Archive for the ‘Xi’an Related with a More Socio-Cultural Twist’ Category
It is one of those times again; time to reflect in another’s glory. A good buddy of mine, Reto Winkler, has just moved from Xi’an to Hong Kong. He has also just started off his own personal blog (superbly named chilling in the pressure cooker) which, if his early posts are anything to go by, is going to be a good read. I asked Reto if he wouldn’t mind me re-producing his most recent post here, as it says a great deal about Shaanxi life (Xi’an is the Capital of Shaanxi Province), but is also a nicely positive twist on the living in China story. In my last Note, I was referring to the fact that no matter how long we live here in China it is difficult for us foreigners to be seen by the Chinese as being locals, we are always simply “the laowai” – even if we foreigners do actually feel quite at home. Reto celebrates this latter point in a resounding manner. I will let him speak for himself:
1. We just had an enormously epic meal. Indeed, it was more than epic: It was transcendent.
It brought me home in an instant. It made me see the yellow clay of Shaanxi stretching in endless layers towards the horizon, made me smell the dust again, hear the voices of yelling peasants in restaurants filled with plastic chars and smoke and laughter, feel the frosty winds on rocky Qinling mountain passes, that taste of pork fat and rough bread and cold noodles and sprouts and garlic, topped with a can of the inimitable ice peak orange lemonade, sweet as sin. Almost too good to be true.
Relishing it, I saw it all passing by again, these faces that looked like they were made of the very earth underneath their cotton shoes, in the eternal dust, these faces altogether impossible to forget, the faces of friends and family. I could see down all the generations gone by, working the dust in this most inhospitable of places – home. I could see my old friend He Si throwing his hands up high when he saw me trudging up his mountain again, laughing, yelling my name in his funny way, letting me know that just as I was about to say goodbye I had truly arrived at this place, since I had moved it, and it had moved me.
2. It’s been about four weeks since we arrived here in Hong Kong, and we people from Xi’an have finally gotten together for our first meal.
After a short break out of the country, there are always a few things that particularly strike me when returning to Xi’an. I find myself picking up on the easy bonhomie that exists between the locals here, the matter-of-fact directness within peoples’ everyday actions, and the fact that there is a noticeable sense of community: a feeling that peoples’ lives are genuinely interlinked.
These are just general impressions picked up from down here amongst the life around southern Chang’an Lu, but there were a couple of particular examples that did stand out this week; strangely, both came from the tennis court. My wife and I have taken to playing tennis once a week, as Ling is just starting to learn but does quite like the idea of making a game of it. However, as we were playing in our, for now, fits-and-starts manner, a small group of players next to us were confidently cracking balls back and forward to each other, while one of them – a quite determined looking chap in his early fifties – seemed to be offering the others some instruction.
Later, this same guy, noticing my wife was learning, just pulled her up every now and again to point out a few things she could do to improve. He wasn’t bothered that he didn’t know her, that it might offend her, or that it was none of his business. Ling also took it in the spirit in which it was intended: she paid attention and tried to apply his advice. This could of course happen elsewhere, but this situation was somewhat representative of the generally direct way in which people here do approach one another, and which I find really quite refreshing to be around. It is this directness and what I will refer to as a breezy kind of nonchalance that I have enjoyed feeling on the streets again here since my return.
I haven’t been in the website zone recently – trying as I am to get a solid foothold back into my Chinese studies and also as I am not feeling as enamoured with Xi’an as I once was – so Notes have been and may well continue to be fewer and farther between. Or they may, from time-to-time, just end up being a bit more random. Coincidently, this is one of those times. Here we have got a couple of night shots of the TV Tower in southern Xi’an, a quick link to Bing’s Chinese – English Dictionary, a cap doffed towards a new Chinese language learning Blog, named Fluent Flix, and a few words from spiritual thinker/ guru J. Krishnamurti.
