China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 10 (v.1) - Xian

Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Xian
There’s something about the name of the city ‘Xian’ that sounds wonderfully exotic to me. Perhaps it’s because it begins with a capital ‘X’, or maybe it’s because it sounds rather like a tribe of North American Indians.
However, my enthusiasm for the city had been dampened by my students long before I actually set foot in it. They had warned me that it was so polluted that when it rained, the contaminants in the air were absorbed by the falling raindrops, leaving them black by the time they hit the ground. One of my students described it as ‘The City of Black Rain,’ which would, I think, make a wonderful title for a novel. Another student had joked that I could return my greying hair to its original colour by merely spending a weekend there. And two years later, I found myself in Xian: the City of Black Rain.
I expected a black, decaying industrial behemoth, like Manchester in the eighties. In reality, I’m glad to say, Xian is a much more pleasant metropolis of approximately eight million people.
From its central square, the Drum and Bell Tower Square, the city’s four main arteries (East, West, North and South Street), spread out into infinity, dividing the city in a logical and coherent way. The square itself, which our hotel looked out on, is a nice enough grassy place, where kite flying aficionados ride the wind, or rather their kites ‘ride the wind.’ They themselves stay on the ground and try to sell you kites.
The square contains two typical Ming Dynasty towers; one containing a museum of bells, and another a museum of drums. We went to one of them, but I can’t remember which one, which shows what a great impression it left on me. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the museums; it’s just that I can’t muster up any interest in drums or bells.
The rest of the city centre is all new. This is surprising when you consider that Xian was China’s capital for far longer than any other city, and much longer than the current capital, Beijing. In fact it was a capital during five dynasties: the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui and Tang emperors all called Xian home.
Most of the dynasties rose and fell here in Xian, over its three thousand plus years of history, but judging by the downtown area, they left no trace. Once again, war, progress, indifference and a tendency to build with wood rather than stone, have destroyed visible reminders of Chinese history. The centre of modern Xian could be any American city: malls, banks, McDonalds and traffic jams.
Xian’s citizens looked prosperous and purposeful. This was a world of business, of mobile phones and factories, and the rough and ready Tibetans of yesterday were worlds away, much to the delight of both parties, I suspect.
Even the weather surprised me. I had expected more of the damp, drizzle and grey mist so characteristic of Southern China, but Xian was dry and dusty. In fact, it was dangerously dry. Posters everywhere encouraged people to conserve water: ‘each drop means life’, the posters warned ominously. Xian is surrounded by rivers, but they are slowly drying up, and most of them are too polluted to deliver water suitable for human consumption.
Instead of mist, one finds a slight haze in Xian. The sky here is cloudless, but not really blue. It’s a kind of yellow/blue I had never seen before. That’s partly due to pollution, no doubt, but mainly due to the dusty yellow loess soil from North West China being blown east by the howling winds of Mongolia. The soil up there is yellow and like powder, and winter winds lift it from the ground and carry it all the way to Xian and Beijing. There’s nothing new in this, but the scale and intensity of soil erosion has increased massively in this century.
Recent rapid economic progress is bringing things to a crisis point. Drought, over-farming and deforestation, combined with ever increasing demands for water from industry and the cities, are pushing north East China toward the abyss, and some speculate that the whole region, from Xian to Beijing, may soon become a desert.
The Party, not one to let even Mother Nature stand in its way, has a plan. It has begun a massive canal building project to transfer water from the wet south of China (which receives 80-90 per cent of China’s rainfall) to the dry north.
Once again, I was impressed by the power of the Party and the Chinese in general to control nature; to organize and to build. When it comes to enormous public works projects, can anyone compete with the Chinese, a nation that built a wall the length of a continent? This contrasts sharply with, for example, Spain, where the Sahara desert is already moving into the parched Andalusian south, spreading the arid death that is a desert landscape into Europe.
Does Spain, occupying an area smaller than a Chinese province, and in per capita terms far richer and more economically developed than China, build its own canals from its wet north to irrigate its parched south? No, it does nothing. It merely talks about the possibility of doing something at some indeterminate time in the future. The same is true for Europe as a whole; the north has more water than it knows what to do with, and the south doesn’t have enough, but there is not enough political will to build pipelines.
However, we had not come to Xian to see the yellowed sky, to ponder the growth of the Gobi Desert, or to congratulate the Party on its Public Works’ projects. We had come, like everyone else, I suppose, to see those Terra Cotta warrior statues.
I’m sure you know the statues I mean: those life-size replicas built by Emperor Qin to protect him in the afterlife, used in place or burying real soldiers alive, which was standard practice at the time. Who knows what kin fog afterlife these emperors expected? A violent one, apparently.
Burying soldiers alive with you when you die must have made military recruitment rather difficult. You can just imagine the slogans on the posters: ‘Join the army-Get Buried Alive!’, or ‘Don’t Die For the Emperor-Die With the Emperor’.
