Civilisations Thrive on Water
Rivers nourish and are in turn nourished by cities and it seems as if every renowned city lives and breathes together with a river, which can bring bliss to a city. This can be attested to in London with the Thames, Paris with the Seine, Vienna with the Danube River, and Prague with the Vltava. An intriguing harmony between the city and the river has given birth to human civilisations. Nomadic people would migrate to wherever they could find water and grass, while farming communities settled down near mountains and rivers. Water was the origin of life on Earth and sustains human society in its survival and prosperity.
Sanggan River was the upper reaches of Yongding River and one of the important tributaries of Haihe River. If you look at a map of northern China, you can see how the Sanggan River runs through northern Shanxi Province, northern Heibei Province, Beijing, and Tianjin. While the Sanggan River may appear paltry and insignificant when compared with the Yangtze or the Yellow River, its drainage area featured prominently throughout Chinese history, supporting a string of capitals, including Pingcheng (modern-day Datong), the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386–534); Zhuolu, capital of the Yellow Emperor; and Beijing, capital of the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing dynasties (1644–1911), and the People’s Republic of China (1949–present).
Origin of the Sanggan River
The Sanggan River starts with the Huihe and Yuanzi rivers, the former of which originates
on Guancen Mountain in Ningwu County in northern Shanxi Province, and the latter from up on Jiekou Mountain in Zuoyun County, Shanxi. The Huihe, after leaving Ningwu County, runs northeast. On the south side of Guancen Mountain.there is the Fenhe River, which runs in the opposite direction of the Huihe River, and was the birthplace of the legendary Yao and Shun, ancestors of the Chinese. The Sanggan River, on the north side of Guancen Mountain, nurtured prosperous Beijing. The Huihe River and Yuanzi River meet just south of Shentou Town, near the city of Shuozhou, to form the Sanggan River. The Huihe River runs underground from the north of Fanwangsi Township, in the Shuocheng District of Shuozhou, and re-emerges at Fengyu Village in Yaozitou Township. One of the eight significant sights of Shuozhou is “the Underground Huihe River.” The Huihe River then zigzags to the south of Shuozhou where it joins the Yuanzi River.
The Huihe River has an interesting story behind its name. In 215 BC, Qin Shi Huang (the Yellow Emperor, 221–210 BC ), first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC), ordered General Men Tian to lead 300,000 troops to push back the Xiongnu, fierce nomads from northern China. Men spotted a place with plenty of clean water and lush grass upstream on the Sanggan River, and deemed it an ideal place to pasture the horses. Furthermore, he decided to build a city and domesticate war horses in what is now the Shuozhou area, giving the city the name of “Mayi (Horse city).” During the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Huihe was called Mayichuanshui River and flowed to the south of Mayi Prefecture and Shuozhou during the Sui (AD 581–618) and the Tang (AD 618–907), so it was called the “Nanhe [South] River.” During the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125), the river got the name “Huihe [Dusty River].” During the Yuan, the river would turn turbid from the soil washing down, so it was called the “Hunhe [ Turbid River].” During the Ming, when most rivers were muddy and many had the same name, the river regained the Huihe moniker, survived until the Qing, when the underground flow emerged and “Hui” (
) was thought to be a bit too rustic, so it was changed to the “Huihe” ( ) meaning “Reemerged River.” The Yuanzi River carries with it a story related to the Emperor Xiaowen (reign: AD 398–409) of the Northern Wei, who pushed for the popularising of Han systems and culture, and changed his family name from “Tuobashi” to “Yuan.”
The Sanggan River runs between the inside and outside parts of the Great Wall in the Saishang region and looks like a magnificent jade belt lying across the expansive plain. But, the jade belt seems to possess some magical power, bestowing vigour and vitality on the land it crosses. Since ancient times, people living alongside the Sanggan River have used the river water for households, irrigation, and for livestock. The people north of the Great Wall called it the “mother river.”
