Monday, September 18, 2006

Adventures on Mainland China

This was an eventful weekend. We went to Xi'an. See the previous post as to why.

The first group was on the 8:30 am flight from Shenzhen to Xi'an. I now know why paying by international credit card is called "cash". They use the international credit card to reserve the ticket, but you still have to pay in cash. We didn't have that much cash on us. So I handed them a credit card. They said they couldn't handle it. Then Priscilla (a native Chinese speaker) argued with them, and then they said they couldn't handle credit cards here. We'd have to go somewhere else. Now we'd been all over both terminals by now, so we weren't happy about that. It transpires that "somewhere else" is the booth right next to the booth where we were. They explain that they'll have to charge a 4% fee. According to VISA, they're not supposed to do that. But, hey, whatever. Then they see it's an international credit card and say they have to charge a 5% fee. Again, we're willing. They then say it will take quite a lot of time to do each of ours, and we might miss our flight. So could they do them all together? I say, sure. Put it on my card. I'll collect the money later.

The second group was scheduled to leave at 4:10 pm that day. Priscilla managed to explain to them what they needed to do, so they were saved that hassle. But the hassle they received was more than enough to compensate. The ticketing agent only found one. Luckily they had Yee (an exchange student from Ohio University who speaks Cantonese) and she convinced them to let her look through the pile of tickets. She found another. But they couldn't find the last one. After arguing with them, the plane leaves without them. She tries to get them to waive the cancellation fee but they insist it's not their fault. Eventually they agree to waive the fee but the next time she tries to book through them, she will get the fee. Apparently they really didn't like her business. She tries to get them to book them a hotel room where they can stay, but to no avail. They wander around the airport and hole up on a bench. The security guard chases them off. They eventually get a hotel room, and come the next morning.

Mishaps aside, we had a great time. Since this was centered on the Da Qin Christian site, we had a somewhat different itinerary than most tourists. We first started at the Forest of the Stone Tablets museum, where the stone tablet dug up in the 16th century from around the Da Qin site is kept.

We're walking into the museum. It's easy to get ahead of a group of 10. Groups of 10 move quite a bit more slowly than smaller groups. In the front, on the left, is Sean, a student from Ohio University that's been hanging around the Pepperdine group pretty often, and has become our collective friend. Then is Blair, taking a picture, and Bonnie, and on the right, in the shadows, is Priscilla, talking on the phone. She's probably trying to explain airport check-in procedure to the group leaving on the second flight, so it's not that bad. Behind them is Delia, Nicole, Andrea, and Jenna. Mike Simon is taking pictures all over the place, so he's not in the picture.

The museum has many large stone monuments, often inscribed with famous philosophical treatises or poems. At the front is a large one done in the Tang dynasty, diligently and masterfully engraving a Confucian treatise on filial piety:

There were many impressive works here. The main reason for me, though was the Nestorian Christian tablet from the 700s AD that was unearthed in the 16th century.

Okay, that was a really bad picture. But none of the other pictures I took worked out any better. The lighting was bad, there was glass in front of the tablet, my camera doesn't have a lot of adjustments I can do, and I'm not much of a photographer. And furthermore, my camera was really low on batteries, and so some of the pictures I thought I took didn't come out. And flash was not really an option for many of these reasons put together, but mainly the battery issue.

I just put in batteries the week before I left on the trip. Luckily I had extra batteries I brought along just in case, and after we went to the Stone Tablet museum, I put them in, but even then, they were almost shot by the end of the weekend. I don't know what's up with that. Maybe when I carry the camera in my pocket I accidentally turn it off and on all the time. It's pretty easy to do accidentally.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this is very interesting to me, since it shows that the gospel maintained its integrity even as it was transplanted to a very different culture, with very little influence from Roman thought, and plenty of Eastern influence. But for our tour guide, rattling off the official line, this "shows that in those days, China had friendly relations with far away countries." A cute line now, politically, that China seeks to be accepted by the world community, but completely misses the point, from my perspective. Similarly, at a museum she mentions religious artifacts saying, "In those days there was a lot of political instability so people turned to religion for comfort." Again, it sounds like the party line.

Well, I did get better pictures of the Nestorian monument when we went to the Da Qin monastery--someone made a replica of the monument and set it up there.

Okay, that's slightly better, but not enough to read anything. Peter Zhao, who was present at the discovery of the Da Qin site, is on the right in the blue shirt. He showed us around the site.

