TRAVEL: Xi’an, Shaanxi

Visited June 21-22, 2010.

Terracotta Warriors from Qin Shi Huang's Tomb

Terracotta Warriors from Qin Shi Huang's Tomb

Attractions Checklist:

  • Big Wild Goose Pagoda (June 21)
  • Ancient City Wall (June 21)
  • Tang Dynasty show (June 21)
  • Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors – Horses Museum (June 22)
  • Grand Mosque (June 22)
Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang's Tomb

Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang's Tomb

Of the four ancient capitals of China, Xi’an, formerly known as Chang’an, is the oldest. The Qin dynasty (221 B.C.E.-206 B.C.E.) was founded within the Shaanxi province, the region that includes Xi’an. After unifying the empire, the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, (259 BC-210 BC) sent thousands of laborers to work on his tomb in 231 B.C.E. Discovered in 1974 by the farmers east of Xi’an, the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi is now a well-known world attraction famous for its life-size army of terra cotta warriors and horses.

Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors-Horses Museum

Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Warriors-Horses Museum

Today, a museum is built around the discovery sites and preservation work is still ongoing. However, one may ask the question: why did Qin Shi Huangdi want replica soldiers buried with him? One answer is that Chinese burial practices involved burying representations of real objects. A terra cotta soldier is just as good as the real one. Another answer concerns the emperor’s fears of assassination and desire for immortality. In either case, the fact that these burial replicas have been well-preserved since the Qin is remarkable. In its heyday, Xi’an was the capital of the Tang dynasty (618-907). Wealthy due to its silk and weaving businesses, Xi’an was destination for foreign traders and eventually became a modern equivalent of a cosmopolitan city. The Silk Road established in 119 B.C. brought many foreign merchants and goods across Eurasia into Xi’an. Due to the constant cultural influx, the Tang became receptive to the cultures of the merchants, such as foreign fashion and new instruments. Chinese art, music, and poetry flourished under these new influences.

Dancers in the Tang Dynasty Show

Dancers in the Tang Dynasty Show

During our visit to Xi’an, we had the opportunity to see the Tang Dynasty Show—a reenactment of the high culture that thrived during the Tang. It is a colorful show of brilliant costumes and combines poetry, dancing, singing, and instrument-playing.

Facade of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Facade of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

In addition to the cultural transformation, Buddhism became part of the Tang daily life. Buddhism was introduced in China by merchants traveling from India along the Silk Road during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). During the Tang, Buddhism flourished—many temples and pagodas were built due to generous funds from the emperors. The most famous is the Da Yan Pagoda (Big Wild Goose Pagoda) of the Da Ci’en Temple. The pagoda was built in 652 and the temple in 648 by the Buddhist monk, XuanZang, who journeyed to India in 629 to 645. to attain the Buddhist scriptures. XuanZang also stars in the Chinese classic, Journey to the West, written by Wu Cheng’en in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Grand Mosque

Grand Mosque

Aside from Buddhism, Xi’an was exposed to other foreign religions of the visiting merchants. Islamic mosques are common sights. We visited the Grand Mosque—the oldest, well-preserved mosque built in the traditional Muslim and Chinese styles.

The city wall that surrounds the city today was built in 1378 during the Ming dynasty as an extension to the original inner walls of the Tang. Considered one of the largest ancient defense systems in the world, the wall stands 40 feet high and ascending thickness from top to bottom (43 to 55 feet). The wall covers 8.5 miles, has a moat and battlements; and has four gates for each of the four directions: north, south, east, and west.

Ancient City Wall of Xi'an

Ancient City Wall of Xi'an

Cuisine

Unfortunately, during our tour, we did not have a chance to try much of the Shaanxi, or Qin, cuisine. Our tour schedule had us eating buffet lunches and dinners of the usual Chinese dishes, until we commented to our tour guide, Lily Li, that it was not very agreeable. We did not have a chance to try the local food in Moslem Street (Hui Min Jie), which was nearby the Grand Mosque. During our last dinner in Xi’an, we were able to try a few local dishes of meat with flavorful spices and sauces.

Additional Comments

On a return trip to Xi’an, we would try food from Moslem Street and the local specialties: Xi’an dumplings and Yang Rou Pao Mo (a vermicelli soup dish with mutton meat and broth). A suggestion to travelers: Let your tour director what you prefer. Often times, they will organize buffet meals, because it is the cheapest and most profitable means for their organization.

For those who have not studied the Chinese dynasties, it is recommended that one read about the culture of the Tang dynasty. We found the Tang Dynasty show a bit mundane, because we did not understand the cultural values being presented. After my course in East Asian Civilization during my Fall semester of 2010 in school, I feel that I understand more of the culture and would have appreciated the show more had I done this course before the trip.

Acknowledgements

  • Lily Li, our local tour guide working in conjunction with Dragon Delight Tours
  • The Tang Dynasty Show troupe for a unique performance (albeit we understood little of cultural value)

More Information

Travel China Guide. (2011). Xi’an. Retrieved from  http://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/xian.htm

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