Saturday, December 5, 2015

China: Xi'an

Xi'an (西安), in Shaanxi (陕西) province, is a city with deep connections to the beginning of China as a unified country.  It's also a city with deep connections to the beginning of our China story.

China's story began with this man: Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇, "first emperor of the Qin dynasty").  As king of the state of Qin, he conquered all of the other Warring States and unified China in 221BC.  The European name for "China" is thought to be derived from Qin (pronounced "chin").  Rather than maintain the title of "king", Qin Shi Huang styled himself "emperor" -- a title that would be used by the rulers of China for the next two millennia. His capital was located in Xianyang (咸阳), a few kilometers from Xi'an, and is now integrated into the Xi'an metropolitan area.

Qin Shi Huang is perhaps best known outside of China for his terracotta warriors and necropolis -- see the next post for photos.

Part of our China story begins with this woman: Weilei Huang.  She, more than anyone else, bridges our Cambridge and Shanghai chapters.  Weilei was introduced to B. by his Chinese tutor in Cambridge.  She quickly became a part of our lives, with delicious home-cooked Chinese food, Chinese movies, and Chinese family.  My very first Chinese sentence, 我吃饱了 -- I'm full!, was acquired and used repeatedly at her table in Cambridge.  While Weilei now lives near her children in England, her family in Shanghai has become our Chinese family and our closest Chinese friends.

When Weilei invited us to her home in Xi'an during one of her trips to China, we jumped at the chance to see her and visit Xi'an for the first time.  Xi'an is the oldest of the four great ancient capitals of China, the former eastern terminus of the Silk Road.  With a population of about 5.5 million people, it is the largest city in northwest China.  We stayed with Weilei in her apartment, in a complex for retired army officers (her husband, who passed away many years ago).  She and her younger sister remarked on the great changes they've seen in China during their lifetimes -- and how, not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for them to have foreigners in their home.  They also remarked on my Chinese; last time I saw Weilei, I had just started my first Chinese class!

While spending time with Weilei was our top priority on this trip, she arranged a busy program for us covering many of the tourist highlights of Xi'an.  Our first, very rainy day found us at the Shaanxi History Museum, which contains artifacts from the neolithic era through the Qing dynasty.

Painted funerary guards of Prince Qinjian of the Ming Dynasty

Statues from the Zhongshan grottoes

When the weather cleared, we went to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda  (大雁塔), originally built in 652 AD during the Tang dynasty to store translations of Buddhist sutras from India.  A nearby square boasts the largest fountain in Asia, with a water show that rises and falls in time to music. 

Later, Weilei arranged for a "young friend", a Chinese student and Xi'an native studying in England, to show us around the city.  After meandering along the Xi'an city wall, a 14km-long barrier originally built in the 14th century, we wandered through the neighborhoods and explored one of the most important parts of China -- the food!  Scenes from the Muslim quarter, with its lively food street, deserve their own post and will follow shortly.

We caught dance rehearsal next to the city wall

Just inside the wall were older-style buildings with convoluted streets.  
Outside the wall were high-rises and crazy designs.

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