The Small Wild Goose Pagoda

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area is made up of three main areas: Jianfu Temple, the Xi’an Museum and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. The histories of these three buildings are tightly intertwined and this is why they have been grouped together rather than being kept as separate attractions. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area is one of the lesser known tourist attractions in Xi’an and, in spite of its elegance and natural beauty, it rarely attracts large crowds. This, coupled with its peaceful gardens and crystal clear lake, makes it one of the more relaxing sites to visit in the bustling city of Xi’an. Not to mention the fact that, in 2014, UNESCO listed the whole area as a World Heritage Site. Though the museum was only built in 2007, Jianfu Temple and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda both have histories that date back over 1,000 years ago. As a matter of fact, like Da Ci’en Temple, Jianfu Temple was constructed as a gesture of filial piety[1].

The buildings that make up Jianfu Temple were never intended to be a temple when they were first built. In 684 A.D., after his ascension to the throne, Emperor Zhongzong adapted his place of residence into a temple and donated it, subsequently maintaining it so that it could house 200 Buddhist monks. He founded this temple precisely 100 days after the death of his father, Emperor Gaozong, to honour his memory. It was originally named Xianfu Temple, or the Great Monastery of Offered Blessings, but was renamed Jianfu Temple by Empress Wu Zetian in 690 A.D. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built later on, sometime between 707 and 709 A.D., and was so-called simply because it was smaller than the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. The pagoda was originally 45 metres (147 ft.) tall and 15 storeys high but was damaged by the same earthquake as the Great Wild Goose Pagoda in 1556 and is now only 43 metres (141 ft.) tall and 13 storeys high. Unlike the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, each storey on the Small Wild Goose Pagoda diminishes in width as it rises, giving it its iconic curved appearance. However, like many pagodas from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it is archetypally square shaped. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monks would bring Buddhist scriptures and sutras[2] from India to the temple and the pagoda to be translated.

mhrf_dspd16852Astoundingly, even in ancient times, architects had the foresight to make the base of the Small Wild Goose Pagoda out of packed earth and built it into a hemispherical shape. This meant that during earthquakes the tremors were distributed evenly throughout the base of the temple and the pagoda subsequently survived 70 earthquakes virtually unharmed. Interestingly enough, in 1487 a colossal earthquake sent a crack all the way up the pagoda, from top to bottom, and this crack was supposedly a third of a metre wide. Yet remarkably, in 1521, a subsequent earthquake appeared to seal the crack entirely. Years later, however, it was discovered that the crack had not healed but had merely become less visible and so, in 1965, the pagoda underwent extensive repairs. Today you’ll find, when you enter the pagoda, that the second, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh storeys have been reinforced with steel girders, although these have been cleverly hidden, and facilities have been set up on the roof so that it now has a lightning rod and is better protected from rain.

So there’s more than meets the eye in this peaceful, tourist haven. The pagoda and temple are not only wonderful relics of history in of themselves; they also house several artefacts that have been dug up around the city. You’ll definitely want to stop off and visit the Ancient Bell, which is in the Bell Pavilion and has been preserved in its original condition since 1192. The bell weighs approximately 8,000 kilograms and has more than a thousand characters engraved on its surface. In 1993 it had to be repaired and welded, as it was damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but it has remained virtually unchanged since then. It was said that, back when the bell was first forged, its ring was so deafening that it echoed throughout the city. In 1998, in light of its popularity, another bell was forged that visitors are allowed to hit, in order to simulate the experience of hitting the original bell.

Nestled within Jianfu Temple, near the Small White Goose Pagoda, you’ll also find the 10 Ancient Pagoda Trees, which are all over 1,000 years old. They are surrounded by ancient stone carvings, which were once part of house gates, and ancient hitching posts for horses. These hitching posts are just upright pillars with various carvings on top, including carvings of mythological creatures, deities and auspicious symbols. In the temple, all of the hitching posts have been placed together to form what looks like a stunning stone forest. This is a fantastic place to take photographs as it is both beautiful and surreal.

On top of all of these wondrous historical artefacts, the Xi’an Museum boasts nearly 130,000 relics that all relate to the history of Ancient China and Xi’an specifically. Most of these relics have been unearthed from tombs in the surrounding area. There you’ll find stunning jade ornaments, Buddhist statues, stone carvings, porcelain figures, famous pieces of calligraphy, and paintings. There is also a small exhibition hall beside the museum that is dedicated to displaying paintings by Huxian County farmers. These paintings are particularly famous because they focus on portraying ordinary aspects of country life and are made using any artistic medium that was available to the farmer, including everyday objects such as newspapers.

If this isn’t enough to draw you in, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda regularly hosts a Chinese calligraphy class where visitors can learn the meanings behind various Chinese characters, and where you may even learn how to write a few characters yourself! What could be a better souvenir than a beautiful piece of calligraphy that was hand painted by you? In short, though the Small Wild Goose Pagoda Scenic Area may be one of the smaller attractions in Xi’an, this simply adds to its charm and makes it a wonderful distraction from the bustle of the city, a place where you can just unwind, relax and truly enjoy Chinese history.

[1] Filial Piety: the concept of being devoted to and respectful of ones parents and elders. It is particularly important in Chinese culture.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha

Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian02

Wu Zetian (624-705) is considered one of the most controversial figures in Chinese history. She broke many customary precedents during her rise to power and even established her own dynasty, which she named the Zhou Dynasty (690-705). She was the first and only woman to have ever ruled China. Her reign was described by historian Liu Xu[1] thusly: “Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go?”. Her system of secret spies and her ruthlessness in disposing of political rivals led to a reign of terror that is echoed in Liu Xu’s comment. Yet there’s more to her story than meets the eye. In order to understand Wu Zetian as a political figure, you must first delve into the changeable accounts of her history, and then decide for yourself what manner of person she was.

