Guilin is most famous for its amazing karst landscape of unusually shaped mountains interlaced in rivers, as featured by our recent blog post “Ride the River”. However, there is also a very important landmark from Chinese history located in Guilin which your typical traveler isn’t aware of. It was as important to the Chinese people of the past as the famous Forbidden City in Beijing, and was considered as its southern counterpart. This landmark is known as the Jingjiang Prince’s City located in central Guilin and is described as a “city within a city”. (We will refer to Jingjiang Prince’s City simply as “Prince’s City” for the remainder of the article.) Emperors, kings, and princes alike all lived in this complex over the hundreds of years it was in royal use.
The Prince’s City was constructed between the years 1372-1392 AD during the Ming Dynasty. It is actually older than the Forbidden City which was completed in the year 1420 AD. The Prince’s City was built using the ancient art of feng shui to design the layout of the city, the buildings themselves, as well as in deciding where to establish the city. Feng shui instructs practitioners to study the land to understand the flow of bio-electric energy, especially in how this energy flows around and over mountains and courses through rivers. The city sits between two hills, which are directly north and south of it. There is another hill or peak within the Prince’s city in the center of the northern half. This peak is known as the Solitary Beauty Peak and will be described in more detail later. The location of this site was chosen because of the flowing bodies of water to the east and west and the locations of the mountain peaks running on an axis from north to south. The Chinese consider this as a very auspicious and unique geography to build a palace.
The city is enclosed in a square wall fortified with square bluestones and is a total length of 1.5 kilometers. To enter Prince’s City you will pass through an impressive, arched tunnel, which cuts through the grand perimeter wall over 100 feet thick. There are other points of entry but the south tunnel is the primary entrance and the main buildings are all situated facing south. As you pass through the tunnel and step foot into the Prince’s City you will see a vast expanse of land decorated with yellow and red buildings. All the buildings in the city have this same yellow brick with red roof color scheme. Continue straight down the main path and you will encounter the brilliant Chengyun Gate, which name translates as “ordained by heaven” gate. An aerial view of the city shows a symmetrical design with pairs of buildings, one in the east and one in the west, as well as buildings built along the center of the square created by the perimeter wall. Some of the different attractions within the Prince’s City are:
- Solitary Beauty Peak
- Cheng Yun Palace
- Fortune Well
- Examination House
- Confucius Temple
- Study Cave
- Peace Grotto
Solitary Beauty Peak dominates as a main attraction because it is a 700 ft mountain peak in the center of the northern half of Prince’s City. It can be seen from anywhere in the city. Since the rest of the complex is flat, this solitary peak stands in stark contrast to everything else. On top of the peak sits one humble temple; humble in that it is not overly elaborate nor very large.
On your way up the 306 steps you will encounter ancient carvings in the rocks as well as a small shrine to the Chinese god of wealth.
From the top of the peak, you will be awarded a 360-degree panoramic view of Guilin City with the Lijiang River to the east. The climb is steep but should take an average person of good health no more than 15-20 minutes to reach the summit. At the top there are some pieces of art such as the intertwined snake and turtle sculpture and a carved stone tablet bearing Taoist symbols and poetic text. It is recommended to hire one of the English speaking tour guides working in Prince’s city to accompany you and explain the meaning behind everything you see.
From the base of Solitary Beauty Peak you may look up at the northeastern face of the rock to see an enormous Chinese inscription carving. It is a poetic phrase found in three areas of China: Hainan Island, Hunan Province, and here in Guilin. The Chinese phrase is “南天一柱” and there is debate as to what this phrase truly means. The literal translation of the characters is “south sky (or heaven) one post”. It could mean “one pillar under the southern sky” and could refer to a place/person of extreme importance, which was perceived to support the heavens with its greatness. Perhaps you can pose the question to your tour guide and find out what interpretation they can provide.
Also at the base of the peak there is a small lake you can rest beside while you enjoy the landscape. After a few minutes exploring the lake you can make your way to the opposite side of the peak’s base to find the Peace Grotto and Study Cave. The grotto has several beautiful statutes carved into the rock itself of Buddhist figures in meditation posture.
Continue around and past the grotto to locate the entrance of the Study Cave. It is known that the emperors, kings, and princes used this cave for study and for meditation. When they found themselves in the middle of tough situations which required big decisions to be made, the cave was used as a place of solitude to pray and meditate on the issues at hand. When you enter the cave you will instantly notice the absence of wind, absence of outside noise, and absence of outside light. It is easy to imagine how much inner peace you could build up by spending time in the cave alone and dedicating your reserves of energy to solving the problems within your mind. This cave also has many stone engravings of historical figures and text as well as sculptures. One example bears the Taoist yin-yang symbol, which is meant to represent the balance of night/day, positive/negative, heaven/earth, and many other natural phenomenon.
In conclusion, the Jingjiang Prince’s city has a rich history and if you study this area, you could learn a lot about Chinese culture from just this one site. It has elements of feng shui, Taoism, poetry, religious significance, as well as historical significance when you consider all the members of royalty that lived within these walls over the centuries. If the history and cultural relics are not quite your cup of tea, you might enjoy the Prince’s city simply for its architectural brilliance and for the beautiful green mountains and rushing rivers. Guilin has much to offer and we hope you all get a chance to enjoy this legendary place as there is no other quite like it on the planet.
Excited to see these sights for yourself? Start your trip by checking out the Chinese visa requirements here.