Archive for the ‘ China ’ Category

Yinchuan:  A trip of serendipitous discovery



Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: It was the news in the American media about the exciting wineries of China that attracted my small group of fellow-travelers to Yinchuan, a place we had never heard of before. We explored the surprising wineries. Some of us ended up having more fun, however, drinking beer in the equally unexpected Oktoberfest, celebrated in mid-September in our German-run hotel. The Brewmeister himself served us, joined by the chef at the restaurant.  Even the chief winemaker in town came to mingle, and we got a rare glimpse of the life-style of the rich and famous Chinese who were the other guests at the hotel.

All this paled compared to what I found in yet another fortunate happenstance:  the unfurling of China’s grand strategy for the world, which is President Xi Jinping’s newly announced initiative called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” Its early manifestation in the form of the “China-Arab States Expo” in Yinchuan coincided with our arrival. The “Maritime” part of the initiative will be the subject of anther report. The present paper is about navigating the meaning of all that the other part, “Silk Road Economic Belt,” evoked.

In that pursuit, I also learned about China’s economic plans for developing its “wild west” and dealing with its Muslim minorities, while it nurtures critical relations with many countries west of its borders. Equally valuable was the opportunity to glance at how China perceives its past. The part of its history that comes to focus here is also of special interest to students of world history. In 1273 Genghis Khan led the Mongol army that defeated the Chinese Kingdom at Yinchuan which was then its capital. The Great Khan died here but his army went on to establish the first foreign dynasty, under his grandson Kublai Khan, which dominated all of China. Genghis’s other grandsons, meanwhile, were establishing their own dominion over lands that constituted the western side of the ancient “Silk Road”, thus creating another historic first: the political control of most of the civilized world by a single family – which was, furthermore, foreign to both sides.

With this tapestry of diverse subjects to review, this report will struggle to draw a cohesive picture of Yinchuan. Far from being conclusive, it will be content to reveal the need for further study and better answers to the questions it raises.


China-Arab States Expo

After a two- hour flight west from Beijing, when I arrived at the Yinchuan airport the first sign that faced me said الوصول (al-vusul). This was the Arabic word for “Arrival” – also included in the sign both in English and Chinese. In the lobby of the Arrival terminal, the sign for a restaurant that served “Islamic Foods” was only in Arabic and Chinese, with no English . I knew that Yinchuan was the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which had nearly 40% Hui Muslims, in its population. The Hui, however, were said to be the only Sinophone group among the ten predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China; the others’ mother-tongues were languages other than Chinese. I started a conversation with a young couple as we waited at the carousel for our luggage. They were returning home from a trip to Australia. They were Hui and when I asked if they spoke Arabic, they said “No, we can only read the Qur’an.” That is the Islamic holy book which is commonly read by non-Arab Muslims in its original Arabic.

The Arabic in the airport signs were occasioned by the “China-Arab States Expo,” held in Yinchuan from September 10 to 13, 2015, just before my arrival. A big sign still standing in the airport, in Arabic, Chinese and English, announced the Expo’s goal,  “Uphold Silk Road Spirit, Deepen China-Arab States Cooperation,” with its logo shining in multi-colors  {1}

As I would find out later in the official publications {2}, the Expo included a “University Presidents Forum,” and another forum on “Global Smart City,” one symposium on sustainable development in agriculture, a “Green Expo” in Yinchuan’s “Green Garden” and it featured a “Cloud Computing Technology and Applications Exhibition ” which was at the Yinchuan International Conference Hall{3}. Representatives from 26 Arab countries participated, at least, in the University Presidents Forum in Yinchuan. When we left the airport, I noted that the wide boulevard leading to the center of town was still festooned with flags of many of those Arab countries.

Our tour guide kept assuring us that the Yinchuan Muslims were “very friendly.” They were “not like Middle Easterners.” He wore a dark suit and a tie, had studied international relations in the Big Island of Hawaii and had wanted to become a diplomat but, he said, “I do not have connections” which were necessary. Surprisingly, he did not have much to say about the Expo or the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping which underpinned it. Those subjects were important but apparently not thought to be of great interest to casual tourists.

Silk Road Economic Belt

My reading of current reports in the Chinese media, and other literature on the subject, indicated that the initiative, announced by President Xi in 2003, soon after he became China’s leader, was now at the heart of this country’s economic plans and geopolitical strategy.  Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st -century Maritime Silk Road,” the President’s proposal consists of two main components, the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” and “The Maritime Silk Road”. The latter aims at “investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through several contiguous bodies of water – the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the wider Indian Ocean area.” The Belt part covers “countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.” It “calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.” South Asia and Southeast Asia will be added in the future as the extension of this “belt.” Also later, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will link the two original components, the land-based Belt and the Maritime Road {4}.

There are compelling geopolitical reasons for China “to push forward with its One Belt, One Road plans at a time when its trading partners are potentially excluding it from strategic agreements,” such as Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the EU-Japan. In China’s alternative strategic agreements with the new partners it now wishes to woo by this initiative, President Xi Jinping has been mindful to ease political concerns by pointedly emphasizing “Three Nos”. These consist of “no interference in the internal affairs” of other nations, “no seeking” to increase the “sphere of influence” and not striving for “hegemony or dominance {5}.”

There is also a strong urgent economic incentive, specifically, for the land- based Belt part of Xi’s initiative.  After thirty years of unprecedented growth, China is now faced with a slowing economy. Its leadership is looking for new ways to sustain growth, while its developing neighbors to the west are experiencing rapidly rising demand. The Belt initiative can serve as a project to redirect China’s domestic overcapacity and capital for regional development. Eventually, China’s growing domestic market would provide the chance for the region to capitalize by providing goods and services. Accordingly, the Silk Road Economic Belt features prominently in China’s 13th   Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2016 to 2020 {6}.

Yinchuan Showcase

Trial area. In 2014, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) which had been established ten years earlier decided to focus on the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While in the past it had been meeting as a ministerial conference in Beijing, CASCF chose to have its 2015 China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, deeming it as important for Sino-Arab cooperation in the province of Ningxia, and “a trial area for inland-foreign-oriented trade in China, with its eye on opportunities in Arab countries and the Muslim world.” As evidence of Yinchuan’s qualification, at the Expo the mayor of the city boasted of “its projects in recent years such as the Yue Hai Wan Central Business District, Binhe New Area, and Bonded Area”. He added that he hoped the Expo would help the city “to advertise its beautiful landscape, history, cultural heritage, and good ecology.” The officials of Ningxia Autonomous Region told the Expo about the province’s  “work on modernizing its agriculture for more cost-effective results using local characteristics,” pointing out that “Ningxia has climate and geographic conditions similar to Arab countries,” and therefore, there was “great potential for cooperation in such fields as dry land farming, water-saving agriculture, desertification control, and soil improvement {7} .”

Transitional times.  As we drove toward our hotel in Yinchuan we could see the impressive landscape of modern tall buildings in the part of town where new offices  and hotels  were located . Just outside of this area, however, we turned onto a bumpy road for an hour ride to another attraction of Yinchuan, its farmland. The farms on the one side were separated from the dusty road by an irrigation canal which was built on a berm. “We get very little rain here,” our guide said. “The Yellow River is practically the sole source of our water with its dams and canals,” he continued.  (Indeed, Yinchuan means “Silver River” which, I thought, might point out the city’s original raison d’être.) “The River comes from Tibet, and it is called Yellow because it is murky due to the silt,” the guide said.

The other side of the road we were on was lined with Poplar trees. A very dirty bus  covered with the dust of the desert and crowded with passengers, passed us. The women we saw among the passengers were wearing headscarves. Old Hui Moslem women usually wear headscarves but, our guide said, “other women also wear them for protection against the dust.”  On the drive back to the city, we approached a traffic jam and soon our van came to a standstill on the narrow road of the farmland just before we reached the wide new boulevard that served this modern part of Yinchuan. Two passenger cars blocked most of the entrance to the boulevard. When we were finally able to pass them, a half an hour later, our guide explained that those two cars, involved in an accident, were waiting for the insurance adjusters as neither driver was willing to accept fault.

It has been suggested that urbanization is a more promising way to deal with China’s surplus of capital and production problem than the Belt initiative. The country’s current urbanization rate of 52 percent is low given its level of development. A lot of the young rural population has come to cities as migrant workers, but they cannot bring families or truly become citizens of the cities due, in part, to the lack of sufficient housing. As we drove around Yinchuan, we noticed a considerable number of newly- built apartment blocks, presumably to address the housing shortages. We could not be sure that they were fully occupied.

Unused infrastructure. China’s current new kind of surplus, that of unused infrastructure, was evident in the miles of brand new freeways we saw in Ningxia as we later drove from Yinchuan to Shapotou, one of its major “ecological attractions,” some 200 kilometers southwest. The toll road G6 was an excellent four-lane divided road with an island in the middle which had trimmed bushes almost like topiaries in the middle . There were guard rails on both sides. Exits were numbered. There were signs in Chinese and English with icons for gas and food. We stopped at a “Servicer Area.” A sign in its urinal in Chinese, Arabic and English urged: “A small step forward. A big step in civilization .” On the road another sign said in English: “Waste discarding prohibited.”  Yet another sign read: “Please No Weary Driving.”

