Guilin is blessed by nature.
This city in China’s southern Guangxi province is surrounded by green farmland spiked by limestone karst hills, through which the Li River meanders.
It’s these environmental wonders that attract most of the millions of tourists who throng Guilin each year, taking river cruises and exploring the terraced rice fields of nearby Longsheng.
But few of them are aware of Guilin’s glorious royal history and its very own – crowd-free – Forbidden City.
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Jingjiang Princes’ City
The opulent complex of Jingjiang Princes’ City, or Jingjiang Palace, sits in the center of Guilin and has a longer history than Beijing’s Forbidden City.
It was built in the 14th century for Zhu Shouqian, great nephew of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Over two and a half centuries, the mansion was home to 14 Ming princes.
Later it became the base of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who shaped modern China by helping to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.
Jingjiang’s setting is just as magnificent as its history.
More than 50 classically styled buildings sit inside its 1.5-kilometer-long perimeter wall.
It’s dominated by Solitary Beauty Peak (Duxiu Feng), a 216-meter-tall limestone outcrop topped by a temple.
Visitors ascending the peak’s 306 steps are rewarded by stunning views of Guilin city and the surrounding countryside.
As well as being a tourist attraction, Jingjiang is part of the campus of Guangxi Normal University.
Students relax on the lawns as travelers stroll by.
Destruction and restoration
None of the site’s main buildings are 14th century, as Jingjiang was badly damaged twice during the Qing Dynasty (which lasted from 1644 to 1912) and again during the Japanese invasion in World War II.
A few stone stairways and balustrades are all that remain from the original complex, which was arranged as an inner city to protect the princes, their families and other dignitaries.
Fortunately, it’s been rebuilt over the past century and will be safeguarded thanks to the national protection status it was granted in 1993.
Despite the destruction it has suffered, it’s still considered China’s best preserved princes’ city of the Ming Dynasty.
Adhering to the architectural style of the Ming Dynasty, it has a symmetrical layout with its key buildings forming the spine of the site.
Perhaps the most iconic of these structures is Chengyun Gate, which marks the southern entrance to Jingjiang.
Its striking golden-hued facade and tiered eaves hint at the majesty within the complex.
As they pass beneath its lofty arch, visitors meet the Princes’ Path.
Walking along this narrow stone lane, flanked by manicured hedges and rows of red lanterns, it’s easy to imagine the splendid royal processions it once hosted.
The path leads to Chengyun Palace, the most imposing of Jingjiang’s buildings, which for centuries operated as its administrative center.
Restored in 1947 according to its original design, the palace’s intricately carved stone rails offer the last evidence of the tremendous craftsmanship involved in the original construction of Jingjiang.
The palace is now home to a museum detailing the history of Jingjiang, and also offers traditional Qing Dynasty dance demonstrations.
The Examination Hall
On either side of the palace are elegant tree-lined boulevards which flow towards Solitary Beauty Peak and, in its shadow, the former Royal Quarters.
The Quarters aren’t always open to the public and hold less interest than the other sites that surround the peak.
Ancient stone inscriptions are to be found within two caves at the base of this towering rock formation.
One of the earliest recognized poems written in the Guilin area was carved into the wall of this cave about 1,600 years ago, celebrating the region’s environmental gifts.
Stepping out of the cave and peering up at the majestic peak it becomes clear what inspired this poetry.
As they do to this day, artists flocked to this site in the Qing and Ming Dynasties to document its beauty in words and on canvas.
It also attracted scholars, who underwent searching tests within the whitewashed walls of the Examination Hall on the western side of the peak.
Tourists can enter the rebuilt hall to relive these scholarly endeavors by taking part in mock examinations, using brush pens.
It’s a quirky way to finish a visit to Jingjiang, the royal complex that in its grandiosity rivals Guilin’s natural splendor.
Ronan O’Connell is a freelance photojournalist. He’s contributed to numerous media outlets including CNN, BBC, The Guardian, Travel Talk magazine and The Australian Financial Review.