Monday, November 21, 2011

Cradles And Graves

500km inland from Qingdao lies Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. The province's name means "south of the river", in this case the Yellow River, and is without a doubt the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Within a relatively small radius lie the remains of over a dozen capitals of previous dynasties and kingdoms, most of the buried under countless layers of silt deposited by the continuously flooding river. For archaeology buffs it is the region to visit in China.

Zhengzhou itself is a large, hectic city of over 8.5 million people (more than Greater London) that, despite its long history, has little to show for it. But as a major railway junction it is a handy base from which to explore the surrounding region and travel back in time. If you want to work chronologically your first stop should be Anyang to the north of Zhengzhou, a rather nondescript and drab city, but sitting atop the ruins of the ancient Shang capital. Dating back to 1400 BC the ruins represent the very start of Chinese history as well as the origins of the Chinese writing system. Thousands of bones and turtle shells have been unearthed bearing the characters that would give rise to modern hanji script, and although most of them are too far removed to be recognisable, the few that have traversed the millennia almost unchanged elicit goosebumps as you feel the ancient world communicating directly to you. The succeeding Zhou dynasty moved the capital to Luoyang, west of Zhengzhou, where the historic remains include more than just excavated earthen walls and tombs with ritual sacrifices. The most noteworthy are the Longmen Grottoes, stretched out along either side of the Yi river. Here generations of Buddhist monks carved shrines and temples into the rock, from the tiny to the grandiose, with the central Buddha reaching over 17m, over a period of 300 years. Most of them survived unscathed until the beginning of the last century when the combined effects of Western collectors, Japanese invaders and the disastrous Cultural Revolution defaced the majority.

The main temple of the Longmen Grottoes with its 17m central Buddha carved from the cliff face.

Then to the east there is Kaifeng, capital of the Song dynasty from about 1000 years ago (don't worry if you can't keep up with the different dynasties, most Chinese can't either). This period corresponds to the most open era of Chinese history when there were strong contacts with other civilisations. It was during this period that a group of Jews from Persia set up shop in the city ... and are still there to this very day. I first read about the Kaifeng Jews whilst exploring a Wikipedia rabbit-hole and was immediately fascinated by this community that had managed to survive with some sort of unifying identity despite its small size, separation from the rest of Jewry, and the strong assimilating strength of Chinese civilisation. I wasn't sure what I would find in Kaifeng, as my guidebook informed me that all that was left of the synagogue, which was destroyed by a flood in the 1860s, was a well that is now in the basement of a hospital that has been built on the site. As with other cities with a similarly rich history in China, the physical remains are a disappointment, but there is still a vibrant minority quarter in the old town. Most of them are Hui, Chinese Muslims, with a mosque built in Chinese style and restaurants specialising in their own, distinctive cuisine; as well as a Christian community centred around a neo-Gothic church. Close-by is a lane that used to be the centre of the Jewish community that has now all but disappeared. But, at the entrance to a small courtyard, there was a sign indicating that there was some sort of Jewish organisation. I loitered and asked a passing man if there was a bowuguan (museum, and one of the few words I know in Chinese). He yelled into the courtyard for someone and motioned for me to wait. After a couple of minutes a young Chinese woman, perhaps 30, appeared and said, in very good English, that yes, this was her private museum and that her family was one of the last of the handful of Kaifeng Jews left.

One of the last Kaifeng Jews, I have a lot of admiration for her as she plans to rebuild the old synagogue.

I spent about an hour there listening to her story, how gradually the community had become assimilated in the mainstream so that it had, over time, lost its knowledge of its holy books, traditions, ethnic makeup and much of its history, but that they still knew themselves to be Jews and called themselves such. How her family had, through the ages, been given the solemn task to look after and maintain the synagogue. She has a very determined character and told me of her plan to learn more about her heritage and Jewish traditions and, ultimately, to rebuild the synagogue. She has recently got in touch with the local authorities to get them on board with the project and I truly believe she will succeed. Whether the community itself will manage to survive the current upheavals undergoing Chinese society is another matter.

The most famous sight in the area, and ultimately the most disappointing (and not to mention most expensive), is the Shaolin temple at Songshan. Kung fu is one of China's most successful cultural exports, and its spiritual home is the Buddhist temple of Shaolin Si in the foothills of Song mountain. Martial arts have been widely practised here for hundreds of years and have become and inseparable part of the Shaolin way (never mind the original Buddhist tenets of pacifism). Most people will have, at least once, seen a performance from the kung fu monks, some as young as 10, who possess incredible physical prowess and sublime martial arts skills. In fact Shaolin has become an international brand, with touring groups putting on shows all over the world. Cashing in on the fame there is also a kung fu academy at the temple for local and even international disciples wanting to learn the Shaolin kung fu method from the temple masters. I don't know how many students they have, but the courtyard at the entrance to the temple complex was full of youngsters in matching tracksuits wielding swords, spears or simply sparring. The entire site was one souvenir stall after another with the odd martial arts display thrown in - not really a particularly spiritual environment if you ask me. On top of that most of the temple buildings are recent constructions and the only authentic remains are some old, brick pagodas sporting tufts of grass sprouting from random crevices and a couple of forlorn gates that lead nowhere.

Shaolin is now a business, with thousands of youths signed up to learn Shaolin wushu.
And finally there is Zhengzhou itself. It may have lost its historical heritage but, as the provincial capital, it has a museum that is among the very best in China with an amazing collection of Shang-era bronzes that rival anything I have seen in terms of intricate craftsmanship in all my travels (and I have been to a fair few museums in my time). What is more the museum is free, a rare thing in today's China where some entrance tickets can far exceed anything in the West. Another reason to visit Zhengzhou was provided by an online magazine article into Chinese white elephants which published pictures of its empty, just-unwrapped CBD. It seems to me that it's quite popular to bash China in the Western press, and although some of it is justified much of it seems petty to me. The article's tone seems rather gloating to me, as if saying "look at those Chinese throwing their money away like that". It may be true that they are, or it could also be a very astute, forward-thinking move on their part. Zhengzhou is, after all, the capital of Henan province, which has a population of some 93 million people and is an important link between the north and the south of the country. And although the CBD area is pretty empty and devoid of life (according to my host in Zhengzhou), there were a good number of people out taking advantage of the public spaces, strolling, picnicking and just enjoying themselves. Also, although most of the buildings have been built they are not completed yet (my host admitted that he had bought a flat there and was waiting for it to be finished). I guess we will have to wait and see who is right: the Western naysayers who cackle at China's folly, or the Chinese urban planners?

The rather funky and futuristic-looking new Zhengzhou arts centre. White elephant or bastion of fine arts in the Middle Kingdom? Only time will tell.

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