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Hunan Travel Guide

Hunan Province is one of the northern provinces of southern China, which is to say that it was a southern border region of the ancient, Han Chinese 'Cradle of Chinese Civilization' nucleus territory that gave rise to the China that eventually developed into the large, powerful and influential state that would come to absorb many lesser ethnic groups along the way, either by winning them over – i.e., where the ethnic groups in question were not hostile to the notion of cultural assimilation (and note that even the original Han Chinese, called Hua-Xia ("finely clad people of the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty", where "finely clad" was a relative term, relative to the fact that other, more primitive tribes of the period dressed more caveman-like), were themselves a mix of various ethnic minorities that were cohesive enough to become one, and note as well that the definition, if there is one, of "Han Chinese" continued (continues!) to expand as newer ethnic additions were (are) absorbed*) – or by subduing them, in much the same way that Britain became a unified country consisting of the English, the Scottish, the Welsh and the Irish, just as each of these nationalities most likely originally consisted of a number of separate ethnic tribes.

9-Day Tour to China Southern Ancient Towns

Present-day Hunan Province – whose capital is the city of Changsha , about 50 kilometers south-southeast of Lake Dongting – is bordered by Hubei Province to the north, Jiangxi Province to the east, Guangdong Province to the southeast, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Guangxi) to the southwest, and by Guizhou Province and Chongqing Municipality (formerly a part of Sichuan Province) to the west. Hunan Province lies just south of the Yangtze River, an ancient natural border between the 'Cradle of Chinese Civilization' territory to the north and the lesser developed tribal region to the south.

The "cradle" area of ancient Chinese civilization essentially lay in the fertile river delta that was bordered to the south by the Yangtze River and to the north by the Yellow River, though in reality, in order to protect the Chinese state from the endless waves of Turkic marauders who constantly invaded from the north, ancient "cradle" China was forced to also occupy the territory immediately north of the Yellow River so as to deny any potential enemy access to that important waterway. The southern tribes, in contrast, were of a somewhat less hostile nature, or at least they did not attack the Hua-Xia in endless droves, and, according to historians, though the Miao and Man tribes south of the Yangtze River did eventually do battle with the Hua-Xia, they were no match for them, and having fought their best but lost, they were quick to sue for peace.

All of which conveniently logically leads us to the next section, Hunan's prehistory, but first, a word on the origin of the name, Hunan. The Chinese word Hu means "lake" while the Chinese word nan means "south". The "lake" in question was not a lake in the conventional sense, but a flood basin that acted as a spillover reservoir for the seasonally swollen Yangtze River. The "lake" in question amounts to a collection of low-lying regions that are flooded to one degree or another during the course of the winter and spring seasons (it can swell from a "mere" 3000 square kilometers to a staggering 20,000 square kilometers!). This large flood basin was referred to (is still!) by the Chinese as Lake Dongting – while it was referred to simply as "the lake" by the local Han Chinese* – therefore the region that lay below (south of) "the lake" came to be known as Hu nan, or Hunan as it is more commonly written today.

A Brief Prehistory

Hunan Travel Guide

The oldest pottery known to man – based on relatively recent finds of pottery sherds – is believed to have belonged to Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer-farmers (they also subsisted on rice) residing in a cave (Yuchanyan Cave) in Dao Xian County, Hunan Province, near the present-day city of Shouyanzhen, which lies on the western bank of the Xiaoshui River, about 125 kilometers south of the city of Yongzhou. The Xiaoshui River joins the Xiang River at the city of Lingling, about 20 kilometers south of Yongzhou, also in Hunan Province (for this reason, the city of Yongzhou is referred to by its own inhabitants under the catchy sounding name of Xiaoxiang (pronounced "zhou-zhang")), the Xiang River being of course the principal tributary of the Yangtze River but also Hunan Province's principal river. In fact, an older name for the province, and still its nickname, is Xiang, after the river that runs through it, of course.