Early Life

Wu Zetian was originally born Wu Zhao in 624 A.D but the location of her birth is still unknown. Her family originated from Wenshui, Bingzhou (modern-day Wenshui County, Shanxi). Her father, Wu Shihuo, was involved in the timber business and her mother was from the influential Yang family. Compared to other families at the time, Wu Zhao’s family were considerably well-off and so, thanks to the family’s servants, she enjoyed much leisure time. Her father encouraged her to use this time to educate herself, which was incredibly unusual for a woman at that time. Wu focused her attention on studying politics, writing, literature and music. Thanks to these efforts, she became known for her intelligence and wit.

On his travels the nobleman Li Yuan would often stay with the Wu family. Li Yuan eventually overthrew Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty and established the Tang Dynasty, adopting the regnal name Emperor Gaozu. After his ascension to the throne he was incredibly generous to the Wu family. He even bestowed a succession of senior ministerial posts on Wu Shihou. This relationship was significant as it was the first connection the Wu family established with the royal Tang family.

When Wu Zhao was only fourteen years old, she became a concubine of Emperor Taizong, Emperor Gaozu’s son. Among the concubines, she held the title of cairen[2]. However, it appears she was not terribly well-favoured by Emperor Taizong and did not bear him any children. This meant that, according to tradition, on his death she was consigned to Ganye Temple and was supposed to live out the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Yet Wu Zhao somehow made her way out of the convent and back into the imperial palace.

Wu ZetianRise to Power

Historians are unsure as to how Wu Zhao left the convent, but sometime in the 650s Wu Zhao found herself back in the imperial palace as Emperor Gaozong’s concubine and was thereby known as Consort Wu. In 652 she gave birth to her first son, Li Hong, and in the next year she gave birth to her second son, Li Xián. This succession of sons, along with Consort Wu’s natural charm and beauty, swiftly made her the favourite of Emperor Gaozong. In light of this, Empress Wang and the Emperor’s previous favourite, Consort Xiao, started conspiring against her.

In 654, Consort Wu gave birth to a daughter, but the infant tragically died. Evidence suggests the child’s death was caused by deliberate strangulation. Consort Wu accused Empress Wang of murdering the child, backing up her allegations with eyewitness accounts. Empress Wang was childless, meaning she may have been jealous of Consort Wu, and she lacked a sound alibi. The death of this child played an important part in Consort Wu’s rise to power, as it encouraged Emperor Gaozong’s eventual decision to depose Empress Wang. Some historians believe that Consort Wu may have even strangled the child herself and then framed Empress Wang. The most likely explanation, considering the poor ventilation system in the palace, is that the child died of asphyxiation.

In 655, in spite of opposition from his chancellors, Emperor Gaozong deposed Empress Wang and replaced her with Consort Wu. He then had Empress Wang and Consort Xiao imprisoned. Later that year, when Emperor Gaozong showed signs of releasing them, Empress Wu had Empress Wang and Consort Xiao executed. It was said that, from then on, she was haunted by them in her dreams.

From 657 onwards, Empress Wu began a campaign against any official who opposed her. She would have associates falsely accuse her political rivals and then subsequently depose, exile, or execute them, or force them to commit suicide.

In 660, Emperor Gaozong’s health began to deteriorate. He suffered from painful headaches and loss of vision, which some historians believe was the result of Empress Wu slowly poisoning him. Emperor Gaozong’s ill-health prevented him from ruling effectively, so he allowed Empress Wu to make some rulings on his behalf. Empress Wu proved herself to be a competent politician, making quick and astute judgements on matters of state.

By 664, Empress Wu’s influence on the governance of the country had angered Emperor Gaozong so much that he had Chancellor Shangguan Yi draft an edict for her deposition. Empress Wu pleaded with Emperor Gaozong, who relented. Shangguan was subsequently executed and, from then on, Empress Wu would sit behind a curtain beside Emperor Gaozong and give him advice during imperial meetings.

Thereafter, Li Hong pleaded with his mother to cease influencing his father’s governance of the country. Historians generally believe that Li Hong’s death in 675 was the result of poisoning by his mother. After Li Hong’s death, Li Xián was created crown prince but this title was to be short-lived. Empress Wu formally accused Li Xián of treason in 680 and he was deposed, exiled and forced to commit suicide by Empress Wu. His brother, Li Zhe, was made crown prince.

The Zhou Dynasty

In 683, Emperor Gaozong suffered a fatal stroke. Li Zhe (Emperor Zhongzong) ascended the throne but his reign only lasted six weeks. After his disobedience became too much, Empress Wu deposed and exiled him. She replaced him with his younger brother, Li Dan (Emperor Ruizong).

From then on, Empress Wu took charge of governing the country. From 688 onwards, she began systematically hunting down and massacring members of the Li family. In 690, she forced Emperor Ruizong to yield, usurped the throne and established the Zhou Dynasty. She summoned Li Zhe back from exile and named him her heir apparent.

Tragically, in court her cruelty intensified. She even forced two of her grandchildren to commit suicide after a discussion they had about her affair with the Zhang brothers was leaked. When Empress Wu fell ill in 704, she only allowed the Zhang brothers to see her, which led to rumours that they were plotting to usurp the throne.

By 705 these rumours became such a growing concern that, when the Empress fell ill again, a few of the chancellors and Li Zhe plotted a coup. They managed to execute both of the Zhang brothers and subsequently surrounded Wu Zetian in Changsheng Hall, forcing her to surrender. She was made to pass the throne to Li Zhe, who retained his regnal title of Emperor Zhongzong and restored the Tang Dynasty. Later that year, Empress Wu Zetian passed away and Emperor Zhongzong had her remains interred in Qianling Mausoleum alongside her husband.