Early in the Ming, in the area of Yunzhong (today’s Datong City), the “Evening Ferry on the Sanggan River” was considered as one the city’s “Eight Sights.” That scene disappeared over the passage of time but people are still fully aware of the river’s significance, and regard it with deep affection. These days, the Dongyulin Reservoir, in the Shuocheng District of Shuozhou, controls the irrigated areas of the Sanggan River and the Minsheng Ditch, keeping the close ties the river has with the people living alongside it.
The ramparts of the old city of Mayi have been reduced to ruins but, during some dynasties, “Mayi” was synonymous with Shuozhou. Historical records show Mayi as being abandoned during the Qin, then rebuilt in AD 717 during the Tang, and repaired in 1383 and 1437 during the Ming. The renovation work peaked in 1572, with the city walls being faced with bricks piled and stones used as foundation. These walls bore witness to countless wars and heroic actions.
Of the heroes who came from the Sanggan River area, the most famous no doubt was Yuchi Gong, a Tang general. He led a legendary life, was a seasoned general, and has been worshiped as a door god in Chinese folk religion for his loyalty and valour and is honoured in the Lingyan Pavilion. Mayi was the site of plenty of lakes that fed the Sanggan River plentifully, and were a desirable habitat for fowl and other wildlife. Legend has it that, during the Sui and Tang, there were wild horses that were treading on crops, which the suffering peasants referred to as “Hai Horses.” Yuchi Gong captured two of these “Hai Horses”at the Shentou Spring. One of them was yellow, the other black. He rode these two “Divine Horses” and had no peer on the battlefield. You can read this story on the base of a Yuchi Gong statue in the center of Shuozhou.
The Sanggan River was long the object of numerous battles between the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD24) and Xiongnu. Yanmen Pass was a natural defence for the Han living in the Central Plain. At the same time, the Sanggan River was a lifeline fought over by the Han Chinese in the plain and ethnic minorities to the north and it
was a boundary separating the Han and the steppe nomads. The town of Guangwu, in Shanyinxian County, was the very center of the defence system around the Yanmen Pass back then. Whenever the nomads invaded from the north, Guangwu was the first place to be attacked before Yanmen Pass. These days, the town is divided into “Old Guangwu” and “New Guangwu,” even though the new town was built during the Ming on an earlier site of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), so it can be considered a reconstruction project. Curiously, the ‘Old’ Guangwu was built during the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) and Liao so it is actually 1,000 years younger than the ‘New’ one.
To the north of the town, there are mounds on the vast plain that are popular with people searching for relics. They can be seen stretching for miles in all directions and, even from afar are impressive. These are referred to as the “Guangwu Town Han Dynasty Graves” and are an unusual Han Dynasty (206 BC–220) site known nationwide. The relics and graves of that dynasty along the Sanggan River caused people to marvel over the fact that the river had been a home for a very long time.
The area around the Sanggan River’s source includes the old city of Datong, the Yungang Grottoes, Mount Heng to the north, the city of Xinzhou, Mount Wutai, Luya Mountain, and other scenic areas to the south. There are also the town of Guangwu nearby, the Han Dynasty Graves, the Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County, Shahukou, and other relic spots.
Re-locating the Northern Wei Dynasty Capital
Emperors in the distant past tended to establish their capital in places with mighty rivers passing through and Datong, nurtured by the Sanggan River, emerged as the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty, and the second capital of the Liao and Jin dynasties (1115–1234), and was a strategic town of the Ming and Qing. Another case was the emperor of the Tuoba ethnic group, who chose Pingcheng as the capital when establishing the Northern Wei.
Then there was the Fu Jian Emperor (reign: AD 357–385) of the Former Qin Dynasty (AD 350–394), who was defeated at the Battle of Feishui River in AD 383, after which, the Former Qin state, which had been in control of China for half its life up until then, soon collapsed. In the spring of AD 386, Tuoba Gui, the leader of the Tuoba tribe of the Xianbei people, reestablished the Dai state and set up its capital at Shengle (today’s Horinger County near the city of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia), and changed its name to Wei, resulting in the Northern Wei Dynasty. By the first
lunar month of AD 398, Tuoba Gui, by then the Daowu Emperor of the Northern Wei, had managed to occupy a large share of Northern China. In the seventh lunar month of that same year, he declared that he was moving the capital to Pingcheng against all other opposing views, and built palaces, imperial temples, an Altar of the Land and Grain, and other similar offices. This ushered in a 96-year-reign of the Northern Wei, with Datong as the capital, and saw six emperors and seven imperial family generations. The old Pingcheng had been an absolute powerhouse of political, economical, and cultural activity for northern China.
