U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University

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Days 6 and 7 – Xi’an, History and Culture

This entry is for days 6 & 7, Saturday and Sunday, in Xi’an  We got an early start on the weekend, however, and Darren Wright and I managed a few hours late Friday (Day 5) to visit the Grand Mosque in Xi’an.   As we left the Alliance students late Friday,  Darren and I set out for the Grand Mosque in a pelting .  Taxis proved very scarce, but we finally found a motorized rickshaw driver – one of the most truly Chinese experiences possible in modern China.

The motorized rickshaw is a quaint hybrid of traditional and modern China. Anyone who has traveled in China knows what’s about to happen here. We were doing maybe 20 mph.That van shot around us doing at least 30 or 35. Our driver never “blinked.” Just a slight jig to the right to avoid contact and the van whooshed past.

The driver was a bit hesitant about taking on the heavy pedestrian traffic in the Muslim district, so we walked the last several blocks through narrow alley ways to the Xi’an Great Mosque.  The Xi’an Great Mosque was first set up in 742 CE during the Tang Dynasty.  For those of us who know our history through Western Civilization, that’s the year Charlemagne was born, and it was just 10 years after Charles Martel had turned back the Moors at the Battle of Tours.  The Xi’an Grand Mosque has been in use virtually continuously since that time.  Rebuilt and renovated under the Song, the Yuan, the Ming, and the Qing Dynasties, the Mosque is now under the special protection of the Communist Party and the People’s government.  Government support ensures an annual allocation for restoration and upkeep.  The walled complex covers nearly 140,000 square feet (over 3 acres), almost half of which is occupied by buildings.

Darren is an activist.  Although he’s been in Xi’an just since September, he’s already gotten himself connected to the local religious communities.  At the Great Mosque, he called on Bai Bo (白博) an Islamic scholar and a curator of the Grand Mosque. Bai Bo is completely self-taught in his English, and he speaks it well -- with a soft, lilting rhythm that quickly becomes a soothing murmur.  Bai Bo talked about the history, politics, and culture of the Mosque, about Islam, the Silk Road, and Xi’an as we walked through the gardens, gates, and pavilions of the Grand Mosque for nearly an hour.  Finally, he broke off to sprint into the mosque in answer to the final call to evening prayer.

China offers a dizzying array of “real” experiences, and Bai Bo’s tour of the Xi’an Great Mosque was certainly one of those.  He offered a compelling narrative placing Islam in the context of China’s history.  Bai Bo is no idealist or apologist when it comes to explaining the ethnic tensions in China, nor does he glamorize his feelings of multiculturalism and the status of minorities in China.  Still, he is clearly Chinese, and he is clearly proud of Xi’an’s Islamic heritage.  His China lives in the historical shadow of the Silk Road.  He puts himself and his China in a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural Chinese tradition.

The Xi’an Great Mosque

Saturday morning – Day 6:   The pelting rain is finally beginning to let up as I meet my guide for the day, “Jerry” (Dang Yi Ning).  Jerry is another of those Chinese who speaks nearly unaccented English with excellent grammar.  A graduate of the Xi’an International Studies University, Jerry has been working as a guide for six years.  He would like to go back to school and get to the U.S., but things just haven’t come together yet.

We start at the city wall, the largest and most complete city wall in China.  The Xi’an City Wall as it stands today is a Ming expansion of and improvement on the original wall of the Tang city.  It is 40 feet tall and 40 feet wide at the top (60 at the base).  The wall stretches for more than 8 miles completely surrounding the city center of what was the Tang capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an).  The core of the wall is rammed earth.  The exterior shell is brick.  A fortified block house stands every 120 meters along the entire length, allowing protected crossbow archers coverage of the walls’ entire upper surface.  Larger command post fortifications sit atop each of the gates which are at the four cardinal points of the compass.  A deep moat encircles the entire fortification, and a continuous band of parkland now stands between the moat and the wall.

The Xi’an City Wall

Of course, for any historian, such massive fortifications lead an inescapable conclusion:  Either someone was after this city, or they were extraordinarily paranoid.  Jerry couldn’t call to mind any occasion on which someone had made a serious attempt to take the city after the Ming renovations, but  Chang’an/Xi’an had suffered plenty in earlier times. 

