Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Will Westerners, not generally well-informed about Chinese cities and provinces to begin with, now forever associate Wuhan and Hubei with the novel coronavirus of 2019?
The thought pains me, as I know it pains many others, not least because my family’s ancestral seat is located in Hubei, just a couple of hours outside Wuhan. Family lore says that in the third year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor, i.e., 1371, a general of the Ming Dynasty surnamed Han was sent to take up command of a garrison in what is now Hubei. There he put down roots. Over 600 years later, a small town in the area is still named after my family, and it remains substantially populated by people related to me to one degree or another, people who called me “cousin” and “uncle” and “brother” when I visited in 2015.
Thus I would prefer that the outside world think of Hubei and Wuhan not as some diseased hovel (the image that they are rapidly gaining in the Western imagination) but as the storied and fascinating places that they really are. Here are a few things you may wish to know about the province of Hubei and its capital.
A Land of Lakes
The name “Hubei” means “north of the lake,” referring to Lake Dongting, today the third largest lake in China. But in fact Hubei is dotted with lakes throughout so that it is sometimes called “the Province of a Thousand Lakes” — much like Wisconsin but warmer. The many lakes are actually remnants of an enormous body of water that in ancient times took up much of the province known by the lyrical name “the Great Lagoon of Clouds and Dreams.”
In addition, Hubei is home to picturesque Mt. Wudang, a Daoist holy mountain and a center of traditional martial arts. The American hip hop group the Wu-Tang Clan took its name from a fictional portrayal of the school based here.
The Portmanteau City
Wuhan wasn’t one city but a trinity of cities called “the Three Towns of Wuhan” until the 20th century. The name is a portmanteau, a combination of the three towns’ names: Wuchang, the seat of government, Hankou, the center of commerce, and Hanyang, the center of industry. The triple cities look upon each other from either bank of the Yangtze River, upon which Wuhan claims its strategic location.
When I traveled around Mainland China and mentioned to strangers that my family traced to Hubei, half the time they would repeat to me a common saying: “In the sky flies the nine-headed bird / On earth walks the man from Hubei.” The expression is commonly taken to be a compliment for the people of Hubei, who enjoy a reputation for intelligence.
Some say that the saying was originally not so complimentary. If a bird with nine heads sounds like an odd metaphor for intellect, it’s because it is: The nine-headed bird was a creature of ancient mythology from what is now Hubei, the sighting of which was thought to be a bad omen. One theory says that the saying originated in the Ming Dynasty, when a minister from Hubei reformed the government bureaucracy. The corrupt mandarins so hated the untouchable man cutting off their revenue streams that they compared him to a bad omen. But if the saying really suggests that Hubei people are principled, then I’ll proudly accept that theory as well.
Origin of Culture
Speaking of mythology from the area, Hubei is disproportionately the ancient source of much of what we think of today as traditional Chinese culture.
During the Spring and Autumn (770–403 BC) and Warring States (403—221 BC) eras, what we now know as China was a collection of medium-sized kingdoms, and Hubei formed the heart of the Kingdom of Chu. The Songs of Chu, an anthology of the form of poetry developed in this kingdom, is a foundational text of Chinese literature that influenced all that was to come. The form’s greatest exponent, the poet-statesman Qu Yuan, gave us the holiday of Duan Wu, still celebrated every year, when he committed suicide by drowning.
Qu Yuan drowned himself in lamentation of his country’s fate, which soon fell to its predatory rival, the Kingdom of Qin, whose king became the First Emperor in 221 BC by reunifying all of China. The terra-cotta warriors that millions flock to China to see each year were made for his grand mausoleum. But the First Emperor’s tyrannical regime couldn’t last. As soon as he died, the descendants of the six kingdoms he destroyed rose up in revolt. A common prophecy circulated then: “Even if only three households survive in the Kingdom of Chu, the Chu shall be the death of the Qin.” Sure enough, a son of Chu ended up sacking the Qin capital before establishing the Han Dynasty. This was such a formative period for Chinese culture that even now we continue to refer to the dominant ethnic group in China the “Han” race.
A Cosmopolitan Port
In much more recent times, Wuhan became a center of international commerce. During the 19th century, foreign powers repeatedly sought to enter the Chinese market against the resistance of the Chinese government. One by one, through wars and treaties, the government agreed to open up several coastal cities, known as “treaty ports," to foreign business interests. In 1858, Hankou, one of the trinity of Wuhan, became a treaty port. Though far from the coast, Wuhan was right on the Yangtze and served as a perfect distribution center for the rest of the country. It soon became one of China’s most cosmopolitan cities, a place where many nationalities lived and worked alongside each other, a city that some described as China’s Chicago.
The City of Liberty
International commerce brought new ideas, including political ideas, to the treaty ports. Starting in the last years of the 19th century, Sun Yat-sen, father of modern China, began to organize armed uprisings against the imperial government with the aim of establishing a republic. For many years, Sun believed that the revolution must begin on the coast before it could spread into the heartland. But again and again, the revolts he and his comrades organized in coastal cities failed miserably at the cost of many lives.
After so many failures, some within the republican movement began to wonder whether Sun was wrong about starting on the coast. They planned an uprising in Wuhan slated for October 6, 1911.
And yet, everything once again began to go wrong. The authorities smelled a whiff of the revolutionaries and placed the local garrison on high alert. The revolutionaries postponed the date of the uprising to October 16.
But, on the morning of October 9, one of the revolutionaries accidentally caused an explosion while making bombs. A Russian policeman (a testament to the cosmopolitan environment of Wuhan) came to investigate and took with him a notebook listing the names of revolutionaries in the area. The authorities arrested dozens of revolutionaries that evening. The rest agreed to launch the uprising that night at the stroke of midnight.
And yet, once again, they couldn’t get their act together to be ready to move at midnight. At dawn the next day, October 10, the authorities beheaded three of the arrested revolutionaries and launched a citywide manhunt for everyone still at large.
Now with their backs against the wall, the revolutionaries finally made their move. Against all odds, and despite their many errors thus far, they succeeded and took control of the city by the morning of the following day. News of their success spread across the country, and revolutionaries everywhere followed Wuhan’s example. Within weeks, just like that, imperial rule came to an end.
In Mainland China, independence day is October 1, the day in 1949 when Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic. But in Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China that Sun Yat-sen founded, independence day remains October 10.
If you didn’t know, now you know. Next time you hear about Wuhan or Hubei, remember that this is not a land of plagues that they’re talking about. It’s a place of natural beauty, of bright people, of cultural heritage, of cosmopolitanism, and of yearning for freedom.
This too shall pass. To quote Dickens: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."