Three Thousand Years of Xi’an

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Travel / Asia, World Travel / Three Thousand Years of Xi’an

Ten days in Xi’an — The ancient capital city of the Shaanxi Province of China.

Filed Under: Asia, World Travel by admin June 27, 2012, 12:31 am

While imprisoned on the island of Elba in the early 19th century, the exiled French leader Napoleon Bonaparte was quoted to have said “Let China sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world”. While Napoleon had never travelled further east than during his crushing defeat at Moscow in 1812, his foresight on the Middle Kingdom has certainly come to pass.

If the last ten days here in the central northwest city of Xi’an, one of the four great ancient capitals of China, has revealed anything, it is that Xi’an is a city bursting at the seams of modernity. In every direction of this provincial capital of eight million inhabitants, tower cranes dot the horizon as far as the eye can see are at work on a jungle of cookie cutter high-rise complexes, commercial towers, and government projects. From atop these buildings, the pace of life in the streets below is equally languid and frenetic in the same sweep. The erratic flow of traffic is maddening to behold yet defies the efficiency of its continuous flow to transport commuters to all parts of this immense municipality.

If anything stands out as a significant blight, it is the ubiquitous Chinese air quality. It is bad. It is tangible and is an entity in and of itself. A constant brownish haze hangs over the skyline in all directions and impedes visibility. In what could be fantastic views of the surrounding vicinity, the ever present pollution cuts the clarity by a significant degree. The Chinese government is well aware of their problems in this domain, and is said to be taking measures to reverse the trend. The pace of growth seems to belie that pledge, but the costs of doing nothing to halt this trend will be detrimental to the health of hundreds of millions of Chinese that suffer through this year in and year out. Epidemic levels of asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, and other lung diseases are at stake if this problem is not attacked with vigor and urgency. To get a historical perspective, we need to look only back to the winter of 1952/53 to the London Smog Disaster where 12,000 people died as a direct result of a dramatic level of soot and smog in the atmosphere when a severely cold winter caused residents to burn more coal and travel by car. The unfortunate secondary combination of little to no winds kept the increasing density of smog in the skies above London and caused deaths from heart failure, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. This disaster led directly to the first Clean Air Act in 1956.

This pace of construction, transformation, and expansion is characteristic of the rest of the nation, which is no surprise to anyone who has been following any news at all since the late 1990s. What is remarkable, however, is that Xi’an doesn’t even crack the top 15 cities in the nation with regards to population – but still equivalent in size to New York City. Its significance lies in its history – over three thousand years of it! From the founding of the first emerging dynasties to its strategically important role as the terminus of the famed pan-Asian Silk Road that wound its way to the heart of Mediterranean Europe to the translations of the Buddhist sutras, Xi’an has been in the crossroads of this part of the world for most of recorded history.

For much of the past three millennia, the cultural, social, and political influence of the Xi’an, the capital city of the Shaanxi province, has ebbed and flowed just as much by the influence of nature and geography as it has by the forceful hand of imperial dynasties.

With its destiny set forth over a thousand years before the Common Era, the Zhou emperors picked the area around Xi’an as the political center of their kingdom. The multiple advantages of a semi-arid climate, eight surrounding rivers and streams that formed a fertile flood plain in the areas surrounding this part of the kingdom that enabled rich harvests, and distinct seasons of hot summers and cold, dry winters, convinced the first rulers of China’s unified empire under the Qin and Han dynasty to declare Xi’an and the surrounding Guanzhong Plain as the “Nation of the Heaven”.

Vanity is not geographically distinctive. Like the Pharaohs of Egypt, China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, spent the better part of his reign actively engaged in the creation of a necropolis that will allow him not only protection, but an entire people to rule over in the afterlife. A life-sized Terracotta army of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and over 500 horses were all constructed over a period of 37 years from 246 to 209 BC by a workforce of up to 700,000 laborers. As with all rulers who wish such things, the immortality was fleeting. Soon after his death, unrest in the kingdom crumbled the empire and the immensity of the Terracotta army disappeared under the sands of time until they were unearthed in the late 20th century by local farmers looking to dig a water well for their crops.

Ages passed and the fortunes of the city fluctuated as periods of Machiavellian rule gave way to peasant uprisings, only to return again to under the banner of a new dynasty. By the mid seventh century, Xi’an was one of the largest cities in the world and eventually became the home of the nomadic Buddhist monk Xuan Zang who cemented the cultural importance of Xi’an by translating the Buddhist texts that he obtained from India which were then stored in the library of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda that was erected specifically for this purpose.

Centuries later, Xi’an was no longer the capital of the Chinese kingdom. The travels of the famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo led him to the new capital to the courts of the Great Khan’s in Beijing and Xi’an found itself to be a shadow of its glorious past. Nevertheless, near the end of the 14th century, the leaders of the Ming Dynasty undertook the construction of a city wall that measured 14 kilometers and circumference and continues to be one of the best preserved city walls anywhere in the world today. Four strategically placed watch towers stand as sentinels and helped alerted the inhabitants in case of imminent threat.

For the uninitiated, the impressive Shaanxi History Museum sheds light on the history of the region from the ancient past starting with the discovery of the fossils of Lantian Man that occupied the area anywhere from half a million to a million years ago. Following that, the exhibits turn to the more recent human past and showcase the arts, sculptures, weapons, and bronze wares of the past three millennia starting with the Qin dynasty. It is a worthwhile stop and does help to bring the various historical periods together into a cohesive linear timeline.

Not too far from the museum is the wonderfully tranquil Tang Dynasty Paradise Park. A 165 acre tourist attraction that opened in 2005 that is devoted to displaying the beauty, grandness, and sophistication of the Tang Dynasty that ruled from 618 to 907 AD. In addition to the splendid and inspiring architecture of the period, the park itself is a well laid out haven of garden landscapes, plentiful trees, and iconic sculptures spaced gracefully around the grounds and lake.

As with any city that can trace its history back to antiquity, Xi’an is impressive. The districts enclosed by the city wall provides visual context to citizens and visitors alike of a bygone age of cobbled alleys, street vendors, bicycle driven food carts, and fake “genuine” artifacts all under the shadows of the ever growing number of surrounding skyscrapers that broach the old city’s perimeters. The question for city leaders both present and future will be to understand where to strike the balance. The current pace of geometric growth is unsustainable, as is the case with anything. The trick will be to navigate the eventual slowdown into a steady state equilibrium that the eight million citizens of Xi’an will be able to live and thrive in the years to come.

I look forward to returning to this charming city. There is so much more to discover. The aforementioned historical significance of the Terracotta army just unearthed at the periphery of the city in the mid 1970s is just an example of the vast amounts of treasures and relics buried and waiting to be discovered of civilizations past that have contributed to making Xi’an the city it is today. Like the rest of the nation it belongs to, Xi’an is awake and is shaking the world – and the world is noticing.



bwu says December 28, 2012,3:20 pm

Ahmer, you wrote excellently. And your travel blogs are very attractive.

Looking forward more travel blogs from you, and i could see more beautiful views, know more knowledges from it even if i haven’t gone there.



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I've always felt that a life full of experiences is far more valuable than a life full of material goods. I have yet to come out of one of these experiences poorer than when I first went into it.