There were some famous cities under Northern Wei dominion, such as Dayi, and, the most famous, Yecheng in Hebei Province. Yecheng sits in the central of the North China Plain and was a hub for roads on the eastern side of the Taihang Mountains, and as well as a centre for grain transportation. In the first lunar month of AD 398, Tuoba Gui paid an imperial visit to the city, but, left after few days, and several months later declared that Pingcheng was the capital.
Why did Tuoba Gui make such a decision? At that point, various groups under the Northern Wei followed the Tuoba tribe’s led, while making alliances with many other tribes. The various groups were weak and short of strength compared with the populous regions of the Central Plains. The Han and other ethnic group forces had their qualms about the Northern Wei regime and, the regime worried about how its small number of people would put it at an disadvantage, with Yecheng as the capital.
The Tuoba were nomadic people who lived on hunting, which also contributed to the economy. Hunting also had its martial side, whether with drills or recreation, and it kept that side after the regime settled down in Pingcheng. In the expansive area north of the Sanggan River, the abundance of water and grass allowed the regime to pasture and pen a lot of animals to meet the needs of its people, which lead to livestock raising. Most of the people in this area were from the Tuoba tribe, who played an important role in sustaining the fighting ability of the state and the imperial household. Even today, some agricultural activities can be seen in the land south of the Sanggan River, where farmers from the Central Plains ensured the availability of grains.
When Tuoba Gui moved the capital to Pingcheng, it was a place with a desert at its back and nomads and a city on the broad Central Plains. But, it was a wise choice because of the overall politics, economy, culture, militarism, and traditions.
Datong, an Ancient Coal Capital
Datong is China’s coal capital, but it was also the political capital of three dynasties, and a strategic centre for two dynasties. It was here where the culture of Pingcheng, the frontier, and the Buddhists of Northern Wei came together, with a wealth of history and culture. Out of this came the Yungang Grottoes, Xuankong Temple, Mount Heng, the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County, Huayan Temple, and the Nine-dragon Screen, all of which are eminently worth visiting.
The Northern Wei enshrined Buddhism as a state religion, leaving Datong with one of its most valuable assets, the Yungang Grottoes, on the south side of Wuzhou Mountain. They cover a kilometre of space and epitomise Buddhism art, with 45 major caves, 252 big and small niches, and some 51, 000 Buddhist statues. This is one of China’s largest grottoes and is one of China’s four great grotto art treasures, with the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, Longmen Grottoes, in Luoyang, and Maiji Mountain Grottoes, in Tianshui.
The Yungang Grottoes were built around 460 with the labour of about 1,000 craftsmen. The stone statues in the major caves were completed over a span of 60 years, from 460 to 524.
The Xuankong Temple in Datong is another famous site which, with the Yungang Grottoes, is a wonder of the world and a treasure house of Buddhist art. It was built during the Northern Wei, hanging on a sheer cliff of Cuiping Mountain and is the only temple in China that combines Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The Hunyuan River, above which it sits, runs
through the Jinlong Valley and into the Sanggan River.
In AD 491 during the Northern Wei Dynasty, the monarch wanted to move a Taoist temple to the spot from Pingcheng and, in line with Taoist principles, built the Xuankong Temple. That temple is now the site of some 20 palaces, and holds about 80 Buddhist statues, and many parts of the walls bear old inscriptions. In the temple itself, the lowest part is 26 metres from the bottom of the valley, and the highest part is about 50 metres above the ground.
Mount Heng, near Xuankong Temple, straddles the Sanggan and Hutuo rivers, both of which are tributaries of the Haihe River. One of Mount Heng’s main peak is Tianfengling Peak where there is a large complex of temples and buildings which include: the Hengzong Temple, Huixianfu (Guest reception mansion), Qingong (Bedroom), Jiutian Palace, Baixu Temple, Gusao (Cliff), Cuixue Pavilion, and Kuixing Pavilion. Hengzong Temple is the main temple on Mount Heng and the only one to be built on mountain of the Five Great Mountain temples.