I will begin by letting J. Krishnamurti offer a few simple words to help give the recent shenanigans in European and world affairs, and probably a few future happenings as well, some perspective. I came across his work back in London, read more at one of his retreat centres in Chennai, India and just recently picked up one of his books again. This is an extract from it (Freedom from the Known):
‘The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality, or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, by priests, philosophers or saviours. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself and that is why you must know yourself. Immaturity lies only in total ignorance of self. To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom.
And what is yourself, the individual you? I think there is a difference between the human being and the individual. The individual is a local entity, living in a particular country, belonging to a particular culture, particular society, particular religion. The human being is not a local entity. He is everywhere. If the individual merely acts in a particular corner of the vast field of life, then his action is totally unrelated to the whole…
We human beings are what we have been for millions of years – colossally greedy, envious, aggressive, jealous, anxious and despairing with occasional flashes of joy and affection. We are a strange mixture of hate, fear and gentleness; we are both violence and peace. There has been outward progress from the bullock cart to the jet plane but psychologically the individual has not changed at all, and the structure of society throughout the world has been created by individuals.
The outward social structure is the result of the inward psychological structure of our human relationships, for the individual is the result of the total experience, knowledge and conduct of man. The individual is the human who is all mankind. The whole history of man is written in ourselves.
… All outward forms of change brought about by wars, revolutions, reformations, laws and ideologies have failed completely to change the basic nature of man and therefore of society. As human beings living in this monstrously ugly world, let us ask ourselves, can this society, based on competition, brutality and fear, come to an end? Not as an intellectual conception, not as a hope, but as an actual fact, so that the mind is made fresh, new and innocent and can bring about a different world altogether? It can only happen, I think, if each one of us recognizes the central fact that we, as individuals, as human beings, in whatever part of the world we happen to live or whatever culture we happen to belong to, are totally responsible for the whole state of the world.
We are each of us responsible for every war because of the aggressiveness of our own lives, because of our nationalism, our selfishness, our gods, our prejudices, our ideals, all of which divide us.’
A week or so ago as I got bogged down in trying to protect this site from a malware attack – no easy task, I can tell you, for this computer illiterate fool - I did pay attention to the fact that a reasonable amount of content has been added here during the last three years, now over a 100 Notes. So, for my own simple pleasure, and as I have not given myself much time to write recently, I will pick a few Notes that I have liked for whatever reason and put them up in two parts – 5 Notes in each. The first 5 of Part I can be found here, and were written during 2009. The second 5 included below in Part II all come from the last couple of years.
1.Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You? 2. Chinese Conceptions of Time (Part I) and a Question of Western Maturity 3. NoNo Cafe: An Apology, a Cathartic Process and a Less Than Turquoise Hue 4. Mr. Lǎo Bǎi Xìng, A Bit Of Income Inequality, An Archbishop And Some Social Solidarity 5. Master Orwell, Garton-Ash, Facts, Politics And The English Language
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, Is It Really You?
This is just a Note that has been brewing for a while.
*Cháng’ān Lù 长安路
We have grown up together side-by-side but now your behaviour has gotten to a point that I cannot abide, nor simply hide or ignore that which crosses my mind. But, first I gotta ask: “Sweet Cháng’ān Lù: Is it really you?”
I am sure, back then, it wasn’t just me who revelled in the criss-crossing mass of humanity, which descended on the Junction of Shi Da Lu; like some joyous, incongruous stew. No matter spluttering car or steaming truck, we strode out with a little good luck and little regard knowing, in fact, it was we who would pass.
Halting the traffic in our wake we grasped our long fought for humanitarian stake. But, make no mistake Chang’An Lu, you must take responsibility for the lack of humanity that now resides at your gate, you leaving us simply to wait and to wait. But, I ask… for what?
Back then buses would halt as an aged old lady would take to the street, simply sweeping a broom made from plastic bagged sheets, while motorcycles still weaved between pockets and sleeves. But, the time most enjoyed was when we all at once directed and objected from the centre of stage, before being forced to turn the page: losing that urgent, organic, glistening spell which storybooks will never be able to retell. We all halted, we all moved, the life was all there at that crossroads at Shi Da Lu.
