Friday, July 31, 2009

Rust: a symphony in four movements

I hope it is not too schizophrenic of me to be posting my last China entries now, interspersed with reports of things that have happened to me more recently. Here are some things I saw on Isle au Haut last week.



Moderato espressivo




Andante cantabile


And for an encore:

Maestoso morendo


(This is actually a half-gnawed mushroom growing in pine duff, not the rusted railway spike it appears to be. The other images are, from the top, an anchor chain falling across a wellhead, the head of the anchor wrapped with the same chain, a lost fender propped in the woods, and another anchor with its chain.)

The reqing are everywhere; or, Binglingsi and the world’s best driver

One of my students, also a veteran of exhausting back-country travel in China, has commented that “the reqing are everywhere.” “Reqing” is a Chinese term meaning “warmth” in its social sense, referring to the genial hospitality and openness that is the flip side of the total lack of privacy in modern China. And it’s true, the reqing really are everywhere -- local Chinese people who will invite you into their homes or to join them at table in a crowded restaurant, just because they want to get to know you or ply you with questions about your income, marital status, and lifestyle. My latest encounter with this phenomenon involved the driver I hired to take me part of the way to the Binglingsi caves. These are located in a canyon at the edge of a large reservoir formed by the building of a dam across the gorge at Liujiaxia, about two hours from Lanzhou by bus. For a long time (since the building of the dam in the sixties or seventies) the access to the site has been strictly by boat, and I expected to have to hire a boat and pay for all the seats in the boat if I wanted to have time at the site. As I discovered when I got to Liujiaxia, this costs close to six hundred yuan these days, nearly 100 US dollars, which was more than I wanted to pay. But apparently it is now possible, through either the building or improvement of roads, to drive from Liujiaxia to the cave site, and paying for all the seats in a car was only 260 yuan. That’s how I met Mr. Cui.

I actually love driving through rural Chinese villages, observing the agricultural and social life of remote places, and the often stunningly harsh landscapes into which they are set. I want to know more about what I’m seeing; but many Chinese people have trouble understanding my interest, thinking of villages and the countryside as backward, something to be ashamed of. To my delight, Mr. Cui wasn’t one of these. He seemed to find my interest in rural life entirely natural, and was happy to talk about what we saw.


Our road wound through one high-altitude village after another, past terraced fields at 2000 meters and above, dry fields watered only by sparse rains and planted, oddly enough, with potatoes and maize. The intensely blue-flowering plants growing thickly in rows around the margins of the fields turned out to be sesame, of all things, and I saw patches of big orange flowers, which seemed to be poppy, from the bus as well.

We talked about a lot of things: the effective segregation of Han and Hui villages, the function of small man-made caves by the roadside (they’re root cellars - finally, an answer!), the absence of groundwater which means that villages on the weather side of each ridge grow vegetables and those in the rain shadow grow grain, trading over the top of the ridge. Mr. Cui described a village diet based mostly on potatoes, which meant we had something in common, and I described the potato fields of Aroostook County, and the schools that let out for weeks during the potato harvest. I told him about the Irish potato famine and its influence on immigration to the New World. I translated the old Yiddish rhyme, which I learned from Joan Nathan’s cookbook (“Sontag bulbes, Mondag kartoffeln, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes. Thursday something new! a novelty! a potato, Friday on Shabbes potatoes” -- which translates well into Chinese, a language that also has several words for potato) and he nodded in recognition. I tried to explain latkes.

The drive was about two hours, but we were thwarted at the very end by road repairs and had to walk the last half mile, which was obstructed by a bulldozer, three mules, some goats and a red cow. Binglingsi itself is in a canyon whose mouth overlooks a spectacular screenlike ridge above the reservoir:


Its cave temples are for the most part historically significant enough, but being neither so well preserved nor so numerous as contemporary caves at Dunhuang, they are generally overlooked. The exception is Cave 169, which I had come to see, and which is a natural cave thirty or forty meters above the riverbed. It is damaged as well, but still preserves some nearly unique cave paintings and an inscription dating to the year 420. Accessing it involves a precipitous ascent on wooden steps built into the cliff face, dislodging pigeons in the course of the climb:


I was accompanied by a junior tour guide, a girl in her early twenties, whom I expected to bemoan her posting here, so far from any center of population. But she turned out to be a Buddhist, who felt the sacredness of the site deeply, and a lover of solitude, which is indeed hard to come by in China. She was glad of the quiet and even suggested, shyly, that she wished she had her own room in the worker’s dormitory on-site. It seemed an appealing place to work; quiet indeed, since the economic crunch and the record low water level of the reservoir have both recently put a damper on tourism. There were not more than two other groups of visitors in the afternoon I spent on site. The slow pace seemed to cultivate an atmosphere of congeniality between the site’s caretakers; I heard a lot of near-familial banter between the (mostly male) security guards and the (mostly female) tour guides, and even the grizzled old monk who’d wandered down from the Tibetan monastery up the valley was given a respectful but not formal greeting, like an uncle, as we passed. The guide seemed slightly awed to be escorting someone who actually knew what they were looking at, but not too awed to wrangle over a few questions of interpretation with me.