Throughout her political career, Empress Wu killed numerous potential rivals, including members of her own family. Yet, outside of the palace, she implemented great social change, lowered taxes, supported the development of the fine arts, raised the status of women, and expanded the Chinese Empire. Though it was true she was tyrannical and obsessive in her thirst for power, she was no more violent than many of the emperors before her. It is arguably her gender that has brought attention to acts that would have been perfectly normal for a male emperor and would have gone largely unnoticed. To her subjects, she was regarded as a capable and astute emperor. In her own will she stated: “My achievements and errors must be evaluated by later generations”. Therefore it is up to you to decide precisely what kind of person she was.

 

 

[1] Liu Xu (888-947): Chinese official and historian. Lead editor of the Old Book of Tang.

[2] Cairen: The fifth rank in the Tang Dynasty’s nine-rank system of officials and concubines

 

Shaanxi Local Snacks

As you walk through the streets of Xi’an, you’ll be bombarded with the cries of vendors selling their unique variations on local snacks. In some cases, these local snacks are held in as high esteem as the signature dishes of the province. From the sweet to the savoury, from the large to the small, snacks play a very important role in Chinese culture. So if you want a real taste of China, you need to get stuck in and try a few of the local delicacies that you won’t find in any restaurant. Thanks to its Muslim community, Shaanxi boasts a wide variety of snacks that span a myriad of cooking styles. We’ve listed a few here to whet your appetite and showcase the grandeur of Shaanxi’s local nibbles.

Roujiamo or Shaanxi Hamburger (肉夹馍)

Roujiamo or Shaanxi Hamburger

 

The Shaanxi Hamburger earned its unusual name thanks to its suspicious similarity to its Western cousin. That being said, the two are entirely unrelated. The way roujiamo is made varies from vendor to vendor and region to region, with some vendors using mutton, some using beef, some using pork, and all of them using a different mixture of seasonings to make their roujiamo stand out from the crowd. The “mo” part of the name refers to a type of flatbread in China made from wheat flour that makes up the bun part of the hamburger. This type of bread dates all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and was originally baked in a clay or mud oven, although now it is often made in a frying pan or pressure cooker. The fluffiest, tastiest “mo” are made using the original method. The recipe for the meat used in roujiamo dates all the way back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 B.C.) and usually consists of finely chopped meat, coriander and chillies, although recipes will vary from vendor to vendor. This tantalising snack is soft, moist and wonderfully flavoursome.

Liangpi or Cold Noodles (凉皮)

Liangpi or Cold NoodlesLiangpi are traditionally seen as one of the most popular snacks in Shaanxi. Liangpi are not actually noodles, but are often referred to as noodles due to the resemblance in shape and texture. Although liangpi are served cold, this dish is served throughout the year. Liangpi can either be made from rice flour (mianpi) or wheat flour (ganmianpi). The types of liangpi can be further subdivided into Hanzhong Liangpi, Majiang Liangpi and Shan Xin Gan Mianpi. Hanzhong Liangpi originated from the city of Hanzhong in southwest Shaanxi. These liangpi are steamed and seasoned with garlic and hot chilli oil. Majiang Liangpi are typically garnished with julienned cucumber and a sauce made from salt, vinegar, hot chilli oil and black sesame paste. Shan Xin Gan Mianpi are made from a different type of liangpi altogether, which looks darker in colour and has a firmer texture. These liangpi are always served with vinegar, chilli oil, salt, mashed garlic and bean sprouts. Whatever variety of liangpi you fancy, we’re sure that you’ll find this snack both delectable and refreshing!

Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes (黄桂柿子饼)

Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes These “cakes” are not cakes in the traditional sense of the word and actually resemble donuts in appearance, although they taste vastly different. Osmanthus Persimmon Cakes are made from the local persimmons grown in the Lintong District, which have earned the name “fire-crystal persimmons” due to their vibrant colour. A mixture of local persimmons and wheat flour is used to form a casing around the soft filling, which is made from osmanthus flowers, rose-petals, walnuts and sugar. The casing is moulded into a circular shape around the filling and is then fried in hot oil until the skin is slightly browned. The ingredients used to make the filling will vary from vendor to vendor. This snack was created by the Uyghur ethnic minority and is particularly popular in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an. These soft, crispy persimmon cakes are exotic to look at and comforting to eat.

 

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The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, or Dayan Pagoda, is a true monument to Buddhist culture and architecture. It currently stands at a massive 64 metres (210 ft.) and is seven storeys high. It is square in shape, in-keeping with the Tang-style of architecture. In 2014, due to its impressive stature and rich history, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a place where modern-day Buddhists still practice their faith today. Yet it has not always been this tall, nor has it always been quite this impressive. Its history stretches all the way back to the Tang Dynasty, over 1,000 years ago, and details the fascinating story of how, thanks to the diligent efforts of the monk Xuanzhang, Buddhism became a prominent feature in Chinese culture. But why is it so important to Buddhists? And why is it called the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda?

