(SPOT.ph) China is the world’s third-biggest country by total land area. It goes without saying then that there is much to discover in a nation that boasts one of the oldest continuous civilizations, with ancient China credited for "the four great inventions" that have shaped the course of human history: paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass.
Beyond the Great Wall of Beijing and the skyscrapers of Shanghai, however, we Filipinos know relatively little about what lies beyond these cities and China as a whole. With our country sharing so much history with the Chinese—a relationship that dates back over a thousand years, making it one of the longest-standing trading relationships in Southeast Asia—it’s a little ironic that it remains a largely unfamiliar territory.
With an area of nearly 9.6 million square kilometers, spanning five time zones, and bordering 14 countries, we won’t run out of places to go in China, but it would be wise to start exploring the vastness of this country in places that are not too far from home.
We recommend the city of Quanzhou (pronounced as chen-jow) in Fujian, a province in the southeastern portion of the country, as a starting point for more adventures in the land of kung fu and pandas.
As in most provinces in China, Fujian is rich in history and culture. What will most probably interest us Pinoys, however, is that it is the hometown of many Chinese traders who immigrated to different parts of Asia, the Philippines included.
Some of our biggest tycoons—the late Henry Sy Sr. of SM and Tony Tan Caktiong of Jollibee Food Corp.—for example, trace their roots to Fujian. Don’t be surprised then to see an SM mall when in the province.
One of the most important cities in Fujian is Quanzhou. This maritime city boasts a 2,000-year-old history and was a major trading port during the 10th to 14th centuries during the Song and Yuan Dynasties. History geeks would be happy to know that Quanzhou was one of the starting points of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, connecting China with Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa.
Due to its long history as a trading hub, Quanzhou unsurprisingly has a diverse cultural heritage, with influences from other cultures such as Islamic and Southeast Asian and Hakka and Minnan. Its architecture, cuisine, and religious practices reflect this cultural diversity, making it an exciting place to see and explore.
With its long history, there’s little doubt as to why Quanzhou has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage City, with it being home to several World Heritage Sites that reflect the city's rich history, cultural significance, and architectural heritage.
Among the World Heritage Sites in Quanzhou is Kaiyuan Temple. Originally constructed in 686 AD during the Tang Dynasty, it has since expanded and has been renovated several times over the centuries. The sprawling temple complex features intricate stone carvings, prayer halls, tree-lined walkways, and two towering stone pagodas.
Another World Heritage Site is the Luo Yang Bridge, an ancient stone bridge that dates back to the Song Dynasty or about 1053 AD. It is one of China's oldest and most well-preserved stone bridges and an enduring example of ancient engineering and architectural feats. Originally spanning a length of over 700 meters, it is now a popular pedestrian-only tourist spot in Quanzhou, with bars, restaurants, and cultural performances by the riverbanks.
More than just an ancient architectural marvel, Luo Yang Bridge is an example of a construction that involves the efforts of the government and the entire local community, much like what bayanihan is to us Filipinos. From officials to monks, young and old citizens alike, all segments of society built the bridge that connects Quanzhou to Fuzhou.
One other proof of the multiculturality of Quanzhou is Qingjing Mosque, also a World Heritage Site, and is the first mosque to be built in the city. Constructed during the Tang Dynasty, the mosque showcases a blend of Chinese and Islamic architectural styles.
The age-old Citong City Wall, also known as the Quanzhou City Wall, is a defensive structure that once surrounded the ancient city. Portions of the city wall still stand today, providing a glimpse into Quanzhou's past as a prosperous trading port. It has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Then there’s Confucius Temple and School, yep, another World Heritage Site, which was built in the 10th century as a place for Confucians to meditate and offer sacrifices. At the time, it was considered the city’s most esteemed educational institution and was a status symbol among Quanzhou’s elites.
If you want to know more about the city’s role in international trade, then the ship-like Quanzhou Maritime Museum or QMM is the place to visit. It has a comprehensive collection of artifacts that highlight the region's maritime history.
A must-visit, and this we insist you allot time for, is Xunpu Fishing Village in the Fengze district of Quanzhou. This tiny enclave is only a stone’s throw away from skyscrapers and high-rise condominiums, refusing to be consumed by nearby developments that threaten to swallow it whole.