Traffic was very light, with only a few buses and several trucks and cars.  A Police car passed us with its lighting siren on without any visible reason. We noted ten road workers in orange vests, but no accompanying vehicle. Two women workers were picking up trash.  Coal burning power plants could be seen in the countryside. They were still in use also in the city of Yinchuan. Our guide explained:  “we have a lot of coal here.” He also said: “where we are driving was a desert 20 years ago.”  He amplified: “Yinchuan is surrounded by three deserts.”  Shapotou Desert tourist area is located in the southeast of the Tenggeli Desert.

Street scene. Notwithstanding all the signs in Arabic and English, I did not run into any Arab or Westerner (not counting the Americans in my small tour group). Their absence was especially conspicuous in the downtown area, called Xing Qing. I walked in this section of town which was by far its busiest. The Drum Tower  was a reminder of how Yinchuan looked before its recent “modernization.”  Like those in other cities of China, the Drum Tower, as its name indicated, was originally constructed for musical purposes. Now it faced a Western style plaza with its Burger King restaurant and a stage being set up for a karaoke- type participatory music event . At another corner of the street facing the Tower, however, was a lone Chinese musician sitting at the Gehu, the Chinese version of Cello, playing old Chinese melodies, with a basket for tips in front of him . There were more musicians in the long and wide pedestrian street, XinHua . However, they attracted attention more as curiosities. One was a singer propped up by a crutch under his arm . Another was interesting for his unusually small body and big head . Still a third was a paraplegic who played harmonica as he sat on a customized motorcycle . By far the largest crowd, however, gathered around another man with missing limbs who painted calligraphy on papers spread on the ground, holding the brush by his teeth.

The shops that surrounded this non-modern ensemble of entertainers were strikingly modern. However, they lacked any non-Chinese name signs. Not only English but even Arabic writings were missing. Only around the corner, I saw a food vendor who had the Islamic creed calligraphed on his cart . Here also there was a sign for a فندق (funduq), Arabic for hotel, on a building . This was apparently in anticipation of receiving Arab tourists from abroad which Ningxia hoped to “lure,” according to local newspapers.


A parallel campaign was to attract Western visitors, especially by the lure of Yinchuan’s wineries. My American companions had specifically come to visit them. Two days before the opening of the China-Arab States Expo, Yinchuan hosted another one, the East Helan Mountain Area International Wine Expo, in which seven wines from this surrounding area were given gold medals. So it was that our guide had lost no time in taking us directly from the airport to Chateau Bacchus on the outskirts of the city. As we drove through a rather dry farmland, he explained, “hot days and cold nights here are ideal for growing grapes and, therefore, for wineries.”  He added:  “this is the fruit season,” pointing to the vendors we saw selling watermelons on the side of the road.

“Chateau Bacchus began by a man who made his money in the south of China 20 years ago,” our guide continued. “He came and fixed the desert and asked the French for help. Then others came too.”  As we arrived through an imposing gate, a marching tune blared on the loudspeakers and a water fountain jetted water to cool the desert air.  This was to welcome us as the winery knew of our coming. As we approached the entrance to the winery’s main building, a group of men appeared on the steps . Taking them as the manager and his staff, we eagerly shook their stretched hands. But then they said goodbye and walked toward the exit. It turned out that they were the “Head of Tourism Office” and aides, on an inspection visit there. Chateau Bacchus had proudly posted on its gate an “AAA” ranking sign by the National Tourist Evaluation Committee . Alas, we remained the only visitors the whole time we were there.

A young woman was our host .  In a small “tasting” room, we sat at a plain table as she served us Grenache and Shiraz wines.  She poured from a glass which was used as a decanter , filled by another glass directly from the barrel . The grapes were from their own vineyards. Our host said “the winemaker is Chinese but the standards come from the French.” There were framed certificates of awards given to the winery, mostly from China, on the walls of the room . There was also a painting of galloping horses which were “the symbols of fast success,” we were told.

The winery had a “restaurant” but it would be opened “only with a prior reservation.”  Its wine was also sold only from barrels located at different branches for “club members.” Our host was the only staff we saw. She now led us to a cellar which was exclusively for the club members. This was a dark underground cave, with barrels of wine. The signs here, and in the garden of the winery were in Arabic, as well as Chinese and English .  A two-story building on the other side of the garden was called the Business Center. A sign at its entrance described it:  “The Business Center is a high-end Club, which sets catering, entertainment and accommodation as a whole. The dreams of Romance and Luxury can be come true, as if we enter the ancient European castle of Middle Ages.” Regarding the “romance,” inside the building were a lobby furnished with a white piano and a stairway leading upstairs to two bedrooms with two beds each. In another room, there were a basin, a washer and a dryer.

Winery Chateau Moser XV

As we left Chateau Bacchus we picked a branch from a grapevine in the vineyard just outside the gate and tasted its black Merlot.  The size of this vineyard was minuscule compared to the vineyard we saw in the next winery we visited in Yinchuan: Winery Chateau Moser XV . The biggest in Ningxia, the building area of the Chateau is nearly 140,000 square feet. With many fountains and turrets, the winery calls itself Changyu International Wine City . The name Changyu is a reminder that this is actually a subsidiary of a more venerable winery by that name in China’s northeastern Shandong province which is “the most comprehensive” winery, while the Yinchuan branch specializes in “high end” wines.

When we entered the “wine tasting center” building of Changyu, which was about 54,000 square feet, an electric people mover  carried us to a large auditorium at the other end, where we were shown a short film about the history of the winery. The Changyu winery was founded in the 1890s by Chang Bishi . He was the first Chinese Consul in Penang Pulau (today’s Malaysia). He was a philanthropist , and also provided financial aid to the 1911 Chinese Revolution. He was called by the revolutionary party the “Financier of Revolution .”

The winery presented itself as a part of “Changyu Pioneer International Chateau Alliance” in a “Chateau Alliance Map” showing branches in several places in China, including “Chateau Changyu Castle Yantai, as well as in Austria, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Moldova.”  The walls of the wine tasting center showcased pictures of famous world leaders with glasses of its wines before them:  Presidents Obama, Putin and Holland and Chancellor Merkel among them, as well as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates .

Our guide said that the winery received some 300 foreign visitors a year.  A guest book had recorded what previous visitors had said about their visits. The sign above it said, in English: “God has given to human good and valuable things, than wine.”  A page from the book featured comments which were equally unclear, such as: “I am the resveratral (sic), hug me will bring the blessing of health to you!.” We were now at the winery’s 38,000 square foot “mysterious underground cellars” which boasted a storage area for over 2000 oak barrels and 260,000 bottles for aging. There was a picture of a famous Chinese movie star of the 1920s, advertizing for this winery . We were given a gift of a 6-year old brandy, bottled in front of us from the barrel. Each bottle was closed with a cork that was literally hammered in .

A few wine bottles were on display. One was priced at about 50 dollars . The sales revenue of Changyu Group in 2007, reportedly, reached 695 million U.S. dollars, making it one of the top ten grape wine enterprises of the world, the first Asian enterprise to appear on that list. By 2012, its ranking on the list rose up to No. 4.  We were told that the grapes for the winery’s vineyard originally came from France‘s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. The chief wine maker was from the Austrian Moser family:  Lenz Moser, the heir to “fifteen generations” of European wine planting and brewing technologies , looked at us from a framed picture on the wall of the winery. He has declared that this was one of the most potential production areas of best wine grape in the world because of its soil, dry air, number of days of sunshine and temperature differences between day and night.  Lenz Moser has succeeded in substantially increasing the sale of Changyu wines in Europe and was eyeing bigger expansion to even include the American market.

Affluent Chinese

According to Western reporters, for sometime the Chinese government officials and executives at state-owned companies buying expensive vintages for banquets and gifts were the major cause for an explosion in China’s domestic wine consumption. The government’s tough anticorruption campaign of the last couple of years has closed down that market. This has forced the winemakers to focus on the “real buyers,” those “who drink wine because they like it, not because of the status or favors it brings.” Prime among these are the middle- and upper-class Chinese, especially the young ones who “acquired a taste for wine while studying abroad.”

Chateau Changyu Moser XV, additionally, saw itself as “a wine estate” making “high-end chateau wine,” and aiming at “wine culture tourism” as a “high-end club of wine theme.” It boasted of the Byzantine style of its principle structure,  its “magnificent” domed castle . It expected soon to receive as many as 80,000 visitors a year. It hoped to draw them from wealthy Chinese who have begun to enjoy western-style vacations.  The promise of such a market is reflected in the nascent business of dividing big acres of land, which could be vineyards, into large parcels to create “mini chateaus” for the wealthy, as our guide told us. One such entrepreneur has reported that he has already sold two parcels around Yinchuan.

On the day I was in Chateau Changyu, virtually the only visitors I saw in the tasting center were Chinese school children . However, just outside, in the garden of the winery facing the Chateau’s castle, we noticed a crowd. They were attending a wedding in progress . This signified yet another aspect of the business of this winery, as an event venue. Our guide said the venue’s price exceeded 50,000 dollars. The Chinese wedding couple  and their guests  wore western clothes although the ceremony was conducted in Chinese, broadcast on loud speakers. Curiously, the wedding vows were engraved on glass in English at the altar . The ceremony was being filmed by a drone flying overhead.

