China - A Book Without a Last Page, 2018

A place detached from reality, China has been fascinating me for many years. Only here I came across women sweeping blossoms that cover the square as soon as they are removed, and men hammering iron without seeing the light of day. In spite of the many travels and novels I read about China, the thought process of Chinese people still eludes me. Thus an insatiable curiosity keeps haunting me. Is it the pride from many years of extravagant dynasties or the suppression during the Communist regime that is carried on through many generations, I may never understand. 

China is like a book without a last page. 

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During the ten days we spent in Xi’ān, Píngyáo, Dàtóng and Beijing, we were completely out of touch from the outside world. The government regulations on internet are more extensive than any other country here. Recently, regulations were tightened more when the government found gaps in the firewall which allowed visitors to access blocked content through hotels’ VPNs.

One can live in a world of illusion like many here in China. 

In the Shaanxi Province, where it all started, our “journey” began. In our room across from Xi’ān’s Ming era city walls I meditated in the early hours of our first day and most days after. Meditation helps clear my mind and I needed that to help me understand this amazing culture.

After breakfast in our hotel Pusuxidu, we walked through an orange colored morning among locals eating steamy cups of soup, having haircuts and buying fresh goods from a street market. 

Xi’ān is where the first dynasty of a unified China had started in 221 BC by Qin Shi. 

It is also where the Silk Road begins with the trade of the “heavenly” Ferghana horses of Uzbekistan in exchange with Chinese silk. The seventh century Chang’an, old Xi’ān was the world’s largest city with one million people - at the end of this blog, I included a poem on Chang'an written by the romantic Chinese poet Li Po (Li Ba) who lived during the eight century. 

We walked on the 600 year old walls looking over the grey ceramic tiled roofs of the old town below. The narrow streets of the town were lined with stores selling brushes, bamboo slats, and paper rolls. Fine bred stray dogs were resting in squares lined with trees where calligraphers were selling their scrips on large rice papers. Old men were playing chinese checker on sidewalks. In addition to puppets, and tea pots I collect brushes from places we visit. I love the durability and the gentle touch of the Japanese and Chinese brushes for my own printmaking

We had lunch at a restaurant famous for pot sticker fried dumplings by the Muslim Quarter, home of the Hui community. We shared a round table with two polite girls who helped us communicate with the shy waitresses sent by the older ones who didn’t want to take the challenge. 

At the Shaanxi Museum bronze pots with dainty dancing figurines, ox headed agate cups and terracotta Chinese zodiac sculptures were displayed. Among the “gentle” pushes of the space seeking Chinese visitors, these fascinating relics took us back to prehistoric times. 

Big Goose Pagoda is a Tang style square pagoda built in 652 AD by a monk as a storage space for the sutras he brought from India and translated from Sanskrit to Chinese. Chanting of the monks who were asking for blessings were penetrating the gardens among the blossoming trees and peonies. The haze hanging above the city stayed until the evening making shadows on temple walls ghostly in the afternoon. In spite of a ban on coal burning that was supposed to be implemented some time ago, the air quality was still poor.


We happened to be there on the Lantern Festival which is celebrated at the end of March. At night, the red lanterns on the shy leaves of early spring turned the city into a magical parade. 

We ended the day at the Muslim quarter colorful with shops selling Chinese hamburger, mutton kebabs, and sesame candies. 

Next morning we hired a driver to take us to the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi and the Terracotta Warriors.  Terracotta Warriors do not look serious like a warrior should. Rather they have subtle smiles and expressions. Some look like they are holding on to what they want to say all these years. In a way they are timeless which is what I aim in my own sculptures.

They all face east except the ones at the edge who are turned to the side of the rectangular pit that they all stand.  

They were built by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi who believed that he would continue to govern after his death. During his short reign from 221 to 206 BC he standardized money and measures and united the divided sections of the walls to the north creating the Great Wall, which we were to see later. 

Close by is the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi who died in 141 BC. Some of the 50,000 figurines of animals, soldiers, eunuchs and women were standing in neat rows at the museum’s dim rooms while others were still waiting to be excavated in dirt covered pits inside the tomb. In spite of the impressive size and magnificence of these relics, there were only a few visitors. 

Great Mosque is located in an unlikely corner of the Muslim quarter reached by narrow alleys. The mosque founded in the eight century is a fascinating combination of Islamic and Chinese architecture and is one of the most magnificent monuments in China. The minaret is in the form of a three story octagonal pagoda decorated with traditional dragon figures.

The stone gardens between the Ming and Qing dynasty pavillions were fresh with scents of spring. As the time for the evening prayer approached, men with white taqiyahs started to pass through the courtyards to reach the the praying hall with a turquoise roof. Soon the voice of the prayer and the dusk took over the sacred space.

In the night’s coolness
the Persian lilies smell heavy
mosque’s calling prayer
                My daughter Belisa, 12

During the 2.5 hour train ride from Xi’ān to Píngyáo through orchards and farms we had green tea served by conductors. Now we were in the Shānxī Province. When we arrived at the heat of noon, Píngyáo’s dust covered streets were empty. 

