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Discover Xi’an

Discover Xi’an

China’s Ancient Silk Road Capital


Lament of a Chang'an wife

A slip of moon hangs over Chang'an
In ten thousand houses, the sound of hammers pounding
The autumn wind blows my heart
Ever towards the Jade Gate Pass....
When will the Barbarian troops be conquered
and my good husband back from his far campaign?

Li Bai (701-762)

The importance of Xi'an and the surrounding area in Chinese history goes back a long way and is difficult to overstate. As early as 5000BC a sophisticated agricultural society had developed, firing clay pots and domesticating animals. Relics of this early civilisation called Yangshao Culture can best be seen at Banpo, to the east of today's city.

Xi'an became the political and cultural centre of China in 1027 BC, when the Western Zhou Dynasty established its capital at Fenghao, about 15km southwest of the present day city centre. Next, under the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) ordered the construction of a great tomb, guarded by a Terracotta Army, befitting the founder and ‘Commencing Emperor' of the first unified Chinese state. The magnificent tomb survives at Xianyang, the location of the former Qin capital about 36km east of the present city centre.

Xi'an prospered greatly under the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and began to develop as a great cosmopolitan city, the capital of China and also the chief beneficiary of the developing Silk Road, the overland corridor connecting the Chinese heartlands with Central Asia and the distant Mediterranean World. This became still more the case under the magnificent Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Xi'an, now renamed Chang'an, emerged as the largest and most culturally diverse city in the world, attracting businessmen, traders, artisans, courtesans, mendicants and holy men from all over Asia and beyond.

Entertainment In Old Chang'an

In the 8th century, at the hight of its power and prosperity, the Tang capital of Chang'an was one of the greatest and most sophisticated cities anywhere in the world – certainly far larger than any city in contemporaneous Europe. The city lived and prospered by trade, and naturally attracted communities of merchants from all over the known world. Many such traders from groups as diverse as Arabs and Turks, Sogdians and Persians, Tibetans, Mongols and South Asians settled within the city walls, often close to the great Western Market where most long distance trade occurred.

The city, which at its peak had a population of more than two million, seems to have both worked and played hard. Contacts with Central Asia and the Far West meant that troops of musicians and dancers from the Tokharian Oases of Xinjiang and celebrated ‘tumbling dancers' from Sogdiana performed nightly in the city's entertainment area. Restaurants and tea houses served delicacies and cuisines from regions as diverse as Guangzhou and Bukhara, while wine shops were well-stocked with intoxicating liquors from the four quarters.

Hardly surprisingly, Chang'an catered to the sexual needs of its itinerant merchant population, as well as to the foibles of its local citizens, rich and poor. There were recognised brothel quarters and taverns with friendly serving girls, and there was even a gay quarter in the northwest of the city where those who enjoyed ‘the way of the cut sleeve' (as homosexual love in China was called) could indulge themselves.

Many musical traditions were represented in the singing houses of Chang'an, but perhaps the most famous and most admired was that of Kuqa, characterised by four-stringed lute and drum playing orchestras. The Emperor Xuanzong (712-56) was particularly fond of Kuqan music, and is reported to have maintained thirty thousand musicians and dancers at the imperial palace. Kuqan dance seems to have been strongly influenced by Indian traditions, placing emphasis on hip movements and hand gestures, flashing eyes and stylised facial expressions. Dance troops from India, Burma, Sogdiana and Southeast Asia competed with the popular Kuqans for custom.

In addition to music and dance, Chang'an was famous for its poets, painters and other artists. Two of China's most prominent classical poets, Du Fu (712-70) and Li Bai (701-62) lived in Chang'an during its primacy. Other, less intellectual pastimes and entertainments included cockfighting, horse riding and polo. We know from painted pottery figures that women paid great attention to fashion, both in terms of their clothing, and in terms of makeup and elaborate hairstyles.