On the way back, we gave a ride to one of the site’s staffers, an administrator who was looking for a lift back to Liujiaxia. Having paid for the ride already, I had no objection, and he bought a watermelon by the side of the road which we demolished at a little overlook with a view of the reservoir. He and Mr. Cui were apparently old friends, and launched into a lively discussion of village life that was utterly fascinating. They were both interested in the differences between the Chinese and US legal systems, but I was not well acquainted enough with the former to be much help. During the course of this part of the conversation, however, I learned a lot about village land rights and redistribution, along with the function of village cadres (among other things, the management of land rights and dispute resolution seem to be central). This conversation ended as we puttered down into Liujiaxia with a two-man contrapuntal discourse on the corruption that both men insisted was endemic to Chinese government and regulation.

Ironically, Mr. Cui turned out to have his own connection to the Northern Dynasties material I had just seen. When he told me his last name, he said “My family started out in Shandong, then moved west to Henan and Shaanxi, and some of us ended up out here.” He was right, but he was describing events 1500 years old. He had just recounted the Northern Dynasties career of the Cui lineage of Boling (in Shandong), an immensely influential family that played a role as courtiers to the emperors of several northern dynasties starting in the fifth century. He was, as it turned out, a Boling Cui himself, and aware of the fact despite the fifteen centuries between him and his famous ancestors.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The mosques of Lanzhou: a photo essay


This is the principal mosque of Jiayuguan, an attractive modern building on a crowded street corner near the train station. I took the photograph on my last day in Jiayuguan, as I prepared to board an overnight train to Lanzhou, and it reminded me that on my last trip to Lanzhou, eleven years ago, I had wanted to do a photo essay of the mosques of the city, stitched as they are through its urban fabric. This is that essay.


In the middle of Lanzhou city, which is a long narrow city stretched out from east to west along the banks of the Yellow River, the main road splits in two and goes around an island of land containing two mosques. This is the first one you come to, if you approach from the east, as I did. As you will see, the space is obviously intended for approach from the west instead, so I'm kind of coming in the back door here; but I was overjoyed to find this mosque still standing, since it was my favorite one when I visited in 1998. At the time, it was even more crowded round with small outbuildings and commercial real estate. Here, the green and white storefront to the right is a pharmacy, while the green sign with yellow characters is the Iran Noodle Shop, a halal restaurant. I would love to be able to explain the Central Asian connections that led to this mosque so resembling a miniature Kremlin, but I can't. It houses the Gansu Provincial Muslim Association. Must ask my Egyptian graduate student what the point of the three globes beneath the crescent finial is (anyone?). You will notice the same arrangement on all the rest of the mosques to follow.


Here's what you see when you walk to the other end of the traffic island and turn back toward the west. This mosque also existed when I was here before, I'm quite sure, but I believe it was painted green at the time. I remember the freestanding concrete arches all around the central space. However, the four minarets did not exist at the time, and the mosque was similarly crowded with shops and restaurants. These have clearly been razed, the colonnade around the structure built (at bottom, with pointed arches) and the four minarets erected some time in the last eleven years. There is a little garden inside the colonnade, with playground equipment for children. The bright plastic of the playground equipment rather clashed with the austere white of the building, but several young mothers in headscarves were shepherding a passel of happily shrieking children around the enclosure, which is obviously the center of an active community. The red billboard (for Dong Peng Ceramics) rather spoils the grandeur of the view, but it must be prime advertising space (at the intersection of several major roads). One hopes the community is making some money here. Note, at lower right, some traditional bicycle-and-umbrella action going on.


This detail gives you a better view of the arabesque design on the dome and the ornaments and latticework of the minaret.


This minaret is at the edge of the sidewalk, further down the main street to the west of the last mosque. The mosque itself is a nondescript building in an interior courtyard, but the minaret is a great example of the fusion style in Chinese Muslim architecture: Qing-style carved-wood ornament and color, with Islamic pointed arches and onion domes, and calligraphic panels (seen through screens here, along what is clearly the muezzin's balcony) at the top. It has an elaborate Ming/Qing-style carved-brick foundation:


A few details to notice: the details meant to imitate wood-frame architecture of the Ming or Qing, complete with beam ends, brackets, carved paneling and even a "tile" roof; the sign in Arabic script (I don't know what language it is, but Arabic and Uighur are the two likely candidates), Chinese, and English; and the large decorative panel depicting Chinese oil-pine trees growing by a stream with an arched bridge. Note the crescent moon shining through the tree branches.

Walking by the banks of the river, I saw a few more urban mosques:


This one also looks vaguely Russian to me, but I can't put my finger on quite why; possibly it's the geometric form of the minarets and the colored tile on the outside.


This little mosque was tucked in among a bunch of new Chinese-style tourist buildings on the far bank of the Yellow River.


Here's another "fusion" style minaret, less interesting than the first, and nearly swallowed in its urban surrounds. I count five onion domes in this picture.

Some other Chinese mosques I photographed this trip include one in Tianshui (sorry for the quality of this picture, shot against the light at dusk; I should have known better, but I was tired and ravenous). I'm actually standing with my back to the mosque itself; this is an elaborate pailou (ornamental gateway) in traditional Chinese post-and-beam wooden construction, with glazed tile ornaments:


The details I shot came out a little bit better, including the panel of Arabic calligraphy:


and the tiny glazed-tile mosque at the top of the gate:


This is another one that deserves to be seen in the Large size, so I recommend clicking through to Flickr.

The Dunhuang mosque had a lovely new tilework gate with large carved-brick panels:


The quality of *this* picture isn't my fault; it was taken at the height of a sandstorm.

Finally, I came across a mosque in Taiyuan with another pailou-style gate, although smaller than the one in Tianshui:


It was flanked by these lovely carved-brick panels glazed in green and cream:


and when you looked in through the gate, you saw the end of a traditional Chinese-style brick building painted with a wonderful calligraphic roundel:


The universe loves me

I took the long road home from Maine. The day before yesterday, I took the bus to Boston, and after a late lunch with mindyfromohio, I took the commuter rail to Salem to spend the night with my Marblehead cousins. (Extra thanks to mindyfromohio for rescuing me from my near-total loss of memory of Boston geography. I'd have tried to take the train from South Station if it weren't for her.) Part of the reason for this was that I had a flight leaving Boston at 6.05 the next morning. I was on Northwest, hence stopped off in MSP to change planes. In Minneapolis, I volunteered to get bumped to a later flight into HNL, because my husband wasn't coming back till the next day anyway, so I figured it didn't matter when I got home. Bonus: $300 travel voucher and a first class seat from LAX to HNL. I arrived three hours later than I'd originally planned, deplaned, and turned on my phone, which rang almost immediately. It was Rex, having just cleared customs, calling from the baggage claim adjacent to mine. Turns out when you fly from Papua New Guinea to Australia to Guam on the 30th of July, the final leg lands you in Honolulu on the afternoon of the 29th. We did not, as our friend Eric suggested, "run to each other in slow motion, with our hair streaming out behind us in the wind," neither of us having enough hair for the purpose. But we did share the capacious back seat of a stretch limo taxi (same price as the normal kind!) all the way home.

Lanzhou days

I took an overnight train from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu, as it is eleven or twelve hours on the road through some high passes, marginal roads, and wayside towns, some of which are safer than others. In any event a sleeper train is always to be preferred to a sleeper bus for overnights, in both punctuality (trains may be delayed slightly, but not often, whereas buses are subject to the whole panoply of bizarre road obstructions and delays of rural China, from goats in the road to horrific accidents) and comfort. This doesn’t keep people from taking sleeper buses over long-haul trips, and I was faintly appalled to see the sleeper bus from Luoyang to Xining (!) trucking down the street in Lanzhou. Taking the sleeper bus from Luoyang to Xining is like taking the sleeper bus from Dayton to Denver, without the benefit of the interstate highway system.

For reasons known only to the gods of railway booking, I had a hard-sleeper berth right in the middle of a whole company of art teachers from a technical school on Dalian, who’d gone on a school-sponsored trip to Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Dunhuang. They were thrilled to encounter an art historian among them and plied me with questions about my interests and my research. There was even a question about “quality” (suzhi, a very hot topic in Chinese social discourse these days) - did I think that a study of the aesthetics of a culture could reveal anything about the quality of its people? I am extremely put off by this discourse on human “quality,” by which is usually meant the attitudes of civil society: courtesy, order, rule-following. As much as I would like the Chinese government to act differently in many circumstances, I have to concede that under the pressure of a still largely impoverished population that tops 1.3 billion and a terrifyingly small proportion of arable land, I am not at all sure that the US would do as well. I think the chaos of life in China is ascribable largely to poverty and overpopulation, not to some lack of “quality” on the part of the Chinese people. On top of this, of course, most Chinese people have been listening to meaningless regulations for so long that it’s no wonder they don’t take rules in general very seriously. Indeed, things would be better if people in China were more law-abiding (especially on the roads) but it is hardly a lack of quality that explains the current situation. It is rather a lack of trust between the people and the government that gives the rules: the tremendous and pervasive corruption of officials in even the most modest positions of power destroys the public trust that abiding by the rules will benefit them, rather than simply subjecting them to the whims of local officials.

