Monday, December 29, 2008

Ocean World

We had a great time visiting the aquarium with my good friend Farhot and his family. His wife Zulfia and daughter Kamila just recently arrived from Kyrgyzstan. Farhot, Zulfia, and Kamila are Uzbek speakers. Uzbek and Turkish are closely enough related that I was able to communicate somewhat with Zulfia and Kamila who don't speak much Chinese. Kamila is two and a half years old and made fast friends with Kalila as they pressed their little noses against the glass to get a better look at the sea creatures.

Shaanxi Hans

This past Sunday we took Kalila to see a CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) game. Basketball is incredibly popular in China and Shaanxi has a good team this year. Xi'an's team plays at Jiao Tong University's Si Yuan Stadium and good seats only cost about $5. As far as I could tell we were the only non-Chinese fans in the crowd. One big bald-headed basketball fanatic gave me a bear hug as soon as he saw us come in right at the tip-off. The two teams were evenly matched but Shaanxi managed to hit a shot at the buzzer to win 118-116. Kalila thoroughly enjoyed herself and joined the crowd in chanting 'Hao Qiu!' (good ball, good play). As there were several excellent American ball players on both sides that seemed to act as team captains I predict that it won't be long before we see more Chinese in the NBA. The CBA is good quality basketball. The only thing they're missing is a mascot in a monkey suit that can do a trampoline dunk from the free throw line!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

T'ang Dynasty Show

In acknowledgement of academic achievement, my advisor at Northwest University gave us tickets to Xi'an's T'ang Dynasty Show. The performance showcases T'ang era culture. The live orquestra is made up of traditional instruments such as the guqin, pipa, and sheng (pictured above). The dancers' costumes were designed to replicate the style of dress shown in cave frescoes at Dunhuang, an old Buddhist enclave in Gansu Province. The clothing seemed to be heavily influenced by East Indian dress. Another highlight of the show was Gao Ming, a world renowned 'paishou' player. The paishou is a kind of pan flute that is over 1500 years old. He used it to imitate the sound of orioles, a bird that was considered a good omen in ancient China.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jiao zi (dumplings)

Winter officially arrived in Xi'an the 21st of December. A cold front from the Northwest blew in and sent everyone scurrying for Jiao zi. Local custom advises that one eat dumplings on the first cold day of the year to keep your ears from freezing off. The tradition is based on an old joke about dumplings resembling ears. Eating dumplings on a cold day is indeed a great way to warm up although I'd suggest a hat or earmuffs to remedy freezing ears.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Silk Road Talent Show

Although classes at Xi Bei Da Xue (Northwest University) don't let out until after the New Year, the school did hold a Winter party that showcased the talents of our classmates. The couple pictured above are dancing the 'Lezginka.' The dance originated in the Caucus Mountains but is popular throughout the Islamic world. These students are ethnic Chechens that live in Kazakhstan. During the Stalin years of Soviet oppression in Central Asia many Chechens were forced to relocate to Kazakhstan. My friend Saihan, the male dancer pictured above, is a powerful dancer and a super mean soccer player. When I see him in the hall sometimes I just say 'red card' to get him laughing.
Bashir, a student from Kazakhstan, played an improvised piece on his 'dombra,' an instrument popular in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well. Variations of the dombra exist throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. In Tajikistan it is known as 'dombura,' in Turkmenistan it is called 'dutar' and in Turkey it is referred to as 'saz' or 'baglama.' Its drone strings give it a trance-like quality and it is often used to accompany storytelling and singing.

This is yet another Kazakh classmate of mine dressed in traditional costume and performing an up tempo, energetic dance. The vast majority of my classmates come from the Central Asian Republics. China's recent boom has renewed the ancient Silk Road connections. My language teacher told me that its just been in the last 5 to 10 years that Northwest University has seen a large increase in the number of students from Central Asia. In the past, Russian speaking Central Asians were more likely to go to Moscow for education and work. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of modern China, Central Asians are once again making the journey along the Silk Road, inspired by economic incentives to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Terracotta Warriors

Qin Shi Huang, the man that managed to unify China after the Warring States period, ruled the country with an iron fist. He was able to accomplish several large scale projects through the use of forced labor. He is credited for having consolidated the Great Wall, building an extensive canal system that surpassed Roman aqueducts, standardizing the written language as well as currency, weights, and measurements. Some 75,000 craftsmen worked for decades to create Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum which is equipped with a life size terracotta army to accompany him in the afterlife. The Qin Dynasty didn't last long as the people grew weary and rebelled against the oppressive regime following the death of the Emperor. The Han Dynasty that followed was much less overbearing and enjoyed long term popular support.