That evening we pondered whether the guests at the wedding were responsible for our pricey hotel telling us that it had no room because it was full. We had advance confirmed reservations and the Kempinski hotel upgraded us to suites. “Germans honor their promises,” the German managers of the hotel told us. Now we were sitting in a festively decorated restaurant bar, celebrating Oktoberfest. The place was crowded with many Chinese guests. It advertised the traditional Paulaner beer, but we were exchanging “Prost!”  with the Brewmeister himself over his beer, made by the elaborate apparatus right here . This I owed to my German fellow-traveler who earlier had met the Chef of this restaurant, on his break, in the bar of the hotel lounge. The next morning, in the breakfast room of the hotel, also crowded with affluent Chinese guests, I was told by the Austrian woman who was the “Supervisor” of the room that Lenz Moser, the chief winemaker at Changyu was also among those attending the previous night’s Oktoberfest. She left me to communicate by sign language with her Chinese staff. Behind the counter, five cooks with aprons and tall chefs’ hats were struggling to fry eggs the western style.

When I walked out into the lobby of the hotel, I noticed some commotions at the elevator. There were guards watching its door as it opened. Presently, a young man and his small entourage came out and walked toward the exit from the hotel. I followed them at a distance. There were reporters with cameras tailing the man. Outside, at the entrance to the hotel, people had gathered around five young girls in red skirts and white tops and shoes, who were singing. Behind them was a black SUV with three escorting cars and a few more guards.  Soon the girls lined up in front of the SUV, smiling and holding thumps up as they faced the young man in his light yellow jacket .  As his cars eventually pulled out, I noticed a uniformed hotel staff, beaming as she looked on. I asked what was going on. She said “the Chinese super star is there.” I asked her to write his name. She wrote some Chinese characters. I said “in English.” She wrote “1401 Han Geng.” I asked “what is that number?”  She said “his room number” in the hotel. Han Geng is a Chinese Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) singer and actor, in demand by numerous TV shows, commercials and movies. He was in Yinchuan to make movies.

Xixia Kingdom Ruins

Yinchuan is famous for its West Movie Studio of Zhenbei Forts. The Studio is nicknamed “Oriental Hollywood” because it has supplied the background scenes resembling ancient northern small towns of China for nearly one hundred movies. The Studio was built around the ruins of two old forts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We went to see the even more ancient and historically far more significant ruins of Yinchuan on its last days as the capital of the Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom. The city was destroyed in 1273 by the conquering Mongol army that came under the command of Genghis Khan. It is believed that the great Khan himself died of “uncertain causes,” a month before the conquest of Yinchuan was consummated. What was left in ruins, 30 kilometers west of today’s Yinchuan, is a cemetery with mausoleums of 9 Emperors of Xixia and 255 subordinate tombs. Together, they spread over 53 kilometers. They are dubbed the “Oriental Pyramids”.

I stood before one of the mausoleums which are called Tomb Towers. As a sign referred to it:“The Tomb Tower is the main architecture in the cemetery. It has a shape of octagonal cone, 23 meters high. Each side of the bottom is 13 meters. Various building components scattered around the tower is very dense. Including Chiwen, beast, ridge ornaments and so on.”  Each Tomb Tower was “an independent architectural complex with a garden above the ground and an underground palace.” The mausoleums were made of yellow-colored earth, and spread “in lines following ancient rites.” Some of the mausoleums had lost their top .

Another sign nearby described the cemetery, called the Outer City: “Outer City in a layout of rectangular, 340 meters long, 220 meters wide. At the central provision of south wall was a door: the door is the only remaining site. doorway with 7 meters remaining. Due to severe damage, outer city now full of collapsed, remaining site of bottom.”

The “Inner City” was where the people lived. Their “mysterious history and culture” is little known because of Genghis Khan’s policy calling for their complete eradication. As one expert has said:  “There is a case to be made that this was the first ever recorded example of attempted genocide. It was certainly very successful ethnocide {8}.” My further reading of the works of various historians was rewarding in revealing much about the “mysterious history” of Xixia, and the conduct of the Mongol invaders who, at this same time in history, quickly took over virtually the whole known world!

Still called by his birth name Temujin, the soon to be Genghis Khan launched a raid against Xixia in 1205 in pursuit of his rival Mongol Nilga Senggum. In 1207, now having been proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all the Mongols at the official start of the Mongol Empire, he launched another raid into Xixia, advancing to the Yellow River, before withdrawing in 1208. The following year, Genghis undertook a larger campaign to secure the submission of Western Xia. He besieged the capital, Yinchuan, and forced the Emperor of Xixia to agree to submit to Mongol rule. Genghiz then turned west and, in his invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran, asked Xixia for military aid. He was refused and Genghis swore vengeance. After defeating the Khwarazms in 1221, Genghis prepared to punish Xixia and in 1225, he attacked. Steadily advancing from city to city, “Genghis engaged the countryside in annihilative warfare and ordered his generals to systematically destroy cities and garrisons as they went.” He reached Yinchuan in 1227 and laid siege to the city. His death in August was kept a secret in order not to jeopardize the ongoing campaign. A month later, Emperor Mozhu of Xixia surrendered and was immediately executed. “The Mongols then mercilessly pillaged Yinchuan, slaughtered the city’s population, plundered the imperial tombs west of the city, and completed the effective annihilation of the Western Xia state {9}.”

Xixia Museum

Some of what has been discovered about Xixia is on display in a museum. We walked on a new paved road through the vast plain with the tombs and Mount Helan in the distance, to the Xixia Museum. Just outside was a map showing China’s trade roads with the world of the time, covering all of the Middle East, to the Black Sea and North Africa. The foreign land routes were in red, the regional land routes in black, and the sea routes in blue. At the entrance to the Museum, a sign introduced Xixia: “The Western Xia Kingdom was a local ethnic minority kingdom founded mainly by the nation of Dan Xiang people during 11-13 century.  The Western Xia Kingdom was characterized by the absorption of cultures from the Central Plains and other northern nationalities. It is one of splendid pearls in the great treasure-house of Chinese history and culture.”

The sign went on to describe the Museum’s collection: “Western Xia Museum… has collected the works of Western Xia Kingdom history and culture. The exhibits are divided into six parts: the movement westward of the Dang Xiang people and the rise of the Western Xia Kingdom; politics, law and military affairs; socio-economy; culture; religion of the Western Xia Kingdom. The history and culture of the Western Xia Kingdom is revealed through a rich collection of objects, charts, drawings, photographs, models and audio-visual presentations, making it a scientific, educational and interesting experience.”

The collection consisted of old artifacts, pictures, frescoes and paintings. Among Xixia relics were a stone horse, Xixia tablet inscriptions, Buddhists scriptures, Buddhist drawings, the official seal, Xixia paintings which blended Uighur and Tibetan Buddhism elements and Xixia ethnic customs. Of special significance was a display of Buddhist scripture in Xixia Characters. These characters were created in 1036, on the basis of Tangut language, in imitation of Chinese characters. Tangut was the nomadic ethnic group that established Xixia.

As a sign at the Museum summarized Xixia’s cultural heritage, “The culture of Xixia was diverse, though dominated by Dangxiang culture. The murals and painted sculptures, inheriting and developing the artistic achievements of the Tang and Song dynasties, also mixed Dangxiang, Tibetan and Uighur cultures, enriching the treasure house of Chinese culture. The creation and use of Xixia characters to spread and interpret Buddhism not only followed the developments of the Tang and Song dynasties, but also developed a unique Xixia culture.”

The mission of the Museum was expressed in another sign:  “It is an educational base for patriotism and the unity of nationalities, as well as a favorite tourist destination for foreign and domestic guests.”  On this day, a handful of us were the only foreign visitors in Xixia, joined by a similarly small group of Chinese tourists .

Shapotou Desert

We found many more Chinese tourists in another attraction of Ningxia, the desert.  When we arrived in the huge parking lot of the Shapotou Desert tourist area, a little over two hours south of Yinchuan, the place was jammed with tourist buses. “They are over a hundred,” as one among us said, with only a bit of exaggeration. The Chinese tourists who had just stepped down from the buses were lining up at the ticket windows ; those who had received their tickets were smiling as they contemplated the map posted nearby showing the sites of the attractions in the area . The desert and river were shown prominently on the map.  As the tour companies publicized: “In the area the desert, Yellow River, high mountains and oasis merge into an integral and peculiar scene. Shapotou is listed as one of the Top 50 Destinations Must-see in China.”

We took the tram to the top of a sand hill where there was a picture “shooting place,” as the sign said in English, Chinese and Arabic.  We saw what was called the “First Bay of the Yellow River” below us. In the peninsula the river had carved, the sand had been pushed to the edge of the mountains. Next to us, tourists were sliding down the sand . Behind us was the “largest natural field of sliding sand in China,” dubbed “the Shapotou singing bell”.  The sound emission, we were told, was caused by wind or by walking on the sand. The tourists were putting on special footwear to walk on the sand. When ready with full appropriate attire, including hats, they waited for the special vehicles to drive them to the right place on the sand. Some chose to go camel-riding. The line of camel riders was long, and with the desert and the mountains in the distance, they created a scenery not generally associated with China.