The pagoda is situated in the centre of Da Ci’en Temple in the famous city of Xi’an[1]. Thanks to the rich tapestry of Tang Dynasty history, Xi’an is steeped in statues, artefacts and ancient buildings just like the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. The history of the pagoda began during the Tang Dynasty, when the famous monk, translator and traveller Xuanzhang[2] entreated Emperor Gaozong to allow him to build a Buddhist pagoda in Da Ci’en Temple. As Xuanzhang was the current abbot of the temple and as he was a well-respected scholar throughout the country, Emperor Gaozong conceded to his request and Xuanzhang was able to personally supervise the building of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. The original building was completed in 652 A.D. and was made of rammed earth with an exterior stone façade. It was originally only 54 metres (177 ft.) tall and only five storeys high. Its main function was to house the sutras and figurines of Buddha brought to China from India by Xuanzhang. Xuanzhang spent a phenomenal 17 years and travelled through 100 countries to gather these relics, including 657 kinds of sutras[3]. He then enlisted 50 other monks and scholars to help him translate 1,335 volumes of sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese. This endeavour on Xuanzhang’s part heralded a whole new era in the history of translation.

However, being made mostly of earth, the pagoda was not particularly stable. It had to be rebuilt in 704 A.D. by Empress Wu Zetian, who added five storeys to the structure, and was again damaged in 1556 by a large earthquake, which destroyed three of its storeys. During the Ming Dynasty it was once again repaired and renovated, and has remained virtually unchanged to this day.

The name “the Great Wild Goose Pagoda” supposedly comes from a famous folk story about Buddhist history. Originally it was believed that there were two factions of Buddhism: one which permitted the eating of meat and one which did not. One day members of the branch that ate meat couldn’t find any meat to buy or eat. A flock of plump geese flew temptingly past them but they were much too high to reach. One of the monks prayed that the merciful Buddha provide them with meat that day and at that exact moment, as if by magic, the leading goose broke both its wings and fell from the sky. The monks believed that this was a warning from Buddha, prompting them to be more pious and less fixated on worldly pleasures, and so they renounced the eating of meat altogether. The Great Wild Goose Pagoda is supposedly built on the spot where the famed goose fell.

Nowadays the Great Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most popular and flourishing tourist attractions in Xi’an. A climb to the top of the pagoda rewards you with a stunning view of Xi’an city and directly in front of the Pagoda, in the North Square of Da Ci’en Temple, you’ll find the largest musical water fountain in Asia. The water fountain covers a monumental 15,000 square metres and is divided into three parts: the Hundred-meter Waterfall Pool, the Eight-level Plunge Pool and the Prelude Music Pool. This musical light display seamlessly combines water features, like the 60 metre (197 ft.) wide, 20 metre (66ft.) high “Fire Fountain”, with beautiful music from the symphony “the Water Phantom of Tang”. There are regular performances every day but the show closes down from November through to January of every year.

With its walls that are finely engraved with statues of Buddha by the famous artist Yan Liben, with its many inscriptions written by noted Chinese calligraphers, and with its unrivalled water fountain display, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda is a star attraction in Xi’an city that you can’t afford to miss. It is not only a monument to the Tang Dynasty; it is a symbol of the immortality of Chinese culture.

[1] Xi’an rests on the site of the ancient capital city of Chang’an

[2] Xuanzhang (602 – 664 A.D.): Xuanzhang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar, who mainly studied and focused his efforts upon the interaction between China and India during the Tang Dynasty.

[3] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha

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Shaanxi Cuisine

shaanxi-cuisine-caituan

Like its neighbour Sichuan, Shaanxi’s cuisine is characterised by its intense spiciness. However, unlike other spicy styles of cuisine in China, Shaanxi differentiates itself by utilising strong, heavy, salty flavours that comfort the palate and warm the body in this particularly cold climate. The emphasis in Shaanxi cuisine is on savoury flavours so salt, garlic, onion, and vinegar are liberally used, with a marked lack of sugar compared to other styles of Chinese cuisine. As Shaanxi is in the north of China, the preferred staple dish is noodles over rice, although Shaanxi noodles differ from those of Beijing and Shanxi in terms of their width, thickness and length. When it comes to Shaanxi noodles, bigger is better. Many Shaanxi signature dishes are characterised by wheat or rice noodles that are almost freakish in size, but no less delicious than their smaller counterparts.

Shaanxi cuisine is best known for its pork and mutton dishes, although other meats, such as beef, duck and chicken, are still popular throughout the province. Shaanxi cuisine can be separated into three different types: Northern Shaanxi style, Guanzhong style, and Hanzhong style. Northern Shaanxi style is characterised by its pork dishes and its predominant use of steaming as the main cooking method. Guanzhong style is known for its distinctively heavy flavours and utilises both pork and mutton equally. Hanzhong style bears the greatest similarity to Sichuan-style cuisine and is known for its particular spiciness. Amongst the cannon of delicious Shaanxi signature dishes, we’ve selected but a few to give you an idea of what this province has to offer.

Crumbled Flatbread in Mutton Stew or Yangrou Paomo (羊肉泡馍)

Crumbled Flatbread in Mutton Stew

Yangrou Paomo is the most famous dish in Shaanxi and quite possibly one of the most famous dishes in China, receiving praise from numerous Chinese celebrities visiting Shaanxi. To this day the dish is still served in the traditional way, which may seem bizarre to people who aren’t local to Shaanxi. First you will be served with one or two pieces of wheat flour flatbread, but don’t eat them! Although it may seem like an appetizer, this bread is actually part of the main dish. You must break the bread into small pieces, the smaller the better, and this can prove quite a challenge as the bread can be quite hard. The waiter or waitress will then take the broken pieces of bread back to the chef, who will soak the crumbled flatbread in deliciously seasoned mutton gravy. After about five to ten minutes, the chef will ladle the soup and bread back into your bowl, along with a generous helping of noodles and sliced mutton. The waiter will typically offer coriander, sweet pickled garlic and hot chilli paste to garnish the dish. These accompaniments are designed to alleviate the potential greasiness of the mutton and add flavour to the dish.

