Xi’an Splendors

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Visiting China’s ancient capital of Xi’an for the first time I am reminded that however much you read and hear about a place the reality is always far different. Having spent quite a while researching a novel that was set in part in Chang’an, as the city was called in the Tang dynasty, I assumed that I knew something about what was once (ok. 1200 years ago) the world largest and most sophisticated metropolis. But Xi’an is a wonderful surprise. For one thing, though everyone goes for the breathtaking terracotta warriors of Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor, the wealth of other historical sites, some of them only discovered a few years ago, would be astonishing even without those iconic warriors. The site at Han Yangling, for example, burial place of an emperor of the subsequent Han Dynasty, also features row upon row of terracotta warriors. Of smaller stature than their Qin counterparts–as you can see from the photo above, which also illustrates what they looked like originally when they were dressed in silk robes and still had their wooden arms intact– these warriors date from the western Han, some four centuries after the Qin Emperor was finally buried in the tomb which he had spent his whole life building. You can actually walk among the exhibits here and over glass ceilings suspended above the warriors, giving a much more intimate look at the excavations than the enormous pits of the Qin soldiers, as the picture below shows.


I didn’t actually see this myself, mind you. Because it was just a weekend trip we didn’t have the time to get to both and visit the excellent Shanxi Museum. We also weren’t fully aware of just how spectacular the Yangling site is. Perhaps because it was only discovered in the late 1990s and the city hasn’t had time to market it yet, the site isn’t particularly well known. The same was true of the Xian’s city walls, the only intact walls of any major metropolis in China. Having spent years being repaired and partly reconstructed, it’s now possible to cycle or walk along their entire 14 kilometer length. Below the walls is a moat and the city is gradually landscaping gardens along their entire length, creating a unique urban park. As you can see, we went at sunset.

Peter Guider / Rood Lane Images

It’s sad to reflect that Beijing’s even more massive and extensive walls could have been transformed in the same way. After the Communist victory in 1949, the architect and urban planner Liang Sicheng presented plans for just such a park to be built on and around the capital¹s walls and gates, which were arguably even better preserved than those of Xi’an. But Mao Zedong was having none of it. He wanted, as he supposedly remarked at the time, to see a “forest of smokestacks” on the Beijing horizon, not the feudal walls, however beautified for the masses. The decisions taken about Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s have to be looked at in the context of the time, when shaking off the country¹s smothering historical legacy and forging to the future was certainly something many Chinese aspired too. But given the tragic excesses of the Cultural Revolution, which included the dismantling of Beijing¹s walls, it¹s hard not to look at Xi’an’s example and wonder what might have been. On reflection, it’s probably just as well that the Qin Emperor’s silent army wasn’t discovered until 1974, when the Cultural Revolution had run out of steam. You couldn’t ask for a much better symbol of everything the Red Guards were attacking than the terracotta warriors, the smothering, feudal past and bourgeois, “expert” sentimentalism all rolled into one. Could have been ugly.