After the Northern Wei moved its capital to Luoyang, Pingcheng did not experience a decline and, Datong, as the second capital of the Liao and Jin dynasties, was home to historical sites, such as the Huayan Temple and Nine Dragon Wall. Huayan Temple, which sits in the southwest corner of ancient Datong, was built in 1038, during the Liao, and got its name from the Buddhist Huayan Sutra. The northern temple, which thrived during the Liao and Jin, has the title of “Liao and Jin Dynastic Art Museum,” which it well deserves. Its historical riches and craftsmanship can be seen in its large buildings, statues, murals, and ceilings.
The temple’s 43.5-meter-tall pagoda is China’s second largest pagoda of its kind, with wooden mortise and tenon joint structure, after the Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County. This one has five floors, three of which have windows. The roof is decorated with gold plate and the base is bedecked with a lotus pond. There is an underground palace below it that is made of 100 tons of pure copper, the largest object of its kind in china. The central chamber is brilliant and contains relics of the monk, Master Hui Ming, of Yuan, and has some 1,000 Buddhist statues of all sizes, giving it the name, “1,000-Buddha Underground Palace.” It is most certainly one of Datong City’s landmarks.
Way to the east of the Sanggan River is some flat terrain of the Datong basin, where about 30 amazing volcanic cones rise up, known as the Datong volcanic cluster. This area, hundreds of thousands of years ago, was a large lake stretching for 9,000 square kilometres. Then volcanoes on the lake-bed erupted, boiling the water and, when the lava cooled down, it solidified and became hills. About 60,000 years ago, the volcanoes were extinct, resulting in what we see now. It’s worth noting that the Haotian Temple sits above the crater of Haotian Mountain. Strangely, no one knows when it was built. It’s been said that the temple was built by an army prisoner, and that the building materials were carried by a flock of sheep.
The Cultural Wonder of Xiangguang Cave
There is a succession of scenic spots along the basin of the Sanggan River as it heads eastward. At its source is the “Underground Huihe River,” which is one of the eight important sites of Ningwu County. Of the eight scenic spots of Yingxian County, in Shanxi, which the river flows through, one is the “Sanggan River Mist and Rain.” Other scenes are the “Green Sanggan River” of Huairen County, and the “Sanggan River Competing Ferry” in Shanyin County. In Datong, the “Evening Ferry on the Sanggan River” is known as the most spectacular of all the eight great sites. When the Sanggan River enters Zhangjiakou, there is an even more splendid sight, with the “Sanggan River Ancient Ferry” of old Xining (today’s Yangyuan County), which tops the county’s eight great sites. The “Sanggan River Autumn Flood,” in Zhuolu County, completes the list of the eight famous scenes of Zhuolu County.
By entering Hebei Province, the Sanggan River witnessed a vast span of human development and turned out to be one of the most historical places with the greatest cultural heritage. On the very spot where Yanggao County, in Shanxi Province, joins Yangyuan County, in Hebei Province,
people have found Middle Paleolithic ruins, referred to as the Xujiayao-houjiayao Site. Some 20 human bones have been unearthed, including skull fragments and teeth, around 10,000 pieces of stoneware, and many horn tools, and mammal fossils. The stoneware bears the marks of the Small Paleolithic in Northern China, with a multitude of stone balls. The humans can be dated back about 100,000 years, and were given the name “Xujiayao Man.” These discoveries filled a gap between the “Peking Man” discovery, from the Lower Paleolithic, and the “Zhiyu Man,” of the Upper Paleolithic and is important for research on the migration and evolution of early humans in China.
In eastern Yangyuan County, Heibei Province and on the north bank of the Sanggan River at the Nihewan Basin near the town of Huashaoying human remains from some 2,000,000 years ago had already been found. The Nihewan Basin site produced a large number of remains over an equally long time span, covering all of the Palaeolithic. The sites contained tens of thousands of human and animal bones and stoneware of all types, recording almost the entire process of human evolution, allowing scientists to figure out how human beings evolved from the Lower to the Middle Paleolithic, and to the Upper Paleolithic, and how they created the Small Paleolithic and then the Microlithic Culture. Currently, of all the excavated hominoid fossils, human bones, and important paleoanthropological relics, no other site can independently show the sequence of human evolution except for the Sanggan River basin and the surrounding area.