One of the things about being in Gansu is that I always forget the altitude of the province in general - in many places above 2000 meters - and I got a couple of unintended high-altitude sunburns before I wised up to this fact once again. Lanzhou is somewhat lower than Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, but it’s still up there. The city is crammed into the narrow space between two mountain ranges, where the Yellow River flows sluggishly eastward. It is still a young river at this point and neither as broad nor as deep as it will become later in its course. Lanzhou is the site of the first bridging of the Yellow River, in fact, during the Ming dynasty, and the iron anchoring pillars of the old suspension bridge are still visible in a park along the riverbank. The geology of the place forces the city into a long, narrow design, with only a few heavily trafficked main thoroughfares, and it is nearly always choked with smog trapped between the mountains on either side.

Like all of Gansu, Lanzhou is a heavily Muslim city, and I was able (by virtue of the Gansu Provincial Museum’s being closed on Mondays) to do something I’d wanted to do the last time I was in Lanzhou, eleven years ago, which was to walk around the city and photograph some of its urban mosques. These are woven tightly into the fabric of the city itself, so that it is usually difficult to get far enough away from them to document them architecturally (and, not being a Muslim, I could not enter to see the insides of the buildings); but it is their very integration with the cityscape of Lanzhou that attracted me. I’ll post these images in a separate photo essay, however; here suffice it to say that my favorite mosque, which looks kind of like the Kremlin, was still there despite a tremendous amount of urban renewal going on around it, and this made me happy.

My main purpose for going to Lanzhou was to make a day-trip to the site of Binglingsi in nearby Yongjing county (about which more later), but I did also want to visit the newly renovated Gansu provincial museum, which turned out to have some wonderful Silk Road exhibitions as well as an entire wing devoted to my favorite Neolithic pottery of all time, that of the Majiayao culture, centered in southeastern Gansu. Majiayao funerary jars are robust ochre-colored vessels with simple shapes and dynamically abstract geometric designs in black and maroon. Very good imitations are made and sold on the fake-antiques markets, which are so good that I wouldn’t dare try to bring one home without a certificate of its modern origins, which the sellers are obviously unwilling to provide. It’s a pity, to be sure.

That said, the biggest thing that happened while I was in Lanzhou was the riots in Urumqi, the most significant ethnic violence in Xinjiang in decades. These were treated markedly differently by the Chinese press than earlier such incidents, which usually met with a complete suppression of reportage. In this case, the coverage was all over the television news, with gravely besuited university sociologists offering analysis to counter the footage of partially burnt corpses and puddles of blood in the streets of the city. The coverage was powerfully tailored to evoke sympathy for the victims (who are surely deserving of it, although the classically Chinese tactic of invading their hospital rooms with television cameras, with no consideration for privacy, hardly seemed sympathetic) and to ascribe responsibility for the events to overseas Uighur activists rather than to any tensions existing within Xinjiang itself. Internet service was radically constrained in all of western China, including in Lanzhou (as was cell phone service in Xinjiang, as I understood it), but the extraordinary thing was the statement issued by the government over television news, apologizing to law-abiding citizens for the necessity of curtailing communications as a way of restraining the “hooliganism” of those who were blamed for inciting the riots. They actually apologized for the inconvenience, which was rather startling. I was never in the way of being anywhere close to the violence (in fact, I’ve still never been to Xinjiang, sad to say), but the reverberations of the event were very audible in multi-ethnic Lanzhou.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I'm back

Back in the USA anyhow - though blogging will still be light for a week or two as I go visit my parents. But the last few entries from my China trip I will be able to post myself, with great thanks to Carter who's been posting these entries all along. Still to come: Lanzhou, altitude, pollution, dust, and the Urumqi riots; Binglingsi and the world's best cabbie; a ten-hour bus ride to Xi'an; Taiyuan; and Beijing nostalgia. Stay tuned.

