Imperial Cities

Discovering the empire’s capitals…

The last adjustments are made, each detail must be perfect! Slightly distracted, she doesn’t hear the music or the singing going on a few feet away from her. She doesn’t even acknowledge the last few verses as the final notes are played. There is little time left before she is to take the lead. The troupe is acting in the street, surrounded by spectators who have been drawn in by the shouts and the actor’s bright outfits. They’ve even put their smartphones away for a few minutes to enjoy the scene. In the front row, an old man has fallen asleep and his round glasses have slid down his nose. He is suddenly woken by the clapping noise which marks the end of the song. Our heroine finally puts her mirror aside and steps out from behind the makeshift curtain into view. Her gaze is unreadable but she has captured everyone’s attention. The music starts and the act can commence!

Our heroine prepares the last details

Walking through the heart of Xi’An, one of the ancient capitals, I’ve come across the show, a spin-off from the age-old and famous Chinese opera. Unfortunately I can’t understand the song lyrics or the dialogue that the various speakers recite. Even so, I enjoy the music, and take time to observe the different instruments that are being played. The score is of course unintelligible too me. There are multiple acts, with singing interspersed between the spoken parts. Several characters dressed in regal robes argue and shout at each other. Having thoroughly enjoyed their show, I  move on, leaving the excitement behind.

The fierce warriors are ready for battle

I have not gone far before I come across another expression of oriental culture. This time it is harder to see what is going on, as a crowd of men surround the action. They are watching and giving advice to their favourite player. Go, known in China as Wei Qi is a strategy board game. Before it became a worldwide phenomenon, synonymous with multiple choice possibilities and benchmarking for artificial intelligence programs, it was already one of the world’s oldest continuously played games. Thought to have originated in China, it flourished in the Japanese courts during the middle ages and became an important part of the culture. It is still a very important pastime in both countries, as well as in Korea and Taiwan. I first discovered the game in Iran, when I met a couple of Malaysians, one of which was promoting and teaching the game in his home country. To play, a board is covered in a grid pattern which can vary in size (the standard is 19×19). The pieces, called stones are placed on the intersections. Once a stone is placed, it cannot be moved. Each player has a colour, black or white, and an unlimited number or pieces. A stone, or multiple stones forming a string, are captured by an adversary by completely surrounding it with their own pieces. The winner is the player with the most captured territory and prisoners (surrounded stones) at the end. The game finishes when one of the players decides that no more gains can be made. This is signalled by passing twice, and giving up two stones. There are a few other rules and although it is essentially quite simple to explain, it is of course much harder to play against a skilful opponent!

Xi’An is in the heart of China, in the Shaanxi province. It was the capita of the empire under various dynasties and is close to the founding Qin emperor’s Xianyang capital. The city centre is marked by the huge, rectangular defensive wall that encloses the heart of the metropolis completely. It was built by the Ming dynasty and is 14 km long and wide enough to be cycled on. This is in fact a great way to discover the place as you can look down the main avenues and some of the important monuments as well as getting a feeling of the city as a whole. From the raised parapets you can look one way onto huge apartment blocks, rising high into the sky, which contrast sharply with the ancient spires and decorations of the historic defences. In the parks, just beneath the walls, people exercise, chat with each other and play ping-pong.

Coming down from this vantage point it is time to discover the small streets and multiple attractions of the downtown. Situated around the Great Mosque is the Muslim or Hui quarter, where the hustle and bustle picks up a pace. Street vendors and artisans sell their foods and products to the passing crowds. You can see them hammering sweets, grilling squids, preparing kebabs on a skewer or steaming savoury dumplings. It’s the perfect place to wonder around, trying some of the different flavours and watch people enjoying themselves beneath the neon lights.

As mentioned above, Xi’An is not far from the ancestral resting place of the first emperor Qin, who gave his name to the new state which has lasted to this day ( “Q” in romanized chinese or pinyin is pronounces “Ch”). The unifier of the warring states in 221 BC was an interesting character. Not only a conquering general, he was also a reforming administrator who abolished the feudal system and implanted an imperial hierarchy, with appointments made by merit rather than birth. He also standardised units of measure, currency and the script. All this was designed to improve the cohesion between conquered states. His reign also hailed much building, including early sections of the Great Wall. Another, perhaps less well known but equally important work was the construction of the Great Canal which linked the southern and northen waterways. This gave better control of the natural resources through the country and facilitated internal shipping. It was complemented with a road system to improve land transport too.

Towards the end of his life, his thoughts turned inwards and the fear of death made him pursue the secret of immortality. The elixir of life was widely sought and much effort was made to find a way of prolonging his life. Ironically, it is thought that his demise was hastened by the mercury taken as a supposed cure for death. Notwithstanding the search for a longer life, preparations had also been made in case of failure: when a group of farmers were digging a new well in 1974 and broke though into an underground chamber, they came across one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 21st century. The Terracota Army.

Stone faced

The modern complex that has been built in the ensuing years is actually above the original pits where the long forgotten army is buried. Interestingly, the work is still underway, with many figures still protected by the earth above them. Scanning and imaging techniques have revealed some information about these still to be discovered soldiers, but their extraction is pushed back as archaeological and conservation techniques are improved.