The area around Shouyanzhen has many small feeder streams besides the Xiaoshui River, so it was surely an excellent place to hunt game and to fish, and of course to gather fruits and grain-bearing grasses – especially rice, which requires a great deal of water. The Upper Paleolithic inhabitants of Yuchanyan Cave were perhaps the first ever farmers (they harvested an early form of rice, which is probably why they needed pottery in the first place, i.e., as a cauldron in which to cook the rice kernels as well as an urn in which to store the rice/ keep it dry, though to designate these cavemen as farmers is perhaps taxonomic license, since they were likely only gatherers, but since they apparently stored grain, this puts them in the same category as later farmers who, thanks precisely to the ability to store food, could enjoy the culturally-enhancing advantages of a sedentary rather than a nomadic lifestyle (the division of labor that eventually produced artists, mathematicians and scribes as well as smithies, carpenters, pottery makers and farmers was spawned when mankind was freed from the shackles of the cyclical, hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle).

The Yuchanyan Cave site belongs to the Upper Paleolithic era, aka Late Stone Age (prompting some lay folk to refer to the Upper Paleolithic as the Late Paleolithic, which, semantically speaking, isn't exactly incorrect since the Upper Paleolithic is of more recent origin than the Lower Paleolithic, or Early Stone Age – or more correctly, the Old Stone Age). The Yuchanyan Cave stratum where the pottery sherds in question were found has been carbon-dated to be between 17,500 – 18,300 years old.

The technique used to excavate and date the deposits in Yuchanyan Cave are the most accurate used to date, since only small sections (¼ square meter) of the ground are dug so as to isolate only objects which inherently belong together (the usual practice is to dig a much larger 5 square meter plot), since archeologists and anthropologists now agree that caves were "recycled" by early humans spanning thousands of years, some of whom had most likely dug into the stratum for various reasons, displacing and thus "corrupting" the stratum from an archeological-anthropological viewpoint, therefore the new, more restricted method of digging and dating is now widely accepted as being more accurate. Moreover, the pottery sherds of Yuchanyan Cave were found between two layers whose charcoal remains were both dated to be in the range given above, which is just about as good as it gets in archeological dating terms (the Late Stone Age "cavemen" of Yuchanyan Cave, as cavemen elsewhere, lit fires for warmth, as a light source and of course for food preparation).

There have naturally been later archeological sites excavated in Hunan Province, such as the Chengtoushan site in Li County near the village of Chexi stretching over numerous "cultures", from the Daxi Culture (BCE 4000-3300) to the Middle-to-Late Shijiahe Culture, or roughly BCE 2600-2000. Or the Qingshan Site in Xiangyin County near Lake Dongting, which habitation period stretches from the middle of the Daxi Culture period, or roughly BCE 3500, through the Qujialing Culture (BCE 3000-2600) period. These people lived in relatively sophisticated, multiple-room dwellings made of rammed earth, the individual dwellings were interconnected via fired earth pathways with drainage ditches alongside them, they made use of kilns capable of firing very large vessels, and they were real farmers, since they maintained rice paddies with feeder/drainage ditches and dikes that could be opened and closed at will in order to regulate the water level.

Hunan Travel Guide

A Brief History

By the time of the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, the region south of the Yangtze River was inhabited by various ethnic groups known to the Han Chinese rulers to the north, chief among these ethnic groups being the Miao, the Tujia, the Dong and the Yao. The first historical mention of the area lying immediately below Zhou Dynasty China occurred during the middle of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, or around BCE 350, when significant numbers of Han Chinese people began to flee southward into new territory as a result of warring in the north, thus extending the southern boundary of Zhou Dynasty China.

Much of the area in question was sparsely inhabited primeval forest, which the invading Han Chinese* cut down and used for housing, shipbuilding, firewood, etc., the main purpose of clearing the forest being, however, to render the land arable, especially for the purpose of growing rice. The Han Chinese* invaded southward – all across China in fact, including the island of Taiwan – due to the continued encroachment of hostile nomadic Turkic tribes from the north, such as the Xiongnu (and later, their descendants – the Mongolians and the Manchurians – would continue the pressure and would eventually produce emperors who would rule China in the form of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, as regards the Mongolians, and in the form of first the Jürchen Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty, then the Manchu Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, as regards the Jürchens, who would later change their name to Manchus). Many of the small villages of Hunan Province bear the name of one or another Han Chinese* family that settled there and made it big, as it were, even if only locally.

A Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty period silk map depicting the Changsha Kingdom was unearthed from the Mawangdui Han Tomb near the city of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, during the 1972-74 excavations of the site. The silk map clearly shows the waterways of present-day Jianghua County near the city of Yongzhou, replete with towns and villages as well as with the interconnecting roads and pathways of Changsha Kingdom. The map also shows the relative prominence of forests in the kingdom, which covered upwards of 76% of the kingdom's land mass at the time. It also depicts a Yao ethnic enclave in the county, which today has become a Yao ethnic autonomous county – the only Yao ethnic autonomous county in the province.

Hunan was ruled as a separate kingdom, the Ma Chu (CE 927-951) Kingdom – one of ten such kingdoms – during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 897-979) period. The polity was first recognized as a vassal state under the leadership of Ma Yin in CE 896 by the Tang Emperor Zhao Zong, who reigned during the period CE 888-904. In CE 927 the Ma Chu Kingdom emerged with the blessings of the Later Tang (CE 923-936) Dynasty, one of the aforementioned Five Dynasties. The Ma Chu Kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity, becoming a major exporter of silk, tea and horses to the rest of China. When Ma Yin suddenly died in CE 930, there ensued a period of instability in the kingdom due to rivalry among the would-be successors to Ma Yin, though the kingdom continued to exist until it was toppled and absorbed by a fellow kingdom, the Southern Tang (CE 937-975) Kingdom, in CE 951.

Hunan remained within the "southern" embrace (i.e., Han Chinese* embrace) throughout the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, but during the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, a series of peasant uprisings staged by salt workers and tea traders shook much of the territory of the Southern Song, where one of these peasant rebellions, led by a certain Zhong Xiang, "liberated" most of present-day Hunan Province south of Lake Dongting in CE 1130, though this was only a brief interlude in Hunan's history.

Hunan Travel Guide

Thereafter Hunan Province fell under the rule of the Jürchen Jin Dynasty, then the Yuan Dynasty, both of which were led by "northerners", i.e., by Turkic tribes that had finally succeeded in conquering all of China except for small pockets of resistance in the west of the empire. Hunan Province would remain a quiet backwater for the next several centuries.

Early during the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, in 1664, the region that was known as Hunan (and sometimes known as Xiang – see below) was set up as a province. Later, the Qing Dynasty, for some reason, decided to consolidate Hunan Province with Hubei Province (many emperors divided regions up so as to have more "offices" to distribute, thus pleasing more officials and gaining more loyal confederates, but sometimes a region was changed simply in order to break up a given constellation that was not to the emperor's liking, but whether that situation applies here is beyond my knowledge, though it is a fact that the Manchu leaders of the Qing Dynasty were constantly fearful that the Han Chinese* Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty would make a comeback).

The enlarged, consolidated province was given the name Huguang Province (note that hu, as earlier mentioned, means "lake", while guang means "expanse", rendering Huguang "lake expanse", roughly (actually, guang also means "bladder", and given what we know of Lake Dongting's role as a spillover reservoir for the Yangtze River, either translation works fine!)). The two provinces were again separated in 1723, when Hunan got its old name back.

During the Qing Dynasty, Hunan Province became a major component in China's agricultural output – a veritable Chinese "bread basket" – providing grain for the entire country. The province's success attracted many newcomers and this eventually became the province's Achilles heel, since there were simply too many farm workers per hectare of arable land, and when floods led to crop failures, this sparked yet more peasant rebellions, the largest of which was a peasant rebellion with ethnic overtones, since the indigenous Miao felt that they had been the losers in the Han Chinese* influx into the province.

The Miao Rebellion (1795-1806), which had spread to neighboring Guizhou Province, was brutally crushed by the Qing government, though the peasant rebellions would continue, and these – and all similar rebellions, also those launched by the anti-Manchu oriented Han Chinese* majority population such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864) – would gradually, like many rivulets that converge to form one large stream, lead to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the famous military strategist who united all opposition to the much hated Manchu Qing government.

