of weather (and wealth), Guandi, the god of war, is one of the most popular deities among the fisherfolk as well as businessmen.

The most prosperous Guandi Temple in Quanzhou is a stone’s throw from the Ashab Mosque.

It’s hard to miss due to its sheer size (1,300 square meters) and the smoke billowing from massed incense sticks.

Kai Yuan Temple is a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site that has been rebuilt many times. The shrine houses two eye-catching five-story pagodas from the 13th century, but neither can be climbed.

Behind the pagodas is a Song-dynasty ocean-going junk, which was excavated in Quanzhou's waters in 1974, as well as some painstakingly crafted Buddhist stone sculptures (also dating from the Song Dynasty).

Chattering grannies and grandpas come to the banyan tree-flanked courtyard in the afternoons for their regular chitchat party.

The Yuan Dynasty Cao'an Manichean Temple standing alone on the hilly area south of the city center.

The peaked roof building is a precious relic from Manicheanism, an ancient religion which is, however, being revived in the mystical aspects of the New Age movement.

Kai Yuan Temple (开元寺), 176 Xi Jie, Quangzhou, Fujian 福建省泉州市西街176號; +86 595 2238 3285; open daily 7:30 a.m-7 p.m.; RMB 10

Guandi Temple (关帝庙), Tumen Jie, Quangzhou, Fujian 福建省泉州市涂门街, 8:30a.m-6 p.m., free admission

Cao'an Manichean Temple (草庵摩尼教寺), Huabiaoshan, Luoshan Village, Jinjiang, Fujian 晋江罗山乡苏内村华表山麓; open daily, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; free admission

Quanzhou Old Town

What to do in Quanzhou -- inline 4Where China slows down.

Unlike the almighty commotion of people and traffic that characterizes most city centers in China, Quanzhou's downtown is relaxing.

Ambling down its old streets and back alleys is like walking down the city's memory lane.

Lining both sides of Zhongshan Lu are well-restored covered balcony buildings (qilou, 骑楼), a distinctive form of southern China architecture from the Republican Era.

They can also be found in Guangdong and Hong Kong, but those in Quanzhou have clearly weathered the years and confronted the threat of the bulldozers.

A collage of trades like bridal services, hardware stores and goldsmith shops thrives below the balconies.

Just north of Zhongshan Lu are Dong Jie and Xi Jie, home to a plethora of time-honored small eateries that define leisure for Quanzhou locals.

Rice dumplings and oyster omelets are the city’s signature dishes.

Nanyin: The Sound of Quanzhou

What to do in Quanzhou -- inline 5Classical Quanzhounese.

In the park where the Confucius Temple (Wen Miao 文庙) is located, amateur and professional musicians alike get together regularly to practice Nanyin (南音), one of the oldest music genres in China.

These beautiful melodies were born as early as the Han Dynasty (202-220 B.C.) and have kept evolving, taking on new songs and themes over the centuries.

The music is performed with traditional Chinese musical instruments like the bamboo flute and the Chinese lute (pipa). The ballads are sung in the local Minnan dialect. A song can last from a few minutes to over half an hour.

Two or three stages are set up every evening and the shows are free.

The groups playing outdoors are school-trained musicians. Groups playing inside a shelter all come from musical backgrounds, and love what they do.

"We're not doing this for the money,” says a qipao-wearing solo singer who also plays the clappers. “We really like folk music and it's good to see other Nanyin enthusiasts meeting and practicing regularly to keep the traditions alive."

Nanyin was enlisted by the UNESCO Intangible Heritage in 2003.

Confucius Temple (文庙), Zhongshan Zhonglu, Quanzhou, Fujian 福建省泉州市中山中路, performance starts from 7:30 p.m. every evening, free admission

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Getting there: Numerous airlines fly to Xiamen from major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. Frequent high-speed D trains link Xiamen with Quanzhou (30 minutes). The D trains also connect Shanghai to Quanzhou in eight hours.

Chung-wah Chow is a bilingual travel writer based in Hong Kong. 

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