The attractiveness of the desert belied the truth that living in its harsh environment was difficult. Our guide said that fact was the reason the Hui people had ended up here.  “They were near Xian and there they had an uprising about 200 years ago. As a solution, a Chinese general forced them to move here near the desert, saying fighting nature would make them too weak to stage uprisings.” This was perhaps the guide’s version of history recorded in more scholarly sources as the First Dungan Revolt, which began in 1862 by the Hui community in Ningxia and the neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, and suppressed some ten years later by a Qing Dynasty general, leading to thousands of Hui Muslims being then exiled to different parts of China.

Silk Road’s Children

What was puzzling, however, was the tour guide’s tale of the origin of the Hui people: “They are from the Muslim soldiers who came with Genghiz and the Chinese women they married.”  Genghiz did have some Uyghur Turks in his army in 1219 when he attacked the city of Otrar (Farab) in today’s Kazakhstan which quickly led to his conquest of Muslim Central Asia. He also forcibly recruited local Turks to fight other Turks in the region, but then he ended up slaughtering them {10}. There is, however, no indication that there were Turks in the army that Genghiz led to Yinchuan in 1227.

Indeed, the Hui look different from the Uyghur and other Turks who have Eurasian features, and trace their community in China to some 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of the Mongols. The Hui are descendants of traders who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives. Most likely, their paternal ancestors were Iranian-speaking people. Among them, were the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people of Central Asia {11}.  Chinese general Al Lushan was the son of a Sogdian immigrant to China (his Chinese name means “the Bukharan,” from Bukhara, another Iranian-speaking city not far from Samarkand) and a Turkish mother. It was Al Lushan’s rebellion in755 that finally forced the Tang emperor to withdraw his entire army from Central Asia {12}.

After Central Asian Iranians converted to Islam, in China they left their marks in Arabic script which they had now adopted {13}. The word for Muslims used in the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan – a grandson of Genghis Khan- established in 1271) was Pusuman, likely a corruption of Musalman (the Persian word for Muslim); it was also used as a name for Persians, and Pusuman Kuo (Pusuman Guo) referred to the country where they came from. Indeed, the Arabic script they (Musalman) used was called Pusuman zi (pusuman script).

In 1941 the Chinese Communist Party in its conclusive treatise entitled “On the question of Huihui Ethnicity,” defined the Hui nationality as an ethnic group descended primarily from Muslims who migrated to China during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) {14}. Today, many in Ningxia believe that four common Hui surnames—Na, Su, La and Ding— “originated with the descendants of Nasruddin, a son of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who ‘divided’ the ancestor’s name (Nasulading, in Chinese) among themselves{15}.”  Sayyid Ajjal was an aristocrat from Bukhara who rose in the administration of the Yuan dynasty to become the governor of the major province of Yunnan. As nomads, China’s new Mongol rulers, had to rely on the administrative skills of Central Asians, as well as other foreigners (together forming the Samu, meaning “assorted categories,” class), since they could not rely on the loyalty of the Chinese.

Another example of such Samu administrators was Kublai Khan’s vizier, Ahmad from the Iranian-speaking Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) who had gained so much control over China that it amazed the visiting Marco Polo. Indeed, one of Kublai Khan’s achievements was to reopen the great east-west caravan routes with the Iranian-speaking world that had been closed since the Karakhitai (1124-1218) had severed them. Marco Polo was only one of the beneficiaries of the flourishing of trade. Ahmad’s jealous Chinese rivals seized upon his reputation as a womanizer to brand him as “villainous” and finally assassinate him. That land-route trade continued to thrive for another three centuries before being supplanted by the more efficient maritime exchange on sea routes found by navigators {16}.

Hui of Yinchuan

I found it hard to distinguish the Hui from their non-Muslim neighbors in Yinchuan. In the downtown, I ran into a Hui street vendor, and asked three young Hui girls direction to the Nanguan Mosque. The vendor wore a white cap, nicely embroidered, but the girls did not have headscarves. These items of clothing are considered distinctive to the Hui. In the mosque, I saw only two members of staff, both with white caps. There was only one visitor other than me. He soon joined a woman who was already in conversation with the staff. They were not wearing cap or headscarf. Their conversation was in Chinese.

The Nanguan Mosque lacked grandeur. Its main building was a simple two- story structure. Stairs led to a spacious prayer hall on the second floor which could accommodate a few hundred worshipers at a time. Next to the mosque was the Musilin Qingzhen (Muslim Mosque) Supermarket. Most of the other shops on the street were not marked as Muslim enterprises. The area was not especially crowded. Our tour guide ignored the “Muslim cultural Center” in this neighborhood as “just a small place for them to learn some things.”

We were told that the Hui were so thoroughly assimilated in Yinchuan that virtually their only connection to Islam was an aversion to pork. Muslim restaurants were distinguished for serving kosher halal mutton food. In the town of Zhongwei, some 18 kilometers from Shapotou, we had a lunch of that food [92], served in small private rooms of the restaurant. It was different from typical foods of the Chinese cuisine.

The Hui constitute about 26.3 percent of the population of Yinchuan and 33.88 percent of the total population of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Yet, both the mayor of Yinchuan and the Chairwoman (Governor) of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region are Hui. In some towns of that Region which has a population of 6.1 million, about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui. All these are, in effect, appointed offices, although the governor is formally “elected by the Ningxia People’s Congress.”

Our guide said those positions are reserved for the Hui “by law”. The central Chinese government, indeed, has favored the Hui among China’s 10 different Muslim nationalities. As reported by various foreign journalists, the treatment of the Hui, who are the second largest such Muslim group, especially contrasts with that of the largest, the Uyghur.  For one thing, the Hui in Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province are allowed to practice Islam in the open. They operate Islamic schools and ignore the old policy which barred people under 18 from entering mosques.  In some cities there are mosques on practically every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils. As one of their elders has recently told a Western reporter: “Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are.” The unrest of the Uyghur in the further west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is well-known. That kind of strife is almost nonexistent in Ningxia, as are the restrictions on religion that fuel the Uighur discontent.

The Hui generally subscribe to a moderate brand of Islam. They avoid proselytizing to non-Muslims and also, more important, avoid contact with Islamic organizations outside China. The Chinese government, worried about the spread of Islamic extremism, has shown concern that foreigners with ulterior motives might incite trouble among Chinese Muslims. The Hui people’s demonstration of the capacity to coexist with the Communist Party has been rewarded not only with government posts but also with allowing them to obtain passports for foreign travel. In Xinjiang, by contrast, “most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed.”

The Hui leaders have told Western reporters: “We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of burqas and bomb-throwing that people see on the news…. We also want to show that … we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government.” The Chinese government is seeking to leverage this posture by positioning the Hui as “mercantile emissaries to the Muslim world, a role that has been bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s national initiative for a new Silk Road.”  Special “Muslim products” industrial parks have been established where the Hui live with the help of inexpensive land and low taxes. An example of the enterprises that have benefited is the Yijia Ethnic Clothing. Its three factories now produce “50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear {17}.”

Hui Culture Park

In the last few hours of our stay in Yinchuan, out tour guide took us to the Hui Culture Park in Ningxia. As he had shown scant interest in telling us about the Hui, this visit seemed almost obligatory for him. The Chinese media call the Park “the best place to experience China’s Muslim culture.” The man in charge of the Park explained why it was established, in 2005: “There was no place that exhibited the history and culture of the ethnic Hui. So the government of Ningxia built this Hui Culture Park and Ethnic Hui Museum to fill this tourism and culture vacuum {18}.”

The Park is located not in the Yinchuan city proper but in Yongning County, one of the two counties included in Yinchuan.  We drove on a wide modern boulevard, with a number of new high-rise buildings on one side, in the otherwise largely vacant land.  About 165 acres (1000 mu) have been allocated to the Hui Culture Park. Nearly one third of this has been opened as the first phase in the form of an ethnic Hui theme park with a museum, a mosque, an “ethnic customs” village, a catering and performance center, a restaurant and an art and craft shopping street. The officials of the Park have said: “It’s the only place in China where you can see every aspect of the Hui culture {19}.”

We were among the first to arrive in the early morning in the large empty plaza at the main entrance to the Park which could hold some 20,000 people and, we were told, “during festivals … turns into a sea of song and dance.” This plaza led to a magnificent white building which had an arched entrance with a dome on the top, several smaller domes and minarets in the back, and long arched corridors, on the two sides. This structure was clearly meant to be a Chinese near replica of India’s Taj Mahal, built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, which I had seen in Agra. The Taj Mahal was in ivory-white marble; the Park entrance building was in plaster, its columns covered with intricate bas-reliefs carvings (gachbori) of Islamic calligraphy and decorative designs.

A man with a white cap and a woman with a headscarf entered the building with us. Inside the lobby we were met by another woman with a headscarf, who was a member of staff [97]. Scaffolding on the other face of the building was indicative that the Park was still a work in progress, more than a decade after it opened.  In a courtyard, a long reflection pool, another reminder of the Taj Majal model, directed us toward the “Aisha Palace (Temporary Museum) .” This Qasr (Palace) was not as ostentatious. Yet, with 7,000 square meters, it was the largest Hui museum in China.