Architectural recrossings

Jiuquan and Jiayuguan, as cities in the heavily Muslim Gansu province, have their own mosques, many of which show signs of recent restoration and rebuilding; but what I found more unexpected was the presence of equally large and prominent Christian churches, with enormous crosses on their roofs. I don’t know the history of Western Christianity in Gansu, although it may well be that, as elsewhere in China, pockets of Western-style Christian belief have survived from the missionary movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (There is of course a separate history, starting in the eighth century, of Syriac Christianity in the Hexi corridor; but that’s another matter.) What was striking about both the mosques and the churches was not only their newness, which reflects China’s recent building boom, but their architectural similarities. Both were built in a modern style dominated by the distinctive and repeated use of pointed arches. In the case of the churches, this was a clear reference to the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival style favored by the Anglo-American missionaries who probably established the current Christian communities in Gansu. But those nineteenth-century churches got their pointed arches, in the end, from the same Arabic architectural tradition that informs the style of the mosques. The pointed arch, introduced into the Gothic architecture of medieval Europe, is thought to have been borrowed from Islamic architecture of the Near East and Andalusian Spain; and it is this medieval style that informed so many nineteenth-century churches around the world. In western China, the Anglo-American pointed arch is reunited with its distant cousin, both descendants of the same early Near Eastern ancestor.

Steel town blues

One of the unavoidable side effects of my profession is that I often know much more about the early history of its place than about its current state of affairs. As a result, I arrived in Jiayuguan knowing full well that it was the site of a fifteenth-century fort that marked the western end of the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty, but not that its current raison d’etre was a gigantic steel plant. The tourist map of the place reveals a spiderweb of branching rail lines, and the signs at the fort encourage you to climb the gate towers in order to enjoy “the grand and impressive view of the gobi stretching out to the west, the Great Wall and the No. 1 and No. 2 blast furnaces.”

Jiayuguan is a small, dusty city with the sleepy uniformity of a company town. Most of the streets I walked down were half-empty, shopkeepers drowsing in chairs on the sidewalk. There was a really peculiar (for China) dearth of restaurants, and I ended up eating most of my meals in the Dongxiang-style Muslim cafeteria opposite the hotel. (It was hardcore - with a giant digital clock displaying a view of Mecca, and a big sign on the wall saying “ALCOHOL FORBIDDEN” - but the food was tasty and cheap. It was served after the fashion of the old state-run restaurants (pay at the front, get a ticket to take to the back and exchange for your food), complete with the charming tradition of a tea-bowl full of “soup” (warm starchy noodle water) served with all the sauteed noodle dishes. It sounds odd, but it’s actually a great palate-cleanser after spicy or oily dishes, and a very common practice at home in northern China.

This restaurant was indirectly responsible for the first of a couple of interesting interactions I’ve had with Chinese Muslims recently, here in Gansu where they are both more numerous and more visible than in eastern China. In the east, many Muslims are Hui, who don’t necessarily look different from Han Chinese, by contrast with ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Tajiks and so on, who are more numerous out here and who may look more or less Central Asian, sometimes to the point of light-colored eyes and hair. It is this that may be responsible for the number of people in Gansu who have some initial trouble deciding whether I’m really a foreigner after all - something that doesn’t happen very often in eastern China. I’m glad of the predominance of Muslims here, because it usually means a wider range of pork-free restaurants; continually asking the server “Does this have pork in it?” is kind of a drag.

At any rate, when I first went to the door of the restaurant across the street I saw that it was full of men - no women at all - which made me wonder whether it was the kind of place a woman eating alone would be welcome. Muslim women in China are hardly invisible, so it seemed odd to me that there were none eating inside, and I thought this might indicate a rough place (especially as it was very close to the bus station, which tends to be a rough neighborhood in any Chinese city). I asked one of the hotel’s desk attendants whether there were any other halal restaurants nearby, and explained my impressions of the Dongxiang place. She asked with surprise if I were Muslim. I explained that I was Jewish, and didn’t eat pork, and talked about how glad I was to be able to eat at halal restaurants when traveling so far from home, especially since it is so difficult to avoid pork in ordinary Chinese places. She said she was a Muslim herself, and seemed oddly touched by this culinary point of connection; apparently she’d lived in Shanghai for a few years, and described the eating there as “totally impossible.” She assured me that it must have been just chance that I saw only men in the restaurant when I visited, and encouraged me to go back. She was right; when I went back there were several groups of women and children and one large and slightly raucous family displaying several generations’ worth of changing fashions in women’s head coverings (which is another essay in itself: between the scarves, hoods, hats, and snoods, I’ve seen pretty much every possible variation in only a few days).

I had come to Jiayuguan to see a fourth-century painted tomb outside of town and some related materials in the town museum. On arrival, I bought a tourist map with the bus routes (all four of them) marked on it, and realized that the reverse was a map of the town of Jiuquan, which is 25 km away and easily accessible by bus. Jiuquan was the site where the Han general Huo Qubing celebrated his victory over the western regions by (it is said) pouring his best wine into a spring so everyone could have some; hence the name of the city, which means “Wine Spring.” As usual, I had forgotten the modern significance of the place, which is as the launch site for the Chinese space program. An item on the map suggested that the Dingjiazha painted tomb, another example which is relevant to my research, but which I had thought was not open to visitors, had actually been made the center of a little historical park on the edge of town. I couldn’t find any contact information for the park and museum, but given that I had an extra day in Jiayuguan (I had only one day’s worth of things to do there but couldn’t get a train ticket any earlier than two days out) there was little to be lost in catching the bus to Jiuquan and giving it a shot.

