Things to do in China: Visit Yan’an, the birthplace of the revolution

Forget the Great Wall, hutongs in Beijing, shopping in Shanghai, the Forbidden City – the best places to visit are the key points in the Chinese Revolution. Yan’an is an absolute must, for here the Central Committee and the Red Armies established their headquarters at the end of the long march. The town of Yan’an, in the northern parts of Shaanxi Province, was the heart of the revolution from 1938 to 1947. Situated on the upper reaches of the Yellow River (yes, the river really is yellow, from the soil in those parts), the town might have grown to one million people today, but it is very much a provincial town. Expect people to photograph you, or even throw an arm around you and expect to be photographed with you; expect that possibly one person in town may speak a language you know; and expect the best Chinese food you can possibly find. The way to get there is by overnight sleeper from Beijing or Xi’an. You’ll probably have an old Chinese man snoring loudly in the bunk above you, when he is not calling his friends and telling them loudly about the laowai (foreigners) in his cabin. And you may have a woman in the other bunk, sleeping beside her daughter, who keeps on staring at the strange people down below.

The place to begin is Yangjialing village, where the leaders of the revolution lived in homes cut into the mountainside:


In case you are unsure about where to begin your exploration, a sign helpfully indicates the pace to start:


And then:


In Yangjialing is the famous meeting hall, where Mao gave his talks on literature and art:

2013 July 043 (Yan'an)a

Yes, I’m standing where the man himself once stood:


Overlooking proceedings are the great four:

2013 July 049 (Yan'an)a

2013 July 051 (Yan'an)a

Afterwards, saunter along the banks of the Yellow River for a while, where new bridges celebrate the revolution:

2013 July 059 (Yan'an)a

Until you come to the Revolutionary Memorial Hall. It is a massive museum, with more than 30,000 items from that time. Out the front, the chairman both greets you:

2013 July 063 (Yan'an)a

And watches over the town:

2013 July 075 (Yan'an)a

But the square can be a little daunting for some:

2013 July 073 (Yan'an)a

Inside, a welcoming committee awaits:


I was taken with the song book for soldiers in the Red Army:

2013 July 078 (Yan'an)a

With the women soldiers:

2013 July 084 (Yan'an)a

It is worth noting that the Guomindang, under Chiang Kai-Shek, would immediately shoot any women they captured with short hair and natural feet. Why? They assumed they must be communists. So modern Chinese women have the revolution to thank for normal feet.

I was also intrigued by the literature translated and read in Yan’an:


Lenin, of course, but also Karl Kautsky:

2013 July 093 (Yan'an)a

That one’s actually in Russian, for they avidly learnt Russian as well. But they also read Stalin. Indeed, Stalin is probably the most cited foreign author in Mao’s works.

2013 July 086 (Yan'an)a

Although all four of the ‘hairy grandfathers’ often make an appearance:

2013 July 096 (Yan'an)a

Who are now outnumbered by the hairless grandfathers:

2013 July 091 (Yan'an)a

There were also statistics on communist party membership:

2013 July 083 (Yan'an)a

A significant section was devoted to Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor (from Montreal) and communist who practised what he preached and took himself to Yan’an and its district to organise the medical units:

2013 July 089 (Yan'an)a

Bethune died from septicemia at the age of 49, and Mao’s famous article on Bethune is still required reading in Chinese schools. Among other things, China’s premier medical prize is named after Bethune, and he was single-handedly responsible for the close relations between China and Canada.

I was also intrigued by model of Yan’an village at the time:

2013 July 080 (Yan'an)a

And of course the reddish artwork:

2013 July 085 (Yan'an)a


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