Henan Overview

Home to three of China's seven ancient capitals, Henan's history is as convoluted and rich as the silt-laden Yellow River that carves its way through the fertile loess plains from which Chinese civilization first emerged.

The river gives Henan both its name ("south of the river") and a legacy that reaches back through the millenia. The Chinese refer to the river and its plain as the "cradle of Chinese civilization"; it's here where many believe the first dynasty rose along with core features of Chinese culture that endure to this day. Indeed, the Erlitou archaeological site near Henan's Luoyang provides much evidence that the legendary Xia Dynasty (ca. 2100-1600 BC) was a reality.

For discerning tourists, Henan can be incredible value, especially if you're a Chinese history buff. While many may hear "ancient Chinese history" and immediately think "Great Wall," "Forbidden City" and "Terracotta Army," Henan goes just as deep—much deeper, in fact.

From the Longmen Caves and their Buddhist artifacts to the mysterious Shang oracle bones, from the holy Taoist mountains of Song Shan to China's oldest Buddhist temple, Baima Si (White Horse Temple), Henan is treasure house of Chinese history. And though tourism is booming, crowds are generally much smaller and prices lower than at the mass tourism destinations cultivated in other parts of the country.

Henan has a modern history too, of course, having grown into China's most populous province during the 20th century with over 100 million inhabitants who are now as dependent on industry for their measure of prosperity as their ancestors were on farming and the flood-prone Yellow River.

Tourism is booming in the ancient capitals Kaifeng, and throughout Henan new roads, airports and rail upgrades are making exploration easier than ever. Still, development remains several steps behind that of eastern seaboard China and Beijing, which can be a blessing in disguise, making for a mellower feel, slower pace and great deals for travelers.

Zhengzhou—itself site of an ancient dynastic seat and now the provincial capital—is Henan’s most modern city and serves as an excellent place to start an exploration of Henan, starting with the outstanding Henan Provincial Museum.

Anyang is the site of China's Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 BC-1046 BC) capital of Yin and source of many of the oracle bones and bronze relics from which archaeologists have pieced together key chapters in the story of ancient China.

More recent historical Henan attractions include the legendary Shaolin Temple, the traces of the Kaifeng Jewish community, the remote southern English-colonial mountain retreat of Jigong Shan, and one of People's Republic's early industrial triumphs, the Red Flag Canal.

Help us keep our Henan guide up to date by adding your own experiences, Henan travel tips, Henan photos and insights to ChinaTravel.net!

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