As Park officials described it: “The museum is divided into five halls and has 1,000 relics and books on the Hui people and Islamism. The exhibits point to the historical and cultural origins of the ethnic Hui people, the development of Islamic civilization, the distinctive culture and customs of the Chinese Hui people, the Hui people’s contributions to Chinese culture and the establishment, development and changes of the Hui people in Ningxia{20} .”

I found much of this to be only aspirational goals. The Park director claimed that it “has attracted many foreign tourists with its rich exhibits.”  Some signs outside the Museum were in English and Arabic as well as Chinese, but there was no English writing in most of the signs inside, no English brochure and no good explanations by our own guide. One area was called, in an English sign: “park customs and culture of chinese hui people” with no further explanation in English, although there was a logo of allowing scanning with the picture of the Park in the middle . As I walked around here, I found on the walls a few pictures of people from centuries ago in Islamic garbs and on some of them there were a few lines in Arabic . There was no indication on how these were related to the Hui. In one corner, there was a map of China, with color-coded areas and a table showing the increase in the population of 33 parts, each from 1960 to 2010, indicating that the total population of all increased in that period from 3,934,336 to 10,586,087 . Other than the numbers, all the writings were in Chinese. This hardly made any sense to a visitor who did not understand Chinese. I only guessed by the numbers that the map perhaps was about the Hui population in China. Next I saw on another wall a picture of 9 men, some in military uniforms of the Imperial, Nationalist and Communist eras, as well a few in traditional Chinese clothes, with no explanation in any language but Chinese. Elsewhere, there was a series of Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah and Mohammad [106], again with no explanation as to their specific connection with the Hui.

Among its collection of “relics,” the Museum claims “a Koran as small as a finger nail and an ancient golden bell as large as a human.”  Its most highly treasured items include “the oldest and best preserved Ningxia-discovered Koran from the Ming Dynasty between the 14th  and 17th  centuries, two ancient Arabic ship models and 12 sets of Islamic apparel which were donated by Abdullah Maatouk, the Kuweit (sic) judicial minister.” The Kuwaiti connection to the Hui culture was a mystery to me, until I noticed at one entrance to the Museum a display of pictures from Kuwait. A sign in Arabic said:  “The Opening of the Kuwaiti Wing.” This part of the sign was also in Chinese but not English. In another part of the same sign which was in English as well, two of the four pictures in the display collage were identified: “The Grand Mosque in the State of Kuwait” and a Kuwait Boom Ship. The signs for two other pictures were not in English.

Museum officials have said that its “variety of historical relics provide valuable materials for people to study Islamic culture,” adding that “We are working with Islamic associations and institutes.” They have reported that “ambassadors and scholars from Kuwait, Yemen, Iran {21}, Pakistan, Egypt and other Islamic countries all came to visit,” and have “ proposed to cooperate with the museum and have donated more relics to further enrich the museum.”  They have maintained that “The purpose for building this culture park is to offer a place for tourists from home and abroad to appreciate the Hui people’s history and culture, including Hui folk culture, dances, songs and movies. Our next plan is to expand the park.” They have added:  “We are planning to set up an Islamic cultural exchange center and an Arabic language school. We want to establish a platform for friendly exchanges with the world’s Islamic countries. I think this will also help Ningxia to open up to the outside world {22}.”

The Museum was connected by a courtyard to what was referred to as “a ritual palace”. There were tent- like structures in this courtyard, perhaps invoking the tents of the Bedouin Muslims. Two golden domes and four Minarets beyond the tents were, indeed, those of a mosque –which in the Chinese Communist parlance was referred to as a ritual palace.

In the huge grand hall of the mosque nine men and one woman were sitting on the floor listening to a woman guide . She and the woman in the group were both wearing long red headscarves, and pants and tops that covered the rest of their bodies. The mosque’s columns and walls were ornately decorated with traditional Islamic designs and the calligraphic Arabic profession of creed “There is no God but Allah; Mohammad is the Prophet of God.”  The semicircular niche in the wall, the Mihrab, indicated the direction that Muslims should face when praying.

Outside the Mosque we noticed that a few more tourists had now arrived in the Park. A few steps away, a white-capped man was pointing out something to a woman clad in the Hui traditional custom . They were at the door of a replica of what was called a typical house of the rich Hui in the countryside. We entered the courtyard which was covered with an overhang of grapevines . In the rooms inside the building, the furniture was of wood. Next door there was another house which featured, as the sign said, “The Hui’s feast .” We opted to see the restaurant of the Park which was in a modern looking building called Mansu’er Palace . A man with a big old- style straw broom was sweeping the steps in front of it. The restaurant was closed.

A man worshiping another god later drove us to the airport. He had a small bust of Mao Zedong on the dashboard of his van. “Some people here think that bust is a blessing, good luck, will protect you,” our local guide explained.




{1} As I read in Chinese sources: “The logo is meant to resemble an open gate, indicating that China welcomes overseas guests while the lights symbolize a bright future for Sino-Arab communications in culture and trade. The dome, composed of colored blocks to the left is a Muslim symbol to highlight its unique culture, and the concept of equality and cooperation with winning results. The red blocks represent China’s passion, energy and prosperity, while the green ones represent the Arab states, and life, hope and peace < 09/02/content_21776016.htm> (Accessed 5/19/2016) .”

{2} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{3} This was the 4th year the Exop had been held in Ningxia. According to the Chinese, it had “exerted a great deal of influence in China and abroad,” and resulted in “636 project agreements, amounting to 355.8 billion yuan ($55.4 billion), and vastly improving Ningxia’s foreign trade.”

{4} <,_One_Road>  References [2][3][4]  and[5][6] (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{5} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}

{6} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{7} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}.

{8} Man, John (2004). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection, pp. 116–117

{9} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{10 } Starr, S. Frederick (2013). Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, pp.  448-449

{11} Ten years ago, while visiting Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum (in today’s Uzbekistan), I had seen a series of 7th Century Sogdian murals in one of which the ruler was depicted receiving gifts of silk from China, while in another panel a Chinese beauty was shown sailing in a boat.

{12} Starr, p. 122

{13} Accordingly, even in the Turkish Uygur areas of China, I had noticed, Kashgar’s largest Mosque is called Idkah (Persian for “a place for festivities”) and Turpan’s best hotel is called Boostan Mehmankhaneh (Persian for “The Garden Hotel”).

{14} In the long- gone Tang Dynasty, when Muslims first appeared in China in the 750’s, Islam was originally called Dashi Jiao (“Law of the Arabs”). Early European explorers speculated that the Hui originated from the Iranian-speaking Khorezmians who were transported to China by the Mongols.  In Xian (Chang’an), which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and continued thereafter as a commercial center on the Silk Road in the later dynasties, I was told by the assistant to the Imam, the leader of its 60,000 strong Muslim community, in 2005, that key Persian words were still current among the Xian Muslims. They included: bamdad (morning), and sham (evening) -used especially in reference to the times of Muslim prayer-, doosti (friendship), doshman (enemy), and khoda hafez (goodbye).

{15} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{16} Starr, pp. 450- 451

{17} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{18} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{19} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{20} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{21}  Iran was conspicuously absent in the Yinchuan Expo. China was a part of a group of world powers (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council–the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China- plus Germany) that negotiated and , on 14 July 2015, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, regarding restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions on that country imposed in 2006 by the UN Security Council with China’s concurrence. Accordingly, China was expected to begin making “necessary arrangements and preparations,” in October of 2015, to implement its commitments under the JCPOA.  President Xi Jinping was the first major world leader to visit Tehran, almost immediately, after the sanctions were lifted. In January 2016 he went to plant “a flag for Chinese business and cast his country as a more accommodating alternative to the West.”  He pointedly stressed that China and Iran were “natural partners” in implementing China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative. < > (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{22} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)





An Image of China

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: Penglai, a city with less than half-a-million population in northeastern   Shandong Province of China, is unique, yet in many ways it typifies China for an outside  observer. It has roots in distinct legends and history but that past is a heritage shared by  all Chinese. It has had special encounters with foreign nations which have influenced other parts of China as well. It showcases the results of the contemporary rapid  developments of the county as a whole. Its future is a promise also planned for all of China. All of this made Penglai an ideal case for an investigation, albeit brief. This is my report.


Table of Contents




            Naval base


            Tengchow College




            Planning the Future






Every year, more than two million tourists come to Penglai. Most of them are Chinese and for most Penglai Pavilion is the most important site. Their long-held beliefs are reflected in the legends of the place, as I learned in September of 2015.

I followed the millenniums-old footsteps of the First Emperor to Danya Mountain, just north of Penglai city in the Shandong Province of China.  The Emperor had proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang, after establishing the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first centralized empire in Chinese history. Then he traveled here from his capital Xian, looking for the elixir of life. As legends tell it, the Emperor had first sent the Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 young men and 500 young women to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but Xu Fu never came back; instead, he landed in Japan and became the founder of Shintoism. The Emperor brought three times as many young girls and boys along with himself, but none of them ever returned either. His sailors blamed their failure to obtain the elixir on vicious sharks. The poor Emperor wandered up and down the coastline shooting at sharks with a crossbow in revenge. There were also dolphins seen from the cliffs above, at which the mighty King cast an impotent spear only to realize that his own days were numbered.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang did not achieve immortality (he is buried in the famous Xian tomb guarded by an army of terra cotta soldiers, horses, and chariots), but his trip contributed to the legend that grew ever more complex, all around what is today called the Penglai Pavilion, on Danya Mountain. It is here that the Eight Immortals are said to have crossed the sea using their special powers after they got drunk. The Eight Immortals are worshiped by Taoists and are, furthermore, an important element in the secular Chinese folklore of today. In Chinese mythology, they are a group of xian (transcendent saints), all men except for one woman, each with the power that can grant life and destroy evil. According to legends they were born in the 7th to 13th centuries and lived on the islands of the Bohai Sea where Penglai is located. They were first mentioned during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); they are probably named after the Han people’s folkloric Eight Immortal Scholars. Taoism adopted this ancient tradition of depicting humans as becoming immortal. The Eight Immortals became widely known through the works of the Taoists. They have been the subject of many artistic creations, even in modern China.

