If Dunhuang was the cool exchange student in class, Xi’an （西安）would definitely be the over-achiever whose wealthy family had been alumnus of the school for generations.
Xi’an never fails to remind you that it was here that Qin Shi Huang（秦始皇）set out to be the first emperor to unite China (he was eventually spectacularly buried here too). After which, Xi’an was the capital for 13 different dynasties. This included the Han and the Tang dynasties which many consider to be the Golden Ages for trade, commerce and culture of ancient China. For ancient travellers, Xi’an was also the last stop on their Eastward journey through the Silk Road.
In most cities, statues and monuments are erected to commemorate their favourite sons and daughters. This poses a bit of problem for Xi’an. There are simply too many of them. From warrior kings to benevolent rulers; from pilgrim monks to inspirational poets; from fastidious merchants to visionary inventors, they’ve all made their impact on the evolution of China, such that it’s hard to choose a “favourite”.
What we have now are statues of historic figures littered around every corner of Xi’an like a gallery of the “Who’s Who” of ancient China.
Or given our knowledge of ancient Chinese history, it was more of a “Who?????”
This epidemic of statues is not helped by the attempts to proliferate Chinese history lessons and Buddhist/Confucian principles through the use of… yes… more statues.
Like a prized cabinet of trophies, the city of Xi’an tries to enclose all the symbols of its achievements within its old city walls (circa 1370 AD).
Are we impressed?
There is no doubt that modern day Xi’an is very much a cosmopolitan and rapidly developing Chinese city with McDonald’s and Starbucks crowding much of the shop spaces. Yet, at the same time, there’s this grandeur and… pomp (?) we’ve not been able to feel from any of the other cities we’ve travelled to so far. Even in the face of modernization, the city of Xi’an seems to be able to remember the proud tradition it is a part of, and there is a feeling that it desperately wants to carry itself with a dignity and rigour befitting of its heritage.
Some of the efforts to retain part of its former glory produce mortifying results that are superficial and cringing-ly kitsch. This includes an unbelievable number of shops proclaimed, or blatantly (and wrongfully) declared as “天下第一” (Chinese for “Sky Under Number One”), and lining every other shop front with enough replica terracotta warriors to rival Qin Shi Huang’s ethereal army.
However, every once in a while, we get the privilege of seeing ancient Chinese traditions carried on in the most amazing ways.
The one that left the deepest impression? An unassuming old man shuffling around a park with a modified mop and a bucket of plain water. He wielded the (seemingly) heavy mop effortlessly, “Crouching Tiger, Leaping Dragon” style and left some insane calligraphy on the side walk.
These water written words are spectacular, but they fade away too quickly once their time is done. It’s slightly surreal watching the beautiful words slowly disappearing from the side walk.
A better (and slightly probably more pretentious) writer would probably be able to draw a parallel between the old man’s words and the life cycle of the city of Xi’an. Even an amateur blogger like me managed to have an epiphany and learnt a valuable life lesson from the old man’s calligraphy: