CHINA JOURNALTuesday, June 4 through Friday, June 7, 2002
Although Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a modern and polluted industrial city today, it is probably the best place in China to see ancient history. Located on the Wei river which feeds into the Huang He (Yellow River), it served as the capital for 1000 years. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) it was the largest city in the world and a terminus on the Silk Road.
We all know Xian as the place of the terracotta army, discovered underground and lined up in rows. We've seen those warriors, each with an individual face, in beautiful spreads in National Geographic and on public television. They were the reason I wanted to come to Xian. Little did I knowŠ.
Xian was first settled in 3000 B.C., but its ``modern'' history begins with Qing Shi Huangdi who unified China for the first time in 221 B.C. and became the first emperor, at age twenty-four, after defeating six other kingdoms. Emperor Qi designed a grand tomb for himself, building an immense mound in the middle, not even over the whole. It is estimated that if the whole elaborate necropolis he built were to be dug up, twelve villages and half a dozen factories would have to be rebuilt. From the beginning apparently, the Chinese have been a record keeping people so there are records of this total grand tomb. First we visited the Qinling Underground palace. An excellent recreation to scale of the entire complex of Emperor Qi's tomb. We're not talking a little scale map on a tableŠwe're talking a large, large room that shows the entire layout of the big mound in the center (which you can still see outside) and where all the other parts of this giant necropolis and tomb are located. It is like a huge ``railroad town'' for your toy train. Out at one edge in a very small area is the location of the known terracotta warriors' site. This makes you realize how immense a project this tomb was (700,000 laborers and 38 years with a remarkable vision to even conceive of it). Displays around the room show very vividly how the laborers worked and were `recruited'. You wind your way down a spiraling tunnel that leads to the underground palace, a re-creation in a much smaller scale of the real thing as described in historical records. This too is a big room that goes down to the basement and up to the sky where you are walking inside the underground palace with all the little details of people and things depicting the inside of the palace at the celebration when he became emperor. Fascinating. (They have not yet located the main entrance to the real tomb. The terracotta warriors, the first indication that this legendary necropolis really existed, were only discovered in 1974.) As we wound our way down into the underground palace I was reminded of the pyramids in Egypt with their narrow passageways and the Valley of the Kings (around 1000 B.C.) with the elaborate underground tombs, and wondered what cross fertilization of ideas had taken place here. It is interesting how as leaders of countries throughout history and throughout the world have gained power and wealth they feel the need to preserve themselves in death while the rest of us mortal people just come and go. I think our presidential libraries have taken on a bit of that aspect.
I now had an entirely different picture of where the terracotta warriors fit in. The pictures we see of the warriors are always taken at eye level (and the warriors are life sized). I had always wanted to go to Machu Picchu in Peru and when I got inside the gate there that opened to that wonderful view of the ruins with the mountain in the background, I thought, ``I'm seeing it. It's realŠ.now what do I do?'' and then had to proceed to expand on that experience. The same feeling was true with the terracotta warriors. Even though the viewing walkway is way above the figures, as soon as I saw that lineup I visualized myself being down there face to face with the men in that National Geographic photo. They were real. I had read all the articles but I don't register on sizes especially so I had not visualized the immensity of the find (yet at the same time the minuteness of the find compared to the whole necropolis that is there under the ground). They have already dug out 7000 figures and have just begun to touch the figures available in the three pits that have been opened. There must be thousands more right there. Then if you look at the ground plan for this giant necropolis and tomb you realize that there must be thousands upon thousands more under the earth in the surrounding area.
Pit number one, completely covered with a walk around viewing platform, is probably the size of two football fields put end to end. And the figures we most often see pictured are just at one end of that. The whole Bingmayong, as it is named, is a very impressive layout with attractively done buildings in a spacious outdoor setting. The visit there begins with a circle vision film on the history surrounding the building of the warriors (very interesting) and their subsequent burning and destruction by invaders. While I knew that all the faces had individual features, I had not realized that the heads were sculpted separately from the bodies and then attached. Most of the original bright colors were burned off in the ancient vandalism, or eroded off when buried, or faded with the exposure to the air, but traces can still be seen. Another favorite observation was the square toed shoes for the archers so that, when they knelt to shoot, the square toe on the foot that had the knee to the ground gave them a solid, steady base, more so than a rounded toe would.