If the legend of elixir connected the Eight Immortals to Penglai, another seemingly miraculous phenomenon has added its own legend to the place. Because of its rare geographic, climatic and maritime conditions, nearly every seven years, mirages, big and small and in different shapes appear at the sea facing Penglai City. They are more frequent in May and June. The last one happened on May 7, 2005. Thousands of tourists and local residents witnessed this mirage which lasted for four hours.  Off the shore, it reflected an image of the City, with its buildings, streets and crowds of people.  It had rained for two days before, causing the rising mist that created this image. To the believers, the mirage confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a dwelling place of the gods.  To the scientists, it confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a place of often- occurring “fata morgana,” an optical illusion in which layers of mist at varying temperatures refract light in such a way that distant objects are projected on the horizon.

The legends of Penglai entered into the creative imagination of Chinese scholars who came to call it renjian xianjing, meaning “the place of immortals among humans” or, more accessibly, “the fairyland of the world”. According to Chinese mythology, Penglai (Danya) Mountain, together with two other mountains, Fangzhang and Yingzhou, formed Sanxianshan (the Fairy Mountains). The Fairy Mountains were credited for having attracted not only Emperor Qin Shi Huang but later, the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wudi (141–87 BC) who came “in search of God.” Famed Qing Dynasty painters, Yuan Jiang and Yuan Yao brought the imagined fairyland of Penglai on their canvases in the 1830s. Their works have been recreated by architects and landscapers in Penglai City’s Fairy Mountains Park  . The Park aims at depicting that “ideal realm of romanticism of Chinese ancient scholars into reality” by a number of graceful lakes, gardens and buildings in the style of Chinese classical architecture.


Fairy Mountains Park’s “reality” is not what you see today on the actual site of the legendary Penglai. Perched on the cliff of Penglai Mountain, there is a castle-like assortment of parapets, pathways, and buildings called Penglai Pavilion.  There is no lake and hardly any garden here. One tree, however, catches your attention because of its historical significance. Called the Tang Pagoda Tree, this “1000-year” survivor dates from when the Penglai Pavilion was initially built. The construction of buildings began during the Northern Song Dynasty, and the Song Dynasty complex soon came to rank among the “Four Great Towers” of China in the country’s literary tradition, joining Yellow Crane Tower, Yueyang Tower and Tengwang Pavilion which, unlike Penglai, are all in the south.

Some of the original structures of Penglai Pavilion still remain. Much has been restored, rebuilt and extended over time; recently, millions of dollars have been invested into developing the Pavilion. Although there are some “palaces” here, most of the buildings are in reality temples. The prominent ones are Sanqing Palace, Lvzu Palace, Sugong Temple, Thean Hou Temple, Long Palace, Mituo Temple and Penglai Pagoda. The last one is the main building of the Pavilion. Built in 1061, the Pagoda is a double-layer wooden construction surrounded by corridors with the best view of the mirages. A plaque with bold and golden letters Penglai Ge (Penglai Pagoda) written by Tie Bao, the famous calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty who lived in the 1830s, is hung at the Pagoda . Inscriptions of celebrities and well-known scholars are engraved on the interior walls. The main attractions inside, however, are the sculptures of eight drunken Immortals placed in the center around a square table and chairs, an arrangement of room just as described in the legend of Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. It is said, the Eight (Lu Dongbin, Tie Guaili, Zhang Guolao, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu,  Lan Caihe, Han Xiangzi and the woman He Xiangu ), got drunk at Penglai Pavilion  and crossed the sea by different tricks of their own without using any boats. Nearby, a red rock marks the Red (Dan) Cliffs from which they set out floating over the ocean.

A thousand years later, the great poet, politician and calligrapher Su Dongpo sought immortality when he saw a man on the streets of Penglai who, he believed, was the Immortal Lü Dongbin. Su followed him, disguised as a beggar to the top of the Pavilion where the Eight Immortals were again enjoying a drunken feast before setting off on a journey across the ocean, wielding their magical powers. At Su’s insistence they agreed to take him along as the ninth immortal, but he was ultimately found lacking in the courage to leap out onto the water. Instead, the Pavilion is now adorned with the poems and calligraphy of Su Dongpo (1031-1101) who signed his name as Su Shi.  The Pavilion also features the works of other great calligraphers such as Dong Qichang (1555–1636).  There is calligraphy in Pavilion, now in red, in protest against the Japanese attack in the war of 1592–1598, which failed to damage the Pavilion, anyway, according to our guide. She added that there was even calligraphy by Chairman Mao, done when he visited in 1964, reminding us that “no art form is  more favored in China than calligraphy.”

Our guide also said that there was only one Buddhist temple in the Penglai Pavilion. The rest were Taoist. In addition to the Penglai Pagoda, these included the Dragon King Temple which dates to at least the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was dedicated to the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, whose statue was flanked by eight  officers  standing on his two sides. In the capacity of the ruler of one of the Four Seas corresponding to the four cardinal directions, the Dragon was depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king’s costume, but with a dragon head. Even older than this temple, was the Sea Goddess Temple, constructed in 1122.  It was dedicated to a local sea Goddess “who died young saving people from drowning,” our guide said. The Goddess’ golden sculpture was in the middle of the temple; there, she also had eight officers attending her.  In Penglai city, this Sea Goddess is also called Thean Hou, and her birthday is celebrated in a major festival in January.

While we were in the Pavilion, worshipers were engaged in burning some brown papers. These were “joss paper,” which are fake or ghost money. The practice of burning them is widespread in China. It is long-standing, a tradition traced back to about 1000 BC. The paper money burned is believed to be thus deposited in an afterlife “bank” for use by the deceased ancestors. The ritual is a mix of Taoism and folklore; Buddhists discourage the practice of burning, saying that the deceased would have no interest in worldly items. In our guide’s opinion, there was another difference: “Taoism does not believe in re-incarnation; Buddhism does.” She added, however, that ordinary Chinese worshipers do not distinguish the origins of their ritual practices which are often a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and folklore. This was a position also espoused in the Harmony Palace of the Fairy Mountains Park, presumably as reflecting the views of ancient Chinese scholars. Here, Taoism of Laozi (571-531 BC), Buddhism of Sakyamuni Buddha (563-480 BC) and the teaching of Confucius (551-479 BC) were all honored, as each of those sages contributed a different part to an integrated harmony. Laozi’s part is the harmony between human and nature, Buddha’s is the harmony between human and ego, and Confucius’s contribution is the harmony between human and society. Not forgotten in this complex were the folkloric patron saints of the east side (the four supreme commanders) and the patron saints of the west side (four heavenly kings).


Naval base

The history of Penglai is a crucial part of the history of China. From the southern edge of Penglai Pavilion I could see the remnants of the fortified walls that once surrounded Dengzhou. That was the old town which in 1990 was renamed Penglai City.  Dengzhou was located on the northeastern corner of Shandong at the point where the Bohai Sea (Bay) begins in the Yellow Sea, which is itself a part of the East China Sea of the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1376 as a water fortress, Dengzhou was one of China’s oldest military ports. It was the harbor for the imperial war fleet and the town for its garrison.  As a naval base it defended China against foreign sea attacks. It proved useless against the Europeans, however, when they invaded the port soon after the Second Opium War in 1858.  At this same time, the replacement of sail-powered boats by steamships moved most commercial marine activity from Dengzhou to the deep-water port of Yantai, 55 miles to the east.

In its heyday, Dengzhou boasted gray protecting walls crowned by gate towers of three stories instead of the usual two, because the uncle of the first Emperor of the Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) was once the “prince” of this territory. The southern section of the city, its center around the harbor was completely razed in 2006 to make room for buildings with modern architecture. The northern part that hugs the sea has been preserved. Here, in the Seaside Square there is a massive new sculpture of the Eight Immortals which is a favorite photo spot for tourists. On the poles , called totem, surrounding it the history of the town is inscribed.

The Ancient Ship Museum nearby displays five ships from 800 years ago. Having been found since 1984 in the Bay of Penglai Sea Castle, these are evidence of the area’s trade, transportation and shipbuilding technology.  In particular, they demonstrate the Chinese invention of crossbeams bracing “ribs” which strengthened the ship and enabled it to better resist wind and waves. A couple of the vessels were Korean. They, too, had ribs, but the Chinese ships were the only ones that, additionally, had the “spine”  and, therefore, were better for battle as cruisers. The Koreans were treated as friends in the Museum displays. The Museum featured a statue of Menzhou Zheng, said to be the man who brought Confucianism to Korea. Before that, a sign said, Koreans did not have “ethical principles.” The Japanese, in contrast, were portrayed as old enemies in Penglai. The restored residence of the favorite local “patriotic” general Qi Jiguang is a tourist attraction, not far from the Ancient Ship Museum. He was a 16th century naval officer from Penglai who made his reputation by battling Japanese pirate ships in the Jiajing-wokou raids of 1547-1567.


