Wuhan: A Punk Rock Metropolis Along the Yangtze

Culture | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: May 10th, 2011 | Updated: October 27th, 2014 | Comments

China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, is a city of 10 million spanning the Yangzte River like the web of a vast gray metal spider. Wuhan, a rail and road hub at the center of China, is the name given to three separate cities that have spilled over the river into one others' territory—the ancient river town of Hankou and the relatively new kids on the block, Wuchang and Hanyang. You may never have heard of Wuhan. There aren't many flashy firms or major tourist attractions here to draw attention. The city, hot and muggy in the summer and sprawling in concrete waves across the banks of the Yangtze, is known for such unglamorous industries as coal, iron and steel. And it's a great city to listen to rock 'n' roll (or build a car!).

For more information about what Wuhan is like, check out our Wuhan travel guide!

Wuhan: The Forge of Modern China

Perhaps we should start with a little history to flesh out Wuhan's character. We'll leave ancient history to rest for now and begin about 100 years ago when the backwards-looking Qing Dynasty was crumbling, though few Chinese really wanted to admit it. Wuhan was blessed with a wise governor who went about modernizing the city as much as possible in preparation for a future that he knew would leave the mandarins and eunuchs and long-finger-nailed nobility of the Qing choking in the dust. That man, Zhang Zhidong, introduced heavy industry to Hanyang, founded universities centered in Wuchang, and promoted free trade in Hankou.​​​

His efforts helped form the foundation that the rest of China would follow after the inevitable fall of the Qing. That fall began in Chengdu, when citizens protested the awarding of a a Wuhan-Chengdu railroad construction contract was awarded to an English company instead of a Sichuanese one.

After the uprising toppled the local authorities, anti-Qing rebels in Wuchang (as it was known then, the name Wuhan came into being after the establishment of the Republic later, in 1927) decided the time was right for an all-out assault on the local Qing government. They fought their way into power and abolished Qing rule, but within a few months, loyalists under Yuan Shikai (who would become one of the famous warlords who ruled during the civil wars that followed) marched on Wuchang and began slowly retaking the city.

When the rebels were forced across the river, Yuan decided to parlay instead of force a final stand which might break both armies and destroy the city. In a key sense, modern China exists because of the Wuchang Uprising and Zhang Zhidong's reforms.

Brainy and Brawny

After the wars of the first half of the 20th century, Wuhan emerged with a strong industrial base (despite firebombings by the US to dislodge Japanese holdouts) and some of China's most modern universities. The city's intellectual bent was really nothing new–ever since the poet Yellow Crane Tower poem that brought fame to his name and his poetic subject, Chinese have considered the region to be a hotbed for poets, intellectuals and eccentric thinkers and tinkers of all stripes.

The modernization set in motion in the late 1880s by Zhang Zhidong gave birth to giants such as the Hanyang Steelworks, Daye Ironworks, the Pingxiang Coal Mine and the Hubei Arsenal—which are all still churning out metal and smog today. The presence of a heavy manufacturing and the location of the city in the middle of China  made it the obvious choice for China's first bridge across the Yangzte, as well as a primary node in the country's rail lines, a massive automobile manufacturing center and later, the third largest building in Asia.

And of course, when you combine this intellectual legacy with the revolutionary history of the city and then add a dash of industrial gloom you get... PUNK ROCK!

Voice of the Youth

​Rock and punk rock in Wuhan go back to the early 1990s with a band called the VOX Bar and Playhouse achieved must-play status for any China rock tour. The China music scene is either "a lush playground for the new wave of genius that will sweep the world" or "a vapid example of selling out at its best," depending on who is talking and how drunk that person is. One thing that I have noticed though, over the years, is that when people speak of "staying true to the scene" and not selling out, Wuhan crops up in the conversation every time. It's one of those scenes that churns out realness like a belching foundry, while hot prospects move to Bejing and Shanghai, sell themselves and and become cliches.

What to See and Do in Wuhan

Wuhan will never be a bonafide tourist destination because the grit of the city will not be going away anytime soon—in the midst of a building spree to accommodate the billions in foreign and domestic investment (primarily in heavy industry), Wuhan has no time for hippies and their "clean air" sensibilities. But beyond its grimy veneer, there are things to do that take in Wuhan's poetic legacy, revolutionary spirit, industrial majesty and seething underground rock scene. So as well as the usual Wuhan attractions, why not check out our

Top 10 Things to Do in Wuhan:

  1. Climb Yellow Crane Tower (with a copy of Cui Hao's poem, not to mention Li Bai's) and read it aloud as you gaze through the fog out over the Yangtze River into a sea of construction projects.
  2. Descend (slowly) down Guiyuan Shan (Turtle Hill) and stop at the Memorial Hall for the Wuchang Uprising and imagine what it was like to finally topple the Man.
  3. Cross the bridge into Wuchang and wander through the maze of universities and small cafes, pubs and rock bars and engage at least 15 young people in a conversation.
  4. Go to Ximen Night Market for vittles and snacks and then head out to Jinqi Lu for some rowdy after-eating dancing, drinking and flirting.
  5. See a show at the Vox.
  6. Take a stroll around East Lake, the largest urban lake in China.
  7. Get a picture of you flashing a Chinese girl peace sign in front of one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Wuhan Greenland Center. (ETC: 2017).
  8. Eat rè gān miàn (热干面), one of the five most popular noodles dishes, and a breakfast staple in Wuhan. The delicious sesame paste brings some variety to the noodle experience, with pickled vegetables, chili oil, and chives; it's definitely a must-try dish while in Wuhan.
  9. Take a cruise along the river and take in the city as you drift along.
  10. Arrive by train over that bridge and leave by boat bound for nearby Yichang, the departure point for an upstream Three Gorges river cruise.
  11. Climb Yellow Crane Tower (with a copy of Cui Hao's poem, not to mention Li Bai's) and read it aloud as you gaze through the fog out over the Yangtze River into a sea of construction projects.
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