The soldiers with the terracotta stand-ins were the lucky ones-Emperor Qin’s many wives, concubines, servants and all but one of his 22 children did receive the honour of being buried alive with him, whether they wanted to or not.
I feel most sorry for the workmen involved in building the most sensitive part of the complex, the emperor’s tomb, who were buried alive in it immediately after it was completed to prevent them revealing the secrets of its construction.
Talk about a bum rap! You spend 25 years, your whole life, slaving away underground, suffering terrible terms and conditions, and all to complete the tomb of some paranoid megalomaniac you’ve never even met, and then as soon as you finish, they bury you alive in it. I guess these guys had pretty weak unions.
Emperor Qin was the first emperor to rule a united China, but also a bit of a paranoid megalomaniac, apparently. It seems to me that paranoid megalomaniacs often do well, historically speaking. Even the ‘enlightened’ 20th century provides many examples of the advantages of megalomania and paranoia to a leader. For example, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are the three ‘greatest’ dictators of the 20’th century, and all of them were paranoid megalomaniacs; each one using these personality traits to rise to absolute power, and then hold on to it.
But to return to Emperor Qin, after uniting China, he set about making sure the whole continent of a country was kept busy glorifying his magnificence, and he devoted an enormous percentage of GDP to building physical manifestations of his power and wealth.
For example, he built the greatest mausoleum the world has ever seen; a mausoleum so large that had it survived, it would have made even the pyramids look puny in comparison.
The terra-cotta warriors were only one small part of the 25 km complex that was to ensure his greatness was never forgotten.
The irony is that only a year after his death peasant uprisings destroyed the emperor’s vast monument to himself, looting what they could, demolishing what they couldn’t and burning the rest.
Even the Terra Cotta warriors had their metal weapons stolen and were smashed to pieces. The warriors you see today have been painstakingly put back together again by teams of dedicated archaeologist, who are so patient and skilled, they could probably reconstruct Humpty Dumpty.
The Chinese can be a very destructive lot when they set their mind to it. They can build on a massive scale, unthinkable by other cultures, but they can also tear it all down again at frightening speed. I know this is a crass generalization, and not my first, but so little of China’s long history is still standing I can’t help but make the assertion.
Often when it is still standing, you find it’s just a replica of something that was destroyed earlier, often several times, and always for no apparent reason. The Cultural Revolution and the vandalism of the Red Guards is just a recent, and comparatively mild, example of the China’s periodic lapses into self-destructive insanity. But enough of my armchair theorising: Let’s get back to the Great Qin.
The First Emperor, who reigned for twenty-six years from 247-221 BCE, brought to an end what was known as ‘The Warring States’ period in Chinese history, when petty feudal states were locked into permanent and rather pointless wars and mini-wars, in an endlessly shifting system of alliances.
He also abolished feudalism, which is remarkable when you consider that this did not happen in Europe until the Renaissance, some 1800 years later. He built roads, canals and above all brought conformity to China, even unifying the Chinese script and the currency for the first time.
He had a particular dislike for Confucianism, believing it to be divisive and inefficient, and he buried unrepentant Confucian scholars alive wherever he found them. He replaced Confucianism with what became known as ‘Legalism’, the idea of government through law, applicable to all and divorced from morality and religion. A legalistic state governs through coercive law rather than moral virtue.
Confucianism was to return after his death, and the Confucian historians were perhaps understandable quite negative in their reviews of The First Emperor, so it is difficult to know how much of The Emperor’s supposed tyranny and madness was real, and how much of it the invention of disgruntled Confucian scholars. History, of course, is written by the victors.
However, if even a part of what is said about him is true, he was a brutal tyrant. Indeed, many historians claim that Legalism was the first form of Totalitarianism, emphasising as it did strict and unquestioning obedience to arbitrary laws.
Further echoes of the totalitarianism that was to find its apotheosis in the 20th century under Mao, Hitler and Stalin was his determination to burn all books that had been written before his reign, or that he didn’t officially sanction. Emperor Qin was a man who had to control everything; even peoples’ thoughts: a classic megalomaniac.
Fortunately, for the First Emperor, the peasants who ravaged his mausoleum complex following his death, couldn’t find the entrance shaft to his tomb, hidden as it was in the middle of a mountain, so they never desecrated the inner sanctum, the tomb itself.
We visited a replica of the tomb, which modern archaeologists have explored through x-rays and other non-invasive techniques, but have yet to actually enter.
The replica makes Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square look like a pauper’s grave. There are jewels and gold everywhere, and no expense was spared in fitting out what must be one of the world’s most luxurious tombs.
His coffin lies in the centre of the enormous circular vault-like tomb, and the coffins of his favourite concubines are buried into walls around him. These lucky beauties were allowed to swallow poison rather than being buried alive. Naked favouritism, eh?
There are also rivers of toxic lead and mercury, which is one of the reasons archaeologists are so careful about exploring it, and one of the reasons tour groups aren’t allowed inside it. However, I would have quite liked to dip my own tour guide’s head in a river of mercury at this stage, if only to silence her electronic megaphone, which to me seemed completely unnecessary in a group of seven people.
