Liaoning's Cultural Crossroads - the Multi-ethnic Heritage of Shenyang

Written by Oct 28, 2005 12:10
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Sticking Up for Shenyang

Forget anything you've been told about Shenyang. A bleak, industrial outpost it is not; neither is it particularly grimy, overpopulated, or culturally barren, barely worth passing through on your way to Dalian. The majority of traveller's reviews that in this fashion dishonour the 2,300 year old cultural centre of the people who ruled China for almost three hundred years are borrowing from outdated information and helping to maintain an unfair representation of the city. Shenyang's a fine place, full of history, full of genuine, unspoilt Chinese character, full of fascinating tourist spots, and above all, home to some of the most welcoming Chinese food to the foreign palate – few visitors to Shenyang have the right to complain about the cuisine.

Shenyang is the capital of Liaoning province, the most accessible part of Dongbei, China's Northeast. Generally speaking, it's best visited by taking a bus or train from Beijing, as the distance between the two centres is easy – busses depart from numerous locations in Beijing throughout the day, and take around eight hours to get there, and train travel times are much the same.

On my last visit to Shenyang, I was embarking on a trip to explore the regions of the Northeast populated by ethnic Koreans, and Shenyang is the ideal place to begin such a journey. China's border with North Korea has shifted here and there over the centuries, the result being that many Korean-speaking communities have come to be included within the borders of modern China, and with the fast economic development of South Korea, trade between Chinese Koreans and their kinsmen has helped to elevate the importance of their culture within China. Shenyang has a large population of ethnic Koreans, and the Koreatown at Shenyang's Xita District concentrates their influence on the city.

My travel companions and I arrived at Shenyang's attractive North Railway Station in the late evening on the first day of the National Holiday, for fault of having been too lazy to take an early morning bus. The modern North Station seems to have taken precedence over Shenyang's more traditional central railway station, an historical icon of a city that has been the transport hub of the entire region for centuries – Shenyang now has the most highly concentrated highway network in China and is still the communications centre for Dongbei. With so many routes converging at the station, its grand courtyard is constantly full of passengers, merchants, touts and taxi drivers, crowds coursing about the angular golden eagle pillar standing before the station, set in a soaring ascent, perhaps to celebrate Shenyang's growing prosperity. We hunted for a hotel – being refused a couple of times for being foreigners seeking accommodation in budget dorms, and for intending to sleep three to a room without all being male – and before long were settled in comfortable and inexpensive lodgings in the Junjiao Dasha, a more welcoming hotel not far to the right hand side of the station facing in.

We were booked to leave the following evening for the Korean SAR in Jilin, and so were keen not to waste any time in enjoying Shenyang. After a day on the bus with few and unpalatable snacks, the most important mission was to find dinner, and in keeping with the theme of our journey, we set off for Koreatown in search of Shenyang's famous Korean Barbeque.


Xita is within close walking distance of Shenyang's city centre at Zhongshan Square and Taiyuan Street. The name, meaning West Tower, is derived from the nearby white dagoba marking the old western city wall of Shenyang, and this tower is itself deserving of a dedicated visit in daylight hours. It is the most easily accessible of the four towers, all of which are still extant, although the city walls have long since been removed.

Shenyang's Koreatown occupies Xita's main commercial street and at night is a jungle of neon reminiscent of Shanghai's Nanjing road- the only street in Dongbei, in fact, that deserves the comparison. A concentration of Karaoke halls, discos, cafes and Korean restaurants cater for visiting businesspeople from Seoul: bright signs in Korean Hangeul script promise entertainment, massages and uncompromisingly spicy Korean dishes to prospective patrons, and young Chaoxian (Chinese Korean) girls in traditional hanbok dresses greet customers in fluent Korean and Mandarin.

