Epiphany of the year


The high point of my travels in the past year was my first visit to Xi’an to see the famous terracotta army. I’d expected to be somewhere between impressed and overwhelmed. My response was roughly half-way in between. I was in a bit of a daze, trying to focus on the individual members of the army, while being distracted by the ranks upon ranks of warriors. Were they all different? Perhaps. There were several different facial types, but very small changes are often sufficient to make faces look different. I looked closely at some sections and came to the conclusion that it is possible that several figures could be based on the same model. You can see an example in the group whose photograph is above.

The terracotta army was breath-taking, but it was not the epiphany.


The epiphany came as I walked around the huge pit and came to the portion where the restoration is going on. Suddenly I realized that the figures were not dug out of the ground whole. They were a jumble, and many were shattered into pieces. It is the painstaking work of an army of modern archaeologists which is piecing them together. In the photo above you can see one of these warriors being reconstructed. Until then my lazy impression was that India has its Taj Mahal, China its terracotta army. I understood that the differences are enormous: the Taj Mahal and the Forbidden Palace are complete artefacts which only need care. The terracotta army needs to be reconstructed. In that moment of epiphany I realized the truth: China has created technical expertise to actively restore its past glory.


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I find that Chinese images of horses are subtly disorienting. Perhaps I’m too used to the use of images of horses to depict freedom, grace and wild spirits: this is ubiquitous in advertising. Indian art also sees the horse as a symbol of grace. Chinese art, on the other hand, seems to see the horse as a symbol of power. The muscles of the chest and haunches are exaggerated. The photo above is a typical contemporary depiction of a horse; this is a piece in the art museum in Wuhan. Of course, contemporary art exaggerates. But the exaggeration says something about the artist’s notion of the subject.

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How far back did this iconography emerge? I flicked through the photos that I’d taken during my recent trips to China and stopped at the image of the oldest horses I’d seen. The photo above is a famous piece, one of the two chariots dug up from near the tomb of the first emperor, Qin Shih Huang. It can be seen in a special exhibit in the enclosure with the famous terra-cotta warriors of Xi’an. One can see a fairly realistic depiction of a horse. If there is an exaggeration of the chest and haunches then it is mild. So the current Chinese concept of a horse is not two thousand years old.

That’s a long enough time for an academic to research and build a thesis upon! I’m happy enough just looking at these strange Chinese horses.

Utterly lost in translation

2015-05-17 11.59.16This is a simple sign from the tomb of the first emperor (Qin Shih Huang) in Xi’an. The Chinese characters in this sign read minzu jiliang. Minzu is accurately translated as national. Jiliang could be translated as either back or spine. So, the translation is rather accurate. But what does it mean?

Public art


Beijing is full of public art which have official sanction. Very often they are playful pieces like the one above: of children playing hide and seek. This one stands outside the Gouloudajie subway station in Beijing. We also saw a monumental water fountain in Xi’an near the hot springs, which is full of playful elements like this. There were dancing figures, sleepy kings with yawning attendants, musicians at play, and so on.


I wish India’s officially sanctioned public art would revert to the wonderful days when there was much more than statues of famous people.

Street food of Xi’an: persimmons


You know that you are at one end of the old silk route when you go to a market in Xi’an and shops sell you dates and dried persimmons. The dates are very good, and cheaper than in India. The dried persimmons were new to me. They are sweeter than dried apricots, very flavourful, and large.

The monk of Xi’an


An old imperial capital holds many stories. One of the famous stories of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) is the journey of the monk Xuanzang to India (he is known in India as Huen Tsang). He made this journey in the middle of the 7th century, during China’s T’ang dynasty, and the reign of Harshavardhana in India. His journey followed the silk route west and then turned south entering India through Afghanistan, and eventually took him to Patna and Nalanda. A good account of the journey is given in Wikipedia. He learnt under the master Silabhadra in Nalanda and returned to China with manuscripts which were translated by a team of monks in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayan Ta) of Xi’an.

The pagoda is surrounded by a garden which was full of families with children on the Sunday when we visited. As at all Chinese tourist draws, there were many tourists and large but fast-moving queues for the expensive tickets. Inside, there was the usual temple, busy with young people praying hard to pass their exams. You need to pay separately to climb the seven story pagoda. But the real heart of this place is the museum for Xuanzang. There are three halls, with depictions of his journeys. The journey was not without trouble: he was captured by bandits more than once, as shown in the carved wooden panels (photo above). He wrote about his journeys in a book called the “Great T’ang Records on the Western Regions”. Almost a thousand years later a novel, “Journey to the West”, was written about his journeys, which is probably the source of most people’s knowledge about the monk.


The translation of the buddhist texts Xuanzang brought back to China was a major cultural milestone. In Chinese culture it gave rise to new techniques of translation and accurate scholarship. Its influence on the world’s culture was also remarkable, since it provided texts which were the basis of Buddhism’s further spread eastwards. Later when some of the original Pali texts were lost in India, these translations provided a basis for their reconstruction. The walls of the museum inside the Pagoda grounds also depict this long scholarly work. Interestingly, the scholars are portrayed working at tables piled with fruits (see photo above), which perhaps indicates the support that the T’ang emperor gave to this enterprise.

