Tag Archives: China

The Terra Cotta Army

Pit No. 1, Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors -- Xi'an, China

Every once in a while you’ll see a story about an art discovery.  Someone found a medieval tapestry in her grandma’s attic, for instance, or someone else paid 15 bucks at a yard sale for a painting that turned out to be a Renoir.

Something like that creates a brief flurry of excitement, but those finds pale in comparison to the lost art that was literally unearthed at Xi’an, China, in 1974:  an army of life-sized statues had been hiding underground for two millennia.

Some local farmers were digging a well when they started finding pottery and bronze weapons… and then fragments of warriors that had been sculpted from terra cotta.  (That’s an Italian term that means “baked earth” — fired clay, in other words.)  The farmers told the authorities what they had found; soon the site was swarming with archeologists and technicians who took over the excavation with their own fancy shovels.

It was determined that this brigade of statues dated back to 240 B.C. or thereabouts.  The experts realized that the terra cotta warriors were part of the burial site of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.  Qin (pronounced “chin”) had ordered up these foot soldiers and archers and horses to protect him in the afterlife.  When he died in 210 B.C., they were sealed underground with him.

There are thousands of them, and most of them are still hiding in the soil.  Experts estimate that there could be 8,000 soldiers when all have been found — maybe more.  That will take a long time, because even though excavation still continues, the archeologists have some obstacles to overcome, like the hordes of tourists who show up by mid-morning every day.

Scientists are also trying to figure out how to resurrect the soldiers without damaging the delicate paint on them.  When it’s exposed to air, 2000-year-old pigment doesn’t hold up very well — it rapidly fades or peels.

That brings up another incredible thing about these warriors:  every one is unique.  This was no assembly-line job; each was hand-painted and the facial features are different on all of them.

Back in the day, an estimated 700,000 people from all over the empire were put to work creating Qin’s Mausoleum.  Craftsmen who weren’t involved in that project were pressed into service on another of his grandiose schemes:  He began construction of what eventually became known as the Great Wall of China.  Emperor Qin did not lack for big plans.

Today the site where the discovery was made has become a sort of campus; there are several buildings, the largest of which encloses Pit Number One, where over a thousand warriors have emerged so far.  It has a domed roof that reminded me of an aircraft hangar (see photo).

In another building there is a display of terra-cotta chariots and horses and armor, found in other pits.  There is also a 360° movie theater that runs a short film.  It’s about highlights of Qin’s reign, I think — the film was seriously out of sync and appeared to have been run through a paper shredder.  Maybe they’ve fixed it since we were there, but if not, close your eyes during the screening so you don’t get queasy.

There is also a nice gift shop on the grounds; you can buy reproductions of warriors, or of coins and other stuff found during the excavations.  There are also books for sale about the Terra Cotta Army, and if you buy one, an old man at a table will autograph it for you.  He’s sort of a local celebrity — he’s one of the farmers who made this fantastic find.

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Travelin’ Man

How could Marco Polo miss this!?

In spite of what some children might think, Marco Polo did not invent the swimming pool version of hide-and-seek.  He also did not bring noodles from China to Italy, thereby inventing spaghetti.  (In fact, the Italians had been making pasta for centuries before Marco was born.)

What did Marco Polo do?  Basically, he went on an epic journey that made Europeans aware of Asia.  Prior to him, the two civilizations had, as Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, “flourished for centuries in reciprocal ignorance of each other’s existence.”

The specific details of Marco’s life and travels have bedeviled historians for reasons we’ll get to presently.  In general, though, here’s what is known…

He was born into a family of Venetian merchants; his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo had traded extensively in the Near East, but at some point seem to have figured out that they could increase their profits by heading on past Constantinople.

In 1271, when Marco Polo was a teenager, the three of them began a trip that ultimately lasted 24 years and covered 25,000 miles.  On an earlier trip, Marco’s dad had gotten acquainted with Kublai Khan, grandson of the notorious Genghis Khan and ruler of the Mongol Empire.

At the time, it was the largest empire in the world, extending from what we now know as Bulgaria and Poland, all the way to Korea.  Over the years, the Polos covered a great deal of this territory, stopping from time to time for bouts of malaria and other inconveniences of travel.

The older Polos seem to have served as advisors to Kublai Khan, while Marco was sent on fact-finding missions all over the empire.  The three Polos were employed at court for 17 years.  They became so indispensable that it was awkward for them to say, “Well, Kublai, it’s been great, but we really have to be going.”

Eventually they did manage to get an assignment that took them west again, but by a very circuitous route.  They sailed as far south as Sumatra, where Marco noticed that the North Star looked like it dipped below the horizon.  That made quite an impression on him — and on Christopher Columbus, when he read of Marco’s observation almost 200 years later.

The Polos finally returned to Venice in 1295.  A few years later, Marco got caught up in a turf war between Venice and Genoa.  He got thrown into prison, and in a stroke of luck, his cellmate happened to be a writer of romances named Rustichello.  During their incarceration together, Marco Polo dictated stories of his travels; Rustichello wrote them down, and in all likelihood, embellished them with flourishes that weren’t strictly factual.

The resulting book, which Marco called Description of the World, became the medieval version of a best-seller.  It should be noted that Marco was not the first European to visit Asia, but he had a better publicist than those who preceded him.

Unfortunately, no authoritative copy of the book still exists.  There are something like 140 surviving manuscripts of the text, which include a lot of “improvements” by later hands.  That’s one of the difficulties, mentioned earlier, in knowing what Marco actually did (and when).  Another reason that some scholars are skeptical about specifics is what is not in the book.  There’s no mention of the Great Wall of China, for instance — or tea!

