Central China- Shaanxi & Shanxi Province
Dev Lewis, Shanghai, China
The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest in the world, one that evolved into a long series of dynasties of emperors that ruled various regions of the large Chinese mainland since BC. These dynasties built cities, struggled to consolidate power against a constant battle against neighboring kingdoms, while fostering prosperity and technological innovation. Over centuries they have created an extremely rich, meaningful and diverse culture, no matter which part of China you travel to. Shanxi province located in central-North China and Shaanxi province, located in the central part of mainland China, is considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. Over 13 feudal dynasties established their capitals here,from the Zhou dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, spanning over 1,1000 years. On the 24th of March I began a 6-day field trip that would take me to the ancient city of Pingyao in Shanxi province, and Xi’an in Shaanxi province. I was excited to be on the road again.
I spent my first two nights in Pingyao, an ancient town with a wall built around it; also one of the UNESCO World Heritage sights, and it was one of the most interesting places i’ve ever stayed in. The streets of Pingyao had a very unique feel, a mixture of bazaar like energy and the peace of small village. The central streets were the hubs of activity. All sorts of shops adorned both sides of the street selling a variety of handicrafts and trinkets to sculptures and swords of all sizes-for very, very cheap. I bought a very nice crafted wooden cane with a dragonhead as its top handle, bargained down from a 100 to 20 RMB. Funnily enough, I ended up carrying the cane everywhere I went from then on (as if I needed anything more to set me apart from the crowd). But, perhaps the best way to get the feel of this tiny ancient town is to rent a bicycle, and pedal your way from the crowded streets to the quieter areas situated close to the wall. Naturally, I stopped en-route to the smell of some very delicious cooking, the Pingyao special Miantiao (noodles). These noodles were much flatter and wider in size, and were cooked in some very delicious spices. My friends and I also stumbled across a local special alcohol that is stored in earthen pots, and it was some of the tastiest local Chinese alcohol I had tried so far. With sundown, a gradual peace began to settle on the city, and it was only then you began to feel a realization of where, in context with the rest of the world, you really are(See picture to the left). There is not enough for you to do within the city walls for much longer than a couple of days, although I could have easily spent a week lazily living in this tiny city, safe within the ancient walls.
The Streets of Pingyao The Terracotta Warriors
However, 2 days later and I was on the road again, this time on a 12-hour overnight train to Xi’an.
The capital of Shaanxi province, Xi’an is also one of China’s 4 historic capitals with a very unique history. Xi’an was the eastern end of the famous Silk trade route that connected China to parts of Europe and Africa. This made Xi’an a commercial hub and one of the most culturally diverse cities in China and the world. The city began to decline in importance around the mid 1400s, most likely due to the technological shift of trade to the land to the seas, yet the foreign influences still remain on the architecture and culture of the city. There are many Pagodas that were built, most famously the Wild Goose Pagoda. Although, to many of the Chinese, a group of waiguo ren (foreigners) dressed up in traditional Chinese clothes for a touristy picture (it proved to be an inspired decision), proved to be far more interesting, as we drew crowds of people’s attention to us rather than the Pagoda. The muslim presence in the city is most prominent in the Muslim quarter, which is one of the liveliest places to visit, and feast on the amazing food. I was curious about the politics of religious tolerance and I inquired with one of the Imam’s at the mosque about this. In a distinctly hushed tone he told me the party has generously funded the building of many sections within the mosque, and does to a significant degree leave them to their own devices.
Yet, perhaps the most popular attraction is the Terracotta warriors, on display in an onsite museum on the outskirts of Xian(See picture to the right). They are a terracotta army of 8,000 soldiers, including chariots and horses, built in 210 BC to protect the emperor Qin Shi Huang in his after life, as was the practice at that time. The soldiers were actually destroyed when the roof collapsed during an invasion, only to be found in 1974 by a group of farmers. Since then a great deal of effort and money has been spent to attempt to re-build the destroyed warriors into their former glory. At the first sight, you can’t help but stare in awe, and the attention to detail to each figure is incredible. There are 3 different sections, each representing different sections of the army. The Chinese government is bidding to make this site the 8th wonder of the world, deserving? As impressive as it was, I’m not too convinced, perhaps I’ve got to see all 7 first before I can make a judgement.
Architecture can tell you a lot about a place, as it is often a function of its surroundings and the interests of those who build them. The Great Wall of China is synonymous with China worldwide, built to keep the northern invaders away. This architectural concept has deep roots in Chinese military strategy, and both Pingyao and Xi’an both exemplified this. Large stonewalls were built around the city, designed to protect the city from invaders. If you read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, you will see that military strategy and might was one of the most important interests for emperors, for Chinese ancient history is also murky and bloody, littered with invasions and fighting between neighboring territories, a constant dynastic struggle. Walking along the wall and looking down at the city, you can somewhat imagine and visualize what the world must have been like when these walls acted as protection for the people of Pingyao.
Traveling from Shanghai, the current financial hub of China, to these historic cities, really helps create a . Fast forward to present day, China is on the cusp of its former glory. China’s growth over the last two decades is commonly labeled as the rise and emergence of China. However, looked with true historical perspective it really is the re-emergence of China, a view that shaped the Chinese leadership perceptions of China in context of the rest of the world, and the Chinese government is intent on bringing back this civilization to where they believe it truly deserves.