Hunan Province became a base for the Chinese Communist Revolution as early as 1927, which was the occasion of the Autumn Harvest Uprising when Mao Zedong led a rebellion among peasants against the Republic of China (1912-1949), establishing the short-lived Hunan Soviet, but like earlier peasant rebellions, the Communist led peasant rebellion directed at the successor government to the Qing government would only return stronger and more determined, even though the Nationalist forces (Kuomintang, or KMT) would eventually drive the communists out of Hunan Province for a period, resulting in the so-called Long March (October 1934) by the Chinese Communists to alternative bases in Shaanxi Province.

The KMT base in Changsha was one of the last Chinese bastions to fall (1944) to the invading Japanese. After the close of WWII (1939-45)/ the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the Communists directed their efforts against the KMT and finally drove the KMT off the mainland, to Taiwan, in 1949.

Present-Day Hunan Province

Hunan Travel Guide

Hunan Province was in a sense cursed by its close link to Mao Zedong, long resisting the market-oriented wave that had earlier been set in motion across China by Deng Xiaoping, just as Hunan Province had eagerly participated – more so than other provinces – in the very destructive Cultural Revolution (1966-76). This is not so surprising given the fact that Mao Zedong was a native to the province and given the province's Communist legacy. Several other high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials stem from Hunan Province, among these are Zhu Ringji, Liu Shaoqi, Hu Yaobang and Marshal Peng Dehuai.

Historical celebrities linked to Hunan Province include: Qu Yuan, the patriotic poet from the Warring States Period who committed suicide by casting himself into the Miluo River and whose suicide indirectly launched the tradition of the Dragon Boat Festival, since the entire village took to their boats to try and dredge the river for the drowned body of the patriotic poet; Cai Lun, who discovered a technique for papermaking that is the direct forerunner of modern papermaking (the Egyptian papyrus has more in common with pumpernickel bread, by comparison) and who went on to make the world's first known exemplar of fabric-based paper; Qi Baishi, the famous contemporary Chinese painter; Yuan Longping, who is renowned for his ground-breaking work in developing the technique of adapting hybrid rices.

As earlier indicated, Xiang is an old name for Hunan Province and a name that still enjoys currency. For example, one speaks not of Hunan Culture, Hunan Cuisine, Hunan Opera, etc., but of Xiang Culture, Xiang Cuisine, Xiang Opera, etc. Since ancient times, poets have praised the natural beauty of Hunan Province. The Han Chinese* Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty poet Tao Qian, aka Tao Yuanming, referred to Hunan as 'an isolated utopian paradise that generations of war-weary northerners had escaped to', a reference to the mass exodus of Chinese people from the north who fled southward in the face of the violent conflicts that resulted from the continued encroachment of nomadic Turkic tribes from the vast area north and northwest of China.

The Tang Dynasty poet Tanyong said of Hunan: "The autumn breeze blows vast quantities of lotus petals across the whole land", which inspired Mao Zedong, according to his own testimony, to write the following line in his poem, Reply to A Friend (1961): "The morning sunlight floods your Land of Lotus Blossoms". Indeed, a slogan that captures the essence of Hunan Province calls it "The Land of Lotus Blossoms". But Hunan Province is not all low-lying delta defined by rivers and lakes, though it does have a fair share of these, it also has a few mountains, one of which belongs to the Five Great Mountains of Taoism, Mount Heng, about 100 kilometers south of Changsha, as the crow flies, which is also considered a holy mountain in Buddhism (note that there is another Mount Heng  (a northern  Mount Heng) in Shanxi Province that also belongs to the Five Great Mountains of Taoism). (You can learn more about Hunan's Mount Heng, as well as the other sacred mountains to Taoism by clicking on The Five Famous High Mountains link of Chinese Taoism.)