Biángbiáng noodles 缺字图片缺字图片

biangbiang noodlesThe Chinese character for “biáng” is considered one of the most complex characters in the Chinese language and still has yet to be officially featured in the Chinese dictionary. This character is so complicated that various rhymes have been written to help people remember how to write it. No one knows exactly what the character means or how it came to be, but its unfathomable complexity has helped make it and the noodles that bear its name famous throughout China. Biángbiáng noodles are known as one of the “ten strange wonders of Shaanxi province” thanks to their unusual name and characteristic shape. They are sometimes described as being like a belt due to their extreme thickness, width and length. The noodles are pulled by hand and were originally considered a poor man’s meal, as their ingredients are cheap and abundant in Shaanxi. Nowadays they enjoy great popularity and even feature in some of the trendier restaurants in Beijing. The dish differs from restaurant to restaurant with varying garnishes such as hot red chillies, coriander, beef or mutton, though the shape of the noodles remains largely the same.

Gourd-shaped Chicken or Hulu Chicken (葫芦鸡)

Gourd-shaped Chicken This dish dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-690 A.D.) and was traditionally made using a hen that weighed only one kilogram (2 lb.). The dish does not actually contain any gourds and gets its name from the chicken, which is shaped to look like a gourd. To make the dish, a whole chicken is boiled, steamed and then fried. After that it is either shaped to look like a gourd or, in some restaurants, placed into a decorative gourd-shaped container. The tender chicken melts off the bone and the crispy skin adds a mouth-watering crunch to the dish. The chicken is normally served with a sauce made from chilli, fennel, salt and pepper, but most people say this is unnecessary as the chicken alone tastes divine. We recommend you eat this dish as part of a group, as the chicken is served whole. That being said, after one bite you may want it all to yourself!

Fish in Milk Soup (奶汤锅子鱼)

Fish in Milk Soup This dish is one of the oldest established dishes in Shaanxi and dates back over 1,300 years. It made its debut in the ancient capital city of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), where it was served at imperial banquets. Later it became popular with the lower class and has endured to this day. This dish is a type of hotpot. The broth is made by stewing the bones of chickens, ducks and pigs. This is what gives the broth its distinctive milky appearance. The broth is then served in an ornate red copper pot and is heated by burning local Xifeng liquor, instead of charcoal. The Xifeng liquor gives off a sweet, tantalising aroma as it is burned. Strips of clean, white flesh from a freshly-caught carp are then added to the bubbling soup. Once the fish has cooked through, the dish is ready to eat. The soup has a rich savoury flavour and it softens the carp perfectly so that the flesh flakes off easily.

 

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Xi’an

Xi’an was once one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and it has managed to maintain its fine reputation to this day. It is the capital of the northern province of Shaanxi and for 13 feudal dynasties it was designated as the capital of China. Before the Ming Dynasty, it was known as Chang’an, meaning “Long-lasting Peace”, but its name was changed to Xi’an, meaning “Western Peace”, in 1369. The Lantian Man, the fossils of a human ancestor that date back over 500,000 years, were found just 50 kilometres southeast of Xi’an and Banpo Neolithic village, the remains of several Neolithic settlements that date back over 5,000 to 6,000 years, were found on the eastern outskirts of the city. Truly Xi’an must have been one of the cradles of ancient civilization.

Nowadays, Xi’an is probably most famous for being the starting point of the ancient Silk Road and for the discovery site of the Terracotta Army. Thousands of tourists flock to Xi’an every year to see the Terracotta Warriors at Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum or to start their tour of the Silk Road. With a population of just over 8 million people, Xi’an is currently the most populated city in Northwest China. Its population is growing rapidly and it is predicted it will soon become a mega-city like Beijing or Shanghai. The population of Xi’an is predominantly ethnically Han Chinese but there is a large concentration of ethnically Hui people in the Muslim Quarter of the city.

Xi’an was the first city in China to be introduced to Islam and, in 651 A.D., Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty officially allowed open practice of the religion. This allowed the Hui people, who are Muslims, to thrive in the area and thus a large concentration of them have remained in Xi’an. There are an estimated 50,000 Hui people in Xi’an and they form a tight knit community that oscillates primarily around Muslim Street and the Muslim Quarter.

Xi’an is also the birthplace of the Qinqiang style of opera, which is the oldest of the four major styles of opera. It is also sometimes referred to as “random pluck” and is the main form of entertainment throughout Xi’an and Shaanxi province. If you are an avid fan of Chinese opera, you’ll notice the similarities between Qinqiang Opera and Beijing Opera, Yu Opera, Chuan Opera and Hebei Opera. This is because Qinqiang Opera is their earliest ancestor and many other styles of opera have borrowed features from the Qinqiang style. Qinqiang Opera dates all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and still maintains its popularity to this day.

Aside from the Terracotta Army, the Silk Road and the wealth of cultural attractions, Xi’an is also home to several lesser known tourist attractions that are still definitely worth visiting. These include the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Da Ci’en Temple, the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower and the Great Mosque, to name but a few. Xi’an boasts such a myriad of different architectural and cultural attractions that a lifetime may not be enough to discover them all!

 

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Da Ci’en Temple

Da Ci’en Temple in Xi’an city is best known for housing the famous Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the largest musical water fountain in Asia. Yet there is more to this temple than simply these two attractions. The temple site is separated into four squares, each with its own attractions and historical meaning. The history behind this Buddhist temple is both fascinating and poignant. The reason behind its name, in particular, is a story of mourning and filial piety[1], a concept held in high-esteem in Chinese culture. So what exactly does “Da Ci’en” mean? And what does Da Ci’en Temple have to offer tourists today?