If you follow the Sanggan River eastward, you will reach the Sanggan River canyon in the southernmost part of Xuanhua County, near the city of Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. The canyon borders the Nihewan Palaeoanthropic Vestige to the west, the Yellow Emperor town of Zhuolu to the east, and the 1,000-year-old Bailin Temple to the north. The canyon is blessed with beautiful mountains and clear waters and is a masterpiece of nature with a rich culture.
There are high mountains with steep cliffs in the area the Sanggan River runs through, with twists and turns, and a sense of mystery. Deep in the canyon, some strange rooms were carved into a cliff on the east bank of the Sanggan River. These are the Taoist grottoes and Xiangguang Cave. If you follow the winding path that clings to the cliff, you can reach 28 Taoist temples in the cave. These temples have unusual palaces that copy Xuankong Temple in the way they hang on the cliff. The highest structure in the cave is several hundred metres up from the bottom of the canyon.
If you work your way up the newly repaired path, you can feel a strong wind battering the cliff, as the Sanggan River rushes on. The temples have both single room or suites and are 3-to-4 metres deep and sandwiched in the cliffs or perch on timber poles. The Weizheng Shrine on the mountainside comes
with a viewing platform on a bracket stuck into the mountain, from which you can view all the landscape and nature around. The Weizheng Shrine is in a space that is compact but not cramped and a fresh breeze buffets the oval stone window below it, buoying your spirits.
A Pearl beyond the Great Wall
Guanting Reservoir, which stretches between Huailai County around Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province and Yanqing County in the Beijing area, is known for its picturesque landscape. The clear water, abundance of fish and boats, and hills nearby have given the reservoir the title of “A Pearl beyond the Great Wall.”
The Sanggan River enters the reservoir in Zhuolu County and the Yanghe River reaches it in Xuanhuan County, near Zhuguantun Village, southwest of Huailai County, producing the “Yongding River.” The Yongding River then flows southeast, meeting with the Guishui River, from Yanqing County, and heads south to the Guanting Reservoir, the origin of the Yongding River.
Building the Guanting Reservoir was done at the cost of the town of Huailai and various villages. Before the area was inundated, Huailai, at the foot Woniu Mountain, had been a famous place beyond the Great Wall and the seat of the Huailai County government going way back. The town was on the road to Beijing and Tianjin on the east and Shanxi and Inner Mongolia to the west, and was a military garrison for various dynasties. Huailai was known as a “Famous Town for Beijing and Environs” and the “Key to the North Gate.” Nonetheless, even with its glorious past, the town had to be sacrificed to build the Guanting Reservoir so it is nowhere to be found these days. However, the reservoir has contributed a great deal to people’s wellbeing.
For thousands of years, the Yongding River nurture Beijing thanks to the Sanggan River, but it was also something of a scourge during the flood season. It would inundate tracts of land and villages and even threatened the very survival of Beijing and Tianjin. Before the People’s Republic of China was established, eight counties east of the Yongding River had been flooded and the streets of Tianjin was so covered with water that boats could maneuver on them. The memory of this misery still remains for some. Guanting Reservoir was completed in May 1954 and was the first large reservoir to be built by the new People’s Republic of China. It can help control flooding, store water, irrigate crops, and ensure a supply of household and industrial water for Beijing. It can also improve the climate, the environment, and the landscape of areas beyond the Great Wall, where water was previously scarce and sandstorms common. In this way, the Yongding River went from being a curse to a source of wellbeing.
Nihewan Geological Relics, is a national-level nature reserve.
Xuankong Temple (Hanging Temple) in Datong
Sanggan River flows across northern Shanxi.
Huihe River is a source of Sanggan River.
Xiangguang Cave, a cluster of Taoist caves located on Sanggan River canyon
Guanting Reservoir, a pearl beyond the Great Wall