Xi’an rises and rests to the ancient peal of bells and the hypnotic beat of drums.
Words & Photography: Wang Yuanchang
When I approached downtown Xi’an from Xianyang International Airport, I heard a loud, deep sound from far away. “What’s that?” I asked. Though I’d been here often, I’d never heard it before.
“The big drum is sounding,” the driver answered. “In early 2011, the city brought back the traditional lifestyle of morning bell and evening drum. In the morning, you can also hear the bell sound.” When he mentioned this, I recalled reading about this traditional form of telling time and modulating the lives of citizens, a system going back to when the city was known as Chang’an. Looking out the open window of the car, I saw the stone wall of the ancient city and sensed a fresher air and a cleaner city. “When were the old houses demolished?” I asked, surprised to see an open square where, a year earlier, there had been a vast area of traditional-style residences.
“You don’t know? Now the city wall is completely connected, and the lost neighbourhoods have all been rebuilt and newly regulated,” explained the driver. While the revitalisation came as good news to me, I couldn’t help sighing over the loss of ancient buildings that offered a glimpse into how the old capital looked hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
The next day, I departed for Bell Tower Square located in the city centre and saw the Pagoda Tower rising before me. The bell was cast in 653AD, when the Tang Dynasty (618-906) was actively involved in restoring Buddhist artefacts and figures like the nearby bell tower, which became a symbol of this ancient imperial capital. By 5.10pm, crowds of people and traffic swelled, making it difficult to take photos. I looked around and chose the bell tower as the best vantage point.
For thousands of years, the bell was rung to announce daybreak, which served to wake the people up and start the day. At dusk, the bell was sounded to note the end of day, a time for people to go home. In the long corridor of history, when wristwatches were far from being invented, people told time and the movement of seasons by the stars and constellations. What’s more, the drum and bell regulated lives and work time, a custom that people were accustomed to and greatly enjoyed.
Today, the bell is rung at 9.00am, 11.00am, 1.00pm, and 3.00pm, and the drum beaten at 5.00pm daily. But the 9.00am bell is the most magnificent of all, sounding the start of a fi ne and busy day ahead. The bell, weighing 6.5 tonnes, is struck by 11 figures dressed in Ming Dynasty-styled warrior clothing. The sound is so loud that it rings out across vast distances, as it did in the days of the Ming Dynasty (1386–1644), and is a common occurrence in the city, not unlike the grand ceremony of raising the national fag in Beijing every morning.
To the northwest of the Bell Tower, and half a kilometre away, is the Drum Tower. Built in 1380, the Drum Tower is located at the end of a lively street in the Muslim Quarter, rising up to 33 metres. Upon completion, a huge drum was installed in the centre of the tower, surrounded by 24 drums set facing the four cardinal directions, symbolising the 24 solar phases of the Chinese traditional calendar. When night falls, the drum is sounded to tell the hour, and people shift into nightlife mode.
I climbed up the Bell Tower and looked out across Xi’an. The great city wall encircles Xi’an and appears square in shape, a barrier guarding and defending against those who would attack from without. However, the wall never held back the development of this once prosperous capital or cut off the arrival of new cultural influences or anyone wanting to get in touch with the historic capital.
THE SOUND OF HISTORY
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, was once called Chang’an, which means ‘long life’ and ‘life long safety’. It is located on the Guanzhong Plain, in the northern area around Qingling Mountain at the basin of the Yellow River, where the Silk Road starts and is believed by some historians to be the birthplace of Oriental civilisation. This historical city served as the capital of many dynasties, including the Tang; the Banpo relic site here is said to be one of the earliest proofs of the first matriarchy. The Banpo Neolithic village here is considered yet another birthplace of Chinese civilisation.
There is an old saying that goes something like, “Rome in the West, Chang’an in the East,” which is to say that Xi’an is equal to Rome, Athens and Cairo, and considered to be one of the world’s greatest ancient capitals. Though it has been freeze-framed as an ancient city for thousands of years, few travellers come to know the daily life and hospitality of its people.
Xi’an has a long history and rich culture making it a valuable heritage site brimming with historical treasures, while its thriving economy creates a comfortable lifestyle for people today. Every year, the tourism and service industries receive substantial government funding. Each time I come to this great city, it is always crowded with foreign tourists.
Seeing two foreign men with their ears to the great city wall, I asked what they were doing. “Hush,” one said to me, his fingers on his lips, “I’m listening to the sound of history,” he explained with a solemn expression on his face.
A LIFE OF EASE AND SONG
While the city wall is a great draw for tourists, what I liked best is the unique lifestyle here. In the morning, in the squares, parks and public places, groups of people gather and exercise, sometimes singing in chorus; they spontaneously form groups and perform tai chi or dance to melodious music, often while singing. Some do ballroom dancing and cha-cha. Not far away, people rollerblade or practise kung-fu.
In a small pavilion like those found everywhere in Xi’an, on the Bell Tower Square, I saw a group of old men singing and playing all kinds of traditional instruments, like the erhu, dulcimer, drum, and some whose names I did not know. They were concentrating hard and didn’t notice me. They were singing Qinqiang, the most renowned Shaanxi Opera style in China’s northwest provinces. This confirmed the saying that “Xi’an people are apt to be nostalgic.”
Suddenly, I heard bird song nearby. Just when I was figuring out where the sound was coming from, an old man passed by with a bird cage swinging on the handlebars of his bike.