It can be said with certainty, however, that Marco did not invent the game played with mallets and ponies.  Or polo shirts, for that matter.

A Night at the Opera

This turned out to be the bad guy.

Perhaps you’ve never been to a live performance of an opera like Aïda or Lohengrin, but you have at least passing familiarity with the conventions of Grand Opera.  If nothing else, you have heard Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on the music loop in your neighborhood Italian restaurant.  When someone says opera, it creates a mental image for you:  “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” maybe.

Whatever your mental image, it is at odds with Beijing Opera (or Peking Opera, as it is also known).  For one thing, Beijing Opera has no fat ladies.  There are many other unique features of this theatrical idiom, developed by the Chinese in the late 18th century.

During our recent visit to China, Sally and I attended a performance.  A brief description of that experience follows, culled from my journal entry for September 5, 2010.  The evening began with a meal featuring Peking Duck…

…After dinner we walked through the lobby, where the performers were putting on their elaborate makeup.  (see photo)  We were then escorted to a table in the theater that was perhaps fifty or sixty feet from the stage.  There were some snack items on the table — peanuts encrusted in something was one choice; a bowl of what looked like limes (but were called oranges) was another.  A young waiter had a tea kettle with a spout that was at least three feet long.  He gave a showy performance of pouring hot water into our tea cups.

The opera turned out to be unlike the version of opera we know.  There were no arias or inspiring choral singing.  The orchestra did not play what we would recognize as melodies.  There were only eight or ten musicians, most of whom seemed to be playing percussion instruments.  The others had stringed instruments, one of which looked something like a banjo.

This aggregation provided punctuation to the odd behavior on the bare stage.  The performers were dressed in period costume — I guess that’s what you’d call it, but I have no idea what period.  They strutted and struck poses and did some acrobatic stuff.  The Chinese people in the audience who could appreciate what they were seeing would reward the performers by shouting what sounded like “Ho!”  We westerners exchanged bemused glances, as if to say, “Huh?”

One scene featured a young woman (or someone who was portraying a young woman, anyway) who sang.  “Wailed” might be a more accurate description; it was an ear-splitting falsetto that seemed to be conveying her dismay about something.  Even the English-translation supertitles didn’t make clear what her issues were, but it seemed to have something to do with a sick husband, and her desire to obtain herbs that bestowed immortality.

The last scene had some terrific acrobatic maneuvers that involved several performers tossing and kicking flexible wands at each other. It began with the woman fighting one warrior with two batons.  More joined the fray until there were four warriors and eight batons flying around; she kept several in the air at once, kicking or slapping them back at the warriors.  I liked that part, and so did the locals, who broke into sincere applause and lusty “Ho!”s at the finale…

One in a Billion

One of the Shorter Lines

The population of China is 1.3 billion.  It’s hard to comprehend just how many people that is until you have visited the World Expo in Shanghai and stood in line behind all of them.  OK, it wasn’t really all of them; on the two days we visited the Expo recently, the attendance figure for each day was a mere 394,000.  It just seems like more people when you are crammed together for hours at a time in 90° heat and 90% humidity.

Here’s another way to look at the very large number of people who are attending the Shanghai Expo.  Close your eyes and imagine all the spectators who saw all the major league baseball games last year:  Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field… all 30 parks, for the entire 2009 season.  All right, do you have that mental picture?  That was roughly 74 million people.  When the 2010 Shanghai Expo closes on October 31, the total attendance will, in all likelihood, exceed that.  Estimates are that 80 million will have visited during its six-month run.

Lines at some of the pavilions have been as long as 9 hours.  Yes, nine!  Sally and I couldn’t get into the host country’s pavilion, because in order to do so, one has to have a reservation.  To get a reservation, one has to show up several hours before the park is even open.  And then, reservation in hand, wait some more.  No, thanks.

We did wait for forty-five minutes in the line for the United Kingdom pavilion until we realized that we were still a couple of hours from the door.  I have no idea what was inside, but whatever it was, I couldn’t justify a three-hour wait.  Well, maybe if Prince Charles was there in person I might have toughed it out, just so I could ask him, “Dude, what were you thinking!?”

Almost two hundred countries are participants in the Shanghai World Expo.  The big ones — U.S.A., France, Italy and so on — seem to use these events to buff up their image, stressing their technological innovations and creativity.  Many have impressive multimedia presentations, or 360° movies of their scenic attractions.

The smaller countries are there just to let people know they exist.  We had a pleasant visit with a young woman named Alexandra in Liechtenstein’s exhibit.  She encouraged us to take the bus to her country (it has no airport) and spend at least one night.  “Just come to the town square of Vaduz, call out ‘Alexandra!’, and I will show you around,” she said with a smile.  Judging from Liechtenstein’s film presentation, it appears to be worth a visit.

The same could be said of Dominica, which is not to be confused with the Dominican Republic.  Thanks to two nice guys at Dominica’s exhibit, we learned that it is located in the Lesser Antilles, not too far from Barbados.  And that they have a rum factory right on their island.

Every country probably has its own reasons to put money into events like this, and host cities have met with varying degrees of success.  The one Paris held in 1889 is the reason the Eiffel Tower exists; Seattle built the Space Needle for its World’s Fair in 1962.  On the other hand, the one in New Orleans in 1984 — officially known as the Louisiana World Exposition — declared bankruptcy during its run.

The legacy of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo will be the all-time attendance record for these events.  The huge crowds are what I’ll remember about it, anyway.  That, and the thunderstorm that dumped buckets of rain on us.  My clothes will probably be dry any day now, but I’ll always have the memory.