China - A Book Without a Last Page, 2018
China is like a book without a last page.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dragon in China symbolizes yang, or male principle and consequently the Emperor himself and is often seen in imperial buildings.
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.
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.
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).