 Penglai was the first port on China’s Shandong peninsula which was opened to foreigners upon the defeat in the Opium War. Among the first Westerners to come were American missionaries. In 1861, Jesse Boardman Hartwell arrived and set up Northern China’s first church of Southern Baptist Convention at a Guanyin Temple -Guanyin was the patron goddess of the seafarers. Today, close to Qi Jiguang’s old residence, still stands the Penglai Christian Church . On the day I visited, its bible- school class was nearly full . A Church official told me that it had a congregation of some 700 members and the membership was increasing. An early woman missionary is fondly remembered here. Called Lady Lottie Moon, she was the American Charlotte Digges who came in 1873 and stayed for nearly forty years. She followed local customs, saying that “she would be like the Chinese and wanted to die here.” A stone monument to her is erected next to the church.

Penglai also bestows especial honors on two other American missionaries. Presbyterian Calvin Wilson Mateer and his wife, Julia Brown Mateer, are remembered as “sincere Christians who wanted to help.”  This accolade accompanies their pictures, singled out to hang on the wall of the entrance to a hall which serves in Penglai as a museum of Tengchow College. Tengchow was the Romanized version of the Chinese name Dengzhou in the late 19th century. The museum we were shown, in a modern building in the new part of Penglai, consisted simply of a number of panels in Chinese that told the history of the College. A young woman, standing erect in a formal pose, explained the story on the panels for us, but also in Chinese. Another young woman, an instructor in English at the College, translated.

Tengchow College

Mateer transformed what began as the Tengchow Boys Boarding School into Tengchow College in 1882. He had established the Boys School with six “poor” students in1864, soon after arriving in Tengchow a year earlier. They were offered free board and lodging as well as paper and other study materials. In 1876, the school was renamed Tengchow College which was, at the time, actually a secondary school. Mateer himself compiled the textbooks and taught classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry as well as the Bible, Chinese and English. His wife taught history, geography and music. Some of the “poor boys” from the school graduated to become the school’s executives.

The Mateers had help from other American Presbyterian missionaries.  Among them as shown on the panels in the Tengchow museum, were John Livingston Nevius and Henry Luce Sr. Nevius collaborated with Mateer and Hunter Corbett to develop a method of spreading Christianity that made Shandong the strongest Presbyterian mission in China. Corbett is also credited with establishing in 1864 the Yi Wen Boys Academy at Tengchow which was eventually converted into an institution of higher education as Cheeloo University in 1928, becoming “the first university in China.”  In 1882, however, Tengchow College was the first modern institution of higher learning in China.

Henry Winter Luce and his wife came to Penglai in 1897 and their son, the future publisher of Time magazine, Henry Luce, was born here in 1898.  Henry Luce, Sr. gave up his job as a lawyer in the United States. to convert the “heathen hordes” because he saw China as a laboratory to establish the virtues of America’s “sentimental imperialism.” Some Chinese in Shandong had other plans.  Between 1899 and 1901 China was gripped with the Boxer Uprising, the movement of the militia united in Yihetuan (Righteousness). These were the well-trained, athletic young men whom the American missionaries referred to as “boxers” because of the martial arts and calisthenics they practiced.  The Uprising was fueled by nationalist sentiments and opposition to foreign imperialism and its associated Christian missionary activity.

The Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers, after being initially turned back, brought some 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Chinese Imperial Army (which had come to side with the Boxer Uprising), captured Beijing and suppressed the Boxers.  In the heyday of that Yihetuan Movement, Tengchow College suffered attacks and damages. Later, the school was moved to Weixian County in the Shandong Province, was renamed Guangwen College and eventually developed into Qilu (Cheeloo) University. The map in the museum showed this progression from Tengchow College to Shantung (Shandong) Protestant University, then to Shantung University, Christian University and, finally, to Cheeloo (Qilu) University. The multiple merges and restructuring of these and a dozen other academic institutions have resulted in today’s Shandong University.

If Tengchow College still exists independently, it was not listed among Penglai’s institutions of higher learning, in a Google search.  Yet our host at the museum said Tengchow was “today the only Christian school in Penglai.” He presented himself as the “Dean of the International Exchange Office” of Tengchow. He said the school had over 7,000 students from all over China, “because of its reputation.” A map in the museum showed how its students had indeed come from all over the country, a measure of Tengchow’s contribution to China’s elite. The Dean’s command of the English language indicated that he had “taught English for 10 years before” his current position. At the luncheon in the museum’s dining room, I sat next to a current instructor of English at the school. She told me that it offered all undergraduate degrees in “communications, management, technology and mechanical engineering.” There were no classes in Christianity. I asked if there were “any missionaries here now?” She replied: “We don’t encourage it but anyone can have his opinion.”


On the walls of this dining room there was only one framed picture . I asked the Dean if that was Confucius. He said “Well, yes, but he lived so long ago, nobody can be sure what Confucius looked like.” In another school building across from the museum, where the Dean first welcomed us, a massive statue of Confucius dominated the lobby. I now asked the Dean: “What principles of Confucius do you consciously follow in the teaching here?” He gave a deflecting response: “Very good question but very hard to answer.” He did not amplify. Instead, he glanced at the person who could have been taken for an old style “minder” from the government and  Communist party, as though seeking approval.

My question was not an idle inquiry. Based on what I had been reading, China has been experiencing a revival of Confucian teaching. This was ignited in part by President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” which he proposed as a program of national rejuvenation upon taking office in 2011. “To solve China’s problem,” he has argued, “we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means to suit it.” He aims to establish China not just as a strong power, but also as a civilization with its own core values equal to the West’s. He foresees a long-term contest of values and ideologies in which Western political ideas of individual freedom and democracy are rejected by China’s distinct “cultural genes,” manifested in the traditional teachings of Confucius, and his contemporary sage Mencius: commanding respect for elders, filial piety and moral rectitude. This revivalism comes at a time when not only Communist dogma but also Chinese-style capitalism have lost their appeal. The Communists upon taking power in 1949 banned Confucian rituals as “feudal practices” and Mao’s 1966 -1976 Cultural Revolution was also an anti-Confucian campaign. But even before that, the New Cultural Movement of 1915 which was espoused by Christian missionary-educated Chinese, indeed led by Christians such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen, had concluded that China’s weakness was largely due to its conservative Confucian culture. It had sought to build a modern nation based on Western political and scientific thought.

The Mao age’s iconoclasm was only followed by unbridled materialism that, some believe, has led to moral collapse and corruption. President Xi, aware of the lingering strong influence of the Communists, wants to merge Marxist and Maoist ideas with elements of China’s ancient culture to forge a new ideology. Accordingly, under him, the education ministry has decreed that traditional culture and literature, deleted from the curriculum for nearly a hundred years, be taught at all levels of schools in China. They are to be especially a prominent feature of university entrance exams. Textbooks are being revised and teachers retrained to that end. University students are instructed to study “important books of ancient Chinese thought and culture.” Confucius occupies a central place in this plan. He is also a native son in Penglai, having been born in the Shandong Province.



Like President Xi’s China, Penglai appeared to straddle the recent past and a planned future. Nowhere was this more visible than at Haishixi Road/ Haishixi Lu . From the traditional window  of my room at Sanxianshan Hotel, I could see the contrasting Internazionale Hotel of Penglai under construction on the other side of the Road. My hotel was built in a classic Chinese royal style with ancient architecture and decor. It had a lobby gilded with golden decorations and sculptures made of precious woods such as rosewood, scented camphor wood, pear  wood  and jade . Its 150 rooms were furnished with heavy chairs of rosewood and Yangzhou lacquer, and Jingdezhen porcelain. It catered to the wealthy Chinese guests. Yet, it was modest in comparison with the “super luxury” promised by the modern Internazionale Hotel. Sanxianshan Hotel’s own vast size and 150 rooms were dwarfed by the immense edifice of the latter establishment which was expected to have 2,500 guest rooms.

When I stepped out of Sanxianshan Hotel, I had a glimpse of the complex of European-looking buildings on the other side of Haishixi Road. Called Europark, they were Penglai’s answer to Disneyland. For the Internazionale Hotel which they faced, this was the counterpart of Fairy Mountains Park which was just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. Like the Internazionale, the Europark was still an unfinished project. Even the shops of its front part which had apparently opened for business needed much work. The foods it advertised were all Western dishes: pizza, hamburgers and coffee, and the faces of the happy customers in the advertisements were all Western, but it offered slashed admission prices in Chinese-language signs.

