Meaning of the name
“Lake South”, from its position south of Lake Dongting. Hunan is sometimes called “Xiang” for short, after the Xiangjiang River which runs through the province.
63,000,000 million people live in Hunan, 95% of whom are Han Chinese, with the rest belonging to the Miao, Tujia, Dong, Yao Zhuang, Hui and Uygur ethnic minorities. The Han live mostly in the river valleys and plains of Hunan, while the other ethnic groups live in western hills.
In south-central China, 1000 km (600 miles) west-southwest of Shanghai.
Most of Hunan Province lies in the basins of four major tributaries of the Yangzi River (Chang Jiang): The Xiangjiang, Zishui, Yuanjiang and Lishui Rivers, which converge on the Yangzi River at Lake Dongting (Dongting Hu) in the north of Hunan. Hills and low mountains occupy the western, southern and eastern parts of Hunan.
Hunan enters the written history of China around 350 BC, when under the emperors of the Zhou dynasty it became part of the state Chu Empire. Until then Hunan was a land of primeval forests, occupied by the Miao, Tujia, Tung and Yao peoples, but starting at this time and for hundreds of years thereafter it was a magnet for migration of Han Chinese from the north, who cleared most of the forests and began farming rice in the valleys and plains. To this day, many of the small villages in Hunan are named after the Han families which originally settled there.
Hunan became an important communications center from its position on the Yangzi River (Chang Jiang) and on the Imperial Highway constructed between northern and southern China, and its land produced grain so abundantly that it fed many parts of China with its surpluses. The population continued to climb until by the 19th century Hunan was overcrowded and prone to peasant uprisings. The Taiping rebellion which began to the south in Guangxi Province in 1850 spread into Hunan and then further eastward along the Yangzi River valley, but ultimately it was a Hunanese army under Zeng Guofan which marched to Nanjing and put down the uprising in 1864. Hunan was relatively quiet until 1910 when there were uprisings against the crumbling Qing dynasty, which were followed by the Communist’s Autumn Harvest Uprising of 1927 led by Hunanese native Mao Zedong. The Communists maintained a guerilla army in the mountains along the Hunan-Jiangxi border until 1934, when under pressure from the Nationalist (Guomindang) forces they began the famous Long March to bases in Shaanxi Province. After the departure of the Communists, the Nationalist army fought against the Japanese, defending the capital Changsha until it fell in 1944. Hunan was relatively unscathed by the civil war that followed the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, and in 1949 the Communists returned once more as the Nationalists retreated southward.
Being Mao Zedong’s home province, Hunan supported the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and was slower than most provinces in adopting the reforms implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the years that followed Mao’s death in 1976. Hunan remains mostly dependent on agriculture, but mining and industry have been gradually developing since 1949. Hunan produces more rice than any other province in China, but is also a major producer of sweet potatoes, corn (maize), barley, potatoes, sorghum, rape, ramie, cotton and jute. Various fruits are grown, the most famous of which are sweet seedless Hunan tangerines. Tung trees and tea seed shrubs are grown in the highlands, along with both red and black varieties of tea. Hunan’s mineral wealth is cheifly non-ferrous: tin, manganese, antimony, lead, zinc, tungsten and molybdenum. Large coal mines serve the iron and steel works at Wuhan, Hubei Province, and some iron ore deposits support local specialized industries in Hunan such as iron cookware. The major urban centers of Changsha, Xiangtan and Zhuzhou support industries as diverse as aluminum smelting, machine tools, textiles and food processing.
Hunan is on the border between Mandarin and Southern Chinese language regions. Northern Hunanese (living near the Yangzi, Yuanjiang and Zishui Rivers and Lake Dongting) speak a dialect of Southwestern Mandarin Chinese, similar to the dialects of Hubei and Sichuan Provinces. The rest of the inhabitants speak Xiang (or Hsiang) Chinese. This language is divided into New Xiang, spoken near Changsha, and Old Xiang, spoken in the rest of the province. Old Xiang is closely related to the Wu Chinese spoken in southern Jiangsu Province, Shanghai, and Zhejiang Province.
Famous handicrafts produced in Hunan include Xiang embroidery, duck-down quilts and bamboo items.
Hunan cooking is known for its use of hot chilli peppers, like neighboring Sichuan Province. Famous dishes include Dongan Chicken, Gualiang Fen (cold rice noodles in spicy sauce), and Chou Dofu (“stinking” tofu).
Children adopted from Hunan are often jokingly called “spicy babies”, for the food they are supposedly given, and for the alleged effect it has on their personalities.
Text Copyright © 1994-2003 by Mark Tooker