On the bus, my seatmate was a twentysomething young guy with a stylish haircut and hip (by local standards) clothing, carrying a briefcase. He spoke a clearer than usual Mandarin (the Gansu accent can be pretty thick, though I’ve gotten reasonably good at understanding it) and we struck up a conversation. He was fascinated at talking to a foreigner - the first time he’d ever done so, according to him - and with the story of my interest in China. In the course of talking, I discovered that he was a member of the Dongxiang minority, a very small group of Muslims speaking a Mongolic language, centered in an eponymous county in southern Gansu. Many Dongxiang speak Mandarin as a second language, which I think explained his clear standard accent in a province with its own heavy dialect.

When the bus arrived in Jiuquan, he asked if he could take me out for some noodles and continue the conversation. We talked more about our lives - it turned out that he came from an impoverished and broken home (“My mother’s in prison, and my father - well, I’ve never seen him”) and had worked his way through a vocational school program in travel guiding. Unsatisfied with the work, he found a job with a cosmetics company in distribution, and had worked his way up to Gansu provincial sales manager, a job which led him to travel all over the province working with retail outlets. He showed me a picture of his (Han) girlfriend, whom he hoped to marry one day. It was an ordinary enough story of modest success in the face of disadvantage, but it was interesting because the Dongxiang are widely cited as a “problem” minority, having the lowest levels of education and highest levels of poverty of any of China’s minorities. The region where they live also has a reputation for illegal drug use. As I’ve traveled across Gansu, I’ve seen many more anti-drug PSAs (as well as public information campaigns against AIDS and hepatitis) than anywhere else in China. Of course I didn’t bring these things up; but the story he told seemed like even more of a success story set against the background of the region and the people from which he’d come.

At the noodle restaurant, I explained about being Jewish and not eating pork. He was immediately interested, saying that he’d never met a Jew before either (which is likely true of most Chinese). “I hear Jews are very smart,” he said, and I politely demurred while also refraining from rolling my eyes - this is the single most common stereotype of Jews in China. He asked where the Jews came from originally. “I never heard their story before,” he said. Fortunately, this was easy enough, as long as one was willing to go with the Biblical story and leave archaeology and whatnot out of it. “I think you have heard the story, actually,” I said, and from there it was just a matter of trying to remember the Arabic for Abraham (for the record, it’s Ibrahim, though it took me a while - I had to backtrack through Moses/Musa, Joseph/Yusuf, and Noah). As I suspected, these were all familiar stories to him, and in the middle of a halal restaurant in an old military outpost of the Hexi corridor, we pieced together a Chinese account of the Exodus and the Babylonian captivity, with a brief coda on the diaspora and the Holocaust.

After this, the Dingjiazha tomb was something of an anticlimax; in fact, it was a complete bust. My new friend helped me talk a Jiuquan taxi driver into taking me to the tomb, which is located behind a gigantic and shiny new museum on the outskirts of town; but the parking lot was eerily empty and dust devils blew among the weedy margins. Next door was a huge unfinished complex built in a pseudo-antique style, part of what seemed to be a planned culture park of some sort. Whoever the visitors to such a place were supposed to be, they evidently hadn’t started turning up yet; the massive museum is closed on weekends. By walking around the museum building I managed to find someone to tell me it was closed; but as a tourist attraction it would have to be classified as “still under development” at best. I went back to Jiayuguan no better informed about Wei-Jin tomb painting than before; but as an example of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I have to say the day was anything but a loss.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Accidental burials

The first place I absolutely needed to see for my current research
project was actually the second place on my itinerary: Jiayuguan,
which is home to a cluster of Wei-Jin painted tombs now open to the
public as a miniature underground museum. But Jiayuguan is only five
hours from Dunhuang, and it seemed like a waste to come so close to
the most significant collection of Buddhist temple art in Gansu and
not stop by for my first look in 11 years. The caves themselves are
relevant to my project, but the restrictions on access combined with
the fact that I saw so many of them in 1998 and the fact that Dunhuang
is so well published made them a sort of second-priority destination;
I was unlikely to get to see anything I hadn’t seen before. But on
the principle that it is always best to see the real thing, I went.
Dunhuang has also got some Wei-Jin painted tombs that are relevant to
my project, as well, but as far as I knew they were not open to the