Next to the Europark, closer to the Haishixi Road, were rows and rows of multi-story modern buildings, residential but still seemingly unoccupied. City officials claimed they were “70% occupied.”  I crossed the Road and took an alley just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. This was, in contrast, the inhabited part of Penglai. Modest hotels were advertising their rooms  for Chinese guests on signs with pictures. The open stairway in a building looked in urgent need of painting. Breakfast was cooked and served on the sidewalks.  Signs, all in Chinese, were courtesy of “Tsingtao Beer,” spelled in English. A woman carried a bag of groceries on the street with sidewalks of uneven heights. Several passengers were ferried in a make-shift cart rigged on top of a motorcycle. Laundry was strung to dry in front of stores. A neighborhood of small one-story homes indicated an older generation of housing construction from the multi-story buildings across the street. When I completed the loop back to Haishixi Road, the striking orderliness of its wide sidewalks, with the trimmed green shrubberies on their two sides, matched the neat red uniforms of two students striding on their way to school. The happy students at the primary school here, which I visited during their play time, posed for a picture with the inevitable “V” sign. Their narrow eyes and long-shaped face, in this town so close to Manchuria, were distinguished from the more familiar rounded Han Chinese features.

In this new part of town, you could see people jog or do a variety of kung fu . Sanxianshan Hotel was only a few hundred yards away from the beach. I took Haishixi Road just before the sunrise the next morning and stood on the shore of the Yellow Sea, which takes its name from the silt deposited by the sand of the far away Gobi Desert in the rivers that fed the sea. The sky and the sea were a canvas on which the rising sun played a symphony of glorious   colors . I tried not to be distracted by a man behind me who made a loud noise, spitting. I held onto the image of the little boat calmly moving near the shore. A man who was digging in the scraggy edge of the water caught my attention. When I got closer, I saw him shovelling and, every so often, putting something he found into a straw basket that sat next to him. When I looked into the basket I saw worms mixed in with the sand. I learned later that the worms were valuable to the fishermen as they were scarce in the Penglai market.

Planning the Future

I was told that the Bohai Sea that hugs the other side of Penglai had “some of the best sea food” in northern China. This was at a dinner given by the Mayor of Penglai for a group of visiting Americans which had invited me to join. Numerous dishes served on the round turning-table, indeed, testified that Penglai was blessed with plenitude in meat and produce as well. By some estimates, over 80% of the population of Penglai are employed in agriculture. Agricultural products constitute the largest industry in the province of Shandong. For Penglai officials, however, tourism is deemed the primary industry and wine-making the second. The American group was from Sonoma, California, sharing interest in both wine and tourism with Penglai as a “Sister City”.

Penglai Pavilion is classified as a “5A” tourist site by the China National Tourism Administration. That is the highest ranking, reserved for the likes of Mutianyu section of the Great Wall near Beijing. The beaches are also attractions; the visitors I saw at the shores, however, were strolling rather than swimming. Substantial sums have already been invested to develop the Penglai Pavilion’s tourism potentials. The absence of the desired non-Chinese tourists is noticeable. Now efforts are made to exploit the scenic hilly landscape on the outskirts of the urban center. Penglai encourages the extensive project undertaken by the privately-owned Hesheng Agricultural Technology Development Co. to promote “leisure tourism.” We went to see it.

We were received by the manager on the site. In his simple barn-type office, we munched on cucumbers and apples which were among the first products of this farm of “integrated ecological agriculture and ecological tourism.” Self-assured, the manager told us that he was developing “100, 000 Chinese acres” (about 16,500 American acres) of land at this area of rolling hills. We followed him for a brief tour of the headquarters section. A modest inn to our left was all ready to receive the first “leisure tourists” in the near future, as the manager said. Next to it was a simple horse-riding arena. Presently, two horses were produced. The manager mounted one and a horse enthusiast from our group climbed onto the other animal. Equestrians were a type of tourists the farm hoped to attract. The manager now took us to a stable with several horses. The protection of those “national Bohai original breed” horses was one of the goals of the farm. The manager was proud of his “star stud,” a German “warmblooded horse,” which the Hesheng farm had just acquired. “It cost us 5 million euros,” he said as we admired the stud which he had ordered brought out of his stable. “We expect to make 300 babies” by hybrid optimization of the thoroughbred with the Bohai horses, the manager said.


We were told that Hesheng is a Chinese company, “owned by a man who made his money in highway construction.”  From his farm, we drove down a few miles on a dusty road to a building under construction which would be the future home of Chateau Lafite. Its wine was expected to come to market in 2016.  “The foundation of Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) CITIC Winery (Lafite)” in 2012 was billed as a landmark since it “transformed” Penglai into a “hot spot for high-end” wineries. It is said that Lafite chose Penglai because “it is the only coastal wine-producing region in Asia” with the soil, sunshine, and temperature to produce high-quality wines.

The decision to establish “the grape and wine industry” as Penglai’s “core industry” was made by its “municipal party committee and municipal government.” Accordingly, in 2005, the Penglai Grape and Wine Bureau was founded. In Penglai’s middle schools, fifteen-year old students are taught wine-making.  Penglai now boasts “the largest number of grape and wine businesses in China.”  It has 12 “boutique chateaux” and another 11 new chateaux under construction.  We visited one of those completed chateaux (wineries). Called Scottish Castle, it indeed resembled a castle in design and was built into the rocky hills. From its patio you could see some of the vineyards where it grew several vintages of grapes. Inside the Castle we saw what was, in effect, the sometimes residence of the owners, a hedge fund manager from Yorkshire, England and his Taiwanese wife. The Castle also serves as a six-room hotel for guests from around the world. There is, furthermore, a great hall for events like weddings. We examined the antique furniture and climbed the spiral staircase where a colorful mural depicted the old tales of a Scottish explorer who experienced shipwreck on the Penglai shore but was welcomed by the Chinese officials.  On the main floor, around a wooden table, we noticed a few non-Chinese guests sipping the Castle’s wine. In 2005, the winery had its first 35,000 grape vine plants air-freighted from France and planted here. It has since grown a wide variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. “We just didn’t know what types would work,” the owner has said.  In 2010, the winery started selling in the Chinese market it first 5,500 bottles, a Marsalan/Merlot blend called Treaty Port. The name came from the fact that the vineyard is situated near the coastal treaty ports, set up in 1842 by the British for foreign trade after the First Opium War.

That evening we visited a different style of winery-guesthouse establishment. Chateau State Guest served us dinner in the style of the guests of an Emperor of Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to legends the Emperor once visited Penglai and bestowed gifts of wine on his soldiers and civilians alike. Henceforth, the local residents started planting grapes. Chateau State Guest is a splendid Tang Dynasty palace. The award winning wines at our dinner were from Grand Tang Emperor Valley of Penglai. At that dinner, I learned a more plausible version of the Penglai’s wine-grape growing history. The grape from abroad was introduced here by the American missionary Samuel Wells Williams in 1873.  In that year, he happened to serve also as the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Beijing; later, Williams would become the first American Professor of Chinese studies at Yale University.  The main current varieties of grapes in Penglai today were Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Gemischt, Chardonnay and Merlot.

There are 76 wineries in Penglai. Wealthy Chinese who have made money in other businesses are becoming major players in the wine industry. An example is Wu Feng and his wife Mei Ling who run a Chinese oil company. They are co-owners of Chateau Reifeng-Auzias. Another Chinese family has a much longer history in the area’s wine industry. Chateau Changyu in nearby Yantai traces its background to the Changyu Wine Company established in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. Also known as Cheong Fatt-Tze, a Cantonese businessman, he came to reside in Penang, Malaysia. He built such a huge trading empire there, extending it to China and Indonesia, that the New York Times called him “China’s Rockefeller” just before he died in 1915. By then Changyu was China’s largest wine producer. Its wines won gold medals in that year’s San Francisco’s Pacific Panama Fair of Nations, the first international awards for Chinese wines. Grapes for those wines originally came from France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions. The winery has kept its distinction to the present day and has become one of the top 500 industrial enterprises in China. In 1949 the Winery was nationalized.  Built in 2002, Chateau Changyu is now run by China’s bestselling winemaker, Changyu Pioneer Wine of Yantai.

The Chinese are still a nation of beer drinkers. In Penglai’s streets the signs for Tsingtao were everywhere. From 2002 China has been the world’s largest beer market, but only since 2011 it has been the world’s 5th largest wine market. To be a bigger player in the world’s wine market, it needs to export more. This explains the need for promoting participation in its wine industry by fine winemakers from abroad. Major foreign wine companies such as Lafite bring not just expertise but, equally important, they also have established access to foreign markets.


It would be audacious for a first time visitor to draw conclusions about Penglai from limited observations during a short trip. First hand contact, on the other hand, can provide some insight which might serve in understanding, and perhaps assessing, the current conventional generalizations about Penglai and even China. In Penglai I have found enough evidence not to dismiss offhand the following propositions. Tradition, legends, folklore, Taoism and Confucianism, all in an undifferentiated mix, still hold an important place in Chinese imagination and beliefs. Order and safety and the absence of signs of unrest indicate a stable environment.  Big projects are undertaken with the approval of governing bodies, indeed sometimes at their direction. The entrepreneurial motto of “build them they will come” was followed in the recent period of phenomenal growth. There has been overbuilding of infrastructures which are now underused. The phase of development emphasizing investment is giving way to the phase where emphasis has to be on expanding consumption. The need for contact and trade with the outside world is felt while generating pride in indigenous values has become another focus of attention. In all of these, Penglai presents a reflection of what is said also of China as a whole. In that sense, Penglai is a “mirage” of China.