The people of Chang'an celebrated many holidays and festivals, the most important of which then (as now) was Lunar New Year. This was a seven-day festival characterised by the ritual consumption of ‘Killing Ghosts and Reviving Souls Wine', which was believed to guard against illness during the coming year. Particularly beautiful was the Lantern festival, held on the 14th, 15th and 16th days of the first lunar month, when the city's nightime curfew was lifyed and citizens could stroll through the streets, competing with each other in the size and splendour of their lanterns. Three-day carnivals were also frequent, with much merrymaking involving eating, drinking, street parades and sideshows. Such carnivals were not tied to fixed events, but were called to celebrate good harvest, military victories, and other auspicious events.

Xi'an lost its position of national prominence after the fall of the Tang Dynasty in 907, with subsequent imperial capitals moving to Kaifeng and, under the Mongols, to Dadu – later renamed Beijing. Xi'an prospered under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when a new city wall was constructed by Emperor Hongwu in 1370. Tellingly, however, the new wall enclosed a much smaller city than the earlier Tang city at Chang'an. Despite its former size and pedigree, Xi'an would remain something of a western outpost, removed from the power and influence of Beijing, until the completion of the strategic east-west Shanghai-Lanzhou Railway in the 1930s.

Since that time Xi'an has expanded as a major industrial centre, producing chemicals, heavy industrial goods, machinery and – increasingly – high tech products. The city, which in 2007 had a population in excess of 8 million, is wealthy but suffers from excessive industrial pollution. The walled, central area contains most of the more interesting sights, while the extensive suburbs conceal such historic locations as the remains of the former Weiyang Palace to the north, the complex of religious buildings such as Little Wild Goose Pagoda and Big Wild Goose Pagoda to the south of the city, and the presumed ‘Start of the Silk Road' near the current junction of Zaoyuan Lu and Daqing Lu to the west of the city walls – this latter supposedly corresponding to the site of the former Western Market, once the terminus of the ancient Silk Road in Tang Dynasty Chang'an.

Within The Walled City

Perhaps the most distinctive feature characterising present day Xi'an are the famous walls that have become iconic of the city. Known in Chinese as Chengqiang (City Walls; open daily 7am-10pm, shorter hours in winter; entrance fee), they date back more than six centuries and extend for more than 14km, forming a rectangle aligned with the cardinal directions, and dominated – as is usual in Fortified Chinese cities – by North, South, East and West City Gates. The walls, which enclose the most interesting and appealing parts of the city, are in truly remarkable condition – the best and most complete medieval city wall anywhere in China, and quite possibly in the world. The walls are12m high and up to 18m across at the base, quite wide and smooth enough to permit a comfortable four hour stroll around the perimeter, though it is easier and faster to rent a bicycle (available at the city gates and especially the South Gate). Alternatively, electric buggies operate on top of the walls, and will carry passengers along the parapets for a small fee. The crenellated walls and periodic watchtowers as well as Nan Men (the South Gate) are illuminated at night with rows of red lanterns and spotlights that reflect attractively in the waters of the surrounding moat.

Near the very centre of the walled city, the 14th century Zhonglou (Bell Tower; open daily 8am-9pm, shorter hours in winter; entrance fee) was restored under the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century and is today in excellent condition, offering fine views across the city's central junction and busy Drum Tower Square. Also dating from the 14th century and having benefited from a 18th century Qing restoration, the nearby Gulou (Drum Tower; open daily 8am-9pm, shorter hours in winter; entrance fee) is open to the public and offers good views, as well as a chance to examine some of the biggest drums you are ever likely to see. Musical performances featuring – hardly surprisingly – bells and drums are held at both the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower each morning (9-11.30am) and afternoon (2.30-5.30pm, variable).