The story of the monk’s journey to India was an important chapter in school textbooks in India, although it had faded a little in my memory. It is interesting to see that the story is even more well-known in China.

The grand mosque of Xi’an

A city which has been a capital for centuries tends to accrete interesting monuments. This is true of Rome, Kyoto, and Paris. A city which has been an imperial capital for long also has cross-cultural monuments. Delhi is the pre-eminent among these, but Xi’an, at one end of the Silk Route, is also very interesting. Among these, the most interesting has to be the Grand Mosque of Xi’an.

It stands in a warren of streets behind the Drum Tower of Xi’an, its location indicated by a small road sign in English which you can easily miss. If you follow the sign you enter a bazaar full of tourist tat. Walk past them, and after some time you are near the East Gate of the mosque.


The mosque was first built during the T’ang dynasty (around 750 AD) and is strongly influenced by Chinese culture and aesthetics. This makes it different from anything I have seen before. The first difference was that we had to pay to enter. I have never had to pay an entry fee to a mosque, so I guess this counts as a Chinese cultural influence. You enter a courtyard and have to cross two more before you come to the last courtyard with westward facing prayer hall. The buildings all have the tiled roofs with upturned corners of traditional Chinese architecture. There are miniature pagodas and gardens. In most mosques elsewhere in the world you find decorative motifs with flowers and vines only. This has dragons, and turtles at the base of columns.

Perhaps the most disconcerting visual aspect of the mosque is not in the dragons or the tiled roofs, but in the images of plants and leaves. In India, and in most of the rest of the world, decorative figures in Islamic architecture capture symmetries. For example, one marvels at the interleaving of octagonal and hexagonal symmetries of vines and leaves in the friezes of Fatehpur Sikri. In the grand mosque the trees and vines that are depicted follow the asymmetric aesthetic norms of China (see the photo above).

The calligraphy is a mixture of Chinese and Arabic. In the first couple of courtyards I had to search to find the Arabic script. The arches and steles were full of elegant Chinese calligraphy. Only from the third courtyard does one start to see the Arabic script more often. The prayer hall (pictured below) has lovely Arabic calligraphy. To my untrained eye, it seems that there is an attempt here to bind the Chinese calligraphic style within the Arabic.


At first sight the prayer hall seemed like it could belong to any mosque anywhere in the world, but then I saw in places where there would be verses from the Quran there was Chinese calligraphy. Clearly the Quran has been transcribed into Chinese, another cultural innovation which has not recurred in Islam.

The Silk Route shuttled goods, technology and ideas across the known world of its time. I wonder whether it brought Arabs and their Islam to settle in the imperial capital of China, or whether the Chinese converted to Islam elsewhere and brought back the customs of a foreign religion. The architecture of the mosque, and the food habits of the region, a lack of pork and the prevalence of halal meat, could be used to argue for either. However, the range of sweets available in Xi’an seems to indicate an Arabic tradition. Perhaps the persistence of Arabic also points in the same direction. It needs experts to pin this down. I am happy to marvel at the syncretic end product.

Street food in Xi’an: octopus


Street food in Xi’an is exciting. In a street full of different kinds of stalls I found this guy selling octopus fritters. I’ve had a toasted octopus while strolling on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong, but the fritters are new to me. I saw people eating them in Shanghai, and now again in Xi’an. Unfortunately I see them after I’ve already eaten. I hope Beijing has them too, because I really want to taste them.

The rest of the donkey


The Family continues to make unkind jokes about my eclectic dining habits. In Xi’an we saw this newly uncovered horse which has still not been pieced together. The Family said "This must be the rest of the donkey you ate for lunch".

The other warriors of Xi’an


Over the last two decades everyone with any interest in travel has become aware of the terracotta army of Xi’an. It is estimated that about 6000 life-size figures were buried, and about 2000 are on display in various places. What I didn’t realize before going to see them is how difficult the process of unearthing them has been. Above is a photo of one group which is being slowly disinterred. Some time between their construction in 250 BC and their discovery in 1974, the roof beams had collapsed and mud flowed into the pits. Today the pits are being dug out very slowly, so that the army is not further damaged while being disinterred.


You can see places where the work has progressed further: a jigsaw of body parts lie together in a jumble, waiting to be pieced together. I guess each figure must lead to the thesis work of an archeology student doing his Ph.D. When you see the numbers of statues in various stages of being pieced together, you realize that there must be an army of archaeologists at work, along with students and post-doctoral fellows. This must be a really thriving branch of modern Chinese archaeology.


You can see some statues which are almost at the last stages of being pieced together. A careful look reveals the painstaking solution to a massive jigsaw puzzle. I wonder what happens at the last stage, where one goes from this cracked piece of pottery to the lifelike figures which are most familiar to the world at large.

Whatever the process, I think these archaeologists are the new warriors of Xi’an. And they have a task no other army has ever done before: to bring back to life a forgotten and buried army.