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.

Tui Shou

Today I met Master Wang (left) and his student 'Stone,' who is an assistant professor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. They were practicing high speed sparring techniques known as 'Push Hands' or Tui Shou. They practice Chen style Tai Ji Quan. Chen Family Old Frame is the oldest style of Tai Ji and the one from which all other styles descended. It includes such techniques as 'Cannon Fist,' 'Five Tigers Swarming Sheep,' 'White Ape Staff,' 'Silk Reeling,' and 'Leading into Emptiness.' I told them that I am studying in China for a year and asked if I could learn from them. They were very enthusiastic and welcoming. We agreed to meet every day at 8 p.m. to train.

Friday, October 10, 2008

La Mian (pulled noodles)

This is our friend Mi Yang Lu, an ethnic Hui from Qinghai Province. He makes hand-pulled noodles, or 'La Mian' at a diner that serves Halal food. The art of making noodles is an age-old tradition in China. It has long been debated whether the Arabs, the Italians, or the Chinese invented noodles. Recent archaeological findings have put an end to the debate. At the Lajia site on the Yellow River a bowl of 4,ooo year old noodles were found buried under 3 meters of silt. Tests have shown that the noodles were made of millet. Wheat has its origins in the Middle East and made its way to China along the Silk Road. The Chinese initially considered wheat an inferior grain and continued to use millet until the introduction of the Grindstone, which also came to China from the West. The ability to grind wheat into flour made it more convenient to cook with and wheat replaced millet as the staple grain. Some have suggested that Marco Polo learned the art of making noodles while serving in the court of Kublai Khan (13th Century) and took the knowledge back with him to Venice. However, the Arab geographer Idrisi left accounts of a thread-like food called 'triyah' which he saw in Sicily in 1138. Still, spaghetti did not become largely popular in Italy until the 18th Century when machines for mass producing noodles were created in Napoli. Tracing the history of noodles gives us an idea of how goods, ideas, and techniques were exchanged along a trade network that connected Rome to Chang'an.

Ti Jian zi

In China and throughout Asia people play a type of hacky-sack called 'Jianzi.' Instead of a ball they use a toy that somewhat resembles a badminton birdie. These are our friends Farhat from Kyrgyzstan and Jenyi from Kazakhstan. 'Ti jianzi' or kicking the hack around, is a good way to pass the time and meet new friends. The other day we had a circle composed of Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Azerbaijanis. They all speak Turkic languages which are somewhat mutually intelligible. I was able to communicate with them a bit speaking Turkish. I like Jianzi because it is not a competitive sport but requires everyone's cooperation to keep the object in the air.


Walking throught the marketplace we came across a container of live eels. I wouldn't know how to go about preparing an eel for dinner so we didn't buy any but Kalila enjoyed watching them slither around.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Foping Nature Reserve

For Guo Qing Jie (National Day) we were given a week off from classes. We decided to take the opportunity to get out of the city and travel deep into the Qinling Mountains. The Foping Nature Reserve is located in the southern watershed of the range. After braving some pretty treacherous mountain roads we arrived at a perfect time to see the leaves changing color at the higher elevations. We hiked 10 kilometers through the mixed conifer forest past waterfalls, paper-bark birch trees (hua su), lychee trees, cold mountain streams, and bamboo groves. Kalila was in heaven! She was free to barrel through the brush, examine colorful leaves, and do some birdwatching. She was shrieking with joy at every turn. This was the first place we've been in China that wasn't swarming with people. It is so far off the beaten path that it is not a tourist destination as much as a place for biologists to research the rare species endemic to the Qinling Mountains. We were blessed with great weather and had tremendous luck in tracking the animals.

Traditional Lifestyle

In the heart of Foping Nature Reserve there is a small family that provides lodging and food for travellers that wish to stay in the forest for an extended period. They were extremely hospitable and still live in the traditional way. Their home is made of rammed earth which is extremely durable and a wonderful insulator. The house stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The family keeps a variety of livestock including ducks, pigs, and chickens (one of which they butchered for our dinner). They grow corn, peppers, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables. They also gather wild foods from the forest including a variety of nuts(which we helped collect) and 'Mu Er' (Wood Ear) an edible fungus that is dried and later reconstituted in soups. They have an orchard of 'Shan Ju Wu,' a tree that produces sour red berries that are used medicinally. The berry is brewed in water or corn liquor and taken for back pain. They keep bees in the orchard as well. The honey they produce has high medicinal value as it is derived from the diverse plants found in the mountains. We sat by the hearth, ate our fill of their wonderful homemade kim chee, flatbread, cornmeal porridge, and chicken soup, and stayed up late trading stories and laughing.