A tear now crosses my eye for the deep sadness of goodbye and a progress more reminiscent of a creational mess than a strategic game of post-war chess. The shiny black wasteland that one-day you will be now carries eight high-speed lanes of immovability, directly dissecting our community.
Oh Chang’An Lu, I stood there at your side as the last roll of new tar was itself applied, giving your potholed visage a life a new. That night we watched as an aged old man not far from his grave, contributed his last efforts for you to be paved. So hot, it was steaming in the dark of the night, but we, a few, gathered in the future knew, one life had passed and another… who knew?
You changed then Cháng’ān Lù, you were never the same once this glistening black coat was tied at your neck. I wanted to believe it could be as before but now the reality has sunk in, there is no drop of that past left for us to draw. Today, we are no longer allowed even to gather at your side. “Take a chance” I hear you say, but sweet Cháng’ān Lù that’s a thing of the past, it just wasn’t able to last. A fact we cannot hide, if only you knew, no chance now, unless of course we are ourselves taken for a ride.
Don’t look back I hear wise words say but it was actually you who taught us that way, back in the day: “Don’t look back, stride out, you are Kings on my road”, you would say, and we believed you. Because be sure back then, as those who travelled with us knew, looking back was not something we knew how to do. We strode with criss-crossing glee, oh yeah, really quite free. May be some say it is not the case to be true, but today is a place less free: to be true, to be true. Oh Cháng’ān Lù what has happened to you?
Just a day or so ago, I was thinking of you as I held up a bus, of course, not wishing a fuss, but when I looked out from the North to the South do you know what I could not see Cháng’ān Lù? It was you. I could not see you, for a continuous, sickening metallic hue, which had morphed into one almighty incomprehensible queue: that quite simply had obliterated you.
But now, at the dawn of a new modern era, it does in turn dawn upon me what I probably always could see. You have gone Cháng’ān Lù. It is no longer you. I talk to myself now it does seem but if that is all I have left then what I wish say I wish to be clear, to be fresh, to be seen.
Oh consume, Oh swoon, Oh legitimate heir, Oh the reason so fair, Oh fair: the fair of fair rides, fair maidens and fair despair. Oh pollution, Oh evolution, Oh ignominious death, Oh development, Oh wither, Oh sickened river, Oh imbedded, hot headed, earnestnessness. Sweet love, sweet freedom and sweet redress.
Oh Sweet Cháng’ān Lù, I really miss you.
A week or so ago as I got bogged down in trying to protect this site from a malware attack – no easy task, I can tell you, for this computer illiterate fool – I did pay attention to the fact that a reasonable amount of content has been added here during the last three years, now over a 100 Notes. So, for my own simple pleasure, and as I have not given myself much time to write recently, I will pick a few Notes that I have liked for whatever reason and put them up in two parts – 5 Notes in each. The 5 below all come from the first year of this site. The second 5 can be found here, and were written during the last two years.
1. Ode To Xi’an 2. Some Habits Best Kept, Others Maybe Not 3. National Day Is Upon Us Here In Xi’an 4. Barack Obama, the Great Wall, a Shanghai Hall and the Importance of Tone 5. Copenhagen, Indignation and a Neo-Naturalistic Chinese Landscape
Ode to Xi’an
Xi’an. Modern city, city of the ancients, city of technology, science and education, city of a city wall, city of the Buddha’s finger, city of emperors, city of conquest, city of contradiction.
An ancient city of culture without culture, a contemporary culture sublimating a culture, a city finding balance in a future culture. The bright lights of a night city pagoda’s entertainment mall, wide freeways and san lun ches (三轮车s). Warmth, hospitality, overpricing, free drinks, lao wai (老外), differences and not a few similarities. Simplicity, clarity, haziness and pollution. Sixty in a class, extra curricula classes, never enough classes, I like my classes, I like my classmates, I like my school, I like my country. My country likes me.
River people, widowed people, homeless people, newly-housed people, proud people, loud people, peaceful people, people of a time, people of a place. Xi’an’s people. Silent people, singing people, walled-in people, self-determined people, educated people, un-educated people, realistic people, hopeful people. Different people.
