Hemmed in by mountains, Jiangxi's rugged topography has made it a backwater for centuries. Even today, it remains unknown to most travelers and relatively free of the rapid development transforming enormous swaths of southeastern China into something approximating the world's biggest industrial park.
That means that a week or so of leisurely exploration of Jiangxi's rivers, lakes, scenic peaks and misty valleys can make for a very different experience of the Middle Kingdom than the typical tours of popular (and crowded) hotspots. And if you only have a day or two, sights and attractions within easy reach of the capital, Nanchang, are a great way to introduce yourself to Jiangxi's charms.
From the craggy outlooks of Lu Shan in the north to the rugged ridges of the southwest's extensive Jinggang Shan range, travelers seeking idyllic scenes reminiscent of classical Chinese landscape paintings will find plenty to satisfy.
The mountains are complemented by Jiangxi's extensive waterways. The Gan River runs the length of the province, emptying into Poyang Hu (Lake Poyang), a birdwatcher's paradise frequented by wintering Siberian cranes, among some half million other migratory birds, while a stretch of the mighty Yangzi (Yangzte) River forms Jiangxi's northern border.
None of this is to say that Jiangxi is pure nature-lover paradise. Nanchang is home to a number of heavy industries and much of the city will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time in any number of eastern Chinese urban centers, though it retains a great deal of old-world charm in a number of pleasant narrow streets. And ancient Jingdezhen has a long tradition of making China's finest china, the region's unique clay having played an important role in the development of porcelain manufacture, which to this day is at the heart of Jingdezhen's economy.
Jiangxi's mountains don't only provide refuge for birds and hikers. From China's earliest days and well into the 20th century, they've also been home to the persecuted and embattled, beginning with the flight of southern Yue people ahead of steadily advancing ethnic Han Chinese under the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD) dynasties and culminating some 2,000 years later with the legendary Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet established by Mao Zedong and his comrades.
The region was first integrated into greater China by the extension of the Grand Canalsouthward into nearby Zhejiang Province. Though the canal fell short of Jiangxi proper, the region's natural network of rivers and lakes linked it to the Grand Canal via the Yangzi, opening central and southern Jiangxi to settlement around Poyang Hu and on the Gan Riverplain.
While low-lying and well-watered regions in north central Jiangxi were favorable for farming and light industry—China's ceramics industry took a quantum leap in Jingdezhen with the development of porcelain—its rugged backcountry has been, even to this day, largely undeveloped.
As dynasties rose and fell over centuries, the region remained a backwater, harboring stable if modest industry and agricultural communities surrounded by rugged wilderness good for hunting game and hiding out, if not much else. And so it was when the last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), finally collapsed, clearing the state for Jiangxi came to play a special role in the creation of modern China.
Under increasingly ruthless pressure from Chaing Kai-shek's nationalist Kuomintang, the Chinese communists withdrew from Shanghai and other urban strongholds and based themselves in back-country Jiangxi during the 1920s and early '30's. There, they successfully established the Jiangxi-Fujian Soviet in the wake of 1927's Nanchang Uprising on August 1, 1927—widely held to be the day the Red Army was born. And in 1931, the communists convened in southeastern Jiangxi's Ruijin where they established the Chinese Soviet Republic.
The Kuomintang, determined to wipe out their rivals, subsequently turned much of Jiangxi into a battlefield, encircling dug-in communist regions and slowly pushing Mao and his comrades westward. The communists established a final Jiangxi redoubt in Jinggang Shan near the Hunan border, only to break the encirclement in 1934 in an effort to join communist forces to the west.
This was the beginning of the most epically heroic chapter in the story of the founding of the People's Republic, as Mao and Zhou Enlai led their beleaguered but determined forces on the Long March, crossing much of western China before establishing a new stronghold in Yan'an.
After the Allied defeat of the Japanese in 1945 and the communists' triumph over Chiang Kai-shek's forces in 1949, Jiangxi became something of a revolutionary Mecca, with Chinese flocking to memorial sites in Nanchang, Ruijin and Jinggang Shan. The province also played a significant role in the early years of the PRC's efforts to industrialize, with Nanchang in particular developing heavy industries, though its geography has served as a brake on the runaway development familiar to so much of eastern China.
Along the Gan River flood plain in the northern half of Jiangxi a subtropical climate dominates, with mild winters and hot summers averaging up to 30° C in July. In the mountains to the east, west and south, temperatures fall with the elevation, running on average around 6°C lower in upper elevations than on the central plain. With average annual rainfalls running between 120 and 190cm and frequent mists in the mountains and heavy humidity below, summers are often sweltering and winters can be surprisingly chilly.