Da Ci’en Temple rests on the site of an ancient pagoda that was built in 589 A.D., during the Sui Dynasty, and was called Wu Lou (Five Storey) Temple. Over the years this temple fell into disrepair, but in 648 A.D., during the Tang Dynasty, the crown prince Li Zhi spearheaded the renovation of the temple in honour of his mother, the Empress Wende, who had tragically suffered an early death. Li Zhi wanted to pay tribute to his mother’s kindness and so named the temple “Da Ci’en”, which means “kindness and grace” in Chinese. This Temple of Kindness and Grace has stood as a monument to Empress Wende for centuries and it was said that, when Li Zhi became emperor and changed his name to Emperor Gaozong, he still took time to look out from Hanyuan Palace at the temple twice a day in order to pay homage to his beloved mother. The famous Buddhist monk Xuanzhang[2] was abbot of this temple and masterminded the construction of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda there. The temple originally had 13 separate courtyards and 1,879 rooms, all of them unmatched in their grandeur, but tragically the temple once again fell into disrepair after the fall of the Tang Dynasty. It was renovated during the Ming Dynasty and the surviving halls and rooms were all built during that time.

Nowadays the temple is full of interesting historical sites and stunning gardens that are regularly enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. The temple site is separated into four parts: the North, South, East, and West Squares. In the North Square you’ll find a copper statue of an ancient book that tells the story of how the Tang Dynasty rose to power. There are two Buddhist beacons in this square, both 9 metres tall, which are designed after the famous Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. You’ll also find statues of famous figures from the Tang Dynasty, such as the poets Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Han Yu, the unparalleled calligrapher Huai Su, and the “King of Chinese Medicine” Sun Simiao, scattered throughout the square.

In the South Square the focal attraction is the statue of the monk Xuanzhang. It is a place where many Buddhists and locals come to relax and appreciate the majesty of this historical figure. In the East Square you’ll find the Shaanxi Opera Garden, where visitors can enjoy stunning reliefs, paintings and statues of writers, scenes and characters from the Qinqiang (Shaanxi) style of Opera. The West Square is also a garden but it is predominantly dedicated to representations of daily life in ancient Shaanxi and is called the Shaanxi Folk Customs Garden. The only recognisable historical figures in the garden are sandstone statues of the Tang generals Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde, who together guard the gate into the park. The rest of the statues depict scenes and features of ancient Shaanxi life, such as the roaring crowd during a local opera and the large, round baked wheat cake that has been a staple food in Shaanxi for hundreds of years. The streets that link the North and the South Square also contain similar statues of wrestling competitions, birthday parties or visits to the doctor in ancient Shaanxi and are also a perfect place to pick up a few souvenirs.

On top of all of this, you also have the Tang Ci’en Temple Site Park (originally Chunxiao Garden) to the east of Da Ci’en Temple, where locals and tourists can relax and practice Tai Chi. It rests on the site of the original Da Ci’en temple and thus contains many statues that depict the temple’s history. Not to mention there is also the Great Tang All Day Mall in the south part of Da Ci’en Temple, which is a triumphant combination of modern buildings and artificial Tang-style architecture. This huge mall complex contains some fantastic attractions, including the Zhenguan Monument, the Xi’an Concert Hall, the Xi’an Grand Theatre, the Qujiang Cinema and the Shaanxi Art Gallery, to name but a few.

With all of these magnificent attractions on offer, you’ll need to set aside at least a full day to get the most out of your trip to Da Ci’en Temple.

[1] Filial Piety: the concept of being devoted to and respectful of ones parents and elders. It is particularly important in Chinese culture.

[2] Xuanzhang (602 – 664 A.D.): Xuanzhang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar, who mainly studied and focused his efforts upon the interaction between China and India during the Tang Dynasty.

Join our travel to visit the Da Ci’en Temple: Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army is commonly regarded as one of the Eight Wonders of the Ancient World and has received great international fame and praise throughout the years. In 1987 it was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and has remained one of the most culturally significant sites in China since the day it was first discovered. The Terracotta Army is located 37 kilometres to the east of Xi’an city in the Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The Army was established as part of the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China and the first person to unify the regions that make up modern day China. The history of the Terracotta Army is delicately intertwined with the history of China itself. A trip to the Terracotta Army rewards the visitor with a surreal, almost chilling, insight into what coming face to face with Qin Shi Huang’s formidable army would have been like.

Historian Sima Qian[1] recorded that the building of Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum began in 246 B.C., when the Emperor was only 13 years old, and supposedly took over 700,000 labourers and 11 years to complete. Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was built on Mount Li because, with its rich gold and jade mines, it was considered a particularly auspicious location. The mausoleum was designed to protect the Emperor and provide him with everything he would need in the afterlife. Thus the mausoleum is a necropolis, an immemorial, stone representation of the palace that Qin Shi Huang occupied in life, with offices, halls, stables, towers, ornaments, officials, acrobats and, most importantly, a lifelike replica of his army. The presence of the necropolis was corroborated by Sima Qian, who mentions all of the features of the Mausoleum except, rather bizarrely, the Terracotta Army.

After the death of the Emperor in 210 B.C., the Mausoleum was hermetically-sealed and remained unopened for nearly 2,000 years. It wasn’t until 1974, when some farmers were attempting to dig a water-well near Mount Li, that Pit one of the Terracotta Army was accidentally unearthed. Archaeologists flocked to the site and began excavating the area, eventually discovering three more pits of Terracotta Warriors in the process. The warriors were all found arranged as if to protect the tomb from the east, which is where all of the states that were conquered by the Qin Dynasty lay. To date, approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses have been uncovered from these pits.

