|China Index |||Ting Chinese English Dictionary |||Beijing |||Great Wall |||Xi'an |||Shaanxi History Museum |||Shanghai ||
The camels would be clustered in loose groups outside the city walls; the traders' camps a mixture of colorful tents, utensils, bags, and bundles. There would be cottons and exotic spices from India, metals and interesting ceramics, scrolls of paintings, and seeds. Above all, there would be silk; piles and cascades of silk in all colors and textures to take on the western journey after the present cargo had been sold. Inside the city of Chang'an the merchants would be getting ready to bargain to fill their stores with the latest imports. The Emperor's officials would usually take the best of the items, but there would be enough left to fill the homes of the wealthy and to filter into the rural areas to change life and expand it.
While camels had been gone for hundreds of years by the time we arrived, the city still has a charm to which we responded. Before we saw anything, members of the group were saying how much they liked the city. Trees lend color and softness to most streets and it is smaller and moves at a slower pace than Beijing. Through the windows of the train on our way from Beijing, we had seen the vast fields of Shaanxi Province, the golden color of a crop ripe for harvest enhanced by the soft light of dawn.
Xi'an sits on an ancient site and there are layers of cities of different names beneath and around you. The land is fertile, renewed yearly by the silt from the Yellow River. Since the age of nomads, people have settled in this rich land to take advantage of the relatively flat landscape, ready water, and ease of travel. It's a toy land for the archaeologists.
Banpo Village -- 5,000 B.C.
Six to seven thousand years ago, a stable village was built by a late Neolithic people. Banpo had about sixty buildings and housed over 200 people from two clans. It was a matriarchal society based on farming. The houses were thatch over wood beams while the floors were sunk 2 to 3 feet into the ground. Heat was provided by a central fire for the family. They stored food in underground caves, dug deep enough to protect it from wildlife and insects. The month before this trip I was in Chicago and stopped by the Field Museum. They have a model of a native American hut from a plains tribe. The similarity is striking. Food storage, architecture, and the organization of the village all brought on déjà vu.
The Banpo worked together. They dug a trench around the entire complex both for protection and for drainage. There was a large meeting hall in the center of the village and central storage. Most of the tools (axes, hoes, knives) were of stone, but some implements were
of bone (needles for sewing). The stone tools looked remarkably sharp, but it was still fortunate to be in an area where the soil was loose and easily tilled.
Art, in the form of geometric designs and human and animal figures, is found on many of their pots. The village had their own pottery which produced specialized pots for drinking, storage, cooking, and burial. Although adults were buried in the cemetery outside the village, children and infants were buried alongside the huts in special clay urns. I would like to know why.
Over the next 3,000 years the descendants of these people would found new villages, begin to build cities, use jade, bronze, copper, and increase their skills in agriculture. The first dynasty or unified government is called the Xia and lasted from 2200 to 1700 B.C. give or take a few years. After that, change came more rapidly (or appears to from our perspective).
Terra-cotta Soldiers -- Qin Dynasty --221-206 B.C.
Xi'an is peppered with the enormous tombs of emperors, dukes, generals, and other wealthy people who would commence building as soon as they achieved power. Confucius (511-479 B.C.) emphasized that the son owed the father filial piety. This principle applied to the filial duty required of the people to the dukes and the dukes toward the king. This respect carried past the grave; the son showed his respect by giving the father a lavish burial and memorials. Confucius also said that a man should not plan or build his own funeral. It violated the laws of propriety. That seems logical. It would prevent the proper expression of filial duty.
But if you are an Emperor. . . In 221 B.C. Ying Zheng (259-210 B.C.), King of Qin, became the First Emperor of Qin, (Qin Shihuangdi), when he managed to consolidate the neighboring states under his rule. He had begun work on his tomb shortly after becoming king of Qin at the age of 13. The work took 39 years. Everything about it is big and grandiose: it covers 56.25 square kilometers; there are terra-cotta models of 8,000 warriors; it took 700,000 workers to complete it; thousands of workers were buried within
the tomb; the tomb has pearls embedded in the ceiling to represent the stars; rivers and lakes were modeled using liquid mercury -- the list goes on, even seeing it, you don't get the scope.
The First Emperor does not seem to have been someone who enjoys a good argument. Confucianism also stresses the responsibility of the father (emperor) to the son (the people) and teaches that if you tax people too heavily and do not administer by the principle of propriety, your reign will not last and there will be rebellion. Excess was to be avoided. The core of Confucian philosophy is to advise good government. In 222 and 223 B.C. respectively, the First Emperor ordered the burning of books of history and philosophy and the death of 460 Confucian scholars who had the temerity to continue teaching the principles drawn from the past. He may have had them buried alive or just killed.