Mount Heng, with its time-worn yet dramatically cleaved ridges, is snow-capped in winter only, but even during winter the contrast is sharp, since the low-lying areas at the base of the mountain enjoy subtropical weather. Other famous mountains in the province include Mount Yuela and Mount Jiuyi, and then there is the wildly famous and UNESCO recognized Wulingyuan Scenic Area in and around the prefecture-level city of Zhangjiajie with its ancient, strangely eroded block-and-obelisk mountain landscapes that are said to be the inspiration behind the "Hallelujah Mountains" of the 2009 Hollywood film, Avatar.

The city of Yueyang on the shores of Lake Dongting is home to one of China' three famous towers, Yueyang Pavilion, originally erected during the Tang Dynasty, though the present pavilion stems from a Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty reconstruction (the other two famous towers being Huanghe ("Yellow Crane") Tower in Hubei Province and Tengwang Pavilion in Jiangxi Province).

East of the Yuan River – but including a swath of land along the river's western banks of course – lies the area that has been dubbed China's "Peach Blossom Fountainhead" (for the obvious reasons) by the aforementioned Eastern Jin Dynasty poet, Tao Qian, in his poem, Ode to the Peach Blossom Fountainhead. As indicated, Tao Qian saw in Hunan Province a utopian paradise for refugees fleeing the warring north.

Peach Blossom Fountainhead is the squat triangle lying west and southwest of Lake Dongting and described by: the village of Fenghuang ("Phoenix", representing the triangle's left-hand bottom corner) on the Yuan River itself – and almost on the same parallel as the city of Changsha; the city of Changde (representing the triangle's apex, or top, and note that the Yuan River thus becomes the left-hand side of the triangle that connects the cities of Phoenix and Changde); and the capital city of Changsha, the triangle's right-hand bottom corner.**

Other noteworthy scenic attractions in the province are: the Han Tombs of Mawangdui near the capital, Changsha; the Yeulu Academy, also situated in Changsha and the country's oldest academy; the Former Residence of Mao Zedong near the village (and mountain) of Shaoshan, as well as the many other memorial sites throughout the province dedicated to the Chinese Communist Revolution, or the "War of Liberation" as it is more commonly called (though some might call Deng Xiaoping's post-Mao "war" on China's stagnant economy as the more significant "War of Liberation" : ) ), including the Former Residence of Yang Kaihui, the wife of Mao Zedong.

Hunan Province is known as 'the land of fish and rice' – for the obvious reasons – which is perhaps why Hunan Cuisine, or Xiang Cuisine, as it is better known, is one of China's favorites among the country's eight – Famous 8 – regional cuisines. Xiang Cuisine, which is subdivided into three local geographical cuisine types – the Xiang River, Lake Dongting and Western Hunan cuisine types – is noted for its spicy, tung-numbingly hot sauces and dishes, which include: Dong'an Chicken; Peppery Hot Chicken; Sweet & Sour Chicken; Crispy Mandarin Duck (not Crispy Mandarin Chicken?); Steamed Fish Heads in Chili Sauce; a certain dish involving sharks that we will not grace with further mention (!); Mao's [yes, him!] Braised Pork, etc.

While visiting Hunan Province, you should also sample – besides Xiang Cuisine – Xiang Opera and Xiang Embroidery, the latter being one of China's Four Famous Embroideries. Porcelain from the city of Liling is famous throughout China, and the province is the exclusive producer of chrysanthemum stone carvings (Liuyang Chrysanthemum Stone Carvings... note also that the city of Liuyang, just east of Changsha, is also famous for its firecrackers, though the two do not mix well!), which are still produced and which can be purchased in the more exclusive shops in all of the major cities – Changsha, Xiangtan and Zhuzhou. Hunan is also known for its fine teas such as Silver Needle Tea from Junshan, Maojian Green Tea from Dayong and Yinfeng Green Tea from Changsha.

The climate of Hunan Province is subtropical, but since the province's topography ranges from low-lying, river basin areas to mountainous areas, there is no one-size-fits-all weather pattern in the province. The coldest month is January, with an annual low temperature range of 3-8 degrees Celsius, while the warmest month is July, with an annual high temperature range of 27-30 degrees Celsius. Both July and August tend to be hot and muggy, but if you are in a mountainous area, the breeze will likely lessen the heat and maybe even the mugginess, though the latter only if it rains, therefore be sure to bring along a rainjacket and/or a good umbrella if your visit to Hunan Province falls during the summer months.