I followed him and reached a bird market where there was a beer garden loaded with cars, bikes and, of course, people. Buyers and peddlers were busy bargaining. I shouldered my way into the crowd and found vendors selling hand-woven bamboo cages. Among the crowd were some buying cages, and others like me, simply watching the fine craft work. One man was weaving two cages at a time as an assistant passed him bamboo sheets and tools without a word or a glance exchanged. “Are all those bird cages handmade?” I asked. “Of course! Otherwise, nobody will buy our cages. All these cages are handmade by both of us, as well as by several craftsmen working at home.” A skilful craftsman can make five small cages a day; if carved with elaborate patterns and decorations, one cage can take around 10 days – this will of course cost more. Picking up a medium-size cage he said, “You see, we mainly make round cages, with five circles, which look stable, elegant and tight.” He told me that he sells hundreds of cages a day. “Xi’an people are good at raising birds, no matter old or young, male or female – nearly every family raises birds. Our customers always buy five or six cages at one time.” Now, I understood why I could hear the happy songs of birds just about everywhere in Xi’an.
A young couple attracted my attention. Unlike other buyers, they paid for four birds without bargaining and squeezed past the crowd. Suddenly, they bent down and opened the cage door. The girl put a beautiful bird in her hand, whispering to it, and released it, calling out, “Go, lovely bird, go!” I couldn’t help feeling moved. After that, I scoured the Internet and searched for books on the birds of Xi’an. There was much on the subject. Opinions vary, but most agree that Xi’an people buy and raise birds for fun, not for auction or investment, regardless of whether they are auspicious or not. Then, there are others, like the young couple, who buy birds in order to release them back into the wild. This is deeply influenced by Buddhist practices.
SPECIAL FOOD OF XI’AN
While Xi’an boasts a number of architectural treasures, on the culinary front, surprisingly, the flavour of imperial grandeur has all but disappeared. Xi’an is crowded with restaurants serving simple local specialties.
Yangroupaomo consists of mutton soup and bread and is a local dish that goes back more than 2,000 years. Called paomo, this is a daily staple for Xi’an people. It can be found in all kinds of restaurants, no matter how large or small; if you’re not choosy, then take a seat at a small street stall and order a bowl of paomo. It’s a good way to enjoy typical Xi’an food.
Xi’an noodles are another staple of Xi’an cuisine, and biangbiang noodles are the best variety. A friend once teased me saying, “Never touch biangbiang unless you have enough strength and willpower to eat it.” Regardless of his exhortation, I had to order a bowl.
When the dish was served, I was surprised to find that set in a spiral in the bowl was only one long noodle, around three centimetres wide! The waiter poured a spoon of hot and spicy oil sauce onto the noodle, and the sizzling sound and fresh red colour stimulated my senses. I started to eat and found my friend’s words were no exaggeration. By the time I finished, I was drenched in sweat, realising that eating noodles is a very ‘demanding’ art. I guess I really need to exercise.
DAY & NIGHT
In Xi’an, the light of dawn illuminates the city’s contours, which emerge more clearly with every passing minute. The great wall embraces the city and protects those within, as in the past, but now it is open to all who are curious to enter. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower Squares are sources of entertainment, as well as marketplaces. When in Xi’an, do as locals do: Join those who dance and sing, buy discounted handicrafts, and try local fare.
As night fell, vehicle horns and various noises faded in the distance. As I gazed into the night sky, I wished upon a star that those who live here would be blessed with longevity and protection, just as the old capital’s name promised.
In the early spring of 1974, a number of farmers discovered ancient bronze weapons and pieces of broken terracotta armoured warriors while sinking a well at the northern foot of Mt. Lishan, 35 kilometres from Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. This great discovery initiated the recovery of a magnificent tomb of troops buried for over 2,000 years.
In the vaults is an army of 8,000 soldiers and horses, some of which are complete, some broken. The life-size terracotta figures are 1.8 metres tall, and weigh between 100 and 300 kilograms on average. Each wears a different expression, hairstyle and clothing, reflecting different positions in the legion. People have different opinions about Emperor Qin Shi Huang, but when they see the grandeur of the buried troops, they marvel at this great wonder done in his reign.
In this 20 sq mile plot, apart from statues of soldiers, horses and chariots, a pyramidal mound that marks the emperor’s tomb, remains of a palace, offices, storehouses and stables have also been identified. An empty pit was also discovered, suggesting that this plot was left unfinished at the time of the emperor’s death.
The emperor’s tomb is yet to be fully excavated. Based on the records of a first century Chinese historian named Sima Qian, the area was designed with mercury streams inlaid in the floor to represent local rivers running through the tomb. Recent tests taken from the said area indicate high levels of mercury in the artefacts. This has led to extra caution and even reluctance in excavating the tomb due to safety issues, both to the artefacts and the workers.
A FOREST OF STONE TABLETS
The Xi’an Beilin Museum was originally set up in 1087. This art treasure-house contains a collection of 3,000 ancient Chinese memorial stone tablets and historical documents, records and stone carving patterns spanning over 2,000 years. Through these collections on display in the museum, one can explore Xi’an’s rich heritage of calligraphy and stone carvings. The museum is also home to many steles and books referring to Confucianism, as well as original scripts of outstanding calligraphers like Ou Yangxun, Liu Gongquan and Wang Xizhi, revealing the different styles of the Qin, Han, Weijin, Song and Tang dynasties.
Web check-in & print your boarding pass for a seamless flying experience!
Kiosk check-in at klia2 will no longer be available starting 22 June 2014.