Our China Journey, Part III – Xi’an and Yan’an

From Nanjing we got on a plane and flew 600 miles to the northwest to Xi’an, Shaanxi.  This city is now a second tier city about the size of Chicago, but during the Tang dynasty [618-907] it was Chang’an, the largest and most cosmopolitan city on the world.  It was laid out on a large grid pattern; Kyoto, Japan, was modeled after it, and more of that era, it must be said, survives in Kyoto.  The Tang was more open to outside influences than China later became, and these mostly came from overland in those days, for Chang’an was the end of the Silk Road.  There were, for the benefit of the traders, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Manichean [yes those Manicheans, same ones as recruited St Augustine for a while] and Church of the East Christian [sometimes called by us Nestorians, and accused of believing that Christ had two personalities instead of just two natures].  This was also the time when Mahayana Buddhism started becoming popular in China.  It did not come in so much by the ocean route as by via Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the Silk Road.  A later Tang emperor turned on ‘foreign religions’ like Christianity and Buddhism, and persecuted them; only Buddhism, regrettably, survived.

After the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, much of the city was damaged, and later capitals tended to be farther down the Huanghe [Yellow] River valley to the east.  In the Ming era [1368-1644] Xi’an was rebuilt with walls and moats covering a much smaller area, thought of course the city now covers at least all of the area that Chang’an covered!

In Xi’an our Canadian friends, Ale and Caroline, joined us.  Our hotel in Xi’an was a Sofitel that was rehabbed from a hostelry for important guests during the early Mao era, before the alienation from the Soviet Union, but it was one of the best hotels we were in the whole time, and since we regularly have Chinese lunches we took refuge in the Italian restaurant in the hotel in the evening, which was quite good.

The highlight of Xi’an is, of course, the famous Terra Cotta Soldiers that have been unearthed and are on display in the rather down at the heels suburb of Lintong.  Much to my surprise they are full size!  They had been mostly broken by later revolutions, and had to be patched together.  They are kept in three huge warehouse-like buildings in Lintong, and are a popular attraction for both domestic and international tourism.  [Note: most tourism in China is domestic, like America in the 1950s!]  But this is such a famous place that I would say that at least 5% of the people there seemed to be Western.

I should add here who made these for his tomb.  Chin Shi Huangdi was the ruler of a state called Chin located in the Wei Valley, but by 221 he conquered all the Chinese states and declared himself the First Emperor. [There had been ‘kings’ before that, in the Xia, Shang, Western Zhou, and Eastern Zhou dynasties; but by Eastern Zhou the king was a nominal entity, like the later Holy Roman Emperor in Europe, and China was divided into a number of independent states.  This was the environment in which Confucius wrote.]  This Shi Huangdi was also responsible for starting the Great Wall, opposing Confucianism and burning most of the books, and for supporting a totalitarian philosophy called ‘Legalism’.  His dynasty did not last long after him, and was replaced by the Han [206 BC-220 AD].

I think in many ways Shi Huangdi can be compared to Chairman Mao, in that he did tyrannical things but unified the country and gave it ‘face’ again, whereas the Han Dynasty could be compared to Deng Xiaoping and his successors, who call themselves Communist but actually run a mild fascist regime.

The next day we went out to the other side of town and saw a tomb site that had been done by one of the Han emperors.  The grave goods were a lot more artistic; there were some terra cotta figures, but they were only about two feet tall or so.

One of the things we saw, near the heart of the city, was the Great Mosque.  It doesn’t look like a mosque at all; it looks like a Chinese temple garden!  We were not allowed into the prayer hall, being non-Muslims, but we wandered around the garden and saw inscriptions in both Chinese and Arabic.  Around it is a market like area with narrow pedestrian alleys where almost anything can be bought.

On our last day in Xi’an we took a rail day trip to Yan’an, the capital of Red China from 1936 to 1949. [Regrettably, Roberta was sick that day.]  The train set out across the plain to a point where we could actually see fields and no high rise apartment buildings in sight.  Then it headed up into the hill country.  Yan’an is a small city of a mere 2 million that looks like it should be in Colorado, I couldn’t help thinking; though it was cooler than Xi’an, it’s the only place on the trip so far where I encountered bright sunshine.  The town has a modern Museum of the Revolution, plus two different areas where Mao, Zhou Enlai, and some of the leadership lived in homes and offices dug out of the earth – which was not an uncommon way of life there anyway.  [Maybe it’s the real Shire.]  Chinese tourists flock there, and take pictures of themselves – they seem no more reverent in their attitudes than Americans visiting Washington D.C.  If I’m to believe the pictures, the Yan’an area was almost treeless when the Communists were based there; thanks to reforestation efforts, the hills are now covered with bushes.  Then we got on the train back to Xi’an; it got hazy as we reached the plain, but we caught the hazy sun setting behind a hill and got back to our hotel in time to have a late dinner with Roberta.

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