The geography of cities always shows a logic.  Why are they where they are?  In European history we talk about cities as either political/military centers, religious centers, or centers of trade and commerce.  The truly “great cities” of the world usually combine at least two of these cultural functions.  Xi’an is no exception.  For much of its history – at least through the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) Xi’an -- or Chang’an -- was the hub for China’s economic life and political administration.  During the Tang Dynasty, such a position at the hub of Chinese civilization made Chang’an the largest city in the world. 

In fact, to speak of Xi’an as a single historical city is somewhat misleading.  There have been several city sites within just a few miles of each other in the same area of the lower Wei River Valley.  Altogether, there are six sites for the historical and archaeological Xi’an within just a few miles of Xi’an.  Five cities were situated on the south side of the lower Wei and one on the north bank.

The Wei River is the largest tributary of the Yellow River, and when people talk of the Yellow River valley as the cradle of Chinese Civilization they are referring to an area that includes the lower Wei. The Wei joins the Yellow River just east of Xi’an as the Yellow River sweeps south out of the Loess Plateau of Northwest China and Mongolia.  The Wei actually finds its headwaters very near the Yellow River, only about 400 miles west of Xi’an.  While the Wei flows almost directly east, the Yellow turns north to make a 1,200-mile sweeping loop through the loess plateau.  As the Yellow emerges from the Loess, it has taken on its characteristic muddy yellow color.  At that point, a cubic yard of the river’s water carries almost 85 pounds of yellow soil picked up in the loess plateau.

The lower Wei River valley and Xi’an sit at the nodal point of river networks, mountain passes and trading routes. The Loess Plateau of northwest China and Mongolia furnishes the sediments that give the Yellow River its name and fertility to the agriculture of northern China.

The lower Wei River valley became the political, economic and cultural hub of ancient China because of its extremely favorable location.  The network of rivers  and key mountain passes accessible meant access to trading routes.  The fertile bottom land of the river valley made it possible to feed the city and provision armies on the frontier.  Xi’an was a logical hub both for trade and political control of all of central and northern China.  Altogether, the lower Wei around Xi’an furnished sites for the capitals of 13 major Dynasties between 1121 BCE and 907 AD.  The most important of these would have to be the...

  • Western Zhou Dynasty (1121-771 BCE)
  • Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE)
  • Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 195 AD)
  • Sui Dynasty (581- 618)
  • Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)

Every textbook refers to the Tang Dynasty as the Golden Age of China – the time of greatest prosperity, military power, territorial expansion, literary accomplishment, poetry, artisanship, art, and music.  Many also sing the praises of the Tang as the greatest period of personal freedom and self expression.  On this trip, I also heard the praises of the Tang sung many times because it was a time that allowed women the greatest cultural freedom and broadest rights they’ve ever held within Chinese civilization.  I have no idea whether this is true, but the person telling me this assured me that the Tang was the only period in Chinese dynastic history when women could initiate and carry through divorce proceedings.  It is certainly true that this is the only period in Chinese history to see a woman rule as Empress in her own right.  This was the Empress Wu Zhou who interrupted the Tang dynastic succession to rule from 690 to 705. 

It’s also true that a woman helped hasten the decline of the Tang Dynasty.  This was the notorious (or tragic) Yang Guifei.  Yang Guifei, as the favorite concubine of the Emperor Xuanzong (688 – 762), provided so much distraction that the emperor neglected his duties and allowed corrupt officials (led by Yang Guifei’s cousin) to loot the Imperial treasury while failing to perform their duties.  The resulting uprisings, revolts, and turmoil seriously weakened the Tang State.  Within 50 years, the dynasty was overthrown.  With that, Chang’an’s era as the greatest city in China ended.  The Ming resurrection of the city as Xi’an in 1370 saw it become the nodal point of defense for the northwestern frontier as well as the jumping off point for the Silk Road trade.  In a very real sense, Xi’an of the Ming had become China’s gateway to the West.

Yang Guifei
Insurrections led Yang Guifei to commit suicide as her last attempt to persuade the emperor Xuanzong to resume his effective rule.  She was too late in this effort; the Empire had been fatally weakened and within 50 years was toppled by rebellious warlords. Depending on which parts of the story you emphasize, Yang Guifei becomes either the conniving temptress or the tragic heroine.  In both forms, she has remained a central figure in Chinese literature and art.