At the Da Qin site, I bought a rubbing for 100 RMB (USD $13) of the whole front face. Here is the rubbing spread out on my bed when I got back home:

Note the Aramaic (in Syriac script) on the lower left. The Assyrian (so-called Nestorian church) still has their services in Aramaic and reads the Bible in Aramaic with Syriac script. The top part is hard to see, so here it is in closeup:

Note the cross at the top, and Eastern-style lotus along the bottom.
From upper right to lower left, reading downward on each column:
Da(great)-Qin (Roman/Persian empire) luminous teaching/religion flow-transmit Middle-country(China) tablet

One of my goals is to make the Chinese text of this available on the web. I've been frustrated by the fact that the only available resources I've found have had this only in translation, and so it is hard to tell how they translated God or Jesus or Messiah, for instance. First I have to learn to use Chinese word processors, assuming I can find one.

Anyway, in one of the museum rooms experts are doing rubbings:

They spread paper over the stone, and use a tool to push the paper into the carvings on the stone, then dab ink onto the paper, leaving white where the stone was carved. Several students bought some rubbings, but I decided to get a book with a description of all of the carvings. They weren't doing rubbings of the Nestorian tablet--I had to go to Da Qin to get that one.

After this we saw the city wall. This is not the city wall from the heyday of the Tang dynasty, but from about 1000 years later in the Ming dynasty, when this was no longer the capital of China, and the city was a sixth of its original size. Still, this wall is enormous. It runs 30 km around the city at the time, which is not as long as a marathon, but longer than a half-marathon.

They had battlements at regular intervals to more easily fit more archers to fire at incoming invaders. Note the modern and elegant-looking Howard Johnsons contrasting with the Ming dynasty battlement station.

Here is a view from the city wall down on the traffic below inside the city:

We crossed this street a few times. It was as scary as it looks. To quote the famous travel expert Dave Barry describing the Arc d'Triomphe in Paris, "It is a moving monument to the many thousands of people who have died trying to get there".

Really. The word "traffic" assumes too much about the regularity of the behavior of automobiles to accurately be used in relation to the streets of Xi'an. Our bus driver, for instance, regularly does U turns in the middle of a major 4-lane road, across double yellow lines, with traffic coming at him, sometimes when some of the cars are passing by driving on the wrong side of the road, while dodging mopeds, pedestrians, pedestrians pulling farming carts, and random farm animals.

Probably the only thing keeping everyone alive is that they don't drive as fast as we do in the US. They can't, not on many of the bumpy roads. Even when the streets are well-paved, as in the picture above, they know to keep their speed down.

Except our bus. Because we took so long at all the stops, we were often late, and our tour guide kept telling our bus driver how late we were. And so we passed trucks, passed cars, passed taxis... passed taxis! honking our multi-toned horn at pedestrians who wouldn't yield to that crazed bus with those crazy foreigners...

After the second group arrived on Saturday, we went to see the Terra Cotta warriors. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, unified China by an iron fist, and by sheer force unified the currency, the writing system, built the Great Wall (using the bodies of those who died in its construction as filler), and when scholars said he wasn't ruling according to Confucian ideals, had those Confucian texts burned, and the scholars with them. He also planned ahead for his burial, forcing thousands of artisans to make pottery replicas of the individual soldiers, generals, and horses in his army. About 30 years ago, a farmer, when digging a well, found some pottery, and this led to one of the most spectacular finds in Chinese archaeology of the 20th century. Now you find replicas of these soldiers at P. F. Chang's Chinese Bistro in LA.

The individual soldiers, then, were not new to me. What was new was the grand scope. There were three pits we know about. Here is a view of the first pit. To get a sense of scale, look not at the people in front but the people along the left and right sides of the "aircraft hangar", especially toward the back.

A closer look at the warriors:

The location of the well they were digging when they made this find:

Most of this is not even excavated yet.

I hear they're worried that they won't be able to preserve them all if they expose them to the elements now. Some people are skeptical but I accept their explanation at face value. It's enough work reconstructing the warriors and horses we already have, a process we see here, above the pits:

They say that the terra cotta warriors had paint on them when they were first discovered. The paint lasted thousands of years only to degrade quickly in the open air environment in the past 30 years. So they don't want to dig up any more until they know how to fix this.

It's taking a long time to write this post. So I'll post the rest of the stuff (about Da Qin) next time. In the meantime, take a look at this: apparently, on the day we were there, perhaps while we were there (for all we know), a German performance artist/exchange student posed as one of the Terra Cotta warriors! We didn't see the arrest, but it was on that very day.


Post a Comment

<< Home