In November 2015, our Yenching academy class ventured for a field trip to the beautiful and historic Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in China. After learning so much about Chinese history in lectures we finally got a chance to see a significant part of this, rich, well-preserved history. I have written and collected a few reflections from my class members on the sites we visited. This theme will have a series of reflections, keep on the lookout.
Due to its designation as a former Chinese capital, and its historical location as a city on the ancient Silk Road, Xi’an has served as a rendezvous point for cultural traditions. One influence, in particular, is the Muslim influence that permeates through ordinary Xi’an city life – be it through the countless food carts serving Halal kebabs or the prevalence of worn Muslim garb. The clearest manifestation of this influence, nevertheless, would be the Muslim Quarter. Situated near Xi’an’s bell tower, the Quarter is a hodgepodge of narrow streets with a distinct Muslim feel. Small makeshift shops line up alongside the streets, predominantly offering Xi’an snacks along with Chinese trinkets and souvenirs. At night, the Quarter comes alive, and their streets bustle with activity – vendors hammering haphazardly at sweet-making gelatin, musicians beating on to traditional Chinese drums, dancers stepping in-sync to choreographed moves. A casual stroll down the Quarter leaves one’s senses inundated – the air is saturated with the shouts of roadside vendors haggling with customers, the savory smell of traditional 肉夹馍, and the vehement flames licking softly cooked lamb kebabs. In a city like Xi’an – one that has undergone rapid urbanization and development and possesses the hallmarks of modernity – the Muslim Quarter thus plays an important role, preserving the city’s rich heritage and demonstrating that modernity does not necessarily entail the sacrifice of cultural practices.
HANYANG LING MUSEUM
By Nicholas Zhengxun and Kyle Painter
We visited the Hanyang Ling mausoleums and museum on a misty winter morning, which lent the entire environment and ethereal out-of-time out-of-place feeling, appropriate for a visit to two-thousand year old imperial tombs. In fact, precisely because of this our visit to the Han tombs is a perfect example of the importance of field studies like this one. While we could see pictures of the small terracotta human figures buried in trench after trench from Beijing, we couldn’t get a sense of the entire geography and feel of the place. And indeed, this was one of the biggest takeaways for the scholars during our visit to Hanyang Ling. By actually arriving at the place, we could appreciate the geographic, strategic, geomancical, and aesthetic reasons for choosing this place as the site of an important burial complex. We were struck by the symmetry of the complex foundations, as well as the fact that the axis ran from East to West, rather than North to South as would be the case in later dynasties.
The museum at the site was also a privilege to visit, as it was an exceptional example of how to present an archeological site to the general public. While archeology is a scholarly field that tends to enjoy a relatively high degree of public interest, it is nonetheless not easy to present archeological sites in ways that both authentically preserve and portray the archeological work done to excavate the site, and give the lay viewer something interesting and intelligible to look at. The Hanyang Ling museum was an example of this difficult work done exceptionally well. The underground museum’s understated cement and glass aesthetics gave the feeling of being back in time, and the dark hallway that wrapped around the entire archeological site drew attention to the drama of seeing into the past, as well as making it literally easy to see the excavated sites. Display cases with all manner of excavated objects made the experience more engaging, as well.
Compiled and Edited by Nothando Khumalo