Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pi ying xi (Shadow Puppets)

This man makes and sells shadow puppets that he cuts out of ox hide. Shadow puppet plays are performed behind a screen and the characters are back lit to project their silhouettes. This ancient Chinese artform became very popular among the Mongols that conquered and ruled China during the 13th Century. They spread the shadow plays throughout their Empire, which encompassed the largest land mass of any Empire in history. In Turkey shadow puppetry is known as 'Karagoz' or 'Black eye,' and arrived there from China by way of the conquering Mongol hordes.
The puppet I bought from him is a rendition of Zhu Ba Jie, a character from the Chinese epic 'Journey to the West.' The amazing journey of the historical monk Hsuan Zhang, who traveled to India to study Buddhist scripture at the University of Nalanda, eventually took on legendary proportions. Hsuan Zhang made his journey in the 7th Century. By the 17th Century his story had been elaborated to include mythical beasts such as Sun Wu'Kung the monkey and Zhu Ba Jie the pig who acted as his bodyguards during his journey to India.

Year of the Pig

Kalila was born in the year of the Golden Pig, considered an auspicious year to have a baby. The pig in Chinese tradition represents wealth and abundance. The character for 'home' in Chinese is a picture of a roof with a pig under it, indicating home ownership and the presence of livestock. People born in the year of the pig also tend to be good eaters, an attribute that Kalila has lived up to!

Roots of Christianity in China

This stone tablet, engraved in 781 A.D., is the earliest known record of Christianity in China. It describes the arrival of the Persian Bishop Alopen to Xi'an as well as subsequent missionaries of the Nestorian sect of Christianity. The Nestorians were deemed heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and had to flee to Assyria, which is why they call themselves the Assyrian Church of the East. They eventually spread throughout the Persian Empire and all the way to western China. When Alopen arrived in Xi'an in 635 he was commissioned to translate the Christian scriptures into Chinese. In 638 he published 'The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah,' which borrowed the language of the Confucian court in order to appeal to Chinese intellectuals. After reviewing the tenants of the faith the Emperor found nothing subversive to Chinese traditional beliefs and allowed the new religion to be taught openly. It was known as 'Jingjiao' the 'luminous teachings.' Although Christianity enjoyed tolerance and popularity for a time, it eventually was cut off from it's base in Mesopotamia and diminished in isolation. Also, the edict by Emperor Xuanzong in 745 requiring all monks and nuns to be evicted from monasteries and seek out a secular livelihood affected the Nestorians in China. The edict was passed because many Buddhist monasteries had become very wealthy by collecting alms and donations from the common people, which perturbed the ruler.

During the great persecution by Emperor Wu-Tsung in 845, Christians buried this stone tablet to prevent it's destruction. It was not unearthed again until the 17th Century by peasants digging a foundation for a home. The find greatly aided the Jesuits who were trying to establish missions in China. The Emperor could not dismiss Christianity as a 'new religion' in China since the 1,000 year old tablet clearly stated otherwise.

Although the tablet specifies the arrival of Alopen in 635 A.D., we know that Nestorians were in China long before that. In 551 two Nestorian monks managed to smuggle silkworm eggs from China to Constantinople by hiding them in their hollow walking canes. This was the first time the West ever learned the science of silk production. The Chinese managed to keep the knowledge of sericulture a secret for over 2,000 years in order to maintain their monopoly on the highly valued material.
The tablet also attests to the religious syncretism that occured often along the Silk Road. At the top of the stone there is a depiction of two mythical creatures called 'Kumbhira' holding a pearl between them. This is Buddhist imagery mixed into a Christian stone stele. Also, Jesus was described by Chinese Nestorians as being a great master of the 'Dao.'

Saturday, August 30, 2008


These men are fishing in the moat that surrounds the old city walls. We've seen some big fish jumping down there, but I don't know that I would want to eat them!

Hen ke ai (very cute)

This kid has the coolest haircut I've seen in a while! When I saw him I just had to stop his parents and ask them if I could take his picture. Dig the original style!

Fruits of the Silk Road

The city of Turpan is an oasis in the Gobi desert. It's elevation, which is below sea level, makes it the lowest spot in all of China. It is famous for it's vineyards and particularly the elongated 'mare's nipple grapes,' which Kalila and I are enjoying in this photo. The Uighurs of western China introduced the Chinese to this delicacy as well as the recipe for making grape wine. Many hybrid varieties of fruits emerged along the Silk Road as produce was dispersed by merchants who made use of a trade network stretching from Xi'an (Chang'an) to the Mediterranean Sea.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kai Xing!

In Chinese the word for 'happy' is 'kaixing.' 'Kai' means 'open,' and 'xing' means 'heart.' So open up your heart, baby! Alternatively, the Chinese use 'gaoxing.' 'Gao' meaning 'tall' or 'high.' 'Gaoxing' correlates roughly to 'high spirits.' Kalila is a very happy baby and she has the talent of making all those that meet her very 'kaixing' as well!

Air Pollution

Xi'an is a very industrial city. When we first arrived we were taken aback by the air quality. I have traveled to some of the world's largest cities including Sao Paulo, Istanbul, and Mexico City, but I have never encountered air so thick with smog. It is even considered bad compared to other major Chinese cities. On a bad day it feels like you're in the vicinity of a forest fire. Xi'an owes this distinction to it's location in the Loess Plateau, an area covered by fine particulate silt, in combination with it's highly industrial economy.

Tai Ji Chuan

These women are practicing the ancient art of Tai Ji. Practitioners use breath and movement to attune themselves to the natural elements. Instead of a sword these women wield a fan. There movements are slow and powerful and wonderfully synchronized. Many Chinese, young and old, practice Tai Ji as a way to start the day and improve their overall health.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Northwest University

We came to Xi'an as participants in a recently established exchange program between the University of New Mexico and Northwest University. The trip was funded by a UNM Regent's scholarship as well as a Benjamin Gilman scholarship for the study of 'Critical Need Languages.' I will be studying Mandarin Chinese 4 hours a day, 5 days a week through Northwest's Chinese Language and Culture classes. I will also be doing independent research into Xi'an's diverse artistic and religious heritage. We intend to visit Hua Shan (one of Daoism's sacred mountains) as well as the Qingling Mountains to the south, which are home to the Giant Panda and the snub-nosed monkey.
Here Kalila and I are exploring the campus and trying to shake off the jet lag. This gazebo and courtyard are directly behind our dormitory. Northwest has a beautiful campus with many gardens and open areas. It is a much appreciated oasis of calm within the bustling city of Xi'an. The campus is located just outside the walls of the old city, perfectly located to explore the ancient cultural sights.