From "coal capital" to cultural magnet, historic city gains new life

By Tian Ying, Wang Xuetao, Chai Hailiang (Xinhua) 14:47, June 19, 2023

People visit the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, north China's Shanxi Province, June 7, 2023. Datong, with a history of over 2,000 years, is one of China's ancient capitals. In recent years, Datong has developed its tourism combining rich cultural heritages and well-known attractions. The historic city is shining with a new vitality. (Xinhua/Yang Chenguang)

DATONG, Shanxi, June 19 (Xinhua) -- From a frontier land between agricultural communities and nomadic tribes to a major city in north China bearing the name "Great Harmony;" and from a coal-polluted industrial hub to a pristine tourist magnet with countless historical treasures, Datong spins a yarn of openness, resilience, and innovation.

Present-day Datong is a city in north China's Shanxi Province that once powered China's economic take-off with a huge output of coal. It is now blazing new trails for growth by tapping into its 2,000-plus-year history and over 3,000 pieces of immovable cultural relics, amid a nationwide renewed interest in traditional culture. The changes have also impacted many locals' lives.

Riding a tourist boom of Datong, Lu Xin (stage name A Lang), a 36-year-old electrician-turned-singer, can afford to make writing and singing songs about the city his full-time job. Day in and day out, he draws inspiration from tidbits of his life in Datong, and more importantly, from the rich cultural heritage of the city.


Sandwiched between two winding sections of the Great Wall, and situated at the easternmost tip of the Silk Road during the 5th century, Datong is destined to be a hub where diverse ethnic groups from north China, as well as Chinese and foreigners, can engage in cultural interactions.

Its distinct geography and history have contributed to the unique ethos of the city -- openness and inclusivity. Yao Zijin, a local culture specialist, said Datong stands as an epitome of the history of the multi-ethnic and unified Chinese nation coming into shape.

Two historical events set monumental examples for generations to come.

As early as 2,330 years ago, King Wuling, ruler of Zhao State where the modern-day Datong was located during China's Warring States Period (475 BC-221 BC), feared that the flapping robes Zhao commanders and soldiers wore could be a hindrance to military forces. The ruler initiated a military reform that is now encapsulated in a four-character idiom namely "Wearing the Hu-styled attire and shooting from horseback."

By adopting a much tighter attire that suited the horse-riding needs of nomadic ethnic groups (generally categorized as Hu back then) and training the calvary horseback archery, King Wuling's reforms greatly improved the fighting capabilities of the Zhao military. However, this change came with a fair share of pushback.

The event served as a curtain-raiser for greater interaction and mutual learning between different ethnic groups inhabiting the ancient Datong region. King Wuling's mausoleum is now a cultural heritage site in Datong.

Datong's ancient glory reached its apex when Pingcheng (an ancient name of the city) became the capital of the Xianbei-founded Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). Rulers of the Xianbei ethnic group settled in the Datong region and decided to learn from Han Chinese by adopting their family names, speaking their language, and wearing Han-style clothing.

Nowhere are the signs of such mutual learning, blending and mixing more visible than in the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring over 50,000 pieces of stone Buddhist sculptures in Datong, built largely during the Northern Wei Dynasty.

A technician with the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute maintains a piece of relics at the Yungang Grottoes in Datong, north China's Shanxi Province, May 7, 2021. (Xinhua/Zhan Yan)

Architectures encompassing not only Chinese style but also featuring elements of Indian and even Greek design are found in the caves of Yungang. Sculptures that feature musical scenes in 24 caves offer a kaleidoscope of musical instruments ranging from Han Chinese style Zithers and flutes, horns of the Xianbei ethnic group, waist-affixed drums of the Qiuci State, to Persian style harps.

Yuan Xiaozhong, 55, has witnessed the vicissitudes the Grottoes survived in half a century. Born in the Yungang Village adjacent to the Grottoes, Yuan now heads the monitoring department of the research institute of Yungang Grottoes.

"By delving deeper into the Grottoes, I became increasingly convinced that the splendid Chinese civilization was jointly created by people from various ethnic groups. It was the mutual learning between different cultures that sustained and invigorated Chinese culture, and that is also the wellspring of our cultural confidence," he said.


Fast-forward to the modern era. Datong, a city once heavily-reliant on coal mining, has diversified its industrial mix by embracing cleaner industries including modern medicines, general aviation, new materials, new energy, and above all, the cultural and tourism industry.

Since the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Datong has contributed a total output of over three billion tonnes of coal, however, heavy pollution has been an inconvenient by-product of coal production.

Yuan Xiaozhong recalled the city was once woefully polluted to the point that Buddha sculptures in Yungang Grottoes were joked about by locals as draped with black cassocks.

The city then embarked on protection and renovation projects on its cultural heritage sites, as well as an environmental face-lift. Over the past decade, the share of the non-coal industry in the city's industrial mix rose by 10 percentage points.

From 2012 to 2019, the aggregate revenue of Datong's tourism industry skyrocketed from about 16.28 billion yuan (about 2.28 billion U.S. dollars) to 76.21 billion yuan, and the number of tourist visits from about 18.9 million to 83.97 million.

Today, a coal mine across a river from the Yungang Grottoes was retrofitted into a coal-themed national park, where visitors are shuttled in mine carts down to below 150 meters underground, clad in miners' uniforms, to learn closely about the 140-million-year-old fossil fuel.

Wei Min, 23, a daughter of a coal miner, now works here as an in-house tour guide. "I am working with my father in the same place, but for totally different industries," she said.

The restoration of Datong ancient city, which commenced in 2008, provided another tourist attraction. The city wall inspired the local singer Lu Xin. Watching the sunset from the city wall and listening to wind chimes tinkling, Lu found himself in dialogue with the city, past and present.

Visitors take photos on the ancient city wall in Datong, north China's Shanxi Province, June 8, 2023. (Xinhua/Yang Chenguang)

Thanks to the boom of local tourism, Lu's band managed to stage scores of shows every year, vis-a-vis only a little more than a dozen of shows a year in the past. Going forward, Lu said, "I plan to launch the immersive kind of street shows on a regular basis, telling my Datong stories to a greater audience."

The boom came amid burgeoning interest in traditional Chinese culture across the country, particularly among young folks. Overcrowded cultural venues are everywhere to be seen in the city.

A Great-Wall-themed photography exhibition held in Datong's Nianxia arts center drew long lines of visitors. Stores selling creative souvenirs are packed with tourists. The dance performance that tries to capture the beauty of a smiling Buddha sculpture in the Huayan Monastery, another cultural heritage site in Datong, also gained popularity.

Tourists flocked to Datong and shared on social media how they were marveled by this previously "underrated" city. In a video uploaded by a woman from Beijing who called herself yuanxiaozhuAndy on lifestyle-sharing social media platform Xiaohongshu, the narrator said, "Datong is a living history of Chinese architecture and a rare feast to the eyes."

Expressing his affection for the city with singing, Lu Xin hums, "In the moonlight of Datong, past and present meet and drift apart, numerous heroes come and go, the aroma of spirit wafting in breeze and dreams."

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Liang Jun)


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