We checked into our hotel Xing Sheng Jui which had a courtyard surrounded by rooms with wood laced windows and low hard-beds. We arranged transportation for part of the trip previously and we still needed to hire a driver to take us to a few places in the area and to Dàtóng for our next stay. We used iphone translation apps to communicate one day at a time. Further than that seemed to be too complicated.

People started to walk around as the shades overgrew the single-story buildings with grey ceramic tiled roofs. An ancient walled town with courtyards, shops and temples, Píngyáo has not yet been modernized like most of the Chinese towns. During previous travels, it was a shock to see Yangshuo in the Guanxi province change from a remote quiet town surrounded with ragged limestone cliffs to a karaoke center from 2004 and 2014. 

A old men was sitting on the sidewalk with two tiny birds. When taken out of their cages the birds pull out with their beak one a red paper out of a neat row. Hidden inside is someone’s fortune. My daughter and I kept the small notes until a friend could translate it for us back home. 

In China, traditions seem to stay longer than other countries. It is hard to guess however whether if the bird man will be here in ten years. 

City itself is an ancient museum with many historical places that can be visited with a single ticket. In between these temples, and ancient buildings are lacquer, soy wine, candy and tea shops. Fashionable Chinese ladies ride their bikes with white socks and high heels while children wearing open bottom pants relieve themselves on the streets.


One of the historical locations is the Rishengchang Draft Bank founded in 1824 as the first private bank of China. The small connecting quarters open up to kitchens, dining rooms and accountant offices with abacuses. Confucius books and opium pipes placed for the comfort of the guests serve as dusty records of Píngyáo’s opulence as a finance town. 

The next day we hired a driver to take us to the Qiao Family House and a Buddhist temple. Qiao Family House is one of the finest remaining traditional family houses 20 km north of Píngyáo. Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern” movie was filmed in this 18th century residence. “Wealth lasts for only three generations” the Chinese say. The wealth of the Qiao family who prospered with tea and tofu and later with banking lasted for five generations. Women were killed and men became mad in the shadowy rooms of this vast property. 

Though spring’s warmth is near
rocks feel cold beneath; wind plays
with tender leaves

The Shuānglin Temple was empty except for the many statues sitting in a perpetual darkness for a thousand years. Heavenly Kings, Land God, Fertility Goddess and God of Hell each in their own temple hall behind iron bars are surrounded with guards, bodhisattvas or statues lacking eyes. 

After a short walk on the Ming dynasty wall in the shape of a tortoise, we visited the Confucius Temple. Its green tiled roof rests above the town’s grey topped houses. The tedious Imperial exams were taken in this complex with small classrooms. In the Imperial China, Confucianism was the philosophy of the ruling aristocracy. The scholars achieved the status of government official only if they pass the imperial examinations based on knowledge of the classics of Confucianism and their writing skills. 

People-watching at a café is relaxing even though in China it is more being watched rather than watching. 

A few even asked my daughter to get up and take photos with them when we were having milk tea with bean paste at a sidewalk café. A curious site was an old man in silk clothing hitting a copper gong in between every few steady steps.  Later I asked the owner of a restaurant its meaning. She said it is a “play”. He is the time man and tells the time of the day every two hours - another ancient surprise!

We walked the empty streets of the early morning Píngyáo one last time before our five hour drive to Dàtóng through power plants and arid land in haze. 

Our hotel Yunzhong in Dàtóng with a professional staff was a passage to an ancient time even though it was built only four years ago. The whole town indeed is the result of a 51 billion yuan ambitious plan to recapture the ancient aesthetics after destroying the old ones. In between are awkward tall buildings awaiting their residents. 

Dàtóng at the edge of the Mongolian grasslands was the capital of the Tuoba, a nomadic Turkic people. Near Dàtóng are the Yungāng Caves built during the Northern Wei dynasty by the Tuoba people. These Turkic speaking people, receptive to foreign religions carved sandstone caves into intricate statues of Buddhas and pagodas. The 1,500 years of rain and wind did little to the vivid blues and oranges of the bas-reliefs and the many statues in niches. 

Next morning while we were looking for the Nine Dragon Screen in the morning, we came across a mosque with two square minarets. 

Walking around the empty courtyards surrounded by halls with Chinese and Arabic scripts and listening to the gongs coming from a nearby church was an indication of the possibility of a peaceful union between religions. We had seen this in Indonesia as well. 

Nine Dragon Screen built in 1392 is the largest glazed tile yīngbì spirit wall in China.  Dragons with round stone eyes must have been protecting the palace that belonged to the thirteenth son of the first Ming Emperor.

Dragon in China symbolizes yang, or male principle and consequently the Emperor himself and is often seen in imperial buildings. 

On the way to Beijing we stopped at the Xuankong Si, the Hanging Temple. Way above the river the small wooden buildings with roofs in colors of apricot trees are attached suspiciously to the canyon walls defying gravity. Corridors connecting the temples supported by thin wooden pillars are large enough for only one person. Once before temples yielded to the river below. For the last five hundred years, the statues of Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist gods have been looking at its waters below from the temples windows with a victorious pride. 

