Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ginkgo Biloba

These Ginkgo leaves are beginning to turn yellow around the edges, a sign of the recent change in weather. The Ginkgo tree is regarded by biologists as a living fossil because it disappeared from the fossil record everywhere except a small area in Central China. Today there are two small areas in Zhejiang Province where Ginkgos grow in the wild. However, because of their close genetic uniformity it is thought that they were likely planted by Chinese monks in a successful attempt to preserve the tree. Ginkgos are known for their longevity. There is a Gingko tree in Shandong Province that is over 3000 years old! They are disease/insect resistant and can tolerate pollution, light soils and confined spaces which makes them a great urban tree. Because the tree is revered in Buddhism it was cultivated in Korea and Japan. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, four Gingko trees survived the blast and are still alive to this day! The seeds of the Gingko are edible and quite tasty. The leaves are medicinal and are used primarily to enhance memory. It improves circulation to the brain and the limbs, lowers blood pressure, protects against cell damage, and may even be useful in treating Alzheimer's disease. The active ingredient in the leaves is most potent once they turn yellow. I might try to make a Gingko extract this fall to help me remember all the Chinese characters I've been studying!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Learning the Erhu!

The other day I got a good deal on this two-stringed fiddle (Erhu). Kalila and I rossined up the bow and have been trying our hand at fiddling. The Erhu has a soulful, vocal quality to it. It takes a while to learn how to get a good tone out of it, but once you do it seems to resonate in your bone marrow. Erhu is a favorite among the Chinese. We often stop to listen to a choir of women in the park that follow the melodic lead of an Erhu or two. Notice the sound box at the base is covered with python skin. The Chinese have had to regulate python hunting in the south to ensure that the species is not over-exploited. The men at the music shop kept assuring me that Erhu is easy to learn, but like any instrument it takes a long time before you develop a feel for it.

Wyoming-Shaanxi Connection

Today I was told by one of our advisors that she just received a delegation of coal lobbyists from my home State of Wyoming. Both Wyoming and Shaanxi Province have large deposits of coal, which many people still feel is a viable energy resource. Hearing about the delegation and looking out on the polluted city hit home for me in many ways. Growing up in Wyoming I was always blessed with fresh air and clean water. Living now in a city that is consistently smoggy prompted me to do a little research about the effects of 'King Coal' and other pollutants. Every year China is blanketed by 17 million tons of sulphur dioxide from burning coal. The problem increases during the cold months because coal is used as a heat source and air masses become stagnant in lower temperatures. Lung cancer and asthma are very prevalent in many major Chinese cities. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to colds, bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases because of the chronic high levels of air pollution. Tests done on dust in Xi'an show elevated levels of heavy metals that bind to the soot. This is due to heavy metal enrichment, industrial, and commercial sources. In the past 10 years China has seen a dramatic increase in the number of motor vehicles which further degrades the air quality. The surrounding countryside is also affected by a shortage of water due to urban air pollution. Moisture condenses around the many airborne particles and falls in the form of acid rain in the cities instead of in hilly areas. Mountains downwind of Chinese urban centers have seen as much as a 50% decrease in pine and fir trees due to the disrupted hydrological cycle. Perhaps if Cheyenne and Casper had as poor of air quality as Xi'an, people would think twice about continuing to promote coal as an energy source. At the least we must try to find cleaner coal technology and work toward phasing it out completely. If we don't make enormous changes fast all of our grandchildren will be suffocating under a thick cloud of smog.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fengzheng (kites)!

This man had a string of 30 kites flying on a breezy autumn afternoon. We bought a dragon kite from him and Kalila was able to hold the string herself and watch it dance in the wind. Kites are very popular in China. Usually you can just direct your gaze upward and be able to spot a dozen or more in the sky.

Up on the roof!

We recently attended a birthday party for one of our Russian friends. The gathering was held on the rooftop of our dormitory. It was great fun. Here Kalila is pictured with our friend Nargiz from Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a Central Asian country that used to be part of the Persian Empire. The Tajik language is derived from Farsi although it differs greatly because it has been influenced by Uzbek, which is a Turkic language. 'Tajik-o-Turk' is a way of referring to 'everybody' in Central Asia, somewhat similar to the phrase 'Jews and Gentiles' in English. Tajikistan was also part of the former Soviet Union. Most students from Tajikistan speak Russian and Tajik and are excellent students of Mandarin Chinese as well.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Atop the City Walls

The city walls of Xi'an contain the old city. The current walls were built during the Ming Dynasty and run about 14 km, but back in the T'ang Dynasty when Chang'an (Xi'an) was at it's heighth the walls covered 80 km. During the T'ang Dynasty Chang'an was the most populated city on Earth and was home to diverse peoples from all over the world. Today people like to go on top of the walls to rent out tandem bikes or hire rickshaws.

Gao Jia Dayuan

The Gao Jia Dayuan used to be the residence of the aristocratic Gao family. It has been turned into a 'Folk House' to display various Chinese Folk Artforms. We had fun playing with these marionettes. I've tried my hand at making and operating marionettes, but these were incredibly complex and lifelike. They were about the same size as Kalila! We also got to see a traditional shadow play performance. The puppeteers were very skilled. They made the man carry water, wave a fan, smoke a pipe, and even pull his girlfriend's hair!

Wei Qi (The game of Go)

Wei Qi is an ancient game that originated in China more than 2000 years ago. 'Wei' means 'to surround.' The object of the game is to capture your opponents stones by surrounding them and occupy maximum territory. The game likely developed from Chinese warlords using stones on the ground to map out their plan of attack. It eventually evolved to be played on a 19X19 grid. It is thought to be one of the most complex board games because of it's infinite number of variations. It was a game favoured by the educated aristocracy and was considered one of the cultivated arts. Scholars also practiced calligraphy, painting, and played a zither-like instrument called the guqin. Wei Qi has lost popularity in modern China but is still widespread in Japan. The people pictured above are playing a simpler game called Wu Qi in which the object is to get 5 stones in a row. A kind of extended tic-tac-toe.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hua Shan

Hua Shan is one of the most sacred mountains in China and is located in the Qinling Range which stretches across the south of Shaanxi Province. It is particularly revered by Daoists who have several monasteries and grottos built on and around the mountain. In Chinese, 'pilgrimage' translates literally as 'pay one's respects to the mountain.' Hua Shan is visited by Daoist pilgrims and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Many Chinese like to start the hike at midnight in order to see the sunrise. We chose to climb during the day to check out the scenery. Although less famous than Shaolin and Wu Tang, Hua Shan has a local style of martial arts called Hua Boxing which developed in the region. It's diverse plant life and sheer cliffs are breathtaking. We most appreciated the clean air and water since Xi'an has been incredibly smoggy lately. Hua Shan truly exceeded our imagination and left us feeling awe-struck and blessed.

A Young Mountaineer!

Kalila may well be one of the youngest mountaineers on record! Although we had to carry her on the steep sections she insisted on doing alot of hiking and climbing herself. Most babies take the cable car up, but not Ms. Kalila-manjaro! People on the trail were always amazed to see her and quick to try to make friends. Born in the Rocky Mountains, Kalila was right at home at 6,500 ft. She knew when to be cautious and when to go full steam ahead!

'1000 ft Cliff'

The steepest part of the journey was the '1000 ft Cliff.' The narrow stairs were carved into the mountain side and you had to hold the metal chains for stability. As we made our way up I felt alot of gratitude for the people that chiseled out the steps, making it possible for us to reach the top. Kalila wasn't phased a bit but I was sweating bullets!

