The early morning sun, still low on the horizon, casts grotesque shadows in the main square here as groups of Tai Chi exercisers go through their routines. It's a scene repeated in virtually every Chinese city, but in Shenyang there's a difference. The exercisers brandish long swords or sticks fashioned like swords.
This is the gateway to the area of China known as Manchuria. At one time, the Manchus -- hard-riding, hard-fighting warriors whose descendants still exercise with real or symbolic swords -- built an Imperial Palace there, a Forbidden City, the only other such complex in China outside of Beijing.
Built in 1625, the Imperial Palace consists of 300 rooms in 70 structures on 15 acres. A dozen or so years later, marching relentlessly to Beijing, the Manchus ousted the ruling Ming Dynasty by breaching the Great Wall of China, not by force of arms but by another time-honored military strategy. They bribed corrupt Ming officers, who thereby opened a gate. Establishing the Qing ("pure") Dynasty, they ruled China for the next three centuries.
The Imperial Palaces in Beijing and Shenyang bear a remarkable resemblance. They should, since the Manchus, when they ousted the Ming emperor, pillaged the Beijing Forbidden City, leveling it virtually to the ground. About a hundred years later, in 1750, they rebuilt it on the same 250-acre site, with 9,000 rooms in six palaces and many smaller structures.
The Imperial Palace in Beijing today is pretty much what the Manchus constructed. Both palaces now are museums.
Shenyang, the capital city of Liaoning province, is about 525 miles northeast of Beijing. With almost 3 million city residents and 4 1/2 million in the metropolitan area, it claims to be the fourth-largest metropolis in China, behind Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin.
Claiming a history that dates back 2,000 years, the city was known as Mukden. It earned a footnote in history when, in 1931, it was the scene of the "Mukden Incident," the first military action by the Japanese of World War II. Manchuria had been invaded by the Japanese three years earlier, but for the first time they had to use force to conquer the city.
They then established a puppet regime called Manchukuo and installed as emperor Henry Puyi, who was the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, deposed in 1911. His life story is the basis for the award-winning motion picture "The Last Emperor."
Historically, the fame of Shenyang also is based on a tradition for producing acrobats. That tradition still continues today; in the large gymnasium of the Shenyang Acrobatic Troupe/School, you'll see groups of youngsters, clad in red shirts and black tights, perform feats of acrobatic prowess. About 150 professional acrobats who give performances worldwide also provide the training for about 50 youngsters.
Perhaps the most intriguing insight to Manchuria -- and indeed to modern-day China -- comes with a visit to Xisheng Village, about 13 miles west of Shenyang. At one time, this 410-acre site was a rich farm commune, explains Mr. Chang, the village leader, speaking through an interpreter.
"As a commune," he says, "Xisheng was poor and backward, producing about 400,000 kilograms [about 440 tons] of rice annually. Per-capita income averaged about 250 yuan, and the living standard was low."
But in 1978, when the central government adopted new policies of rural economic reform, the 1,000 residents were reconstituted into a "village government." Fields were contracted to farmer households and soon grain yield increased by almost 300 percent. Half is sold at fixed prices to the government, and the balance sold on the free market. Annual per capita income almost tripled, to 650 yuan, he notes.
"Since then, the entire village has been going all out to find ways of becoming rich," he adds with a broad grin. Today, he says, living standards for the village have been dramatically raised. All families, living in substantial brick houses, enjoy running water, as well as TV sets, washing machines and tape recorders. Some even have purchased motorcycles and trucks.
As you wander freely about the village, it becomes apparent that China's strict "one-child-per-family" rule is not strongly enforced on the farm. You're also struck by the realization that the friendly children are clothed far more elaborately than their parents.
Much has been written and said about Chinese cuisine. While most experts agree that there are four major types, few seem able to agree on what they are. A booklet prepared by the venerable Beijing Hotel nominates one choice: Cantonese, "five tastes and flavors;" "land of plenty;" Huai Yang, from the Jiangsu province near Shanghai, and Tanjia, which traces its origins to the Qing Dynasty and features bird's nest and shark's fin soups.
While the cuisine of Manchuria doesn't seem to appear on any list, the food is unique.