Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Visit to Xi’an

In 1900 that most populous city in Florida was Key West. In other words, most of what we know about Florida has happened in the past century. A short walk from our apartment in Beibei leads to top of a small river ravine that has been inhabited and farmed for the past 5,000 years. With the adoption of agriculture to replace the hunting and gathering societies, came the need for some form of social organization. As agrarian societies developed, labor specialization became common. Some folks were farmers and others were merchants, priests, sheriffs, or tribal chiefs. These small societies were held together by a common belief, common ancestry, and/or the power of the local chiefs. That power usually manifested itself in some form of a military unit capable of protecting the existing chiefdom, or, in many cases, expanding it through conquest.

Early Chinese history is an ever changing collage of rival chiefdoms rising and falling with the passing of time. Until fairly recently (by Chinese standards) China as a single country did not exist—it was simply a collection of numerous chiefdoms or, to use common phraseology today, warlords. The political organization that existed over the land mass of China looked a lot like what we see in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, or Iraq today—a shifting pattern of local warlords with no effective central government.

The first successful unification of the many chiefdoms or city-states along the Yellow River basin was in 221B.C. by a young ruler of the Qin state named Shi Huangdi. Many of the chiefdoms along the Yangtze River were also brought under the central control of what became known as the Qin {pronounced CHIN} dynasty—the first in Chinese history. The geographic center of the Qin dynasty was Xi’an {SHEE-enh}—a rich agricultural center on the Yellow River. As the Qin consolidated power, Shi proclaimed himself the first Emperor of China. During the centralization of the Qin dynasty the Chinese language and writing were standardized and part of the Great Wall was built to defend against raiders from the north.

During the first week of October the mid-autumn festival holiday was celebrated and classes at Southwest University were suspended for a week. My wife and I took advantage of the holiday to visit Xi’an which today is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China, both for Chinese tourists and foreign tourists like us.

Today Xi’an is a booming metropolitan center of about 7 million people. For the most part, in spite of its historic past, it is a young city with broad boulevards laid out to accommodate motorized traffic. It seems to be growing rapidly with construction projects everywhere. In addition, it is preparing to be one of the regional sites of the 2008 Olympics. We flew from a very modern airport in Chongqing (an old city on the Yangtze) to a very modern airport in Xi’an (an old city on the Yellow) in about an hour. We left Chongqing through an incredible cloud of air pollution and arrived in Xi’an in an equally dense cloud of pollution. Because of the irritating, consistent, and apparently pervasive air pollution, we never saw our shadows during four days at Xi’an.

We stayed in the center of the old city of Xi’an. From our hotel window we could see the Bell Tower on the central plaza (see photo and note air pollution). The old city was enclosed with a wall and moat. The entire old wall still exists. The adventurous tourist can rent a bicycle and ride the entire 14 kilometer circumference on top of the wall. The old city is entered by four gates in the four directions with roads that lead to the Bell Tower.

The primary tourist attraction in Xi’an is the tomb built by Emperor Shi for his eventual burial. The tomb contains some 6,000 terra cotta warriors (instead of sacrificed human warriors) who silently stand guard over an area about the size of three football fields. Only a portion of the entire tomb has been excavated and reconstructed. The sheer size (and audacity) of the tomb is overpowering (see photo). The tomb, first discovered in the 1970’s has been featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine and was visited by President Clinton during a state visit to China about ten years ago.

As with the modern examples of despotic consolidators such as Tito and Sadam, the unification of China was not a peaceful process. It was accomplished at a great cost in terms of human life. In the face of a superior military force and a reign of terror many local warlords lost their status and power. Nevertheless, old regional identities and the old frictions among the various warlords were never eliminated, they were merely subjugated to a stronger central power sustained by military superiority and sustained terror. Upon the death of Emperor Shi in 210 B.C., his son became the Emperor and was soon overthrown in a peasant revolt supported by the deposed warlords. The first unification of China had been brief and ended in failure.

Next week, I will discuss one other interesting aspect of Xi’an.


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