Visiting the emperor’s make-believe troops is quite stunning. Luckily during our trip there were not too many crowds and we were able to observe the facial expressions and decorations in detail. It is impressive to imagine the figures, being buried for two thousand years, completely forgotten until their discovery. What other hidden artefacts lie underground around the world? The emperor’s final resting place and tomb has indeed been located but still not explored… Speculation has of course been made to its contents, but what other secrets may await to be discovered?

The Forbidden City. Just the name makes you want to have a peek inside. Protected by a huge moat and crenelated walls, complete with spires and pagodas, the palace is by definition the most glamorous vision of the Chinese empire’s might and power.

Having made the journey to the modern day capital, I’m greeted by both locals and visitors, vying for space. Tianamen square may well be the one of the largest open city spaces in the world, but still feels crowded as I push past vistors. Making the most of the October festivities, it’s flooded by a sea of people. Looking across the swirling mass I see some sort of order where they are being funnelled into yet another security check. Going through the multiple scanners and controls has become routine after traversing airports and stations. Even in tube entrances personal items are x-rayed and liquid bottles verified. Random explosive checks are performed in a flash on passing groups of people. For the more important inspections you can be frisked too. Unlike many countries, where you are simply patted down by an unenthusiastic security guard, their chinese counterparts take things seriously. It is of course interesting to reflect on this on-going increase of control and security in the world’s most populated country. It can be expected that the more people there are in any place, and as rules are implemented to protect the majority, there needs to be efficient methods to guarantee their security. But it is of course always slightly worrying to ask ones-self if this is really necessary for so much surveillance. Maybe there are perhaps other problems to resolve beforehand? The improvement of technology that facilitates this kind of control is developing at breakneck speed, such as automatic facial identification techniques. A very interesting report by the BBC showing the scope of such applications is enlightening, presenting the spread of facial recognition cameras in the city of Guiyang.

Faceless surveillance

“Questa notte nessun dorma “Tonight no one must sleep
in Pekino!” in Peking!”
Nessun dorma! No one must sleep!
Nessun dorma! No one must sleep!
“Pena la morte, il nome “Under the pain of death, the name
dell’Ignoto sia rivelato of the Stranger must be revealed
prima del mattino!” before morning!”

Turandot by G. Puccini

After these thoughts it is a step back in time when I enter the Forbidden City. Instead of passing digital security and firewalls, its back to old-school guards and beautifully decorated defensive turrets. Passing beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong, I start to explore the labyrinth of palaces, courtyards and pagodas. It’s construction was started in the 14 hundreds by the Ming dynasty. It has an almost perfectly symmetrical layout, with a central avenue that passes beneath the most important gates and gives access to the tiered palaces. It remained the centre of Chinese politics for just under 500 years.

Unlike Roman emperor’s, in China the rulers colour was yellow rather than purple. This is the reason why the roofs of the City have their golden hue. Not only is the colour symbolic, the number of statuettes on each ridge indicates the importance of the building, with the highest (ten) being reserved for the central Hall of Supreme Harmony where the most important rituals where performed.

As I enter, my first impression is slightly disapointing. Thanks to the hordes of sightseers, combined with some over-eager restoration work, it feels more like a theme park that the real remains of historic importance. At first I wonder around randomly, trying to take as much in as possible. As the afternoon draws to an end, things start to quiet down a bit and it becomes more enjoyable. There are still crowds everywhere, but I can start to imagine the processions of rulers and courtesans passing through the worn archways, heading to the throne room. Looking at an exhibition on ancient clocks, you can reflect on the efforts made by European rulers to try and get on good terms with the emperor and open up the trade routes. There are gardens everywhere, and who knows what tales of romance and scheming plots that have remained hidden behind the foliage. The amazing thing of course is that the palace is still standing after so long. This is thanks to the very design of the columns and roofs, which are eath-quake proof. As explained in this illustrative documentary, it has withstood multiple tremors due to the unique joints between columns and crossbeams. Thanks to their design they can rock and absorb the shock rather than break.

The People’s Republic of China is a fascinating country to discover. Having seen an infinitesimal part I can just speculate, but it has been an eye opening visit. The most populated nation on earth has become ever more important in international circles and entered the world’s collective conscience. Like many things, preconceptions and ideas about this ancient country are changing quickly. Thanks to having the fastest growing economy in the last 30 years, it has become synonymous with exports and scale economy, but also pollution, exploitation and mass migration. Cities have mushroomed around industrial estates, sucking in literally millions of workers from the surrounding countryside. The largest human migration in the history of mankind has taken place in the last decades and it hasn’t crossed a single border. This has created extreme social change and a drastic division between regions. But with the rise of living standards and education for a vast number, it is in the years to come that more change can be expected. The fast growth in technology sectors has been spectacular and given way to real innovation. Writing these lines I look around me and see Chinese computers, phones and drones. Many consumer items are now not only produced by also developed. It is no longer Made in China, but Designed in Shenzhen. I am very eager to see what further transformations are to come.

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