We chose a restaurant and ordered plates of stripped beef, sweet potato, lettuce and garlic and various other treats for roasting on a grill in the centre of our table over red-hot coals placed in its central well. The tradition of cooking your own barbeque at the table is common in Korea, and equally common in Shenyang where a good proportion of restaurants throughout the city specialise in Korean barbeque, many of which are as cheap as conventional lower-end Chinese diners. In accordance with Korean style, a variety of condiments were served and constantly replenished throughout the meal, salted seaweeds, gelatinous rice cakes, and plentiful helpings of Korea's most stereotypical cuisine – kimchee, or spicy pickled cabbage. A bowl of thick, light-brown sesame sauce is served with sugar and fragrant spices in which to dip the meats after stirring the sauce – and many local Shenyang people like to tip a dash of their local Snow beer into the bowl before stirring it up. We made traditional lettuce wraps with our freshly barbequed beef – folding the meat into the lettuce leaves with cloves of garlic dipped in chilli sauce provided for the purpose. In the turning cool of the autumn cold weather, more sharply felt in Shenyang than in Beijing, the fresh, hot meal combined with the burning spices of the Korean side dishes more than compensated for the chill outdoors.

Palace for a Departed King

Our next day was left aside for sightseeing of a more familiar, Chinese variety – and with Shenyang's rich Imperial history, it was easy to choose a location evocative of Qing period dynastic glory. China's Qing Dynasty, of course, was a period of rule under another non-Han people, the Manchu, and it was in Shenyang and neighbouring Fushun that the Manchu empire was originally founded before taking power from the Ming in 1644. Shenyang preserves a number of early Qing period sites, one of the most noteworthy of which is the North Tomb, final resting place of Abahai, second ruler of the Manchu Empire that would eventually conquer all of China.

Bei Ling, otherwise known as the Zhaolin Tomb, is a short public bus ride away from the North Station and is situated in the large and scenic Beiling Park gardens. Before entering the tomb complex, you need to pay a ticket price to enter the park itself – seven yuan – well worth the fee, as the park is a peaceful array of grassy play areas and delicate winding paths through willows and pine trees that pass through shady, cool places around the vast man-made lake. Shenyang locals come here in great numbers to relax, and many congregate around the great pavilion just in front of the tomb area and at the lake's edge – traditional dancing is performed here every day, and small carts peddle some refreshingly different souvenirs – we inspected a plush case full of brown eggs onto which the Chairman's face had been expertly etched with a needle. Kites are everywhere, and locals seem capable of sending them into space – watching one old man tug professionally at his cord, it was impossible to make out the speck he was guiding through the clouds.

Entrance to the tomb is 30 yuan, and the immediate impression upon an initial survey of the grounds is that the site is exceptionally complete and well preserved. A sequence of towers, stairs and imposing stone walls are set in geomantic symmetry before the tomb itself, rather disappointingly a plain earth mound the size of a small hillock upon which a lone tree stands. The style is rather similar to that of the Forbidden City in Beijing, although far more modest in scale. Passing from courtyard to courtyard as you penetrate the complex, the open spaces are punctuated by ornamental walls and thick gates tunnelling through ornate towers. The best time to visit the tomb is undoubtedly late afternoon, when the honey-coloured rays of the setting sun set the amber roofs and crimson walls aflame in burnished light.

Shenyang is Manchurian, and to an extent, Korean, but above all it is predominantly and essentially Chinese. Shenyang is famous for having some of the most hearty, straightforward and charismatic people in the country. Shenyang's local dialect is so appealing and easy to recognise that it is universally recognised within China as being exuberant, energetic and funny – veterans of Chinese stand-up comedy invariably mimic the Shenyang dialect to satirise the kind of naïve, hot-tempered and charmingly simple characters that make Shenyang's local population so colourful. If you thought Shanghai was devoid of any real Chinese culture and were disappointed to find that Beijing's not much more convincing these days, you may find the real China you're looking for in Shenyang.

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Comments (1)


Sep 23, 2006 21:59 Reply

JIMBOJIM11 said:

Thanks for the descriptions of SHenyang. I'm going to work there in about 2 weeks and am trying to read everything I can about the city and Liaoning Province.

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