If Shanxi Province is the cradle of Chinese civilization, then the stretch of eastern central China between the Yellow River (Huang He) and the Yangzi River (Chang Jiang) -- an area covering the provinces of Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Anhui -- can be seen as the crucible in which Chinese culture subsequently developed and flourished. Bounded by the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea on the east, and buffered from ethnic minority influences from the north, west, and south, this swath of China is a region that, except for some Western influence late in China's history, has remained unapologetically and overwhelmingly "Han" Chinese in character.
Early Chinese civilization may have developed around the Yellow River in Henan Province with the Shang dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.), but Chinese culture as it is widely perceived today really started to take shape only some 600 years later with the birth of the most influential figure in Chinese history, Confucius, in Qufu in Shandong Province. By the time of the "golden age" of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Confucianism, that quintessentially Chinese philosophical tradition, had become the official state philosophy, and would be put to the test in the subsequent 2,000 years of dynastic changes. Arguably, no region or place in China has seen the rise and fall of more dynasties than this eastern central section of the country, with the ancient capitals of Luoyang (capital of nine dynasties), Kaifeng (six dynasties), and Nanjing (eight dynasties) serving as China's seat of power 23 times. Today, though none of these former capitals has retained much of their previous glory, all contain vestiges of a Chinese imperial past, and are worth visiting. Chinese history buffs may be interested as well in some lesser-known but intriguing finds such as the miniature terra-cotta army in Xuzhou, and the horse and chariot funeral pits in Zibo.
The influence of that other indigenous Chinese religious-philosophical tradition, Daoism, is also very strong in this region, which is home to two of Daoism's sacred mountains: Tai Shan, the most climbed mountain in China, and Song Shan, the central Daoist mountain. Though not indigenous to China, Buddhism's influence on Chinese culture has also been profound. Some of China's finest Buddhist art and sculpture can be seen at the magnificent Longmen Grottoes (Longmen Shiku) in Luoyang.
Historically, this region has also been the cultural bridge between the political center of gravity mostly in the north, and the economic center in the south, especially around the fertile lower deltas of the Yangzi River. The physical link was the great Chinese engineering feat of the Grand Canal, built between the Sui dynasty (581-618) and the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) to link the Yangzi and Yellow rivers. Although much of the canal is no longer navigable, it gave rise in its heyday to many flourishing river towns, including Suzhou, Zhou Zhuang, and the underrated but delightful Yangzhou, the economic and cultural capital of southern China during the Sui and Tang dynasties. The gardens that were built here by merchants and retired officials, with rocks hauled up from nearby Tai Hu (Lake Tai), have created in many a mind's eye the quintessential Chinese garden. But it is at nearby Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) that you find the ultimate Chinese landscape, as wispy clouds hover over a lone pine tree on a distant mountaintop.
Today, this eastern central region of China continues to function as a modern crucible of sorts. Traveling in this area, you will encounter two of China's richest provinces (Shandong and Jiangsu) bordering one of its poorest (Anhui). You will see some of China's oldest temples standing next to some of its newest skyscrapers. In the country of Lao Zi, this tug between such opposing forces should come as no surprise. It is, after all, quintessentially Chinese. The region sees hot, humid summers, while winters can be bone-chillingly cold; spring and fall are the best times to visit. Note: Unless otherwise noted, hours listed for attractions and restaurants are daily.