Our China Journey, Part IV – Henan, The Center of the Universe

We bundled our luggage into a van and got on a train and headed for Luoyang, Henan, a place which has frequently been the capital of China, though a bit of a backwater now.  Here were a number of things to be seen.  We went to a place where ancient tombs of kings and nobles of various eras have been gathered and put in one place, slightly below ground level, so it was actually cool inside, different from most museums in China or elsewhere.  Some were carved, a few were painted, some still have grave goods.

I need to explain the obsession with the funerary when it comes to earlier cultures.  First of all, they are all dead.  Second, especially in Egypt but to some extent everywhere in the early days, the tomb was the ‘permanent facility’ and the home where one lived in in life was the ‘temporary facility’ and you know that’s really true.  And some of the best caches of stuff that have been found in many cultures have been tomb paintings and ‘grave goods’ that were put in for the deceased’s use in the afterlife.  Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam have pretty much put a stop to grave goods, but until they came along, it was a logical belief.

The next day we drove out to Longmen, on the outskirts of town now but a long way out in the old days, where a river flows between a couple of hills where all kinds of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arhats have been carved in niches and caves overlooking the river.  [By the way:  Buddha means ‘enlightened one’ and the ‘historical Buddha,’ the founder, known as Gautama, Siddhartha, or Sakyamuni, is only one of many such; Arhats are disciples; and Bodhisattvas are souls who have stayed back from entering Nirvana in order to help others on the way, kind of like Catholic or Orthodox ‘saints.’]  In the afternoon we searched for and found Erlitoucun, a farm town on the outskirts of Longmen, where we found an archeological site that has no tourist traffic yet at all, no tourist facilities, but we got to meet with one of the archaeologists.  It turns out that Erlitoucun dates from about 2000 B.C. and may be the site of the semi-legendary Xia dynasty of kings!

On our way back to town we stopped by the White Horse Temple grounds, where Buddhism was first introduced to China!  None of the buildings were that old now; you go to one shrine building, you walk around it and then there’s another one back of it, and back of it yet another, and another; usually four.  They all have statues of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in them and a few people bowing and burning incense, though most of the crowd acts like typical tourists.  Then over to the side, the historic importance of this place is recognized by the fact that Thailand, Burma, and India have built temples in the styles of those countries.  [India has few Buddhists today, but the temple at White Horse is built to look like their old shrine at Sanchi.  And, I was surprised to find that there was so much commonality; Thailand and Burma, along with Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, subscribe to a variety of Buddhism that denies the existence of Bodhisattvas.]

The next day we sent our luggage on to Zhengzhou and ourselves drove to Shaolin, a place in a range of hills between Luoyang and Zhengzhou that is the birthplace of ‘kung fu’ and from there all of the different Asian martial arts that have become so popular in the West; from jujitsu to karate to tae kwon do and even tai chi, which doesn’t look very martial.  There are many large boarding schools all over town that host educations that specialize in kung fu.  [Though we were told that ‘gong fu’ in Mandarin just means ‘high level of skill’ [or something like that] and could be just as easily applied to, say, calligraphy.]  We walked around the huge temple grounds, which are a major tourist site; the temple area, with the usual four buildings one behind the other with Buddhas in them; then the ‘Pagoda Forest,’ which is a whole enclosure full of pagoda-shaped rock pillars of all shapes and sizes.  We then piled into the car and took off to Zhengzhou, where we took a rest day.

After the rest day we went in the morning to the Henan Provincial Museum, where we got to see plenty of artifacts from the Neolithic Period on.  Plenty of pottery, but the model miniature houses from the Han period were the fanciest things in the place.  From there we drove the 30 miles to Kaifeng by the surface road, which is eight lanes wide, not the turnpike, and went to see a sort of Chinese style theme park running across a lake.  The Chinese love it – remember virtually all tourism here is domestic.  Roberta and I, and Al and Carolyn, had pictures taken of ourselves in Northern Song era [960-1127] costumes, which is one of the tourist things to be done there.  During that period, Kaifeng was the national capital.  It is also near the place where the Huang He [Yellow] River either flows north to the Gulf of Bohai south of Beijing, or south to the open East China Sea.  It has switched several times.  So Kaifeng gets flooded frequently and many of their buildings are rather frequently rebuilt.  The next day and the day after we saw a Buddhist temple, then stopped at a Taoist temple, which was similarly laid out but it only had two ranks.  The architecture is similar, but instead of Buddhas and bodhisattvas and arhats, there was the Yin Yang symbol, the Eight Immortals, and the gods of wealth, health, and prosperity.  [Sounds like some heretical versions of Protestantism!] Kaifeng also had a Jewish community that came in over the Silk Road.  Because Jewish people, just like Muslims, don’t eat pork, and slaughter the rest of their meats in a special way, the Chinese, for whom not liking pork is like Americans not liking hot dogs and apple pie, thought they were some kind of Muslim; but the Jews wore blue caps instead of white like the Muslims, and so they were called Blue Hat Hui [Hui, pronounced hway, is the term for Chinese speaking Muslims; you can’t be truly Han if you don’t like pork!]

The next day we went on to Anyang.  Anyang is a small city of a mere million, but it’s notable for the fact that the capital of the Shang dynasty [before 1046 B.C.] was found here.  It came about in this way.  In 1895 an archaeologist happened into a traditional Chinese medicine store where they were selling what they called ‘dragon bones.’  He saw some scratches on them that could be a form of writing!  He inquired as to where these bones had been unearthed, and began to excavate.  What the ‘dragon bones’ turned out to be was this; in old China, and still in some of the ethnic minorities, it is the custom to heat the belly side of tortoise shells [yes, they do have a shell on that side!] or the shoulder blade of oxen until they cracked, and then read the cracks to try to foretell the future, much like the Delphic Oracle or the Urim-va-Thummim.  There was writing on many of them, and they turned out to be an ancient form of Chinese script that was not easy to read.  It indeed turned out to be the ancient Shang capital, called Yin, and many artifacts were unearthed, and a tomb of a famous female general called Fu Hao.  There also was, regrettably, evidence of human sacrifice and of burying servants along with their masters.  In 1046 B.C., at the same time that King David was alive in Israel, the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang, human sacrifice was ended, and Yin was abandoned. Later in the day we went to a Museum of the History of Chinese Writing; after all, it was here that they found out how it evolved; it covered the early development of writing, and then later on how it was adapted to printing [a plaque on the wall boasted about how Gutenberg used Chinese technology] and ultimately how different types of typewriters and computers were adapted to the language.  As you can imagine, with 10,000 characters, this is a bit of a challenge!

Something I did not see myself, but others in my group did [and pictures may be attached in a later edition of this post] is, in Anyang some of our group took a walk and stumbled upon a large farmers’ market where one can ride in on a motorbike and cruise down the aisles and select items and bring them to the checkout counter, all without ever getting off one’s motorbike!  Only in China!

The next day we headed to Jinan, Shandong, where we were handed from our Henan guide and Henan bus to our Shandong guide and Shandong bus.  But as our driver approached the city, as soon as he got off the turnpike he got off the urban freeway and we took some interesting excursions through the streets.  I wondered at this, and was told that buses of our size were not allowed on the urban freeways here.  I could not argue otherwise, not reading much Chinese nor knowing anything about Chinese traffic laws; but I remembered that in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing, etc., we had used the urban freeways in the bus we had there.  Maybe the traffic laws were different, or maybe our bus was licensed differently.

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