Free will, no will. Expansion, development, disrepair, has been repaired, still needs to be repaired. Newly built, not really built, needs to be rebuilt. Does matter, doesn’t matter. What matters? Food matters. This food, that food, what food, whose food? Our food. Have much, don’t have much, don’t want much, want what I haven’t got, got what I haven’t got. Warriors, borrowers, investors, debtors, jokers, jesters, trustees, trust hers, trust whose? Winning smiles, legs for miles, public trials and McDonalds selling freedom fries.
Working life, lived life, living life, life of the past, life of the present, I like life. Xi’an’s life. Xi’an’s people. Zhong Lou, Nan Da Jie, Xiao Zhai, Bai Hui, Gao Xin, Chang’ An Lu. Happy people, sad people, living people. Xi’an’s people. We are those people.
Over the last few years Xi’an has become the place I refer to as home. However, that has not stopped me from recently suffering a few re-integration issues after returning from 2 months back in my official homeland. It felt like no normal re-acclimatization process this time, although, maybe it actually was; it was just not one I am used to experiencing.
When I first arrived in China, 5 or so years ago, I was coming off the back of quite a few months of travel in India. So, as far as I was concerned, Xi’an was an oasis of calm and modernity. Not quite the sentiment others often express when arriving here for the first time, I know. Even if many people backpacking around China do usually find Xi’an a pretty chilled place to hang out for a few days.
The point being, that from my first impressions until recently, Xi’an was a pretty relaxed place to be. I have never felt in need of the advice that was passed on to me when I first arrived in India. There I was told by a few thoughtful and prescient old hands that I should always be aware of looking out for places to retreat to for a few days, or even for the odd week or two.
Whether that place was an isolated beach community, a mountain forest hideaway, a nature reserve, a nice hotel, a temple sanctuary, or just a good bookshop, it was important to find some space and time to escape the intensity of street life in India, which, from time to time, could seep into every pore of your being and every aspect of your thought. (Which is not a criticism by the way). It was advice I took, and it certainly served me well. When I lost sight of it, while moving across the north of India, I suffered.
This isn’t something that I have ever felt applied to life here in Xi’an. My recent re-introduction to Xi’an life, though, has made me re-appraise that perception. Xi’an has by no means reached the epic intensity of daily life in India – it is still so much quieter, cleaner and calmer in comparison, and it does still have a somewhat laid back atmosphere – but there is an indelible mark that a life lived here can now leave on you.
Getting out and about town with the masses in the mornings is to feel the full force of the life changes going on here. Taking a taxi ride around the second ring road, let alone the third, is to get a sense of the scale of the development that is recasting this city. While getting down in amongst the small chéngzhōngcūn(s) at night (city villages), those that still exist, is to really feel the lifeblood of this urban centre. Life here really can grip you.
Before I take a summer sabbatical from life in Xi’an, and from checking into the world wide web, I will throw out a thought on Xi’an that has been nagging at me for a while.
The system here in China where cities are tiered in terms of their level of economic development has never been one I have liked. I have always felt that this system of stratification has sounded insulting, with the comparison it unnaturally makes between first, second, and third tier cities. (And, yes I do understand the reasoning behind the classifications.) Cities such as Xi’an, that are not first tier, are by categorisation inferior.
Xi’an was, in my opinion, always more than just an adjunct to those Chinese metropolises out East; it was a city with its own nature, its own identity and its own pace of life. Classifying Xi’an as second tier was always to say that it wasn’t quite what it could be, that it lacked something, the special something that would make it first tier.
Which, based on certain criteria, was greater economic development, with high levels of investment, a modern transport infrastructure, and so-called improved standards of living. But, in many ways Xi’an didn’t lack anything, it wasn’t nearly or not nearly something else, it was what it was and it was different to those first tier cities, and from my perspective better for it.
Before I write this Note, I am going to make a bold statement about it. I am going to make the claim that it will become the definitive: “What Is It About Xi’an That Makes It Xi’an And Makes It The Place People Like To Live?” Note. However, before any of you think I have lost my humble marbles in a blur of blogging arrogance I would like to offer a condition and an invitation.
