A to Z Abroad: Ya’nan


One off-the-radar place for an American to visit in China is Ya’nan, as it is considered the birthplace of the Communist Revolution. Aside from monuments and museums dedicated to Mao Zedong (the leader of  communist China until his death in 1976), Ya’nan is also home to beautiful cultural traditions.

Ya’nan, Shaanxi, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Ya’nan usually isn’t on a Westerner’s agenda, but it does serve as a major destination for Chinese tourists looking to see iconic locations associated with Chinese history. It was interesting to watch anxious tourists waiting in lines to go through a museum preserving relics from the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Weapons, articles of clothing, and documents that would be objects of curiosity in the West are instruments of hero worship in Ya’nan.

Statue of Mao Zedong outside a museum dedicated to him and the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

As I walked through this museum, guards followed me. As an American, I stuck out and was instantly treated with suspicion. After all, what would a pro-democracy, capitalist be doing in a communist museum? If they really must know, the history teacher in me was fascinated. Luckily, my shadow kept a distance and let me roam freely.

Parts of the hills around Ya’nan are essentially an extension of the museum. In 1934, Mao Zedong lead around 12,000 communists and supporters on The Long March to escape the pursuits of the Nationalist army. Mao settled in an area around Ya’nan, where he as his army lived in cave homes. Many of these homes are preserved and opened to tourists, including the home where Mao lived throughout the revolution.

Of course, I walked through Mao’s cave home. I don’t know what was more interesting, the fact that the interior was so cool without the use of A/C or watching a group of Chinese tourists excitedly feast their eyes on the every day items of a man that still has idol status. Again, I was looked upon as being out of place, but at this point I was accustomed to being an outsider.

Entrance to a cave home in the hills Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

The star above the doorway is a symbol of Communism and continues to be used today in China’s flag. All around the cave homes are speakers dressed in revolution military uniforms. The man below claimed to fight alongside Mao, but I’m no so sure about that. My guide warned us that most Chinese accept the concept of “authentic fake” when it comes to relics and witnesses. Essentially, if something is realistic, then it’s authentic enough.

Historical speaker in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

He spoke English quite well, so I sat down and listened to him for a little while. In a way, it was like listening to my grandpa tell stories about his experiences in the war. However, the Chinese tourists around me listened with incredible enthusiasm.

Ya’nan also boasts a nine-story pagoda built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Aside from beautiful dynastic architecture, the tower is also significant to the Chinese revolutionary movement. When the Communist Party had it’s headquarters in Ya’nan the bell was used to toll the hour of the day and sound alarms.

Ya’nan Hill Pagoda
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After getting my fill of Chinese revolutionary history, I was treated to a performance of  tribal dance. China is actually home to at least 68 ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. The people in the hills of Ya’nan are full of smiles and brilliant color as they moves across the stage.

Traditional dance in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Besides being followed and regarded with confusion, I look upon my time Ya’nan as one of the more interesting experiences I had in China. The West sees Mao Zedong in a rather negative light, (rightly so in many respects), but in China the man is still revered by many. History, of course, will be the ultimate judge, but for now the duality of his legacy remains in place.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!


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c.b.w. 2013

27 thoughts on “A to Z Abroad: Ya’nan

  1. My father’s family who migrated from what was Canton, China to Hawaii, lost all remaining relatives in China during the Cultural Revolution. They were scholars and scholars were the first to be eliminated. I remember as a child how my uncles spoke so bitterly of the lost of the culture of China.

    They say, they being my family, that because we are Chinese, China will always call us back. I’m only half Chinese and I feel the pull of the ancestors.

    Thank you for another view of the world.


    • Thank you for sharing your story. The Cultural Revolution was so heartbreaking and devastating to the Chinese people. I always wonder just how much was lost, but I hope we always remember to cling to the things that survived.


  2. Very interesting. I remember Doug saying how weird it was as a sailor to visit Heroshima and then how weird it was when in Hawaii to see Japanese at the Arizona memorial. I like that you pointed out your feelings and those of the people around you.


    • I always refer to China as a very “human” experience. I literally saw things from a perspective completely different from my own. It was humbling, enlightening, and life-altering all at the same time.


  3. Never been to China and if it weren’t so darned far away via a long plane ride, I’d be there in a hot minute. How did you end up in Ya’nan, if it’s off the beaten path?


  4. Fascinating! Love that concept of ‘authentic fake’! The colors of the dancers are so vibrant against the grays of the buildings. Thanks for sharing a piece of China that many westerners would never get to see.


    • I, too, was fascinated with the whole idea of “authentic fake.” Every time I went to a historical site or a museum, I wondered how much of what I was seeing was actually real and what was real enough. 😉


  5. What a fascinatingly interesting post. I would also have loved to have walked around the museum. It’s history, there to see. The caves as well. And a live/pretend-ish guide! brilliant.

    Love the colourful tribal dance at the end. It looks as though it really was a good day. Thanks for sharing it.


  6. Fascinating! The historical speaker (who may or may not have experienced the events he discussed) reminds me of reenactors I’ve see throughout the years, mostly Civil War reenactors. The notion that someone might be a reenactor without it being obvious seems so unusual here. I love learning how other cultures perceive things, especially history. : )


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