We also stopped to see the Huaching Chi, the hot springs of Huaching. The hot springs have been in recorded use for 3000 years. The palace and gardens are very attractive, built up a hillside. One of the pool pavilions is known for being the bathing spot for the most famous concubine in China from the Tang dynasty times. The hot springs were also where Chiang Kai Shek held forth until the `Xian Incident' in which he escaped up the hills, was recaptured by two of his own generals and brought back to Huaching Chi in 1936, persuaded to join with the Communists in the fight against the invading Japanese.
At night we went to a ``Reciated Tang Dynasty Ancient Music and Dance Show''. The closest thing I can figure out for `reciated' is `recreated'. Who knows. Our Chinese-speaking girl guide asked if we would like to go and if we would like to go to the English show for RMB180 or the Chinese for RMB150. We had been Chinese all the way; why stop now. We chose the Chinese, but they kindly announced each number in English too. I never could figure out what the difference was (beyond the price) other than the English show was in a more elaborate setting. Ours was in a grand old auditorium that is also used for meetings so each row of theater seats has a narrow table with shelf in front of it. The seal at the top over the stage is the old national seal with the red star, red cog-wheel (for the workers), and red wheat shafts (for the farmers). The show was very well done. My favorite was two percussion numbers with eight players, six on different size cymbals and two on musical blocks. For the second number two cymbals got traded for a gong and a drum. It is amazing the different effects they created with the cymbals and drum. They also had a very active masked men's dance, a long sleeve dance and a ribbon dance. There was a lovely lute solo. Beautiful costuming and quite entertaining.
The city wall in Xian is the best preserved city wall in China, built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and rebuilt in the Ming Dynasty around 1370. You can climb up the stairs and walk on top where it is quite wide. (It is forty feet thick down below.) We were at the Yongning or southern gate. An `enemy tower' is located every 120 meters all around the wall. Their weapons had a range of just over sixty meters, so an `enemy tower' every 120 meters let them take potshots at their enemy from three directions all around the perimeter. Outside each of the gates is an `urn city' which is also protected by walls and is a service center for the city. It protects the water trough, and a moat is around the whole thing. A huge bell is on top of the wall near an area where the soldiers were quartered. The bell serves as ``a watch in peace time and a tocsin in war''. Remember the elephant game, qiang chi, that looks like checkers but is like chess (the checkers have markings that indicate the characters)? On top of the wall, in the soldiers' quarters was a quang chi tableŠa stone table top engraved with the board markings which date from 1370. Again I'm curious about the cross fertilization. Wasn't it the Arabs who invented chess?
In a tourist shop on top of the wall (wouldn't you know!) there was a room of Chinese hand woven silk rugs. Imagine the worms that would take! They had an old loom set up which I found very interesting. You sit, or probably squat, on the floor. The warp is of strong, thick silk. Each color thread is inserted and looped completely around a warp thread (that is what is referred to as a `knot', but it is not a real knot by my definition.) The thread is chopped off with a small cleaver, not cut as with scissors. The batten is metal rather than wood.
From there we walked near the wall along what would be known as a ``culture'' street, past the many vendors to the Beilin Bowuguan. (Bowuguan means museum.) This is the forest of steles museum, founded in 1087. (Think what was going on in our continent at that time.) The Tang Dynasty had ended in 907 and someone had the foresight to realize that the history was being lost. Ever since writing was developed but before paper was developed, the Chinese had been preserving their history and their classical literature by carving it in characters on tall stone steles in order to preserve themŠbut the steles themselves were falling and were both being buried and lost. The Beilin Bowuguan was started to preserve them. Steles were brought in from all over China and placed upright on the grounds, hence the name ``Forest of Steles''. Ever since as new ones are discovered they are placed in the museum. There were several found in the 1990's in the course of city construction that date back to the 200s. Amazing place. To a westerner, one of the most interesting is the stone tablet of Dagin (the name for Rome) Nestorianism or Jing Jiao, the Nestorian sect of Christianity that was brought to China in 635. This stele, standing as many do on the back of a stone tortoise, records the history of the movement in China over the next 150 years. At the very top is a small cross, made like the Jerusalem cross with four equal arms. Another stele is a 177 A.D. eulogy to Congjie, the court historian of the Yellow Emperor, circa 2700 B.C., who created Chinese characters (again, closely related to Arabic writing). The museum had a statue of Laozi, Li Er, the founder of Taoism in the 6th or 7th century B.C. This was originally in the Huaching Chi palace. There were many statues of Buddha, Buddhism having come into China around 25-220 A.D. in the Han Dynasty and becoming centered in Shaanxi Province. They had a special room where they made official `rubbings' of the most picturesque steles. Their techniques was interesting. A very fine supple paper was brushed onto the stele which made the paper indent into the carved parts. The worker then took a flat, circular tamper about four inches in diameter, placed black ink on it with a brush, and tamped it all around. The ink goes onto the flat parts but not into the indented parts. It appeared dry even as it went on and took quite a few tamps on each spot to complete the depth of color.