* Dru C. Gladney, in the Journal of Asian Studies (Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/Minority Identities, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Feb 1994), 92-123), argues that the notion of a single, comprehensive Han Chinese ethnic identity is more or less a piece of fiction that was purposefully invented by Dr. Sun Yat-sen during the struggle against the non-Han Chinese, Manchu-led Qing Dynasty, and that this was, for the famous military strategist, a handy way to unite all opposition to the Manchus, whom the "Han Chinese", i.e., the non-Manchu segment of Chinese society, had resented ever since the fall of the "Han Chinese" Ming Dynasty (the reader is asked to indulge the use of the quotation marks for this short discourse, since the point is to emphasize that there is no such thing as a pure, ethnically-based Han Chinese national identity).

That is, while the notion of a Han ren may exist – i.e., a person who is a descendant of the Han Dynasty, but note that even this does not posit an ethnic identity, any more than being "Irish" posits an ethnic identity, given that the Irish national identity (as opposed to the "Irish" ethnic identity, but even this narrower identity!) was likely based on the fusion of a number of differing ethnic tribes – the notion of a Han minzu/ Han min (i.e., Han "nationality" – from the Japanese term minzoku... as a hunted opposition figure, Dr. Sun spent time in self-exile in Japan) is a semantic invention of recent origin, and stems from the aforementioned attempt to unite the non-Manchu elements of Chinese society under a single patriotic identity opposed to Manchu rule. Gladney cites Benedict Anderson (1983: p87) for the following, aptly put comment regarding Dr. Sun's attempt at unifying the opposition to Qing Dynasty rule: "Sun was engaged in a project of 'stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire'."

Putting all of this together, it would seem obvious that if there ever was a pure Han ren ethnic identity – which is not very likely, since by the time of the Han Dynasty, a number of ethnic tribes were probably already absorbed into that identity – then that single, pure identity was surely corrupted in the years that followed, as one ethnic group after the other was absorbed into the mainstream Chinese identity, which came to be called the Han Chinese national identity as a matter of political convenience by Dr. Sun, though the Han Chinese national identity would probably have been invented as a matter of practicality sooner or later. The point of this discourse being that it is helpful to bear in mind this complex fusion of ethnic origins when speaking of the Han Chinese identity, especially when the Han Chinese identity is pitted against, say, the Miao or the Man identity – or for that matter, the Uyghur or the Tibetan identity.

This is not to say that ethnic cultural identity has no merit, for quite the opposite is the case today, where most countries now go to great pains to preserve the respective cultural identities of their ethnic minorites, as this gives flavor to the larger society and it often translates to greater revenue and thus a better lifestyle for the ethnic communities in question. One need look no further, as an example of the latter, than to the Tibetan communities of Jiuzhai Valley in general, and to the Tibetan communities of  Zharu Valley in particular, since prior to the development of Jiuzhai Valley as a tourism venue, the local populace barely eked out a living, whereas today they enjoy many of the conveniences of modern living, even if they have managed to preserve their Benbo-Buddhist traditions - indeed, these very traditions are today an integral part of the allure of an Ecotourism visit to the Zharu Valley!

** It is perhaps coincidence – though I rather doubt it – but many of the place names within Peach Blossom Fountainhead include the Chinese character represented by the pinyin word, Tao (for example, Mount Tao Xian, Mount Tao Yun, Mount Tao Hua, etc.), as in Tao Qian, the Eastern Jin Dynasty poet who wrote the world-famous-in-China poem, Ode to the Peach Blossom Fountainhead. But which came first – the name of the poet or the names of the mountains of Peach Blossom Fountainhead – I leave to you to decide, though I would be remiss if I did not point out that the "aka" of Tao Qian is Tao Yuanming – or Tao Yuan Ming, as it was surely written in ancient times – while the river that demarcates the western boundary of Peach Blossom Fountainhead bears the name "Yuan".

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