Immediately to the north and east of Drum Tower Square lies Xi'an's sizeable Muslim Quarter, a direct link with the city's culturally diverse Silk Road past when itinerant Muslim merchants and religious teachers settled in the city from the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) onwards. Today an estimated 50,000 Chinese-speaking Muslims, officially recognised as the Hui minority nationality, live within the narrow streets of the Old City. A prosperous community, easily recognised by the simple white caps of the men and the modest head veil worn by some – but by no means all – of the women, the local Muslims have converted Beiyuanmen, to the north of the Drum Tower, into an ‘Islamic Walking Street', an unlikely concept which in fact works rather well. Street stalls and restaurants serve a wide range of halal (Ch. qingzhen) foodstuffs ranging from the ubiquitous rouchuan kebabs (beef, mutton or chicken) and toasted Hui flatbreads called bing, to fresh fruits, raisins, walnuts and pistachios. Other shops offer an eclectic selection of souvenirs aimed chiefly at local tourists (including apparently endless models of Terracotta Warriors as chess pieces or bookends), different varieties of specialist teas and tea-related paraphernalia, Islamic sign-writing in both Chinese and in the unusual and rather eccentric Arabic script favoured by the Hui.

Almost completely Chinese in design, the Xi'an Great Mosque is somewhat reminiscent of a Confucian Temple of Literature, but built along an axis facing west, towards Mecca, rather than southwards.

A left (west) turn along bustling Xiyangshi Jie gives onto a narrow alleyway leading to Xi'an's Qingzhen Da Si (Great Mosque; open daily 8am-7pm, shorter hours in winter; entrance fee for non-Muslims). One of the oldest and most unusual mosques in China, it was originally founded in 742 during the Tang Dynasty, though in its present form most of the buildings date from Ming or Qing times. Much of the charm of this lovely building lies in its apparent heterodoxy, featuring a large spirit screen to the west of the main gateway, as well as representational art forms in the shape of huge stone tortoises hunched unexpectedly in the carefully maintained mosque gardens. Eaves are sharply upturned, and the pillars and interior of the Five Room Hall and the Phoenix Pavilion are lacquered in deep red and gold. The minaret – in fact a three-storey pagoda-like structure – owes little indeed to Islamic architecture. But over doors and ceremonial stone gateways, in curvilinear Arabic script, the Oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad are constantly proclaimed as reminders to the faithful. The prayer hall, at the eastern end of the complex, is generally closed to non-Muslims.

Also within the city walls, the Beilin Bowuguan (Forest of Stele Museum; open daily 8am-6.30pm; entrance fee), located just to the east of Nan Men (South Gate), is worth visiting. The main attraction here is the collection of more than a thousand inscribed stone stele, including the earliest extant Nestorian Christian tablet, dating from 781 AD. A sculpture gallery featuring Buddhist images dating from the Tang Dynasty and before is similarly evocative of Xi'an's former position as the beginning – or end – of the Silk Road.

Beyond The Walls

Immediately south of the City Walls, about 1.5km beyond Nan Men, Xiaoyan Ta (Little Wild Goose Pagoda; open daily 8am-6pm; entrance fee) stands in the grounds of Jianfu Si (Jianfu Temple). Dating from 684 AD, this temple was dedicated to the deceased Tang Emperor Gaozong (649-83). Between 707 and 709 Gaozong's successor, Zhongzong, ordered the construction of the Xiaoyan Ta to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India and Srivijaya by the itinerant Chinese monk Yi Jing (635-713). In all, Yi Jing is reported to have collected more than 400 Buddhist manuscripts over 25 years of travel, and these were lodged in the Little Wild Goose Pagoda for safekeeping and translation. In its original form, the ochre-yellow pagoda rose through a total of 15 storeys, though an earthquake in 1487 is said to have split the pagoda in half. A subsequent earthquake brought the two halves of the pagoda back together again – it must have been a fortuitously precise tremor, as no signs of the former split remain visible – but at the cost of the top two storeys, reducing the pagoda to its current 13 levels. There is a small stele garden to the east of the pagoda.