It was getting dark when we arrived to Beijing. In 1271, Kublai Khan established his capital in this city, nowadays living in a fast rhythm. Its unaesthetic Communist buildings in tones of grey disappear into a much polluted air. 

In the evening we went to the Night Market at the Wangfujing street where skewers of living scorpions and candied apples are sold in small stores. 

A woman opera singer at the end of one of these narrow streets was performing on a stage with delicate hand movements and a voice impossibly high to imitate, while people were indulging themselves in these and many other delicacies. 

In the morning’s haze a colorful river of people flowing through the Tian’an Men square was forcing the limits of the infamous square’s one million capacity. Mao himself was gazing at the crowd with “gentle” eyes from his portrait hanging on the gate where he proclaimed the founding of the Republic of China in 1949. The crowds were moving to this gate called the Gate of Heavenly Peace to enter the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City where the emperors and concubines of Pearl S. Buck’s novels lived had a cold grey silence in my imagination. This city within a city was still magnificent in spite of the ambitious Chinese tour groups on this Saturday morning-don’t even attempt to visit on a weekend! 

It was the Ming Emperor Yung who built the Forbidden City. The outer court were reserved mainly for the servers of the emperor and for important events such as the enthronement of the emperor, celebration of the winter solstice, the emperor’s birthday and the announcement of the Imperial examination results. The punishment of court flagging and the presentation ceremony of war captives were also held here. 

In the inner city, Palace of Heavenly Purity was used as the sleeping quarters of the 24 emperors who ruled from here. The rest of the halls all with poetic names such as the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, where the empresses lived retain the opulence of the court in paler colors. The city is said to have 9,999 rooms, an odd number which recurs in many architectural details. The red wooden doors as tall as the gates themselves contain 81 brass studs. The roof fire protection figures of animals and a man riding a horse are also odd numbered. 

Behind these halls are the imperial gardens. During the Qing dynasty sacrifices were performed in the gardens with pavilions and cherry trees during the seventh day of the seventh lunar month to honor the two stars that were lovers. 

In the Palace of Eternal Harmony, where concubines used to live, clocks elaborately designed by English, French and Swiss clockmakers are displayed. Favored by the Qing court, these mechanical clocks have unusual moving parts. In one, a gentleman writes Chinese characters on a piece of paper with ink. In another, a magician lifts two cups revealing subjects magically switched every time. 

After walking for about 7 miles in this vast city we had a late lunch at an Uyghur restaurant near lake Qian Hai where boats and small dragon kites were moving about slowly. 

Afterwards at the Tang Ren Cha Dao teahouse waitresses in red served tea ceremoniously.

In a teashop, sounds
from city’s lake are distant,
slow wooden boats pass

On the way to the Hutong Quarter with old alleyways and Siheyuan courtyard houses, a man was playing a traditional string instrument called erhu underneath cherry blossoms and weeping willows by a creek. Another man playing a pipa replaced him on the way back.

The following day we hired a driver to take us to the Great Wall at Simatai. Water Town on the skirts of the mountains is an ancient looking town with many stone buildings. Another opera stage was set up in a square where an American band with insect costumes were performing later.

From the town, we took a cable car to a midpoint from where we climbed further to reach the wall. Only then we could comprehend the greatness of the wall traveling the highest points of the ridges to the north.

We walked through ten watchtowers which were previously used as signal towers, sleeping and storage areas. The soldiers of Cenghiz Khan were able to penetrate into China trough these assumingly unyielding walls in 13th century. In the mid-17th century, the Manchus from central and southern Manchuria broke through the Great Wall once again forcing the fall of the Ming dynasty and beginning of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912). 

On the last morning before our flight back home we wanted to see how Empress Dowager Cixi spent her summers. A favorite imperial concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor, Empress Dowager Cixi gave birth to a son, who became the Tongzhi Emperor after the Xianfeng's death in 1861. She then became the Empress Dowager and overthrew a group of regents appointed by the late emperor assuming regency. She established control over the dynasty and installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor contrary to the traditional rules. 

Summer Palace is on a vast land that includes a lake with an island, a hill with many temples and the living quarters of the imperial family. The walkway is being used as a temporary exhibition space for calligraphers. One had both in Chinese and English the poem:

Spring is coming before dawn
Everywhere the birds are singing

In 1860, the French and British looted the Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War. Cixi ordered the renovation of the Summer Palace to celebrate her 60th birthday with funds originally designated for upgrading the Qing navy.

By the lakeshore is the Hall of Jade Ripples where Cixi imprisoned the Guangxu emperor who had tried to assassinate her, after the 1898 reform movement.  

Opera was a passion for Cixi. Garden of Virtue and Harmony was where she was entertained by the court’s opera troupe. Across from the opera stage is the Hall of Nurtured Joy for her exclusive use.

A Poem of Changgan
By Li Po

My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums. 
We lived near together on a lane in Ch’ang-kan, 
Both of us young and happy-hearted. 

...At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed, 
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching. 

...Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey 
Through the Gorges of Ch’u-t’ang, of rock and whirling water. 
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go, 
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade. 

...Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts, 
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance, 
All the way to Chang-feng Sha

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