Live burial was an old practice among the Qin. When Duke Mu of Qin died in 621 B.C., 177 slaves, citizens, and followers were buried with him. Duke Jing of Qin had at least 186 people buried with him when he died in 537 B.C. The practice is called "xun" and makes "following to the grave" have new meaning. The people who were buried with the ruler were supposed to continue to protect and serve. Everything that was comfortable and necessary in this life was provided in the next. The First Emperor is supposed to have had the artisans who designed and built his tomb killed so they could not reveal its secrets. The tomb itself has not been opened yet.
On the bright side, the First Emperor did not have 8,000 warriors buried with him; the clay models are an advance. The tradition of "xun" may help to explain the great care taken to make each model unique -- each of the 8,000 soldiers has their own facial features, hair-style, and when dressed in the same uniform, the folds and fit are unique. The First Emperor also managed to build over 6,000 miles of road to rival those of the Roman Empire, over a thousand miles of canals for flood control, transportation and irrigation, and consolidated three sections of what would be the Great Wall into a wall of 5,000 li. Just the work on the wall took 10 years and 300,000 soldiers and uncounted numbers of civilians. (Visit the Great Wall page)
Qin Shihuangdi centralized the bureaucracy and government to control rival states within the empire. His innovations (traveling inspectors, bureaucrats reporting in a hierarchy, and the unification of the country through roads and canals) laid the foundation for future dynasties. Only by bypassing local control and providing services through the central power could you not only conquer neighboring states, but successfully govern and unite them. Centralization was particularly important in the Yellow and Yangtze regions. Flooding periodically wiped out years of work and required coordinated planning to build canals across territories to control it. The Qin dynasty was quickly overthrown following the death of the First Emperor. Succeeding dynasties expanded the organization developed in the Qin, but returned, in part, to the Confucian principle of governing for the welfare of the people.
The Silk Road
The first Han (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) emperors built upon the foundations of the Qin and expanded their territory enormously. Unlike the Qin, they allowed the cultures of the new territories to remain intact and encouraged trade and commerce among the various parts of the empire.
The Han emperor, Wudi, needed allies to guard against threat from a strong neighbor. He had heard of a very strong and rich state to the west. There must have been some amount of travel over long distances at this time for news to have reached Xi'an of countries as far as India. There had been no official contact, so in 119 B.C. Wudi sent Zhang Qian to form an alliance. Just outside his own territory, Zhang Qian and his men were captured by a Hun tribe and held ten years before he could escape and continue his journey. That he continued is one of the amazing parts of the story. The power of the emperor was absolute, you finished your task. The fact that a second envoy does not seem to have been sent after Zhang Qian didn't return in a few years is a second curiosity.
Zhang Qian's travels took him toward India. He found the country he sought, but the ruling king thought it was a little impractical to form a defensive alliance at such a distance. When Zhang Qian returned and told Emperor Wudi of what he had seen in these western states, he was sent back with a large delegation and items to trade. Silk was an immediate hit. Over time, silk exports reached as far as Rome where it was a valued commodity. Silk feels wonderful to us now, imagine what it must have felt like to a people who had only worn loomed cottons and wools. Silk takes natural dyes readily, giving strong saturated color. Both cotton and wool mute the most vibrant dyes. So, instead of a defense alliance, they developed one of the first multi-national trade agreements.
The effects on art, architecture, farming, and industry were immediate. There were direct imports of new products from the west including alfalfa, pomegranates, grape vines, and fine horses, but the real benefits to both cultures is less tangible. It fires the imagination to find that thoughts can be different from one's own.
Walking through the exhibits in the Shaanxi (Shanxi) Provincial Museum is like walking through the history of the Silk Road. You begin with items from the Xia (2200-1700 B.C.) and move through history into the Ming and Qing dynasties. The collection from the Han through the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties shows the changes of art and craftsmanship. It isn't just that the skills have developed and changed, many of the early pieces are detailed and executed to perfection, it is the viewpoint that has changed. The later works have a stronger reality base, a knowledge of the world. We left the museum with regret, so little time. I have provided links to some Chinese Art pages in case you are interested.
Big and Little Goose Pagodas -- Buddhism in China
The Silk Road brought all sorts of strange and wonderful ideas to China in addition to the material trade. Politics, family relationships, philosophy, and religion would all be influenced by exposure to new concepts. In 652, Xuan Zang returned from India where he had spent 18 years studying Buddhism. When he returned he brought manuscripts of Buddhist texts to translate into Chinese. He must have had an excellent advance agent, because the emperor sent a huge escort to meet his party and the entire city celebrated his return. The crown prince, Li Zhi, had built the surrounding temple in 648 and dedicated it to his mother. The Big Goose pagoda was added for the manuscripts brought back by the travelers. When Xuan Zang moved into the temple there was another feast and celebration. Xuan Zang was the equivalent of an astronaut returning to a ticker tape parade. His journey was at least as dangerous and certainly took longer.
The quest of Xuan Zang is the basis for a folk tale called The Journey to the West. The tale has many variations: it is performed in opera, has several series of children's books based on it, and there is a feature-length cartoon with the appeal of early Disney. The Monkey King is a rebellious sort who is sent to live inside a mountain until he mends his ways. When Xuan Zang plans his trip, he needs an escort. Buddha is asked if he will allow the Monkey King to take on the task. The Monkey King has his work cut out for him. Shifu (Master = Xuan Zang) trusts everyone, including evil spirits disguised as good spirits. The Monkey King would prefer that this good man were a little more cynical and certainly less innocent. The Monkey King meets terrible forces of evil of every shape and size and defeats them all. The story ends when the group eventually manages to get to the west. Today the story is of the Monkey King's bravery and ability to resist evil. The original story emphasized the need to rebel and not believe everything you hear.
The Little Goose Pagoda on the grounds of the Jianfu Temple is called that because it is smaller, although it has more stories. It was
completed in 709 A.D. when Buddhism was firmly established in China. The influence of Buddhism was so strong that Daoism, based on the teaching of Lao Zi, gradually adopted many of their rituals to maintain popularity among the people. We were told that the Little Goose Pagoda had lost several stories during an earthquake in the 1500s. It is difficult to tell, it looks complete. It is more delicate looking than the Big Goose with finer detailing in the brickwork. It, like the Big Goose pagoda, housed Buddhist manuscripts and is a part of a temple complex and monastery.
The Ming Walls
Skipping over a few centuries and many name changes, Xi'an during the Ming dynasty was refurbished and returned to prominence as a center of politics and trade. The Ming emperors rebuilt the walls, incorporating one corner left over from the Yuan dynasty in their design. While the architecture of the Ming is steadfastly angular, the curved rampart of Hun design adds grace to the design. The walls are flat and straight, tempting for a 13 K jog.
The Bell and Drum Towers were also built during the Ming dynasty. The were used to keep time for the town and sound alarms. When we visited the Bell Tower, we were just in time for a concert. It was good planning on the part of our guide. Tuned bells date back to the 6th century B.C. They can be made of stone, brass, or bronze. The shapes used change over the centuries, those shown here date from the Song dynasty. [These are not the bells used to sound alarms -- they were huge.]
Xi'an has a thriving tourist business, hosts archaeologists from every corner of the globe, and it also is building a diversified economy. There are several major universities in Xi'an as well as art and trade schools. These schools provide the educational base on which the economy is being built. We stayed at Northwest University. Nancy Hu, a member of the staff at BPU, accompanied us and Northwest provided us with a local guide.
We visited a silk factory where they were making scarves, embroidering panels, and making silk rugs. A small rug such as this one can take over a year to make. The skill and speed of the embroidery needle is something you have to see to believe. These skills are only a small part of the economy. As we drove around the area, we saw major modern markets for international export of clothing, furniture, and electronic products.
Xi'an is famous for its jiaozi, a sort of dumpling. On our second evening we went to one of the most famous restaurants specializing in this dish. On our way, we lost Nancy Hu and Beth. They turned up in a few minutes. They had stopped to buy some wonderful puppets from a vendor on the street. They were an instant hit. We sent Nancy to get some for every child we knew. She had a great time. She came back laughing. She was sure that the woman thought she was going to go into business in Beijing -- she had over twenty puppets! That in itself would have made the evening, but then we had dinner. What a treat.
The jiaozi just kept coming. There were about fifteen different types. These were shaped like chickens and contained -- chicken. In one course, the jiaozi were pinched to make three little sections; each section had a different filling. Delicious. We were entertained with traditional music during the meal, which prepared us for the concert later.
We finished the evening listening to a concert of music from the Song dynasty. I won't go into detail because nothing would come close to hearing it and I wasn't able to find a recording.
I looked in the shops the next day when we had free time and headed off to find the Great Mosque. On the way, we happened on an art exhibit from the Xi'an Art Academy. The exhibit was headed for Germany and they were raising money for the trip. Two of the women spoke English and gave us a lecture on the different styles of painting. We added several small paintings to our growing collection of luggage and moved on to find the mosque. Instead we found a bazaar.
With no guide and no rush, we meandered from stall to stall and had a great time. I watched this game for awhile, but not long enough to figure out the rules. We finally found the mosque in the end but decided to leave it for another trip.
Return to the China Page and Main Menu
Go to: Beijing | Active Beijing | Great Wall | Xi'an | Shanghai
Shaanxi Provincial History Museum for the history of China and the Xi'an region.
Beijing History in Pictures | Modern Beijing Pictures | Great Wall Pictures | Xi'an Pictures | Shanghai History in Pictures | Modern Shanghai in Pictures
Last update: April, 2010
© Marilyn Shea 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2010