I settled into a budget hotel in Dunhuang (with in-room internet! The
times, they are a-changin’) and got on the bus to the caves the next
morning, when the sandstorm had blown itself out. I enjoy looking out
the windows of trains and buses, and this was nothing different; but
sometimes it pays off in unexpected ways, as when I saw a large blue
placard by the side of the road directing visitors to the Foyemiaowan
Wei-Jin painted tombs. The existence of such a sign more or less
presupposes that the tombs are open to the public, and I decided to
make a point of visiting after I returned from the cave temples. The
caves were absolutely worth it, research-wise; I paid extra to see
some of the “special caves” and made a few minor but significant
discoveries. I also ran into one of the senior English tour guides,
Ms. Ma, who remembered me from 11 years previously. As she was the
only one I remembered from that time, it was nice to be remembered in
return. The exhibits in the rather deserted exhibition hall are
interesting, too, including many documents that have turned up during
the excavations of the less artistically interesting Northern Caves,
which were mostly used as residences for monks, and occasionally as
tombs. The documents include a double page from a Tang-era codex of
the Book of Psalms in Syriac script, which I was once inclined to see
more or less as just another Silk Road document. This time around I
was oddly moved to see a page of tehillim, well over a thousand years
old and very far indeed from Damascus. Syriac is, if I understand
correctly, a form of late Aramaic that was used in Syria and other
parts of the Near East. The appearance of Syriac in Tang China is
more likely to indicate a (Nestorian) Christian than a Jewish origin
for the book, but still it felt like a kind of connection, of a type
that I might not have felt in the past, and indeed might have scoffed

Having looked my fill, and eaten a dubious vegetarian lunch, I
returned to town on the public bus, and negotiated with a taxi driver
to take me to the tombs. As sometimes happens, the driver was a
talkative local, from a Dunhuang farming family, and his ongoing
narration was worth at least as much as the trip itself. He asked me
why I wanted to go to the tombs, and I explained that I was interested
in the paintings. He’d visited himself and allowed as how it was
worth going down for a look. “Of course, there’s nothing left down
there but the paintings,” he said. I said yes, they were mostly all
robbed long ago. “No kidding,” he said. “When I was a kid we used to
go digging them up and most of the time they were totally empty. I
bet those Tibetans [who occupied Dunhuang from the mid-eighth to the
mid-ninth century, more or less] dug up all the good stuff.”

The Foyemiaowan tombs are located just beyond the furthest extent of
arable land at the edge of the oasis. This is not only where
historical tombs are located, but modern burials take place there too,
as Dunhuang (unusually for a Chinese town) has no crematorium. There
is so much land which is good for little else that burials are not
prohibited as elsewhere in China. I asked my driver how the plots
(which are marked out with lines of stones or bricks on the gravelly
surface, and tumuli that are often reinforced with bricks or concrete)
were chosen. He said that people just went out and picked a spot,
which explains the marking-out of plots - it must be a way of keeping
recent burials from impinging on each other. The other thing that
always struck me about these burials was the way in which the ground
around them is often strewn with garbage: principally old clothing and
shoes. The driver said these are the belongings of the dead, which
are discarded after death because no-one dares to use them. I said
that this seemed wasteful (thinking especially of the usual thrift of
rural Chinese people, and their relative poverty) and he agreed, but
said that the belief in the inauspiciousness clinging to these things
was so strong that nobody could be convinced to wear clothing that had
belonged to a dead person. Similarly, he said that not every taxi
driver could be convinced to drive out to these tombs in the first
place; but since he had played and dug among them as a child, he
wasn’t phased.

The road to the tombs is a village road, bumpy dirt and gravel snaking
between agricultural fields. The driver explained that most of the
fields were planted with cotton, because of its value as a cash crop;
maize for food was planted in odd corners here and there. I asked,
rather ignorantly, if cotton wasn’t a rather thirsty crop for a desert
oasis, and he said that it wasn’t as bad as I thought; but he conceded
that water usage was approaching crisis levels in Dunhuang. “If we
don’t find a solution,” he said, “we’ll become a second Loulan.”
Loulan (Kroraina or Shanshan) is one of the lost cities of the Lop Nor
region of the eastern Taklamakan desert, abandoned in 330 CE when its
major water source, the Tarim River, changed course, and buried under
the dunes for a thousand years or so until its rediscovery by Sven
Hedin in 1899. It was a strangely precise Silk Road connection for a
local Dunhuang man to make, marked by a kind of sad historical self-
awareness. As the Crescent Moon Lake retreats under the dunes,
however, it is an increasing possibility for Dunhuang and its
burgeoning population.