Visitors can climb the stairs inside the Little Wild Goode Pagoda, but it's difficult to see or to take photographs from the small and rather inaccessible windows.

About 2km to the southeast, on Yanta Nanlu, Dayan Ta (Big Wild Goose Pagoda; open daily 8am-6.30pm, entrance fee) is an iconic landmark for the City of Xi'an that was constructed in 652 AD on the orders of Emperor Gaozong. Like the slightly more recent Little Wild Goose Pagoda, it was built to house Buddhist sutras and texts brought back to Xi'an by the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (602-64). Xuan Zang is said to have asked the emperor for a solid stupa of the kind he had seen on his travels in India, but Gaozong built a hollow wood and stone structure which was originally called Scripture Pagoda. Initially five storeys high, it was raised to ten storeys in 703, then subsequently reduced to the current seven storeys by fire. The pagoda stands in the grounds of Daci'en Si (the Temple of Grace; open daily 8am-6.30pm; entrance fee included with Dayan Ta), also established by Gaozong in 647.

Also to the south of the City Walls, just to the west of Big Wild Goose Pagoda on Xiaozhai Donglu, Shaanxi Lishi Bowuguan (Shaanxi Museum of History; open daily 8.30am-5pm; entrance fee) is one of the better museums in China. Exhibits follow Chinese history from the earliest semi-legendary period on the ground floor, via Han Dynasty (BC 206-220 AD) artefacts on the second floor, to significant Sui and Tang Dynasty (581-907) displays in the last section of the museum. Characteristic Silk Road objects include ceramic figurines of bearded foreigners from the West, braying camels, dancers, musicians and local Xi'an women with elaborate Tang Dynasty hairstyles.

North of the Walled City, about 2km northwest of Xi'an West Railway Station, are sections of wall and moat that mark the site of the former Weiyang Gugong (Weiyang Palace) built by the first Han Emperor Gaozu (247-195 BC) to grace his new capital at Chang'an. Originally extending over five sq.km., and with a wall 8,800m in circumference, this area was at the heart of Han and subsequently Tang Chang'an. Said to have been the largest palace ever constructed on earth, historic sources claim it was 6.8 times the size of Beijing's Forbidden City, or 11 times the size of the Vatican City, though there is relatively little to see there today. Instead, with the massive local tourist market very much in mind, a huge 67ha (165-acre) Tang Paradise Theme Park (Datang Furongyuan, open daily 9am-10pm; entrance fee) seeks to recreate an idealised version of Tang Dynasty Chang'an for enthusiastic Chinese visitors.

Around Xi'an

There are many historic sites in the Wei and Jing River Valleys around Xi'an, and it is quite common (as well as practical) for visitors to take the readily available day tours that are on offer at hotels and travel agencies across the city. The most popular tour is the Dongxian Youlan or Eastern Circuit, which takes in the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang, Banpo Neolithic Village, Huaqing Hot Springs and – most impressive of all – the Army of Terracotta Warriors. Less popular but still very entertaining is the Xixian Youlan or Western Circuit, which includes visits to Famen Temple, the Imperial Tombs, the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, and Xianyang City Museum (Xianyang Shi Bowuguan).

Qin Shi Huang, The First Emperor

The first emperor of a united China, Qin Shi Huang, inherited the throne of the State of Chin in 247 BC and set about conquering the surrounding states with a view to uniting all China under his leadership. He attained this goal in 221 BC and announced himself ‘Commencing Emperor'. A tyrant who burned books and persecuted Confucianism, sometimes burying his opponents alive, he nevertheless assumed colossal status after his death in 210 BC. Among his monumental achievements were the building of the Great Wall, the foundation of a network of roads and canals, the standardisation weights, measures and currency, and the establishment of a national legal system. He remains a central figure in Chinese history and culture, more revered than beloved, for his achievement in unifying the country for the first time.