No doubt about it, the Tang city of Chang’an (Xi’an) with its rigid grid pattern of 11 major north-south  streets and 14 east-west arteries provided a climax for the imperial development of ancient China as well as a cultural and economic legacy that cast a very long shadow over the region. Even in the 21 st century, traditional Chinese culture continues to reflect the glory and the ideals of the Tang Dynasty.

Of course, outside China, things are different.  The meanings of the Shang, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties hold far less sway.  In the collective imagination of the western world, Xi’an seemed a lonely relic of the forgotten Silk Road Trade until the discovery of a “lost Civilization” represented by the Terracotta Warriors.  These are the funerary warriors of the emperor Qin Shihuang, 221 – 206 BCE.   This is the “Qin” whose name put the “chin” in China.  Qin Shihuang is the emperor who first united the kingdoms of China into a single Empire.  In his formal reign of just 15 years, he began construction of the Great Wall, standardized the written language of Chinese, established an extensive road network radiating out from his capital Xiangyang (Xi’an), and reformed the legal code.  A brutal tyrant, Qin Shihuang levied oppressive taxes and conscripted significant manpower, provoking revolt very soon following his death.  Within a year, those revolts had toppled his successor.  Within a generation, events led to the establishment of the Han Dynasty.  The Han provided the Chinese with a dynasty that paralleled the later Roman Republic and the early Roman Empire in the West.

The accidental discovery of Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army in 1974 put Xi’an back on the map of world consciousness.  Clearly, it was never really lost to the Chinese, however.  The Tang had become the “golden age,” and existence of the “hidden army” and of Qin Shihuang’s tomb (still unexcavated) was certainly known to Chinese scholars.  Even the general area of the Qin and other dynastic tombs was known.  It was the specific location coming to light, however, that turned the Terracotta Warriors into what the Chinese call the “8 th Wonder of the World.” 

As he told me all this, Jerry cheerfully rattled off the seven wonders of Western Classical Antiquity without breaking stride.

There are certain places you visit that can give you chills as you feel the power of the events that took place there.  Maybe the hairs on your neck stand up and you find yourself unable to speak for a bit.  Coming into sight of the Terracotta Warriors in “pit #1” furnished one of those moments for me.  It was just as every person and book had told me it would be, but nothing prepared me for the feelings of entering such a special place.  I can’t say that the warriors seemed to come alive; quite the opposite.  What stunned was the way they seem frozen in place – whether whole or in pieces – still seeming to radiate energy and power.  They also seemed to me to show themselves at peace with their role and their place in history.

Pit #1, the infantry

The Pit of the scholars.

Originally the separate pits for each column of warriors were covered with beams, woven mats and earth.  This pit shows the how the roofing system collapsed before becoming completing buried.

The “Terracotta Warriors” site is a UNESCO world heritage site, and its promotional material claims two million visitors come to the site annually.  That would mean over 6,000 visitors on average each day across the year.  Jerry tells me, however, that the tourist season really only runs from April through late September or early October.  He doesn’t get much business bringing people to the site otherwise.  I ask him how many times he’s led groups to the site.  He calculates 3 trips each week for the season over the six years he’s been at this and comes to an estimate 720 tours he’s brought to the site.   As we leave, he tells me he feels at one with these silent warriors.  There were thousands of visitors at the site on the day we visited, but there is still a curious sense of space and room for many, many more visitors.  The parking lots are only partially filled, and the vendors in the rows of shameless commerce are genuinely looking for trade.  The crowd is friendly and mixed.   There are strong contingents of Western tour groups with the bobbing flags as well as similar groups of Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese.  Nevertheless, the largest contingent are clearly Chinese – multigenerational families, students, young couples, and groups that just seem to enjoy being with each other.
There were people entering the Terracotta Warrior site in a steady stream, but things were far from crowded. These students from a local university were carrying out a marketing survey.  They were so please to have a Westerner’s response that they wanted to make sure I had their picture!
The local farmers who have lost their land to the Terracotta Warrior site have been transformed into the merchants whose shops and village adjoin the site. There are wonderful shops, restaurants, and craft demonstrations, but this is slow season and most shops and restaurants were very unbusy.