Chen Tuan

On our ascent up the mountain we took a break to cool our feet off in 'Jade Spring.' It is thought that the great Daoist master Chen Tuan practiced in seclusion at this very spot (notice the rectangular cave in the side of the cliff). He survived on the many fruits and powerful herbs that grow on the mountain. After years of meditating in isolation he achieved 'immortality.' He was supposedly brought to this place by five dragons. Kalila was brought here by two monkeys!


It is customary for pilgrims that visit Hua Shan to tie a prayer ribbon and attach a lock once they've reached the summit. It is a symbolic action to plead for the health and safety of one's family and friends. Kalila enjoyed playing with the locks and we sent out good thoughts to our loved-ones scattered around the globe.

Zhong Qiu Jie

For the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie) we watched from the north peak of Hua Shan as the full moon rose above the Qinling Mountains. To celebrate the festival people gaze at the moon and eat 'moon cakes' (yueh bing). The custom supposedly started when the Chinese rebelled to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty by passing secret messages disguised as small pastries. We were all very tired from the long hike so it was great to relax, breath the clean mountain air, and stare at the moon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hua Huar (Painting)

This is my painting instructor Wang Lao Shi. He is an excellent painter, calligrapher, and teacher. He also has a lively sense of humor. When I first met him he complimented me on my 'Hu zi' (beard) and I replied 'yi yang de' (same same)! We will be learning traditional brush techniques, plant and wildlife painting, as well as calligraphy.

Tong xue men (classmates)

These are some of my classmates at Xi Bei Da Xue (Northwest University). In my classroom there are Russians, Koreans, Japanese, Kazakhs, and Americans. The student in the forefront of this picture is a Russian Tatar named Timur. I asked him if he was related to Timurlane the 13th Century conqueror who was known for piling up the severed heads of his enemies in huge mounds. His answer was an emphatic 'No!' This guys not a headhunter, he's very friendly and often helps me with my homework.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Before rice became the staple crop of China, people grew millet. Millet is very hardy and drought-resistant. It was cultivated as early as 2700 B.C. by some accounts. The ancient Chinese God of the Harvest, Hou-Chi, was depicted as an elderly man with stalks of millet growing out of his head. Millet is a very healthy grain because it is alkaline and easy to digest. The Hunzas of the Himalayas, who are known for their health and longevity, eat millet as their staple grain. Early Chinese Dynasties controlled the colder Northern regions. Millet could survive the harsh temperatures and frequent water shortages. It was not until China acquired territory in the South that the Chinese diet became centered around rice. This millet is being grown in the gardens on the campus of Northwest University. The gardens also have persimmon trees, corn, eggplants, bak choy, turnips, and tomatoes among other things.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Zou Lu!

Learning to walk! Kalila is pretty stable on her feet but she still likes to hold our hands.

Buddhism in China

Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st Century by missionaries from the Yuezhi people, also known as Kushans. Although its message of personal enlightenment did not fit into the Confucian worldview, which emphasizes social structure and hierarchy, it did resemble Daoism enough for some Chinese to even consider it a foreign branch of Daoism. During the T'ang Dynasty when travel and trade along the Silk Road was at it's peak, Buddhism enjoyed great popularity. Buddhist tradition survives to this day as can be seen by these people lighting candles and incense in front of a Buddhist Temple. The footprints above are an artistic rendition of the Tathagata Buddha's feet.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Little Buddha

Kalila takes her rightful place among a row of Buddhas at the Da Yen Ta square.

Lion Rider!

Here's Kalila riding a Lion Dog that guards the doors in front of the Da Cien Temple.

