All Silk Roads lead to Xian, China’s capital during some 2,000 years of its history and the cosmopolitan center of East-West trade during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
After leaving Lanzhou, though, it would be a shame to head straight for Xian, as most tourists do. This would mean bypassing Maijishan, one of the four major Buddhist sites in China. Maijishan may be less famous than Dunhuang, Yunkang and Luoyang, but it boasts 194 caves, 1,300 sq. meters of murals, 7,000 statues and some of the most beguiling smiles in Buddhist art. The site can easily be reached by stopping at Tianshui Station for a few hours and taking a short drive out of town.
Maijishan, the “haystack mountain,” appears suddenly, a dome-shaped rocky outcrop rising dramatically to a height of 1,742 meters. As early as the 4th century, caves were carved out of its sheer stone face. It is hard to imagine how the sculptors managed to work 80 meters above ground level and create masterpieces we can only reach today by steep iron ladders and perilous catwalks.
The local stone, however, proved to be too soft for carving, and most statues were created out of clay, which accounts for the sensuous plasticity of Tang images and the gentle modeling of Wei Dynasty figures (early 6th century). Perhaps nothing can surpass Dunhuang murals, but Maijishan statuary, on the other hand, is hard to beat.
Down to earth after experiencing such heights of artistic pleasure, one can stroll in the bamboo groves of the adjoining national park, deserted except for a few local families, or return to Tianshui and play billiards in the street among the stalls of the busy night market while waiting to board the train for Xian.
Today Xian is most famous for its terra-cotta army, discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. The thousands of clay soldiers were buried in 207 B.C.E. around Emperor Qin Shihuang’s tomb, as a substitute for the live soldiers and horses sacrificed at the death of previous rulers. The serried ranks of archers and horsemen are certainly an extraordinary sight, but Xian, known as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, has much more to offer.
Its prehistory begins 800,000 years ago with Lantian Man, followed in Neolithic times by the matriarchal Yangshao society. The painted pottery created around 5000 B.C.E is only half as old as the earliest Japanese Jomon vases, the earliest in the world, but its decorative designs in black and ocher are unique.
These can be admired at Banpo Neolithic Village, a few kilometers out of town, and at the new Shaanxi History Museum. One of the best museums in China, it offers an overview not only of prehistory but also of the successive dynasties that chose the area for their capital. Best represented is Tang’s eclectic culture, with glass from Persia, coins from Byzantium and Egypt, and silks, metalwork and ceramics from China and Central Asia.
Chang’an, the “Eternal Peace” capital of the Tang Empire, was probably then the largest metropolis in the world, with some 1 million people. It was a prestigious model for 8th-century Japan, which planned its successive capitals, especially Heijo (Nara) and Heian (Kyoto), on the same grid pattern.
Chang’an boundaries extended well beyond the present city walls, which date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Outside the ramparts is the Great Goose (or Sutra) Pagoda, originally built in 652 to house the sacred texts Xuan Zang brought back from his journey to the West. The great monk spent the rest of his life in the pagoda translating sutras, and it stands as a monument to one of the holiest figures in Chinese Buddhism.
Other religions were well accepted in Tang China until a wave of persecutions took place in 845 under the fanatical Taoist Emperor Wuzong. One proof of this tolerance is the Nestorian stele, dated 781, carved with a cross and inscribed in Chinese and Syriac. Housed among the Forest of Steles in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, it is of some interest. The museum itself is less so, having relinquished most of its treasures to the newer Shaanxi History Museum.
The Great Mosque, on the other hand, founded in 742 and still active today, is well worth a visit. Its minaret, courtyards, arches and water basins, restored over the centuries, are a fascinating blend of Chinese and Middle Eastern styles. The nearby narrow lanes are full of antique shops and quiet restaurants — a world of their own.
The capital was moved away from Xian at various periods of China’s history, and Luoyang, 400 km eastward, rivaled it during several dynasties. When Emperor Xiao Wen of the Northern Wei settled there in 494, he started a vast sculptural project at the Longmen Caves along the Yi River.
Thousands of statues were carved in the hard limestone over the next 200 years. One of the most famous is the smiling Buddha dated 523, a perfect Northern Wei image, which was to influence, 100 years later, the style of the splendid Buddhist triad in Nara’s Horyuji.
Another Longmen masterpiece is the monumental Buddha of Eternal Light, dated 675, flanked by disciples, bodhisattvas and heavenly guardians. The faces are calm, the bodies fleshy and the composition beautifully balanced — classic Tang.
En route to Zhengzhou Airport to fly back to Beijing, one can stop at the Shaolin Monastery, world-famous tourist trap and home of Chinese martial arts. It is less known as a sacred Taoist mountain and the place where, in the early 6th century, Bodhidharma (Daruma), founder of Zen Buddhism, meditated for nine years without moving. It is said that his disciples invented tai chi, kung fu and the like to relax their weary bodies after hours of meditation. Perhaps Daruma wouldn’t have lost his legs if he had exercised!
These days people go to Shaolin less for zazen than for kung fu, and the atmosphere is that of a Hong Kong movie — perhaps a necessary reminder of the contemporary world after all the riches of the Silk Roads.