Now and then we see roving merchants like these selling fox furs out of their portable handcarts. Kalila's such a fan of animals that she was pretty captivated by this woman's array of fox skin hats and scarves. They also tried to pass off some larger hides as 'lao hu' (tiger) which were obviously counterfeit. Merchants on the move try to stay one step ahead of the authorities who make a feeble attempt to regulate commerce. Its not uncommon to see a whole row of merchants grab their wares and go sprinting down the street when the police arrive.

Gu Lou (Drum Tower)

Kalila's Puo puo Gong gong (grandma and grandpa) recently came to Xi'an for a visit. We had an excellent time. Here they are at Xi'an's famous Gu Lou (Drum Tower) which is filled with drums of all shapes and sizes. In the past, the Bell Tower and Drum Tower located in the city's center, announced the time of day to Xi'an's citizens. Today the towers serve as museums. We saw a display of T'ang Dynasty furniture as well as an extensive collection of drums from different time periods. Xi'an is known for its drum music. Although traditional drumming is not as popular as it once was, you can still find drum troupes practicing in the park.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Traditional Orquestra

Wandering through Xi'an's Muslim Quarter we happened upon this Traditional Orquestra rehearsal. There were half a dozen 'sheng' players so I was able to see how the instrument is held. Alice observed that, like a harmonica, the players produce tones by inhaling as well as exhaling. There were a couple people playing 'dizi,' the Chinese horizontal bamboo flute, and a percussion section consisting of a big bass drum, cymbals, and wood blocks as the time keeper. There was also a 'Guanzi,' a double reeded oboe that originated in Kucha. It is sometimes called 'belili,' or 'sad oboe' because of its melancholy sound and scale. It is often used as the lead instrument that carries the melody. The music was full and splendid and the musicians made us feel welcome to listen in as they rehearsed.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Za ji tuan (acrobat troupe)

Today we had the pleasure of seeing a young troupe of street acrobats. These kids were out of control! Their rag-tag team performed amazing stunts including feats of balance and contortionism. We gave them a big tip then Alice had the excellent idea of printing up pictures of the performance to give to them. They loved it! One girl was looking through the pictures as she balanced on a board placed over a rolling cylinder on top of a table. It may well have been the first time they've owned pictures of themselves as most poorer people in China can't afford cameras. In America you might spend $40 to see the kind of show that these kids put on for tips and small change. We could tell that they enjoyed having an enthusiastic audience as Kalila hollered 'Wow!' and clapped for them.


Instead of ink and paper this man practices his calligraphy using water on dusty tiles. Calligraphy is a highly respected artform in China. I like the obvious impermanence of his practice. Like many Eastern artforms the emphasis is on the process rather than the end result. His deep focus radiated an atmosphere of calm all around him.

xin de xie zi (new shoes)

Kalila took a liking to this woman and her tiger-striped shoes. Many of the Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslim) women make beautiful hand-sewn baby shoes. They can often be seen setting up shop on the sidewalk with a wide selection of soles and colorful fabrics to choose from. This 'Ayi' (auntie) had a warm smile and contagious laugh that made Kalila just crack up.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Zhong Yao

Zhong Yao (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is an ancient and sophisticated science used to promote wellness as well as prevent and cure disease. Chinese medicine is based on the idea that humans are composed of and governed by the Five Elements in varying proportions. Herbs, roots, and animal products are used to remedy elemental imbalances that may disrupt homeostasis and lead to illness. We came to this medicinal market looking for Huang Qi (Astragalus), which can be added to soup or taken as a tea to improve the immune system. I was also in the market for Guan Ye Lian Qiao (St. John's Wort), a good mood stabilizer for countering the effects of reduced light exposure. Sunny days in Xi'an are few and far between and the grey skies make me want to hibernate! A block from the market we could already begin to smell the pungent herbs and roots. Entering the various stalls Kalila was most interested in the array of dried snakes, pearls, turtle shells, millipedes, skewered lizards, ants and other insects. The dried lizards (pictured above) can be made into a soup to cure a soar throat. We stocked up on dried longyan fruit (dragon eyes), goji berries, ginseng, astragalus, and a shell-like substance used for treating cuts. Although we only scratched the surface, it was fascinating to talk with the merchants about the properties and uses of their medicines.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Full-Time Fiddler

