Saturday, October 11, 2008

Xi'an: Four Temples

At the height of its glory during the Tang and Ming dynasties, Xi'an is said to have had more than 1000 temples for its immense and diverse population of Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians. Previous blog entries have described the former Confucian academy (now the Forest of Stelae Museum), the Great Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the former Daoist shrine that has been converted into a mosque. Here are a few images from some other current and former places of worship, remembrance, and meditation.

One of the most famous is the Great Goose Pagoda, a Tang Dynasty structure dating from the mid-seventh century CE. It was built to house the sacred Buddhist scriptures (sutras) brought from India by the pilgrim monk Xuangzang whose mythical adventures are recounted in the comic epic Journey to the West, featuring his sidekick the Monkey King (still a popular figure on Chinese television). It stands at the center of a huge complex of temples and gardens.

On one of my walks, I came across a small Daoist temple that I later learned was dedicated to Han Xiangzi, one of the Eight Immortals. He is thought to have gained eteral life when he accidentally fell from a sacred peach tree, and he is most often depicted playing a flute. Like most temples, this one consists of an archway entrance, a beautiful courtyard filled with natural objects for contemplation (stone, water, plants) and a main hall for devotees who wish to light incense and offer gifts (e.g., money, fruit, flowers) and prayers. An attendant strikes a chiming bowl every time a worshiper kneels in prayer.

On the edge of the Muslim Quarter, I also stumbled into a large temple complex that is now quite run-down. It is currently undergoing restoration by the government, but the process seems to be slow, underfunded, unplanned, and totally haphazard. Nevertheless, the sunny courtyard was filled with activity: workmen, worshipers, tourists, food vendors, craftsmen, grandparents and grandchildren, and entertainers.

Finally, Xi'an is also home to the Temple of the Eight Immortals, a thriving religious community of Daoist monks and nuns just outside the ancient East Gate. The complex includes numerous shines, temples, walkways, gardens, offices, and housing for the residents. Famous visitors include the Eight Immortals themselves, a team of saints with various superhero powers who are said to have appeared on this site sometime during the Song Dynasty, and the Dowager Empress Cixi and the Emperor Guangxu, who took refuge here in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Xi'an: Street Life

Xi'an is not just a museum of art and culture. It is also a vibrant city of nearly seven million souls. Here are a few of them going about their daily business. This particular day happens to be during Golden Week, THE National Holiday in all of China, thus the heavy presence of China's flag.

Xi'an: Art and History

Xi'an is home to two unique museums that chronicle China's cultural past. The first of these is the Shaanxi History Museum, a collection of nearly 400,000 artifacts ranging from prehistoric skulls and stone tools up through artworks from the end of the Qing dynasty (1912). The museum is especially famous for material from the pre-Ming period (before 1350) of Xi'an's golden age. The album shows just a few samples from this vast collection:

The second collection, the Forest of Stelae Museum, is housed in a complex of seven separate halls that are all on the grounds of a former Confucian academy. The stelae are massive stone pillars -- more than 1000 in all -- that are inscribed with the definitive versions of classic texts such as the Confucian Analects and the I Ching (Book of Changes) dating from as early as the ninth century. Students and scholars could make rubbings of the stelae, thus eliminating the vexatious problem (for medievalists, at least) of scribal errors made by copyists.

Muslims were not the only religious minority welcomed in this cosmopolitan city. One stone pillar crowned by a cross and dating to 781 CE preserves a text brought to Xi'an in 635 CE by Nestorian Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of their co-religionists.
Craftsmen still make hand rubbings of the stelae for visitors. We purchased an ink rubbing that is about 7 feet by 3 feet. Its Chinese characters form a famous poem hidden among the stalk and leaves of a bamboo plant.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Xi'an: The Muslim Quarter

Since Xi'an was the former imperial capital and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, it became the home of many Muslim immigrants from as early as the 8th century when Islam was still a young religion. Today, the Muslim community in Xi'an boasts a population of more than 30,000, most of whom are of the Hui ethnic minority. They maintain a number of historic mosques and populate a very lively Muslim Quarter in the heart of the old city. It was one of our favorite places to walk and eat, although the evening crowds were so dense as to make the narrow streets nearly impassable. Here are a few pictures of life in the Muslim Quarter:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Xi'an: Ancient Walled City

October 1 is National Day, the 59th anniversary of Mao Zedong's proclamation of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Thus making me almost two months younger than the PRC!) As a result, the entire nation celebrates "Golden Week," giving Susie and me ten days off to travel along with several hundred million Chinese families. We chose two completely different destinations for our getaway: the ancient imperial capital of Xi'an (Shaanxi Province) and the mountain capital of Lhasa, Tibet.

In 1066 BCE, the Western Zhou dynasty was centered near Xi'an. The city became the imperial capital of China when the nation was unified by its first real emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, in the year 221 BCE. Qin Shi Huangdi organized the effort to build the Great Wall, standardized money and measurements, and established the basis for the legal system. He is best known as the creator of the mausoleum with the terra cotta army (subject of another blog coming soon).

The high point of Xi'an's prosperity was during the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618-907). As the imperial capital and eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xi'an became what was probably the largest (more than 1 million inhabitants) and wealthiest city in the world. Today it is still a major
city, the capital of Shaanxi Province and the home of a very diverse population numbering about 6.6 million inhabitants.
The inner ring of Xi'an's defensive walls was built by the first Ming emperor in the late 14th century. The outer ring of walls, which once enclosed a city covering more than 30 square miles, has now disappeared. We took a couple of walks along the walls: