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First Trip to China, V: medieval Xí’án

For the first of these photo posts from China of 2017 I’ve managed to construct a historical point to make alongside my holiday snaps. For this one I have no such connection to my work or overarching theme: these are just other medieval things in the city of Xí’án that are impressive and worth recording.

Entry through the Ming Walls into the city of Xíán
Entry through the Ming Walls into the city

This one we have already seen, and being sixteenth-century it is perhaps questionably medieval, but you can hardly miss it, since you have to enter the city through it. But you can also then get up onto it, so obviously we had to when the chance arose.

Steps up onto the Ming Walls of Xí'án
The ascent onto the walls

In fact, although the 12-meter-high circuit, which still extends right round the old city, is known as the Ming Walls, there was a T’ang wall here before them, which was supposedly replaced in the late-fourteenth century with what you see here, except that that was rebuilt in brick in 1568…

18th-century guard tower on the Ming Walls of Xí'án
18th-century guard tower

… and had these towers added in 1781, before the whole thing was refurbished in 1983 to what we actually see now. Which is, I submit, fairly impressive.

Walkway along the top of the Ming Walls of Xí'án
Walkway along the fighting top

For a start, I don’t suppose it is only since the 1983 refurbishment that one could have driven two or three cars past each other along the fighting top, or indeed (and more relevantly, I’d guess) marched really quite a large body of fighting men along it to wherever they were needed. Now you can hire bikes to do the circuit with. It makes Roman walls look a bit thin and spindly. Of course, the Romans moved their troops around on ground-level roads behind the walls, which has its advantages too and is much easier to build and defend, but the visual impact of this strategy is still considerable.

Guardhouse on the Ming Walls of Xí'án
This guardhouse would have held a good few such men, as well, though it now functions as a pavilion for the performance arena hidden in the dip in the middle

There is also a museum of the walls attached to it, but we were doing this sufficiently late in the day that by the time we came down, it was shut.

Closed entrance to the Museum of the Ming Walls, Xí'án
Even shut it’s quite impressive

So instead, guided by a wish to meet with a friend we’d made at the conference, we headed for the Muslim Quarter. Xí’án is famous for having had one of these for a long time, and it’s now a major tourist attraction, partly, probably, because of having foodstuffs on sale which are slightly less foreign to the average visitor, but also because it is a historic testimony to pluri-religious tolerance, I guess. And one of the signs of this is the Great Mosque, which was established in the T’ang period, around 742.

Entry to the precinct of the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Entry to the precinct

We were in the mosque precinct just before evening prayers, and it expressed powerfully one of the dynamics of Chinese history, at least as it is written by those I can currently read, which is the assimilative power of China upon invasive cultures, what some have called Sinification.1 I’m not saying this is in fact the case, as it implies a kind of eternal changeless China that is preserved with only minimal adaptation whatever happens, which seems to ignore a lot of change that must have occurred. For all that, with the stuff that we’d seen, it’s hard not to be impressed with continuity. Even those Ming walls, huge and brick-built and unlike even that Great Wall for which China is famous, still had pagoda-type towers with the same sorts of fancy woodwork roof structures as we’d observed at the Bēilín Temple and on the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. I’m sure they can be periodized by experts but the commonality is very striking all the same.

Now, of course, that commonality may not be unconnected with the fact that all of these attractions were restored in the 1980s and 1990s. I am not the kind of expert who could pronounce on how exactly authentic those restorations were. But I can believe, from the Forest of Steles not least, that there’s enough surviving artwork to give any substantially anachronistic homogenisation the lie. I wouldn’t spot it, necessarily, and the message of deep continuity back to a history more ancient than any other current state which it would project obviously has political value; but someone would have spotted it, so it might also be roughly speaking true.

Display of steles at the Great Mosque of Xí'án
As it transpires, the Great Mosque also had a very small Forest of Steles tucked away down one side. I guess that just as a pious foundation in the West would need a charter, here, the Luminous Religion and Islam both needed a stele, or two, or three…

And hearing the call for prayer sung right next to us in strongly-accented Arabic made that assimilative power sensually evident in a way that not much else might have. Yes, this is Islam, but it’s Islam in China and its buildings, accent and material culture, including dress, are all different because of that.

Steles on turtle mounts in the Great Mosque complex of Xí'án
Also, there are turtles carrying steles around here as well. Obviously they don’t move a lot, but…

Anyway, I’m not going to question it further here. Let me just show you some stuff.

Garden of Paradise in the precinct of the Great Mosque of Xí'án
The outer precinct is apparently supposed to simulate the Garden of Paradise. It seems very well-arranged, but I suppose that may be some people’s idea of Paradise… I made friends with a mosque cat in it, till someone else turned up with food for it anyway…

The steles were not the only display in the mosque precinct. Even though this is a functioning religious building, made clear while we were there by the gentle hustle of people towards the actual prayer hall at the end of the complex, they clearly expect visitors and had minimal displays of collected stuff and finery.

Display of weaponry in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Weaponry on display, apparently arranged on loom-weights…
Inscriptional fragments on display in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Inscriptional fragments. Even the signage on this display was fragmentary, but the largest chunk appeared to be something commemorating a Song Dynasty official who had paid for the re-roofing of the mosque. His religion was not stated…
Display of furniture in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Display of furniture, probably Qing Dynasty? but really, I’m no judge…
Hall of Drawings in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
The Room of Drawings
Depiction of the Qa'ba, Mecca, in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
One of the drawings is, perhaps naturally, a view of the Qa’ba, just to remind one that this is in fact a mosque complex

Because of the prayers, which also served that purpose, we couldn’t actually go into the prayer hall, and this is as close as we got.

Entry to the prayer hall precinct within the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Entry to the prayer hall precinct
Closed entrance to the prayer hall in the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Closed entrance to the actual prayer hall

I have to say that it looked Chinese to me then, and the detailing certainly is in the local style, but having now seen some decently old mosques in Turkey as well—a future post—I have to say that the overall structure may not be that unlike a proper old Middle Eastern one. Maybe some time I shall be able to go in and see. But on this day, the people who actually use the place rightly had priority.

Tower in the Garden of Paradise in the complex of the Great Mosque of Xí'án
Tower in the Garden of Paradise, on our way out

So from there we went and found our friend and after getting something to eat, he took us to one final attraction, the Gao Family Mansion.

Lights in the central space of the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xíán
Night lights in the central space of the Gāo shì dà yuàn

Here again strong echoes across place and time sounded. This was obviously considerably more elaborate than the Hé family buildings we’d seen in Shāwān Ancient Town on our second day in the country; it’s also considerably older, being mid-seventeenth-century at its core, though naturally again much restored.

Ornamented doorway to one of the houses in the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xíán
Ornamented doorway to one of the houses inside the complex

But the commonality of style and layout still struck us: it’s a wealthy Chinese house from before the Revolution, like that other one.

Interior of one the houses in the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xíán
Interior behind that same doorway

Here again, although it was obviously a night-spot, which was why we were there, whoever actually owns and opens the place was conscious that it is also a kind of museum, and so stuff was on display.

Ming-period stonework in the walls of the Gāo shì dà yuàn, án
Display stonework, probably of the Ming period?
An amulet on display in the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xí'án
Amulet on display
Scrolls on display in the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xí'án
Scrolls, whose content I sadly didn’t record
Ming-period cabinet on display in one of the rooms of the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xí'án
Ming-period cabinet on display in one of the rooms

And, despite the elaboration of the architecture and decoration, the basic simplicity of furnishing connected it right back to that other house in the far north-east for me.

Box bed by the house shrine in the Gāo shì dà yuàn, Xí'án
Box bed by the house shrine, I guess for the shrine keeper or head of the household?

China is of course a huge country with a massively diverse population who speak many languages, worship in many ways and so on, even now. Throughout its somewhat discontinuous unified existence, therefore, it’s understandable that its élites have either encouraged the adoption of or been encouraged to adopt a fairly uniform, and thus unifying, set of intellectual and material expressions of their status, as well as a single written language to rule them all, or at least translate them. I’m not blind to how that’s governmentality in the most Foucauldian sense, I hope, but it is really interesting to me how well it seems to have worked. I came away from China with a lot to think about, and as these posts have perhaps made clear I’m still doing that. This was all China curated and presented, of course, but not just to me, but to the thousands of people living in or near these places or visiting them, and as with much of the Western collective group-think, that we can see how it has been engineered does not mean it’s not real.


1. I picked this up when doing emergency reading for my first teaching of Chinese stuff back in 2013, and where I got it from was Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History from Ancient Times to the Revolution of 1912 (London 1975), esp. pp. 134-162.

2. An attempt at an alternative vision which gives more weight to the contribution of Chinese society’s differing components is Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire: a history of China to 1600, 1st edn (New York City NY 2000). The 2nd edition, which I don’t have, runs up to 1800.

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