Tripitaka T'ang Xuan Zang

Legend has it that at the age of just 6 years old Xuan Zang shaved his own head and began his monastic career. At the age of 20 he was already a fully ordained monk. However, Xuan Zang was not satisfied with the translations of Buddhist texts that were available to him as they were full of discrepancies. He began having a recurrent dream telling him to go to India. In preparation for his journey, Xuan Zang moved to Chang'an (Xi'an) to study Sanskrit and Tocharian, a language used in the Tarim Basin. At the time, the T'ang Dynasty and the Gokturks were at war and travel was forbidden. He managed to persuade some Buddhist guards at the gate of Yumen to let him through. So began an epic journey that took 19 years to complete. Xuan Zang passed through 130 kingdoms in all and braved the dangers of highway criminals and wild animals in search of the true doctrine. His journey has been so celebrated in China that it has taken on mythological proportions. The Chinese epic 'Journey to the West,' written in the 17th Century, is a fictional retelling of his journey and incorporates several Indian Deities. For example, the Goddess of Compassion Guan Yin who helps Xuan Zang during his travels was originally the Indian Deity Avalokiteshvara. Similarly, the monkey king Sun Wu'kung is modeled after Hanuman, the monkey-god of India. Not only did Xuan Zang make the exhaustive journey to India, but many of the texts and stories that he brought back from India were gradually fused into his fictional biography.
The map above shows the incredible journey that Xuan Zang made on foot, horseback, camelback, and even at times on the backs of elephants. He was gone for 19 years during which time he passed by way of the Silk Road through the Gobi desert, Hami, Turpan, Kucha, modern day Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent, Samarkand, Amu Darya, Balkh, Jalalabad, and traveled extensively within India itself. Upon arriving in India he studied at the world famous University of Nalanda for two years. Xuan Zang was able to study Buddhism firsthand in it's place of origin and take that knowledge back with him to China. The faith might not have survived if it had not been taken to the Far East. Buddhism disappeared from India after the Turko-Mongolian conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed the University of Nalanda in the 12th Century.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Da Yen Ta) was originally built in 652 A.D. specifically to house the 657 Sanskrit texts that Xuan Zang brought back with him from India. He spent the last 19 years of his life translating the texts into Chinese with a group of collaborators assembled from all over East Asia. Many of his translations, including the Heart Sutra, remain the standard texts to this day. The structure itself was originally made from rammed earth. Due to its enormous size (177 ft tall) it collapsed after 50 years. It was rebuilt by Empress Wu, but an earthquake destroyed the top three levels in 1556. The current structure is leaning slightly to the West due to a sinkhole caused by the overusage of groundwater under the pagoda. We learned that it used to be customary for students that had passed the standardized exams to climb to the top of the pagoda and write a poem on the wall. Poetry was highly valued during the T'ang Dynasty and a recognized poet had a better chance of landing a good job with the State. They don't let you write on the walls anymore, but they do have beautiful examples of famous poems in the uppermost levels (pictured above). I even spouted off a little 'roses are red, violets are blue...' just in case it somehow helps my career opportunities!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Where's Waldo?

Can you spot Kalila in the crowd at this street performance of a Chinese Opera?

Suan (sour)

Alice and Kalila eating pomegranates off the trees outside the city walls. Kalila couldn't get enough! They weren't quite ripe yet but she didn't seem to mind the sour taste.

The Erhu

If you take a walk around the old city walls of Xi'an you will likely see someone playing an 'erhu.' The erhu is a two-stringed fiddle belonging to the 'huqin' family of instruments. 'Er' means 'two' and 'hu' indicates that it is a 'barbarian' instrument as it was introduced to China by non-Han peoples around 140 B.C. The erhu probably evolved from the 'Xiqin,' an instrument of the Xi people of Mongolia. The strings are tuned in fifths, usually D and A, and there is no fretboard to push the strings against. The soundbox is covered with python skin! In the past it was considered a low-class instrument because of it's foreign origination. Only in recent times has it become accepted and prominent in Chinese orchestras and operas. Much of it's current popularity can be credited to the composer Liu Tian Hua. After receiving a classical music education, Liu started learning erhu from folk musicians. He mastered the instrument and composed many beautiful tunes for solo erhu, the most famous being 'The Second Spring Reflects the Moon.' Today the erhu is widespread and is even considered a symbol of Chinese culture.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Great Mosque

Here Alice and Kalila are in front of the prayer hall of the Great Mosque of Xi'an. It was established in 742, just over 100 years after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Chinese buildings traditionally face south to increase solar gain, but the mosque faces west toward the Ka'ba in Mecca. Muhammad was quoted in a Hadith as saying, 'Seek knowledge even unto China.' Many muslim merchants and scholars made their way to China by way of the Silk Road. Today Xi'an has an estimated 50,000 muslims.