First, this is an invitation to all of you out there who live here, or have done so recently, to add your own brief note in the comments section below about what Xi’an is to you, and what makes it different from other Chinese cities, even different from other places on earth. Plus, simply, what you like about it, as well as some of the things that you don’t quite like so much.
Second, the condition. The condition being that this will only be the definitive Note if those of you out there with experience of living in Xi’an do share your thoughts with us. This certainly won’t be the definitive Note if it is just written from my perspective.
Hopefully, if we can get this thread going we can provide a good stop off point for people who want to get to know a bit about Xi’an. There are now a good number of people that find their way to this site from different parts of the globe, who have different ideas about Xi’an, and about potential reasons for coming here. We can hopefully offer them a few pointers in the direction, whatever direction they do end up going in. So, whether its personal impressions and thoughts on Xi’an, bits of historical knowledge, circumstances where expectations were changed, or times when they really weren’t, or just a few spots in and around the city that you think are worth checking out, feel free to write about them below.
Thanks in advance, I look forward to reading. First, my own contribution, which I will also kick off in the comments section:
I have been summered. It probably started when wandering around the Botanical Gardens last week, but it has really hit home this week.
It wasn’t long ago that I was taking on all comers when defending the locals’ wisdom for not only donning those almost magical long johns during the harsh winter months, but to also still be wearing them after the centrally governed heating was turned off and the outside temperatures remained low. Those arguments are now lying dead in the rapidly evaporating water of the Wei River basin.
Summer arrived this week, making its presence felt with a few smouldering temperatures and some perfectly blue skies. Not to mention a brightness of almost religious light that should help lift the soul of even the most disgruntled laowai, suffering from the China Blues. For me, and call me shallow, but a bit of sunlight makes all seem perfectly well here in the Middle Kingdom. My cheerful, but until recently hibernating, elderly neighbours have awoken; there is street after street of blossom-filled joy; and not a few summer beauties are to be found strolling happily arm in arm.
Now, given the right information and arguments, I might admit that under the surface of these quite probably government-inspired levels of sunshine and blue skies, all is not perfectly well. But, I am just going to have to savour the moment for a while longer before allowing myself to again dwell on some of the less-inspiring aspects of modern Chinese society, and before the days come where I am actually hankering for a cool autumn breeze. (more…)
I live not far from Xi’an’s Botanical Gardens [Zhíwù Yuán/植物园], which are located behind Shǎnxī Normal University, but I haven’t taken a trip over there for a while. This is not because I have anything against fine varieties of plant life, I actually had a couple of temporary jobs working on horticultural nurseries when I was younger, and if all else failed I would probably go back to it. There are not too many things quite as meditative and peaceful as watering plants on a glorious summer morning.
I have also always enjoyed visiting public gardens, from Kew and Wentworth to Brisbane’s own Botanics, via Córdoba and Marakesh. However, on my last visit to Xi’an’s variety of Botanical Garden it did feel as if a lot more could be done with the space they have. Now, this seems to have changed, although not quite in the way one would imagine.
This week, my camera-clicking sidekick, Sir G. Blackett of Wells, and I decided that we should put down our coffee cups and see if we could catch Xi’an’s short Spring in full bloom. It was not, though, a multi-coloured array of flora and fauna that ended up capturing our attention. It was a particular sub-specie of Chinese marital ritual that we observed, wandered around, pointed at, discussed and took pictures of. It was the ritual known as the pre-marriage photo shoot.
It is not an exaggeration to say that shrub, flower and tree life is no longer the focus of attention. Delicate planting procedures, rare plant species, and flowers in full seasonal bloom are now simply a backdrop for the more important business of getting young Chinese couples to create the most unnatural poses possible. For those unaware, as part of the wedding celebrations here in China, couples pay a few thousand yuan for a professional photo studio to snap exceptionally contrived poses in generally natural environments, the Botanical Gardens being one such location. (more…)