Ironically, The First Emperor accidentally killed himself with mercury. He had grown obsessed with immortality, and his doctors were prescribing mercury pills for him, which was believed to absorb poisons from the body. Instead it absorbed life from the Emperor.
As impressed as I was by the cavernous Tomb replica, I couldn’t help feeling slightly cheated as well. I wanted to see the real Emperor’s Tomb. I wanted to stare at the actual bones of the world’s first totalitarian despot.I’ve always felt cheated by replicas, but the Chinese in the tour group didn’t seem to mind at all.
I’ve noticed this before about the Chinese: they seem to see no significant difference between a replica and the real thing. China is littered by parks where you can see replicas of everything. Near where I used to live in Zhuhai, there is a park with replicas of all the important and famous structures in China (i.e. the Great Wall, the Summer Palace etc.), and nearby there is another park with replicas of famous foreign buildings (i.e. the Louvre, Buckingham Palace etc).
My students told me once, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, that it’s more convenient this way, as you can see all the places at once without having to travel around a lot, and you only have to pay one entrance fee.
As if to prove their point, near the tomb of Emperor Qin, there is even a replica of a pyramid and a sphinx, so you don’t have to bother actually going to Egypt!
The nearest you can get to the real tomb of The First Emperor is to stand on the hill which it was dug into. The hill itself used to be twice its current height, but has been shortened by erosion.
From the top of the hill, when the mausoleum complex was completed, you could once see all 25km of the great emperor’s magnificent mausoleum; an eternal necropolis; walled in, guarded by turrets, and a ‘permanent’ reminder of his greatness.
Today, you can see absolutely nothing, because nothing survived. There is not a trace of the necropolis that once spanned 25 kilometres. All I cold see around me was farmland, some humble peasant dwellings, and a small dirty factory in the distance. The whole complex was only discovered quite recently and accidentally by a pig farmer.
It reminded me of a poem by Shelley, Ozymandias; one of the few poems I’ve ever really liked. As my English teacher told the story, but this is not confirmed by Wikipedia, Shelley was travelling around Libya, and he came across the stump of a once-enormous statue, but only two legs remained, and part of the head lay incongruously beside the legs.
Inscribed on the statue, Shelley read the following:
‘I am Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my Works, Ye Mighty
And Despair’
However, none of the Pharoe Ramessess’ (i.e. Ozymandias) projects could be seen. What remained of his own statue was surrounded by an empty barren desert, thereby demonstrating the fickle nature of power and the futility of vanity. Nothing remains of either the Pharoe Ramessess or The First Emperors’ monuments to themselves.
Time renders all our projects obsolete. Be they great or small, they are of no real consequence. Whether you build an empire on the blood and bones of your subjects or whether you write a travel guide only five people will read, it is of no importance to the sands of time.
The First Emperor Qin had not even left a broken statue in the desert, as far as I could tell. There was nothing in his memory as far as the eye could see.
So, in memory of the Great Qin, I will quote Shelley’s poem in full:


OZYMANDIAS
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away
I suppose I could have spent more time in Xian. There were tombs aplenty left to visit, and temples galore, or perhaps they were just replicas, but I was anxious to get to Beijing. We visited other places in Xian, but as I write this, two week’s later, back home in Bangkok, I can’t even remember what they were.
And four years later, rewriting this in Paris, I have absolutely no idea what they were. Memories, like the great works of Ozymandias, get lost in the sand. It occurs to me to ask once more: If you don’t remember something happening, did it actually happen? The question isn’t as silly as it first appears. I mean, of course it happened, in the sense that an event took place, but if you do not remember it and it left no traceable impression on you, then what was the point of it? We remember so little of our lives, less than 10% I would say, and I can’t help but question what was the point of going through the other 90%? What has it achieved?
I do remember that my cold was getting worse, and rivers of phlegm were turning my sinuses into volcanoes. The dry and dusty airs, and some truly awful fake cigarettes, were making me cough like a moose. Sometimes they were comically bad copies. For example, one Marlboro packet’s health warning read ‘Smiking dimages your hill’. And the ‘hill’ of my nose felt truly damaged.
I wanted to move on, believing for no sane reason, that I’d feel better in Beijing. I felt like a fish, which like all gilled creatures, must keep moving to breath.
“If you don’t keep moving, you die,” I said to Sandra, completely out of the blue, on the way to the train station, trying to sound enigmatic.
“Don’t forget your bag again,” Sandra replied.
With my bag in one hand, I silently pondered the subtle psychological differences that being a gill-based life form must engender: the constant need for movement; the lack of a home, the weightlessness of water; and so on.
And with these thoughts in my head, I saw absolutely nothing and remembered absolutely nothing of the journey to the station, or the station itself. Once again, the psychic babble that are my thoughts had hidden the outside world, which is rather a pity, as the outside world is precisely what travel writers are supposed to be looking at.
The Dragon was passing me by.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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