When this old troubador noticed that we were interested he invited us to sit down beside him to listen to his song. His fingers were wrapped in tape and his fiddle was completely caked in rossin dust which made me think that music must be his full-time occupation. His two stringed fiddle is called a 'ban hu' and is a regional instrument of Shaanxi. It is smaller than the 'Erhu' and its sound box is bowl shaped rather than cylindrical. He sang in the raspy, guttural style common to Shaanxi Opera (Qin Qiang). Variations of throat singing can also be found in Tibet, Mongolia, and the Circumpolar regions. As he improvised lyrics I could pick out enough words to know that he was singing about a girl's beautiful hair.

Kong Zhu

Kong Zhu (literally 'hollow bamboo') is known in the West as the Chinese yo-yo. Alice had been wanting to learn to play for some time when she finally met a group of women that practice outside the old city walls. They helped her find a kong zhu and showed her some basic techniques to get started. There are a couple different kinds of kong zhu - one is symmetrical (pictured above) and the other is more like a spinning top that makes a whirring sound when it gets up to speed.

Ancestor of the Accordion

I am a big fan of accordions and was surprised to find that my favorite instrument evolved from the Chinese 'sheng,' which was one of the world's first free reed instruments. In the 18th century a couple of European travellers brought a few traditional shengs back with them to Europe. The introduction of the instrument inspired the invention of the harmonica and the accordion. The popularity of the harmonica and accordion spread quickly because the instruments are so versatile and easy to transport. Variations of the accordion play a central role in many musical styles including tango, forro, cumbia, vallenato, merengue, and norteno just to name a few. The next time you hear a smoking merengue or a refined tango remember that it all started with this strange instrument from China.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Shaolin Lion

Kalila had fun making havoc in Shaolin Temple! She dragged me up and down every step several times and enjoyed climbing around on the statues. While she played, children not too much older than her trained rigorously in the martial arts disciplines that have made Shaolin famous.

White Horse Temple

We recently went on a school sponsored field trip to Luoyang in Henan Province. Our first stop was Bai Ma Si (White Horse Temple), China's very first Buddhist Temple. In the 1st Century A.D. the Emperor is said to have had a dream about a huge golden man from the West. His advisors thought the dream was indicating the statues of Buddha found in India. An embassy was sent to retrieve knowledge of the religion. They first encountered Buddhists in the region of modern-day Afghanistan and brought back two holy men, various scriptures, and images of the Buddha. The Temple that they founded is named after the white horses that carried the men back to Luoyang.

Shaolin Temple

The World famous Shaolin Temple is located near China's sacred mountain Song Shan. It was here that the Indian Bodhidharma introduced China to the Ch'an (pronounced Zen in Japan) sect of Buddhism. Although Shaolin now claims Bodhidharma as a patron saint, history tells a much different story. When Bodhidharma first arrived at Shaolin Temple he was denied entry. Some early Chinese accounts of Bodhidharma describe him as a snaggle-toothed demon from the West. As he wasn't allowed to enter the Temple he climbed the nearest mountain and meditated facing a cave wall for 9 years! He sat in one spot for so long that his shadow was supposedly permanently projected on the stone wall. He eventually attracted followers to whom he taught zazen (sitting meditation) and the 18 Hands of the Luohan, which are non-combative yogic exercises. These techniques were incorporated into Shaolin Gong Fu. Although I very much enjoyed the Wushu demonstration I was hoping to see 'Tamo dong,' the cave where 'Puti Tamo' (Bodhidharma) spent nearly a decade. Our guide told me we didn't have time to climb the mountain and besides, 'Zai nar meiyou dongxi,' (There's nothing up there). I thought to myself, ' Well isn't that the point of Zen...NOTHING!' But alas, because we were on a school field trip we had to stick with the program.

