Visitors to Shaolin Temple will see kung fu moves in practice. // © 2016 Henan Tourism
Feature image (above): Millennium City Park’s nightly live performance pays tribute to the Song Dynasty. // © 2016 Henan Tourism
With origins that date back some 3,000 years, Henan Province — China’s largest inland province, located in the Yellow River Valley — is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Holding four ancient capitals and a plethora of historical temples and ruins, Henan offers visitors an abundance of opportunities to learn about China’s past, right in the heart of its birthplace. Following are just a few of Henan’s top spots to get up close with Chinese history and culture.
One of the most spectacular archaeological sites of Henan is Longmen Grottoes, a collection of more than 2,300 caves and recesses carved into a limestone cliff along the Yi River in the city of Luoyang. The half-mile stretch, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features more than 100,000 Buddhist stone statues that were built as early as the 5th century.
The largest figure, found in the Fengxian cave, is quite a display, featuring a 56-foot-high Vairocana Buddha (at nearly 7 feet long, each ear is larger than the average person). The statue is believed to have been carved to honor and resemble Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China, and standing before it, I couldn’t help but feel awestruck and empowered by its grandeur.
Though it was raining when I visited the grottoes and my group moved more quickly than the typical tour, we still explored the area for nearly two hours. Plan to spend at least that, if not double, to take it all in. (Entrance to the site is about $18.)
Millennium City Park
Though not an original ancient site, Millennium City Park is a lively destination perfect for families looking to amuse the kids while also learning about China’s dynastic past. The nearly 100-acre theme park — opened to the public in 1998 in the city of Kaifeng — is a historical Disneyland of sorts, devoted to recreating life in the Song Dynasty, considered one of China’s most important cultural eras.
Artistic expression blossomed during the Song Dynasty, and Millennium City Park reflects this with its colorful pavilions, lush gardens, costumed performers and musicians, folk art and epic live-action shows. While strolling through recreated scenes of a millennium past, I encountered fortune tellers, a fire-breather, puppeteers, an axe-thrower, contortionists, a stilt walker, drummers and craftspeople embroidering brightly colored dresses.
Guests can view timed performances such as a traditional Chinese football match, a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-style naval battle, an ancient wedding ceremony and a horse show, as well as the piece de resistance — “The Great Song Dynasty: Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital,” a 70-minute nightly production on the park’s Jinglong Lake (held from March to November). More than 700 performers enact a nine-part extravaganza that incorporates song, dance, poetry, fireworks, elaborate lighting and a lavish set, including a giant floating lotus that opens to reveal dancers decked in exquisite garb, all to honor the flourishing age of the Song dynasty. (Ticket prices range from $25 to $150 depending on seat location. Admission to the park itself is about $15.)
A trip to Henan Province isn’t complete without a stop in the city of Dengfeng to tour Shaolin Temple, located just west of the sacred Mount Song. The Buddhist monastery, part of the UNESCO World Heritage-designated “Historic Monuments of Dengfeng,” is considered the birthplace of Shaolin Buddhism and kung fu. Though often bustling with tourists, the temple complex radiates a sense of focus and stillness. I almost felt like I might absorb some of the discipline with which Shaolin monks have practiced kung fu for more than 1,500 years at this beautiful sanctuary.
Our tour group also got a taste of kung fu in action during an impressive show at the temple’s theater, where a small group of students leapt, tumbled and posed, showing the audience everything from Shaolin boxing and stick fighting to "tongzigong," a form of "qigong" (a system of physical postures and breathing control) that stresses flexibility and must be learned at a very early age. During this part of the performance, the young kung fu disciples maneuvered themselves into pretzel-like poses that would leave even the most advanced yogis speechless.
While in the area, visitors can view the Pagoda Forest — also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site — a burial ground for renowned monks that contains roughly 250 tomb pagodas dating back to 791 A.D. The cluster of stately structures, the largest pagoda forest in China, resembles a small, ancient city, with tombs ranging in height up to about 50 feet.
Clients should also make a trip to one of the kung fu schools near Shaolin Temple, such as Shaolin Epo Wushu College. Established in 1977, it is one of the earliest professional kung fu schools. While there, I marveled at a performance by some of the roughly 800 students who study and practice the Chinese martial art there. They gathered in the school’s courtyards and large open spaces to display a range of their skills, perfectly synchronized as they demonstrated different poses and movements. (Admission to Shaolin Temple is about $15 and includes a martial arts show.)