From a Silk Road perspective, the most significant of these outer sites are those associated with Qin Shi Huang (ruled 221-210 BC), the first emperor of a unified China who, despite his ruthless and autocratic rule, also introduced standards to promote and unify trade, standardising units of measurement, currency, a fixed width for cart axles, a codified legal system, and a much improved network of roads and canals to facilitate the movement of both goods and armies. Qin Shi Huang also sought to protect China from the restless nomads of the Northwest, ordering the construction of a single defensive wall – Changcheng, the fabled ‘Great Wall' – that would eventually protect the great western overland trade route as far as Jiayuguan, the ‘First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven', and beyond into Jade Gate and Central Asia. In a very real sense, then, Qin Shi Huang helped to establish not just the first unified Chinese state, but also Chinese power and prestige along the all-important Silk Road.

The most impressive memorial to Qin Shi Huang, a site that has made Xi'an internationally celebrated and also earned the city a UNESCO World Heritage Listing in 1987, is undoubtedly Bingmayong (The Terracotta Army; open daily 8.30am-5.30pm; entrance fee). Although it was widely believed that Qin Shi Huang was entombed in the area, no trace of the celebrated terracotta Army was known to exist until March, 1974, when local farmers digging a well to the east of Li Mountain uncovered traces of terracotta soldiers and horses. Subsequent archaeological excavations have revealed a total (to date) of 8,099 life-sized terracotta figures arranged in ranks in three underground vaults. It's now generally accepted that their function was to help Qin Shi Huang continue his autocratic rule over a spirit empire in the imperial afterlife.

The statistics behind the Terracotta Army are impressive enough to be somewhat mind-boggling. Building of the mausoleum began in 246 BC and is supposed to have taken an army of 700,000 workers four decades to complete. Qin Shi Huang was interred after his death in 210, amidst great pomp and expense. According to the historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC), the First Emperor was entombed with great quantities of treasure amid a jewelled model of the universe complete with flowing rivers of mercury and assorted crossbows and other booby traps designed to repel tomb raiders. Despite these precautions, it seems likely that General Xiang Yu, who looted the tomb just five years after Qin Shi Huang's death, started a conflagration that lasted for three months and destroyed large parts of the complex.

Nevertheless, large numbers of terracotta figures, both of men and horses, survived, although their wooden weapons and chariots have by-and-large burned or rotted away. From these figures it is apparent that their production was almost on an industrial scale, with specific body parts being manufactured and fired before being arranged in subterranean vaults in careful order of rank and duty. The completed figures were both life-sized and lifelike, though it is famously claimed that no two figures look exactly the same.

Seeing the Terracotta Army requires a degree of patience because of the sheer numbers of visitors queuing to share the experience. In fact the authorities have made an excellent job of preserving the serried ranks of warriors in three separate covered pits, the largest of which – Pit 1 – contains nearly 6,000 equine or human statues in various states of repair, their original brightly-coloured lacquer finish on faces and clothing now having almost completely faded. Pit 2 contains around 1,800 warriors, as well as several perfect specimens that have been preserved in glass display cases at room level to permit visitors an opportunity to get ‘up close and personal' with some of Qin Shi Huang's warriors and their mounts. Pit 3, the smallest yet excavated, is thought to represent the army headquarters, with 72 warriors believed to be of senior rank, together with weapons and horses.

A small air-conditioned museum at Bingmayong displays important finds from the Terracotta Army and surrounding area, most notably two fine bronze chariots and horses, as well as examples of Qin Dynasty weaponry.

The actual Tomb of Qin Shihuang (Qin Shihuang Ling, open daily 7am-6pm; entrance fee) is located about 1.5km to the west of the Terracotta Warriors complex, and remains unexcavated pending, perhaps, the development of more sophisticated archaeological preservation techniques in the future. A distinct low hill marks the spot where, according to legend, the deceased emperor was entombed together with all the artisans and workmen who had helped in its construction, buried alive to take their secrets with them, quite literally, to the grave.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley and Pictures From History - © CPA Media