You’ll find it hard not to be charmed by its crumbling old houses built with oyster shells (about 60 of these remain), the hunched-over grannies selling oysters in every corner, and, of course, the one sight for which the coastal village is known: the local women wearing flamboyant traditional floral head ornaments. Though it has become rather touristy, with shops renting out costumes here and there, ladies would find many Instagrammable opportunities when garbed in a colorful ensemble, especially the eye-catching headdress.
When in Quanzhou, you will find yourself on Zhongshan Road at least a few times during your trip. This 2.5-kilometer road is the city’s main commercial strip, with shops selling all kinds of items, from clothes to jewelry, food to traditional medicine. It is also one of the most well-preserved arcade-style commercial roads in China.
What makes Quanzhou’s Zhongshan Road distinct from all the other roads of the same name in China—many cities in the country have the same road as a memorial to the Revolution of 1911—is its architecture, which is a blend of East and West, reflecting the multicultural maritime heritage of the city.
If you’ve got some extra time, you can take a quick day trip to Jinjiang and see a little bit of the Philippines in that part of China. Aside from the ubiquitous SM Jinjiang, which from the inside looks like a cross between SM North EDSA and SM Aura, they also have the Jose Rizal Square.
Like Luneta’s long-lost little sister, the park and monument were built to honor Jose Rizal’s Fujianese roots, traced to his paternal great-great-grandfather, who immigrated from Jinjiang.
Many Filipinos love Chinese food. Siomai, chopsuey, pancit, siopao—don’t we love eating them all? However, don’t expect to eat any Chinese dishes we’ve grown accustomed to in Quanzhou.
Quanzhou cuisine is a different ball game, known best for its seafood—it is a city by the sea. Local specialties include all kinds of seafood dishes imaginable. During our visit, we had our fill of only the freshest fish, crabs, shellfish, shrimp, eel, jellyfish, octopus, and many other sea bounties.
On a late-night food crawl, we sampled a delicacy only for the bravest foodie—sandworm. Served ensconced in jelly, it doesn’t taste as awful as it sounds, but we probably won’t be eating it again.
Another distinct feature of this cuisine is its love for soups. When we were there, we noticed that during lunch or dinner, there is always soup, and not just one, but two or even three! Soups usually have a clear broth and incorporate seafood and lots of herbs and spices, making each serving not only flavorful but also aromatic. Soups are eaten at the start of a meal, in between courses, and before dessert is served.
Other must-try delicacies are oyster omelets, especially those made in the quaint district of Xunpu, peanut soup, radish cakes, tea, and more tea.
The pedestrian-only road leading to Kaiyuan Temple is an excellent area for a food crawl at any time of the day, quite similar to the night food markets in Taipei. Satisfy your rumbling tummy with stinky tofu, chicken chops, milk tea, rice cakes, and other street food fares while doing some souvenir shopping in between.
If you have some spare time, we highly recommend a day trip to the nearby county of Anxi, renowned for being one of the world’s foremost tea-producing areas. Visit the Tieguanyin Tea Museum and learn how the eponymous oolong tea variety is made and why it is considered one of the best in the world.
Anxi cuisine is also worth a try and is quite different from the seafood-based dishes of neighboring Quanzhou. Being situated in a more mountainous area means its cuisine uses produce that grows in the mountains. Expect simple yet healthy dishes that are vegetable- or root-crop-based. During our visit, our hosts treated us to an all-organic lunch, with the ingredients harvested before they were cooked. A farm-to-table experience in the truest sense.
Quanzhou is blessed with both sea and summit; it has verdant mountains and glistening coastal areas, making it ideal for travelers who love exploring the great outdoors.
Perhaps its most popular natural tourist destination is Qingyuan Mountain, just outside Quanzhou’s doorstep. Located three kilometers north of the city, this mountain has many caves, springs, and rock formations. Aside from its natural features, it also houses the Southern Shaolin Temple and Jinxiu Folk Art Gallery.
Qingyuan Mountain is considered a sacred site in Taoism and was also prosperous during the Song-Yuan Dynasties. Hence, several important cultural artifacts are scattered across the mountain. The most popular is the massive statue of Lao Tze in its southern foothills. Measuring 5.63 meters tall and 8.01 meters wide, the statue was built during the Tang Dynasty and is the largest stone statue of the Chinese philosopher.
Quanzhou is accessible via flights to Jinjiang or Xiamen on Philippine Airlines. Xiamen Airlines also has regular flights from Manila to Xiamen.