Dragon Gate Grottoes

Perhaps the most amazing part of the trip was seeing the Dragon Gate Grottoes (Long men shiku) which were carved in the 7th Century. There are countless small nooks containing Buddhist imagery as well as several large sculptures of the Buddha over 5 meters in heighth.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ripe Persimmons

During an afternoon walk we noticed that the birds had started to eat the persimmons as they ripened on the trees. We figured we'd better collect a few before the birds claimed them all. I climbed up and tossed Alice a dozen or so large persimmons which are now ripening in our room. Kalila is a big fan of dried persimmons which can be found at most local markets. Persimmon cakes (she bing) are a Xi'an specialty.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Street Musicians

Today we stopped to listen to these musicians busking on the sidewalk. The man on the right is playing a homemade two-stringed pipa. The pipa, which often has four or more strings, is somewhat like a mandola. The instrument was introduced to China by Persian and Kuchan musicians and became very popular during the T'ang Dynasty. Variations of the pipa are common throughout Asia and are often used to accompany storytelling. The blind man on the left was keeping time on wood blocks and singing traditional folk songs. Kalila was captivated by the bluesy tunes that they played. She would just stare at the pipa for the longest time and then look up at me as if to say, 'What is THAT!'

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cha (Tea)

Tea has been an important part of the Chinese diet for thousands of years. Researchers have found that the tea plant originated in Yunnan Province in Southwest China near the border with Burma. Myth has it that the legendary Emperor Shennong (2737 B.C.) was boiling water to drink when a gust of wind dropped some leaves into his cooking pot. Out of curiosity he drank the accidental brew and was pleased. Another myth concerning the origin of tea claims that the Zen monk Bodhidharma cut his eyelids off to keep from falling asleep during meditation. His eyelids took root and became tea plants. This story is probably just a dramatized way of stating that drinking tea can aid in maintaining alertness while meditating. Chinese medicine has long used tea as a stimulant. During the T'ang Dynasty bricks of tea (pictured above) were used as currency, particularly in places far from major cities where money was of little to no use. We enjoyed sampling different teas at this 'Cha dian' (tea shop) and left with a very fine oolong tea called 'Tie Guan Yin,' which is translated as 'the Iron Goddess of Mercy.'

Xiang Qi (Chinese Chess)

It is very common in China to see large groups of men on the sidewalk huddled around a chess board. Xiang Qi is quite a bit different than the Chess we're familiar with in the West. The opposing sides are separated by a 'river.' The four types of offensive pieces, the soldiers, chariots, horses, and cannons, can cross the river in order to attack. The elephants and the guards cannot cross over to the opponents side of the board. The commander-and-chief along with his two guards must stay within the 'palace,' an area limited to 9 intersections. Each piece has its own unique movements and manner of killing. Although the game is played by two players, spectators are not shy about giving their opinions and criticism as the game progresses.

Ma Jiang

Ma Jiang (Mahjong) is a four-player game that originated in China. Although some have claimed that Confucius invented the game in 500 B.C. it is more likely that it evolved from the ancient card game 'Ma Diao.' Each player is dealt 13 or 16 tiles. At each turn a player must draw and discard a tile. The object is to create melds (groups of tiles) and a pair. There are several different types of tiles in a Ma Jiang set including Bamboo tiles, Dragon tiles, Flower tiles, etc. During the Cultural Revolution Ma Jiang and all other forms of gambling were banned. After restrictions were eased Ma Jiang regained its widespread popularity.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The Chinese long held the monopoly on the secrets of silk production. Merchants carried the highly valued fabric West where it became a status symbol for the wealthy. The Chinese discovered very early how to domesticate the silkworm and mass produce the material. We came to Wenyi Lu, Xi'an's bustling fabric district, in hopes of finding wild silk. Wild silk, often called 'tussah,' is made from the cocoons of wild silkworms. Unlike domesticated silkworms which are fed only white mulberry leaves, wild silkworms eat a varied diet of oak and other leaves, making the material more resilient. Tussah silk is gathered after the moths have already hatched from the cocoons as opposed to domesticated silk techniques which boil the unhatched cocoons. Current styles favor domesticated silk/polyester blends so we had to do quite a bit of searching before we found any wild silk. Finally we came across a booth that sold wild silk crafted in Hangzhou. Wild silk is naturally brownish or yellow and difficult to dye so most tussah comes in earth tones. After a bit of 'jiang jia' (haggling) we bought some wild silk at 33RMB/yard (about 5$). Alice had one of the tailors outside the fabric bazaar make a silk quilt for Kalila.