Pit one of the Terracotta Army is still by far the most impressive, boasting 6,000 figures arranged in their original military formation. Pit two contains the cavalry and infantry units, as well as a few war chariots. It is thought to represent a military guard. Pit three is thought to be the command post since it contains high-ranking officers and a war chariot. Pit four has been left empty for unknown reasons, although it has been posited that perhaps it was simply left unfinished by its builders. Other non-military terracotta figures have been found in other pits, such as officials, acrobats and musicians, but these pits are not arranged in the same way as those containing the Terracotta Army.

What makes the Terracotta Army so brilliantly unique, on top of its impressive size, is the fact that every single figure is different. Their height, uniform and hairstyle are all different, depending on military rank, and the face of each warrior has been uniquely moulded based on a living counterpart. Originally the figures were all beautifully painted and held real weapons but tragically most of the paint flaked off when it was exposed to dry air during the excavation and the weapons had almost all been looted long before the site was excavated. In Pits one and two there is evidence of fire damage and it has been posited that Xiang Yu, a contender to the throne after the death of the first Emperor, may have looted the tombs, taken the weapons and attempted to destroy the army. Many of the current warriors on display have been pieced together from fragments as they were badly damaged when the roof rafters collapsed during the fire.

In spite of this unfortunate damage, some of the figures have maintained their colour, such as the famed Green-Faced Soldier[2] of Pit two, and some weapons, such as swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows, and arrowheads, have been recovered from the pits. Some of the weapons were coated with a layer of chromium dioxide, which has kept them rust-free for nearly 2,000 years. Some are still sharp and carry inscriptions that date manufacture between 245 and 228 B.C., meaning they were used in combat before they were buried here.

It is important to note that each warrior was not moulded and fired as it is now but was crafted as part of the first known assembly line to have existed in the civilised world. The heads, arms, legs, and torsos of each warrior were created separately at separate workshops and then assembled later on. It is believed that originally only eight face moulds were used and then clay was added and sculpted onto the face after assembly to give each warrior their individual facial features. During the time these figures were being mass produced, each workshop was required to inscribe its name on whatever part it had made, which is how we know that each part of the warriors and other figures was manufactured separately.

When the British Museum held an exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors from 2007 to 2008, exhibiting a small selection of real figures from the excavation sites, it resulted in the most successful year they had since the King Tutankhamen exhibition in 1972. So popular and stunning are the Terracotta Warriors that they have attracted attention worldwide, bringing about some of the most successful exhibitions in the world, including one at the Forum de Barcelona in Barcelona and one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. If the possibility of seeing them individually has managed to generate this much hype, imagine what it must be like to see them altogether, in military formation, in almost the exact same positions they were in when they were originally placed in their tombs.

The Museum of Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses and the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum have now been incorporated into one tourist attraction known as Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Park. There you’ll find regular free shuttle buses that will take you from the site of the Terracotta Army to Lishan Garden. Lishan Garden acts as the perfect complement to the Terracotta Army as it contains Qin Shi Huang’s burial mound, ritual sacrifice pits, the Museum of Terracotta Acrobatics, the Museum of Terracotta Civil Officials, the Museum of Stone Armour and the Museum of Bronze Chariots and Horses. The Museum of Bronze Chariots and Horses is a wonderful exhibition of all the figures found throughout the pits that are crafted from bronze rather than terracotta. They loom out of their glass cases, lifelike in their shimmering skin. The other museums are based around pits where terracotta figures are still being excavated and present the perfect opportunity to watch a live archaeological dig. The chance to watch the Terracotta figures being unearthed and thus the opportunity to watch history being made is one that we know you won’t want to pass up. The only area that is not open to the public and has not been excavated is the main tomb, where the Emperor’s remains rest. In spite of an on-going debate as to whether the tomb should be opened or not, it is universally thought that it will remain undisturbed as a mark of respect to the Emperor.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to build a monument to his achievements that would last throughout the ages. With his stunning Terracotta Army, whose popularity has not waned since they were unearthed, still standing in their original military formation as a testament to his prowess, I think you’ll agree that he achieved what he set out to do. Thanks to this incredible feat, China’s first Emperor has made himself truly immortal.

[1] Sima Qian (145–90 BCE): A Chinese historian whose most noted work was called “Shiji” or “Records of the Grand Historian”

[2] The Green-Faced Soldier: A single Terracotta Warrior whose face has inexplicably been painted green instead of pink

The Terracotta Army is one of the many wonderful stops on travel Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

An Army of Thousands

I was only 16 years old when I made my first trip to China. I was nervous, but alive with the anticipation of seeing a place that had been so alien to me for so many years. We were on a school trip, a 10 day tour that started in Beijing and ended in Xi’an. The first few days were a blur of fresh sounds, tempting smells, the cry of peddlers, and the magnificence of ancient buildings that were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I have vivid memories of being introduced to a man’s prize fighting cricket in one of Beijing’s many Hutongs and of running up the steps of the Great Wall, full of vigour and wonder.

By the time we boarded the overnight train to Xi’an, I thought the dream was over. In my naïve opinion, nowhere could be as gloriously enchanting as Beijing. So, as the train approached the station, I already had my reservations about the city of Xi’an. Stepping out of the train, I noticed immediately that the atmosphere of the city was vastly different. The pace of life was still as fast, though perhaps not as frantic as Beijing, but the city seemed to have a more rustic feel. People moved deliberately, rather than recklessly, and the population appeared to be older than that of Beijing’s.