The tomb itself was worth visiting, although I’m dubious of both its
location and what appears to be its partial reconstruction. I think I
can match it with one of the Foyemiaowan tombs in the original site
report (which I’d already read last month), but a number of details
appeared to have been enhanced for the benefit of visitors.
Similarly, the tour guide (who came with the ticket) provided several
interpretations of the iconography of the tomb which I found
unsupportable - i.e., they couldn’t be explained either by reference
to the images themselves or the original site report. If this
particular group of tombs were more central to my project, I would
want to figure out who had provided these explanations, and whether
there was unpublished material supporting them, or whether there’s
been a certain amount of spicing things up for the benefit of the
tourists. Still, to descend into it and see the way the space is
organized (with a little “kitchen” in a side room, complete with stove
and shelving) turned out to be important to understanding the images
on the walls; so that even with a much duller taxi driver, it would
have been worth the trip. It would have been much less fun, though.

On the road: Dunhuang by air

I’ve been to Dunhuang before, but it was eleven years ago. At that
time, there were very few (expensive) flights, and at any rate the
national airline, CAAC, had not yet really left behind its old
reputation for flying rejected Aeroflot planes on domestic routes -
hence, “China Airlines Always Crashes.” In 1998, the best way of
getting to Dunhuang was by rail, and even then, the railhead was at
Liuyuan, two hours’ drive away across the open desert. It was worth
doing at the time, since the train follows the old Silk Road more or
less exactly from Xi’an west to at least Dunhuang. To watch the
landscape change as the Hexi corridor narrowed toward the ancient
border stations of Jiayuguan and beyond was something worth seeing.
But it was nearly a three-day journey from Beijing, which while
considerably faster than the traditional camel caravan, was still a
long haul.

These days reaching Dunhuang is much easier. Not only has a branch
rail line been extended to Dunhuang itself and a shiny new train
station built just outside town, but the airport has been expanded
significantly (to which project we are also grateful for the discovery
of a new set of Wei-Jin mural-painted tombs) and there are two or
three flights a day from Beijing. The flights are still a bit
expensive (or more accurately, they’re not subject to the kinds of
discounts you can get on more popular flights between major cities),
but then I can now afford a few things I couldn’t in 1998, so I
decided to take the three-hour flight. This was mostly a time
consideration; since I plan to come back to Beijing overland, stopping
at a number of places on the way, I didn’t want to spend three days on
the road at the beginning of the trip.

Dunhuang is actually more or less due west from Beijing, at a distance
of something under 2000 km. The plane can make the flight fairly
directly, unlike the train lines which have to travel nearly seven
hundred km south from Beijing, then follow the Yellow River valley
westward, through the famous Tongguan Pass to Xi’an, and thence
northwest again to Dunhuang. I would guess that the train trip is
well over 3000 km. But from the plane, it is very easy to see why the
train doesn’t travel due west. First there are the two major north-
south mountain chains that frame the province of Shanxi, due west of
Beijing. These soon give way to the dry grasslands of Inner Mongolia,
where visible settlements are even fewer and farther between than
those of water-starved, impoverished northern Shanxi. I saw what
could only have been the northern loop of the Yellow River, enclosing
the Ordos plain, where nomadic peoples and the settled peoples of the
Central Plains have been coming into contact since at least the Han
dynasty. I was surprised to see that the major settlements
(including, as I later found out, the city of Baotou) are on the
outside of the river’s loop (i.e. on its north bank), but it’s easy to
see why - there are several large marshy lakes and the land is
relatively green. I had been under the impression that the Ordos was
a fertile grassland, but its northernmost regions, from the air,
appear to be open gobi.

The Ordos is only halfway to Dunhuang. Westward from the river we
flew over hundreds and hundreds of miles of unrelieved desert, with
only the wavelike patterns of sand dunes visible from above. It was a
startling landscape, stretching to the horizon in an uninterrupted
sheet of pale yellow. At first I thought it was eye fatigue that made
the horizon begin to blend into the sky above it, so that blue slowly
gave way to an undifferentiated sand color. Eventually, noticing that
it was possible to catch occasional glimpses of ground here and there,
I realized that we were flying over a massive sandstorm; and as the
landing announcement went out over the PA, I realized that we were
going to land in one.

The air inside a sandstorm, you will not be surprised to find, is
turbulent, and the landing was extremely rough. The pilots must have
been flying entirely on instruments, as the only thing visible outside
the windows was a roiling yellow haze. When the ground came into
view, it was considerably closer than I had expected, but also oddly
familiar; the airport is of course located just outside the oasis,
where Dunhuang’s residents have buried their dead for at least two
millennia, and the gravelly surface of the ground is marked for miles
around with tomb mounds ancient and modern. To land at Dunhuang, you
fly in over the houses of the dead, in the broad corridor between the
oasis and the Sanwei mountains. It is not the route taken by most of
Dunhuang’s visitors over the centuries, but it follows a similar
route, and the first sign of human habitation is the same: clusters of
man-made tumuli rising above the barren ground, with the dusty
greenery of the oasis in the middle distance.