The Hui

This woman who sold us some incense belongs to a group of people known as the Hui. Islam in China is known as 'Huijiao,' or the 'teachings of the Hui.' The Hui, known in other parts of the world as Dzungars, are ethnic Chinese muslims and have a very long history in China. In 650 A.D. Uthman, the 3rd Caliph of Islam, sent an envoy to China headed by Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas. The Emperor Gaozong who received them a year later in Xi'an did not convert, but ordered a mosque built to show respect toward the new religion. The first muslims in China were merchants and travelers. In 756 the Emperor requested the aid of 8,000 Persian and Iraqi mercenary soldiers from the Abbasid Empire to overturn the An Lushan rebellion. Most of them stayed in China and married Chinese women. In 1070 the Emperor invited nearly 5,500 muslims from Bukhara to settle in China. They were strategically placed to act as a buffer against the Liao people of the Northeast. In 1080 over 10,000 Arab men and women relocated to the Northwest of China. When the mongols conquered China in the 13th Century they employed a tactic that 'shuffled the deck,' so to speak. They put muslims from Central Asia in charge of eight out of twelve districts in China. They also relocated native Chinese to far reaches of the Mongol Empire such as Russia and India. During the Yuan Dynasty of the mongols there were large migrations of Arab, Persian, and Turkic peoples into China. The Hui are the descendants of these various migrations of muslims into China.

Cultural Assimilation

Here we are in front of the Tower of Introspection. The function of this pagoda is that of a minaret from which a 'muezzin' recites the call to prayer. Islam in China is a synthesis of Middle Eastern and local elements. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the muslim community in China got somewhat cut off from the rest of the muslim world. It was during this time that the Hui became more assimilated into the larger culture. One good example of this is the changing of surnames. The name 'Muhammad' changed to 'Ma.' 'Hasan' became 'Ha,' 'Hussein' became 'Hu,' 'Sa'id' became 'Sai,' 'Shams' became 'Zheng,' etc. Some muslims that had married Chinese wives took their wife's surname. Islam in China, and especially Sufi brotherhoods, became increasingly influenced by Daoist and Confucian thought. Confucius and Lao Tzu are considered prophets by Chinese muslims. Today, aside from abstaining from pork and the wearing of caps and head scarves, the Hui are almost indistinguishable from other Chinese.

Phoenix Pavilion

The Phoenix Pavilion is within the Great Mosque compound. It is known by this name because the smaller roofs to each side of the center give it the appearance of having wings. It's official name is the 'One God Pavilion.' The Chinese characters above read 'One Utmost,' a reference to the Islamic faith in 'La ilaha ilala' - 'There is none but Allah.'

Monday, September 1, 2008

Push Hands (Tui Shou)

These men are practicing a Tai Ji Chuan sparring method known as 'Push Hands.' It incorporates striking, pushing, grappling, holds, foot positioning, and joint locks (Chin Na). Practitioners learn to react to their opponents movements and counteract in a way that throws the other off center. In this application Tai Ji is a very effective means of self defense.

Ping Pong Qiu

Ping Pong is arguably the most popular game in China. There are rows and rows of tables everywhere, from the public parks around the old city walls to this one on campus. The game is fast and players tend to stand at a distance from the table. The Chinese also have their own method of gripping the paddle. While taking pictures of the ping pong scene in China I was invited to play. I think I did pretty good for a 'laowai' (foreigner)!

To the hoop y'all

With the success of NBA star Yao Ming basketball has become incredibly popular in China. Here at Northwest University every court was full and teams were waiting on the sidelines for their turn to play.