Bizarrely enough, perhaps my most memorable meal of the trip happened in Xi’an. I’d tried the sumptuously crispy Peking duck, I’d sampled a platter of plump Beijing dumplings, yet it was the plate of biángbiáng noodles I had in Xi’an, in a restaurant barely the size of my living room, that I remember most vividly. The restaurant itself was above a bustling local market and the sound of bartering was almost deafening. The rooms had an unnerving smell to them and what little tableware we had was clearly still dirty. When the food finally arrived, the thick strips of noodles looked like belts slumped on the plate, soaked in a brownish sauce that smelled acidic and unappetizing. Yet rather than feeling deterred, I remember feeling somehow at ease. A wave of happiness washed over me as I realised that, lovely though Beijing was, this was the real China. This was the place I had longed to visit for so long, and I finally felt at home. I tucked into the noodles with hungry fervour and found them to be so delicious that words failed me. I just sat there, a thick white ribbon of noodle hanging from my mouth, in sheer ecstasy.

The following day, we were to visit the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a man I had never heard of nor had any particular interest in, and I was still certain there would be nothing there for me. After all, no structure could inspire me with as much awe as the Marble Boat in the Summer Palace. In fact, to this day I still dream of Empress Dowager Cixi, stood still in time, languid on her immovable boat.

From a young age, I had been vaguely aware of the existence of the Terracotta Army, but had no real idea who they were or what they looked like. To me they were the stuff of legend, as mythical as the soldiers hidden inside the Trojan Horse. So, as I set foot in the first pit of the mausoleum complex, I had no idea what to expect. The air was still and, from where I was standing, the pit was hidden from view. Slowly I crept towards the ledge and, as I looked down, I felt as though the wind had been knocked out of me. I remember recoiling, both in horror and awe, at what I had seen. There, just a few feet below me, were perfectly formed lines of officers, foot soldiers, archers and horses, all holding position, all ready to attack. They went back as far as my eye could see, all of them staring out at me with unique faces, each one representing a life that had long since perished. Individually they looked calm, but together they created an atmosphere of tension, somehow intimidating in spite of their lifelessness. For one horrible moment, I had thought they were alive.

For the rest of the day, I was almost completely silent. I wandered through the other three pits, through the museum and the gift shop, in a catatonic state, unable to process what I had experienced. I knew that I had to grasp this opportunity, to try and capture these feelings in some meaningful way. In the gift shop, I found a tiny set of terracotta warriors that had been forged in the same way as the originals. They were a common souvenir, consisting of one officer, one foot soldier, one archer and a horse, but I had to have them. In a strange way, I had to know that what I had seen was real, I had to have proof. To this day, there are no words to describe precisely the impact those soldiers had on me. Yet as I look over at those four little figures still silently guarding my windowsill, I am overwhelmed with the desire to try.

Yaodong (Loess Cave House)

The yaodongs of northern China represent the ultimate mingling between natural beauty and manmade ingenuity. Stretching across the Loess Plateau within the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Henan, they have been an integral feature of the landscape for over 4,500 years. Their name literally translates to mean “kiln cave” and is a reference to their arched interior, which supposedly resembles the inside of a kiln. While the name may sound rather fiery, yaodongs are renowned for being pleasantly cool during summer and comfortably warm during winter. Nowadays, it is estimated that more than 40 million people continue to live in yaodongs. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly four times the population of Belgium!

The first yaodongs were said to have been built during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) and were even mentioned in the Book of Songs, a collection of Chinese poems that were written from the 10th to the 7th centuries BC. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), these yaodongs become much more elaborate, with inhabitants installing chimneys, functioning kitchens, and heated brick beds known as kangs. The Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties saw even further progress as these humble cave houses evolved from single room retreats to fully fledged homes with separate living quarters, livestock stalls, and even defensive walls. By the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, their popularity had reached its peak and they were built widely throughout northern China.

The prevalence of yaodongs in northern China is usually attributed to their efficient design and cheapness to build. The loess soil from which they are constructed is abundant in the Loess Plateau and acts as an exceptionally effective insulator of heat, meaning inhabitants of yaodongs don’t need to spend extra money or effort heating their homes during the cold winters. In terms of style, they can be roughly separated into three different types: loess cliff houses; hole-courtyards; and “updated” brick houses. The ingenious loess cave houses are the simplest of the three and are dug directly into the loess cliffs that line the deep valleys of the Loess Plateau.

Hole-courtyards

The hole-courtyards are more complex, revolving around an excavated courtyard about 5 to 8 metres (16 to 26 ft.) deep that has been dug into the Loess Plateau itself. For this reason, they are sometimes called “yaodong wells” or “sunken courtyards”. The walls of this courtyard are then carved out to form rooms, much like the simpler loess cave houses. Fortunately for the inhabitants of these “yaodong wells”, it does not rain very often on the Loess Plateau, so there’s no risk of their home being turned into a swimming pool!

“Updated” Brick Houses

The newer tradition of “updated” brick houses are built partially or wholly above ground and outdoors, with an arched structure that is inspired by the original yaodongs. Although their roofs are covered with loess soil, they are stand-alone structures made of stone or brick and typically have elaborate designs carved into their façades. No matter the type, each yaodong usually consists of 3 to 5 carved out rooms, which are generally about 7 to 8 metres (23 to 26 ft.) long, 3 metres (10 ft.) wide, and 3 to 4 metres (10 to 13 ft.) high. After all, size doesn’t matter when you have a home this cosy!

Not only are yaodongs a fascinating form of folk architecture, they also played a critical role in the history of China. From 1935 to 1948, Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party used yaodongs in Yan’an as their base of operations. American journalist Edgar Snow even visited Mao and his party in Yan’an before writing his acclaimed novel Red Star Over China. If you want to relive this exciting chapter in Chinese history, you can now stay overnight in a yaodong hotel and visit the original yaodongs where the Communist Party held their secret meetings.

Try the special Yarding hotels on Cultural Tour in Shanxi.