Friday, December 6, 2013

China 2009: Xian - Home of the Terracotta Warriors

The most exciting part of our China trip was the visit to Xi'an, home of the Terracotta warriors and so much more.  Xi'an was once one of the four capitals of China, a cultural and political hotspot and marked the start of the silk road.  A massive stone city wall, 11.9 km long, 12-metre high, 15-18 metres in thickness was built in 1370 and still surrounds parts of the city.  It replaced an even larger wall from 194BC that was destroyed in 904AD.  Today, tourists can walk around the wall, rent bicycles or hire a bicycle-pulled rickshaw.

The highlight of Xi'an is of course the Terracotta Warriors.  Seeing a few representative sculptures in a traveling exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in no way prepared us for the incredible experience of surveying the army of soldiers filling a pit larger than a football field.  We arrived early, before the hoards of tour buses arrived.  For a short, magical period of time, we had the warriors all to ourselves.

The sculptures were a funerary representation of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang's armies, meant to be buried with him to protect him in the afterlife.  Not only were there figures of soldiers and generals, but also horses, as well as other members of the royal court such as officials, lawyers, accountants, musicians and acrobats.  Only a fraction of the sculptures have currently been unearthed.

The accompanying museum showed the original state of the sculptures when they were first found. The life-sized sculptures were brightly painted in coloured lacquer, varied in height, uniform and hairstyle according to rank and many held weapons such as swords, spears or cross bows.  Unfortunately, exposure to oxygen quickly caused all the colours to fade away.  We were told that the Chinese have deferred digging up the over 8000 remaining sculptures until they can develop techniques to better preserve them.

Emperor Qin's tomb is buried at the foot of Li Mountain, 30km from Xi'an.  The tomb is rumoured to be a replica of Qin's kingdom, including palaces and rivers made of mercury.  Samples of the soil in the area support this theory as they contain large traces of mercury.  Ironically the emperor died from ingesting mercury pills that were supposed to give him immortality.  So far the tomb and supposedly Qin's body have remained undisturbed and like the remaining terracotta warriors, will not be excavated until the technology advances to the point that the contents can be removed without damage.

The location of the  Huaqing Hot Springs is brimming with history since it is home to imperial palaces spanning multiple generations, dating as far back as 1045 BC.  Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (circa 700AD)  stayed there with his favourite concubine. Lady Yang Guei Fei, considered one of the most beautiful women in ancient China.   He enlarged the palaces and bathing pools around the hot springs and built a special tower where Lady Yang used to brush her hair.  The emperor was so enamoured with his beloved that he lavished her with extravagances and neglected royal duties, resulting a rebellion that led to the destabilization of his regime and destruction of some of the palaces.  In a tragic twist of fate, the rebels forced the emperor to kill his lady love.  Today there is a lovely statue erected in her honour.

The actual hot springs have been in use for over 6000 years and are known as the "first hot springs under heaven".  Three springs flow down the Xixiu Ridge of Li Mountain at the volume of 114 tons per hour, with a temperature of 43 degrees celcius (109F).  The water is full of rich minerals that are believed to be good for health and breeding.  The hot springs are open to the public today for a relaxing foot soaking.

The palatial grounds are filled with lovely gardens, ponds and sculptures, including one of a legendary turtle that is supposed to be hundreds of years old.  Patting the head of the turtle is supposed to bring you good fortune and long life.  What Rich thinks patting MY head will do for him, I'm not sure!

The gift shop displayed drawings of "Four Ancient Beauties" from different dynasties centuries apart. A famous quote describes how beautiful each one was.  Xi Shi (7BC) caused fish to forget how to swim, Wang Zhaojun (1BC) could entice birds to fall from the sky, Diaochan (3AD) made the moon shy away and Yang Guei Fei put the flowers to shame. As part of our tour, we were given a demonstration of how to tell real jade from fakes, based on its colour and transparency to light.  Overly green or non-translucent items were more likely to be fake.

The Huaqing Hot Springs were also the setting of another historic event that has been called the "Xi'an Incident".  In midst of the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist parties within China, National People's Party leader Chiang Kai Shek set up his headquarters here, to prepare for further attacks against the Communists.  Two of his own generals disagreed with continuing this internal fighting while China faced war with Japan.

The Xi'an incident involved a coup in December 1936, where the generals placed their leader under arrest.  The result was the cessation of the civil war and the unification of the two parties in the fight against Japan.  Apparently shots were fired during the coup, as a bullet hole in the wall has been preserved to mark the event.  This incident led to the downfall of the Nationalist party as the Communist party never relinquished power after the war with Japan.

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