Fuzhou, Capital of Fujian rarely features on travel itineraries for people coming to China.
However, it deserves a place on travelers’ maps, as it is a gem for explorers, cultural enthusiasts and foodies, and it also offers a unique glimpse into another side of a more authentic China off the beaten tourist track.
Fuzhou locals embody the southern Chinese mentality of openness and friendliness so they will be happy to give you a warm welcome. And as temperatures can reach up to 20 C even in January, Fuzhou is a perfect place for a winter retreat from China’s cold north.
Situated on the banks of the Min River and right across from Taiwan on the East China Sea, Fuzhou is in many ways the embodiment of the southern Chinese capital.
Next to the lively and bustling local streets of the inner city, you get sea views, mountains and historical sites, but also some of the most delicious food in all of China and a vibrant nightlife.
The place, with its marvellous green cityscape full of parks and gardens, is also known as the “City of Banyans”, because of the numerous banyan trees planted there since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). If you looking to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life, Fuzhou’s periphery offers a wide range of relaxing retreats or places for adventure.
Origins & History
Fuzhou, whose surroundings were inhabited by local cultures, such as the Min Yue, since at least 5,000 BC, became formally established as a city in the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. Its location near the coast of the East China Sea and proximity to Taiwan made the city on the Min River an important trade and cultural hub over the centuries, with even Marco Polo reportedly having visited it.
It rose to importance during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when it was formally renamed Fuzhou, meaning “a city with good luck”, in 725. The Tang Dynasty was a prosperous time for the city, with cultural institutions and Buddhism growing, and many new immigrants coming to the area. Since this time, tea, silk and porcelain were among the major products shipped to Africa, Asia and Europe via maritime trade routes.
Fuzhou became even more culturally prosperous during the Song Dynasty, with the Hualin Temple, founded in 964, one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in China. The famous Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and the poet Xin Qiji (1140-1207) made Fuzhou their home in this time.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Fuzhou became one of the starting points of the sea voyages of famous explorer Zheng He (1371-1433/35), who sailed from here to Southeast Asia and all the way to the coast of Africa, establishing maritime ties and marking it in many ways as one of “the original” starting points of the Belt and Road sea route. Also, Fuzhou was a major hub for trade with the Philippines and the then-independent Kingdom of Ryukyu (Okinawa) during that time.
In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Fuzhou was made one of five treaty ports to openly trade with the west in 1842, and therefore became directly entangled into what is often called “China’s lost decade” of Western exploitation.
It was also the birthplace of Lin Zexu (1785-1850), who, in an act against foreign exploitation, famously dumped millions of pounds of opium from Western traders into the sea in 1839.
In the 20th century, the city was seriously affected by the Japanese invasion until their defeat in 1945, but then was on the front line of the conflict with the Kuomintang and subject to frequent attacks from Taiwan, such as the bombing in 1955.
Under the reform and opening-up policy since the late 1970s, Fuzhou has been one of China’s most rapidly growing cities, leaving darker times behind and returning to prosperity by becoming a major hub of industry, high-tech and manufacturing.
It was chosen as one of the first branches of the Open Coastal Cities by the central government in 1984, opening the city up to foreign investment, economic development and also cross-Straits trading with Taiwan.
It is now home to a number of domestic and international companies as well as economic development zones, such as the Fuzhou Economic & Technical Development Zone, Fuzhou Free Trade Zone, Fuzhou Hi-Tech Park and Fuzhou Taiwan Merchant Investment Area.
In 2015, Fuzhou was ranked as the 10th fastest-growing metropolitan area in the world by the Brookings Institution. In recent years, Fuzhou has striven to build itself into a strategic hub for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and has become a founding member of the United Nations Maritime-Continental Silk Road Cities Alliance (UNMCSR).
Today, Fuzhou is accessible via airplane and railway from most of China within hours, with the high-speed train from Beijing even arriving in less than 8 hours.
Fujian is one of the most culturally diverse provinces in China, as a popular saying goes “if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does”. Fuzhou city is home to various ethnic and language groups, with the Fuzhou version of the Min dialect being the most commonly spoken vernacular. There are also smaller numbers of the Hakka and She ethnic minority groups.
Handicrafts remain important in the rural areas, and the city is famous for its own form of Chinese opera, the Min opera, as well as its hot springs. Lacquer work, stone sculpting and cork cutting are called the “Three Treasures of Fuzhou”. Fujian is also famous across China for its tea varieties and it exported more tea than any other Chinese port in the 19th Century.
Things to see
The inner city already has much to offer, and a tour of its highlights alone can fill a whole one-day or two-day trip. Here are just some of its most famous and must-see places:
Sanfang Qixiang: ‘Beverly Hills of Imperial China’
Sanfang Qixiang, literally meaning “three lanes and seven alleys”, is probably Fuzhou’s No 1 must-see spot. It is a historic residential district in the heart of the city formed in the Tang dynasty (618-907), with some of its architecture reaching back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The name describes the structure of the district: Originating from the central Nanhou Street are three larger lanes to the west and seven smaller alleys to the east, boasting a total of 268 ancient residences. In the past, many of them hosted the “celebrities” of China, among them the homes of the famous scholar Yan Fu (1854-1921) and writer Bing Xin (1900-1999) as well as Lin Zexu.
It was once home to more than 400 rich, famous and powerful residents, and has therefore also been nicknamed the “Beverly Hills of Imperial China”. There is a saying that goes: “one Sanfang Qixiang equals half of China’s modern history”.
The neighbourhood is the most intact old town district in China and the architecture of the residences preserves a unique Fuzhou style, making it one of China’s historic and cultural treasures. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 2013.
West Lake Park
Fuzhou’s West Lake Park has a history of more than 1,700 years, being one of two artificial lakes (the other one being the East Lake) built during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316) in 282 AD. It already emerged as a popular tourist attraction during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and is today the best-preserved classical garden in all of Fuzhou.
With its scenery a favourite among painters and writers in ancient times, it became known as “the bright pearl of Fuzhou gardens”. Beautifully laid out paths and bridges run through smaller gardens, temples and pavilions on the islands of the large 42-hectare lake area in northwestern Fuzhou.
This temple, which was first built in 581 and again revived in the Tang Dynasty in 867, has recently been repaired and in part reconstructed. It is one of five Buddhist temples in Fuzhou and consists of a total of 38 buildings hosting multiple cultural treasures, including pavilions, halls and a dagoba, as well as lakes, bridges and a garden, covering an area of 7.7 hectares.
It also includes a giant pagoda towering the whole complex as well as a large statue of Matreiya on the lake. The stone bridge over the lake leads us to a small but pretty garden area with banyans and bamboo which concludes at the main six-story hall, which is home to distinct statues of 600 arhats.
Fuzhou National Forest Park
Fuzhou National Forest Park is located 7 km north of the downtown area and it takes about a 30-minute ride to get there from the city centre. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides and consists of multiple sights divided into six sections: bamboo, trees, cultural landscape, dragon pool, forest museum and birds forest.
It is also known as the Fuzhou Botanical Garden and the bamboo-section alone features hundreds of different plants with paths trailing through a meticulously laid out and well-maintained landscape gardenlike terrain. A definite highlight is the gigantic 1,000-year-old banyan tree near the lake.