In a room full of life size statues of animals in wonderfully strong sculptural style, there was a wall on which hung the Six Stone Steeds of Zhao Mausoleum. Six individual horses carved in deep relief and stunning. Four or them had parts missing but the strength and beauty were still there. The identifying sign indicated that two (the two that were perfect in reproductions here) were smuggled out of China in 1914. They now hang in the Art Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Their names are ``Saluzi'' and Quanmaogua''. The four originals in the museum are designated National Cultural Treasures. This is my next project when I get home. It seems to me that those two at the University of Pennsylvania should be returned and what better time than before China hosts the Olympics in 2008. What a great PR move that would be for the U.S. and the reading on the sign could be changed before all the tourists arrive. I'm starting with letters to the University of Pennsylvania and Congressman Bill Thomas!
The Shaanxi Lishi Bowuguan, The Shaanxi Province History Museum, is the first (and onlyŠ it opened in 1991) modern museum in China. On large grounds, the stunning Tang style buildings house a very well organized history, starting with Paleolithic and Neolithic finds up through each of the dynasties, well labeled in English as well as Chinese. It emphasizes metal, pottery, and sculpture. I noted that miniature items which are often labeled as `children's toys' in museums are here labeled as `burial items'. The Han Dynasty, 200 B.C.-24 A.D., had `round barns' which look very much like our silos. To me, round buildings are not the easiest to build. What prompted the round shape? A metal very modern looking mortar and pestle dated from the same time. Another question. When did curved roof tiles originate? In Spanish mission days we always talk about them being formed of clay over the worker's upper thighs. But they had curved roof tiles in China in 1000 B.C.
The Dayan Ta, the Great Wild Goose pagoda, was built in the Tang Dynasty with five stories, but in 1701 it was changed to seven stories. At one time it was a great center because of the manuscripts brought from India, but they are no longer there. However it is still an active temple used by the local people and housing a few monks. The freshness and brightness of the colors in the walls and the hangings make it appear to be a well cared for and much used temple. We climbed the seven stories. Each story inside had something to look atŠthe most fun one being Hathagata Buddha's footprints in stone. One would think he had sighted Big Foot! From the top you get another good sense of the classical strict north-south grid layout that typified the old Chinese cities.
The hotel where we stayed was the Fu Wu Zhi Nan, China Shaanxi Electronics Hotel. Again we had the rationed toilet paper and were in the center of a non-western tourist Chinese area. We were on the 9th floor. Looking out the window we could see that quite a few people slept on the rooftops. (The weather was very hot and sticky.) Several large apartment buildings were covered with solar water heater collectors. We had no room key. When you arrived at your floor with the proof-of-room card in hand, the housekeeper on that floor unlocked your room for you.
The special food of Xian is a wide noodle which we sampled. One evening we went to a little café across the street and had a bowl of noodles, hot roasted peanuts, and garlic green beans for $.75 for the two of usŠ.much better than the eight fifty we had gotten hoodwinked into paying for a nice lunch for the four of us. On the other night we walked down a back street near the hotel and bought a yummy hot vegetable ``sandwich'' for each of us and some fruit for the train.
A last drive through the city on our final day went past new-bicycle street and flower street. Waiting in the train station we witnessed the efficiency of the sleep-and-shoe monitorŠthe woman in uniform who comes around and wakes you up if you are sleeping, particularly, but not only, if you are stretched over several seats. She also makes you put on your shoes, even if you have your bare or socked feet resting on top of your shoes. She took her job very seriously. An hour and a half before the train was to pull out there were no seats left in a huge waiting room. Train travel is popular. This time Zhang Jie was on the very top bunk. HotŠthough they do mercifully have an electric fan up there. The bunk mate across from me came in, stripped to his undershirt, lit up a cigarette, and spit out the window, in that order. But he turned out to be very nice anyway. The distance between the bunks is small, two inches more than the width of my shoulders.
It is now Saturday the 8th. I've washed all the clothes and am about to repack them. I've restocked my film supply. And I'm ready to be off to Sanxia, the Three Gorges on the Chang Jiang, the Yangtze RiverŠalong with Zhang Jie and boyfriend Ding Bai. Am I the chaperone?