I asked Jerry to take me to the Shaanxi Museum, reputedly one of China’s foremost museums.   He proved reluctant, telling me that I would do much better to make that trip by myself early the next day.  Arriving in mid-afternoon wouldn’t do, Jerry told me.  Too many waiting for entry by that time.  Even arriving by mid afternoon I’d be lucky to get in before the 6p.m. closing.  As an alternative he proposed a local art gallery and museum, and he asked if I had any other requests.  He had mentioned textiles as something of a local specialty, and when I asked about silk he took me to a wonderful, albeit high-pressure, sales outlet specializing in silk.  A great experience!  The Chinese street vendors and shop keepers have gone global!

Get a tour, buy some silk!
(I did!)
Actually, the tour was quite well done.  Here they demonstrate how the silk cocoons are mechanically unwound
Folk art at the TangBo Museum in Xi’an Folk art –paper cutting- at the TangBo Musuem
Jerry, my guide, turned out to have quite a bit of talent as a calligrapher. The TangBo Museum is a combination Museum, cultural center, and gallery.  The gallery works available for sale are by local art students, institute faculty, and international names in modern Chinese art.

As his final guided offering of the day, Jerry took me to what I can only describe as one of the most interesting art museum/gallery combinations I’ve ever visited.  This is the TangBo Musem in Xi’an .  The museum part of TangBo focuses on the folk art of northwest China and the art of Tang Dynasty.  The gallery shows works of contemporary artists and art students in Xi’an.  The cultural exchange hall offers calligraphy lessons and cultural exchange.  I’d put this on my “must see” list for anyone visiting Xi’an.  As with the pottery shop, the Tangbo Museum draws a wide range of visitors.

As we parted, Jerry gave me his last recommendation – Tang Dynasty Dinner Theatre.  There are a number of such dinner theatres in Xi’an, and most are rated more highly in the guide books than the one Jerry recommended.  At least it was within walking distance of the hotel!

Nothing but tour buses.  They didn’t even know how to handle me as a single walk-in patron.  We had to find a manager to do the deal.  The dinner was fine, and the English couple they put me with was very nice.  I don’t know enough about Tang musical traditions or folk dancing to criticize the choreography, but I can recognize dancers who haven’t yet learned their routines and performers who miss cues.  Still, it was fun, and the tourist crowd was enthusiastic.

Tang Dinner Theatre

Jerry’s tips on the Shaanxi Museum were a winner.  Quick cab ride to arrive before opening, a couple hours in the museum, and I still had ample time to pack and make it to the airport for my 2:00 p.m. flight.


The line for the individual tickets at the Shaanxi Museum was out to the street before opening time at 8:30. It was even longer when I left later in the morning. No one at the window for tour groups.


The Shaanxi History Museum prides itself on being ranked one of the “Four Top” museums in China.  That is an official recognition from the government as well as the guidebooks.  Since the 1950s, the museum has been “The Leader in Adolescent Moral Education.”

Once again, as in Suzhou, the museum crowd was well over 95% Chinese.  It was a young crowd.  Families, couples, small groups of friends.  It was also obvious that the Chinese who came to the museum were interested in more than a casual experience. They were there to see the exhibits and seemed to know what they wanted to see.  There was no distracting adolescent horseplay or hijinks.  In an interesting twist I had not ever seen before, the labels for the individual items from the collection do give English translations, but most of the larger gallery descriptions, timelines, and background material are Chinese only!

I came away from Xi’an with the feeling that there are at least two parallel cultural streams flowing through the city.  One is the very Chinese experience that brings Chinese visitors to place like the Great Mosque, the Tangbo Gallery, and the Shaanxi Museum.  These are very Chinese experiences, and this is a living, multicultural world where the Chinese spend time.   The other is the Tang Dinner Theatre and the silk sales room.  These are also very Chinese, but they are definitely not meant to attract a Chinese clientele.  

These two worlds seem very distinct.  I have to admit, it surprised me to see how truly separate these experiences really are.  I was surprised by the total absence of Chinese in one world and by the lack of Westerners the other.  Both have their place in the “real” China, but it’s as if they occupy the same space without ever touching.  These two worlds do seem to intersect in at least a few places such as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.  They most definitely come together at the Terracotta Warrior Site.

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