Chinese Horses

In the Nature Reserve Kalila got a chance to ride a horse for the first time! Her mind was blown. She learned how to say horse in Chinese - Ma(3). The guides were laughing at me because I look like an 8 ft tall giant on this horse. Chinese horses are much smaller than Western horses. One of the primary commodities that the Chinese imported on the Silk Road were horses because their own were not well-suited for warfare. The Chinese prized horses bred in the Ferghana Valley (modern-day Kyrgyzstan) as well as the Akhal-Teke breed from Turkmenistan. The tall and slender Akhal-Teke evolved in the high desert and so could go long distances without food or water. The Chinese referred to them as '1000 Li Horses' (Li is a unit of measurement) because the Turkmen were known to ride them over 1000 miles in a week's time, stopping only a few hours each day. Turkmen even slept in the saddle while their horses pushed on. Our little Turkmen fell asleep in the saddle too after 45 minutes of the horse's rhythmic gait and the hypnotic sound of the breeze in the bamboo grove. On our ride we saw the colorful Qinling pheasants (jin ji) and a pair of mountain goats (ma yang zi).

Golden Monkeys

Our guide Xiaoming and I left early and followed waterways and animal trails deep into the bush. After we had quietly hiked for several hours we heard a stirring in the forest canopy. We had come across a band of Golden Monkeys! Golden Monkeys (Jin si Hou) are a rare primate found only in the Qinling Mountains. I got to watch the alpha male for a while before he noticed me. Once he saw me he took a giant leap and slid down a tree like a firemens' pole. Moments later he had scaled another tree about 40 ft away in order to keep an eye on me. Golden Monkeys generally live in family groups of 20 to 30 members. I watched as the adult members of the group moved through the canopy, climbing, swinging, bounding from tree to tree. I saw a group of juvenile monkeys quarreling over some nuts. Three baby monkeys made their way over to the tree closest to us, all the while squeeking and clicking. They perched right above us and looked at us with the most curious little faces. Golden Monkeys have a golden orange coat and a blue face! They are very vocal and make a wide range of sounds to communicate with one another. They live at high elevations (between 6000 and 9000 ft.) and feed on leaves, nuts, berries, fruits, and bird eggs. They must've known that I'm a monkey too because they didn't get frightened or hurry off but stayed and played in the canopy all around me! As we continued to hike we found tracks and hair of the takin (lin yun) which is a large white animal that looks like a cross between a goat and a yak. We also found Panda droppings. Panda poop smells just like bamboo. Although Pandas were originally lowland carnivores they were pushed into the highlands by human encroachment. They adapted to survive on bamboo shoots and leaves and have become sedentary in order to conserve energy. We definitely intend to bring Kalila back to the Foping Nature Reserve to enjoy the prestine ecosystem and get a glimpse of these rare and beautiful creatures.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Family Wang

This is the Wang family. The woman on the right is Wang Qiu Li, my language instructor. I call her Wang Lao Shi out of respect. Her husband Wang Bing is a tour guide in and around Xi'an. Their daughter Si Fei, or Fei Fei, is quite precocious. She was reading by age 2 and can speak pretty good English already at age 6. She had never climbed a mountain before so she was very excited to come with us to Louguantai. In the picture she's showing off her new toy, a crane woven out of bamboo leaves.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Kalila didn't know what to think when I posed with a statue of my totem-animal!

Zhu zi (bamboo)

Kalila really enjoyed exploring this bamboo grove on Louguantai mountain. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on Earth. Some varieties have been documented to grow up to 4 feet in one day! Bamboo also produces more oxygen than other plants. Its a great feeling to walk through the highly-oxygenated air of a bamboo grove. Because it is a rapidly renewable resource, it is a great building material. Young bamboo shoots are edible and Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda use parts of the plant as a tonic for respiratory diseases. Bamboo is long-lived and only blossoms once every 50 years. People do not look forward to the event. When bamboo blossoms the abundance of edible flowers leads to an increase in the rodent population. The rodents in turn devour crops and spread disease which leads to famine. Despite this rare occurrence bamboo is a highly valued plant for cultures throughout the temperate zones of Asia, Africa, Central and South America.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was a mystic that worked for a time at the Royal Court of the Chou Dynasty. He held the office of 'Shih' which is sometimes translated as 'archivist' because he was in charge of the sacred scriptures. His true function however was that of an astrologer, historian, diviner, and spiritual councilor to those in power. He grew disillusioned by the corruption and greed that pervaded Chang'an (Xi'an) and the Court. He may have also grown frustrated from people not heeding his advice - "My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. Yet no one under heaven understands them; no one puts them into practice." (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 70) He is often depicted riding on the back of a water buffalo which carried him West when he decided to leave human civilization behind. Before he disappeared he passed through the mountains of Louguantai (pictured above) and was asked by the guardian of the pass to write down his teachings for posterity. Although he had always avoided writing down his beliefs because he didn't want them to become ridgid dogma, he agreed and wrote 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching. In it he calls man to observe 'Wu Wei' or 'non-interference.' " The best charioteers do not rush ahead; The best fighters do not make displays of wrath. The greatest conqueror wins without joining issue; The best user of men acts as though he were their inferior. This is called the power that comes of not contending...' (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 68)