East China is a key area of China historically, politically, and economically.
The region is an economic powerhouse beyond even the Pearl River Delta in South China. If this area were a country, its population of 156 million (2010 census) would be 8th largest in the world (after Nigeria, ahead of Bangladesh), and its GDP of over $15 billion would be 12th (after Canada, ahead of Australia). The area has many millions of migrants from poorer provinces of China — especially Anhui just inland from it, and Sichuan — who come mainly to seek work.
The main cities of the region include:
- Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), capital of China under the Southern Song, 1127-1279; Marco Polo wrote the city is beyond dispute the finest and the noblest in the world.
- Nanjing (Jiangsu Province), capital of China under several dynasties, of the Tai Ping Kingdom in the 19th century, and of the Republic of China 1912-1949. Its history goes back to several hundred BCE and for most of that time it has been one of the most important cities in China.
- Ningbo (Zhejiang Province), a major trading port in the tea clipper era, still an important port and industrial city
- Shanghai, unlike other cities in the area, did not become very important until the 19th century, though some neighborhoods date back much further. Relics of the city's heyday — 1840s to 1930s — abound, a fascinating mixture of East and West. Today, Shanghai is the hub of the region and the financial and fashion center of China.
- Suzhou (Jiangsu Province), old city of canals and gardens, capital of one of the three states in the Three Kingdoms Period, 220-280 CE. Today a major center of hi-tech industry.
- Wenzhou (Zhejiang Province), a busy seaport and industrial city
- Xuzhou (Jiangsu Province), largest city in the province.
- Yangzhou (Jiangsu Province), an old trading city on the Yangtze, center of the salt trade for centuries.
- Zhenjiang (Jiangsu Province), an important trading port on the Yangtze and a former British concession.
There is a Chinese saying: Heaven has paradise, but Earth has Hangzhou and Suzhou.
Both cities are among the most-visited destinations for Chinese tourists, and also major destinations for international tourism. Their main attractions — the classical gardens of Suzhou and West Lake in the center of Hangzhou — are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
All these cities are now quite modern, heavily industrialised, very busy, and still expanding.
Some scenic areas in the region provide a somewhat rural escape for city dwellers:
- Lake Tai is a large lake in the center of the region, right on the Jiangsu-Zhejiang border.
- Mount Putuo is an island near Ningbo, a national park with an important Buddhist temple.
Much of the region is flat Yangtze Delta terrain and has water towns, the traditional market towns for agricultural areas and now tourist attractions. All have picturesque canals with old houses along them and many bridges, and many are set up to accommodate tourists.
- Shaoxing 绍兴, is the largest of these, a city of about half a million. It attracts many Chinese tourists to whom it is famous as the "town of fish and rice", an expression indicating prosperity.
- There are three within Shanghai Municipality. Qibao is close to downtown and can be reached by metro. Zhujiajiao and Fengjing are further out and need a bus ride.
- Xitang, an historic town south-west of Shanghai. The final scene from Mission Impossible 3 was filmed here.
- Wuzhen 乌镇 is close to Hangzhou and makes a good stop en route between Shanghai and Hangzhou. There are buses from Shanghai Stadium.
- Zhouzhuang, located between Shanghai and Suzhou.
Until the 19th century, Hangzhou and Nanjing were the great cities of this region; both have been the capital of China, Nanjing under several different regimes. Suzhou was another important city, famous for its gardens, canals and silk. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Wu at a time when China was divided.
In the 19th century, China lost two "Opium Wars" to foreign powers, and was forced to open certain Treaty Ports to foreign trade in the treaties that ended those wars. Ningbo and Shanghai were opened in the 1840s, after the first war; both developed very rapidly after that. Until then, Shanghai was not a particularly significant town, though it did enjoy a strategic position at the mouth of the great Yangtze River, but by the early 20th century Shanghai became one of the world's richest and wildest cities. After the second opium war in the 1860s, cities further inland up the Yangtze were opened — Zhenjiang, Nanjing and Hankou (now part of Wuhan). They also developed considerably and the region as a whole did quite well from then until the 1930s.
Then everything went wrong; this region was one of the areas of China that Japan succeeded in conquering (see Pacific War), and they suffered horrendously under Japanese occupation, 1937 to 1945. Then there were the Chinese Civil War, 1945-1949, the Great Leap Forward in the 50s, and the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976; all caused severe problems in this region.
In the "reform and opening up" since 1978, this area has benefited enormously. Shanghai is again definitely one of the world's greatest cities, and Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing are not far behind. All are very modern cities with lots of large new roads and buildings, and all have subway systems with some lines in service and more under construction. Between the cities are both more large new roads and an extensive rail network including many fast efficient bullet train links. More of everything is under construction; cranes are visible everywhere. The entire region is a hive of industry, one of the most prosperous in China. It is a magnet for migrants from poorer regions who come here in droves seeking work.
As anywhere in China, Mandarin is the lingua franca; nearly everyone can speak it except some of the elderly. As elsewhere in China, English is not widespread but some people speak it quite well.
The region does have its own language group, called Wu. This is a populous region and the number of Wu speakers is large (second only to Mandarin). The language is also referred to as Shanghai dialect or Shanghainese, though strictly Shanghainese is a dialect of Wu. There are many local variants of Wu; the prestige dialect is that of Suzhou (an older city, capital of the Kingdom of Wu centuries back, and home to many scholars), not that of Shanghai. Wu is spoken over quite a broad area, including Shanghai, most of Zhejiang, parts of Jiangsu and even a few places in Anhui, but different local variants can be quite different. If you happen to be in command of some Shanghainese, for example, you would be understood easily in nearby cities like Suzhou and Jiaxing, but not further afield. Dialects of Mandarin are spoken natively in northern Jiangsu, such as the area around Nanjing.
Perhaps the commonest way to reach the area is to fly to Shanghai. There are two airports in the city with Pudong as a major international airport with connections all over the world and Hongqiao that is closer to the centre and handles mainly domestic flights, plus some to nearby countries such as South Korea. Buses and the Metro line 2 connect the two, taking about an hour. There are also direct buses from either airport to major cities in the region; see the city articles for details.
Shanghai Metro Line 2 (the main East-West line through downtown) goes to both airports and to the new Hongqiao train station right next to Hongqiao airport, which has high-speed trains to many places in the region and beyond. This is not a convenient way to get between the airports if you have a lot of luggage, because you need to change trains once. On the other hand, if you are travelling light and have a bit of time to spare, you can easily jump off somewhere in the middle for a quick look at central Shanghai.
The area is well-connected by China's rail and road networks. There are good highways and a high-speed rail network.
- Along the Yangtze River and Along the Grand Canal both cover some routes in this area; both also extend beyond it.
This region is geographically in the center of the Chinese coast and is well-connected by road, rail or air to anywhere else in China. Going north, major attractions include Qingdao and Beijing. Heading south, Wuyi Mountain and Xiamen are reasonably close. Going west, Huangshan, Wuhan and Xi'an beckon. Of course there are other interesting places in all directions as well.