China – Shanxi. Friends 35th Anniversary Tour. November 2016

Five days in the birthplace of Chinese culture
by Linda Ferguson

The name Shanxi means “West of the Mountains”. Shanxi is located on a high loess plateau between two mountain ranges, Taihang to the east and Luliang to the west. The Yellow River forms the southern border and the Great Wall of China separates it from Inner Mongolia to the north. Shanxi province is the birthplace of Chinese culture with archaeological records dating back more than 3,000 years to the Zhou Dynasty. Today the loess plateau is heavily eroded, arid, and bleak, but in the past, it was fertile agricultural land. This area, with its rich historical past, was a very suitable destination for the Friends 35th Anniversary Tour.

Our journey began early Saturday morning with a private car pickup from our doorstep; what luxury! Within a few hours we were driven from Hong Kong to the Shenzhen airport to catch our flight to Taiyaun, the capital of Shanxi province.

Our first stop in Taiyuan was at the Grand Courtyard of the Chang Family compound. This “compound”, which could more accurately be called a small town, was built in the Qing dynasty by a Chinese merchant family involved in the tea trade between Fujian province and Russia. This sprawling complex, which was built up over a two hundred year period by successive members of the Chang family, boasts over 1,500 houses, 40 communal buildings and more than 6.7 square kilometres of land. It is described as a fusion of northern and southern Chinese architectural styles, but what struck me was the incorporation of western design elements and motifs. Many of the buildings had western inspired carvings and the manmade lake on the northern edge of the compound, and with its lawns, orchids, and ornamental trees, felt very European. The Chang family must have been very cosmopolitan, with business interests from southern China to northern Europe, and their family compound reflected this. It was truly unique, unlike any other Chinese Family compound I have seen.

After dinner at the hotel we were treated to a lecture by Dr Xu Xiaodong on the history of the Bronze and Jade artefacts that had recently been discovered in Shanxi province. These items were found in a series of tombs belonging to the Jin State, one of the feudal kingdoms during the Western Zhou period (685-591 BCE). They provide a near continuous record of the Jin burial system. The next morning, we went to the Shanxi Provincial Museum in Taiyuan to see the items for ourselves. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The Museum was very well organized, our Museum guide was very knowledgeable, and the bronzes and jades were spectacularly beautiful.

We also visited the Taiyuan Museum of Contemporary Art. This recently opened museum was designed by the American architect, Preston Scott Cohen. The building itself was beautiful, but unfortunately for me, I was less impressed with the artwork on display. Then it was back on the bus for the 2-hour drive to Pingyao.

Pingyao is a well-preserved, traditional Han Chinese city, with buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the 19th century it housed more than 20 bank headquarters and was the financial centre of China. We visited one such building, the Ri Shang Chang, now a museum. We had about an hour to wander around the old city and visit the many small shops. Pingyao black vinegar is one of the specialties of the town, and we were so impressed with the shop owners’ descriptions of the health benefits of drinking vinegar every day, that between us we bought over 10 litres. I’m not sure if it will actually make us healthier, but it is worth a try!

We headed north to Datong to see the Yungang Grottoes. This is one of the most famous ancient Buddhist temple sites in China. There are over 250 grottoes dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art… [that] …represent the successful fusion of Buddhist religious symbolic art from south and central Asia with Chinese cultural traditions”. The grottoes were constructed over a 70-year period during the Northern Wei Dynasty. They have been modified and repaired over the centuries so what you see today is an amalgamation of many different styles. Some of the statues in the grottoes are huge, with the largest being over 17 metres tall. In some instances the Buddha’s face looks out through an opening in the rock face, as if Buddha is peering through a window onto the world. I’m not sure if this was the original design intent or if it was the result of erosion of the rock face, but it was very moving.

On the fourth day, we headed southeast to the Wu Tai Mountains to the Xuankong Hanging Monastery, which had also been built during the Northern Wei dynasty. Perched on a cliff face above a small river, the monastery is remarkable for its combination of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian relics within a single structure. We were able to walk (or rather, climb) around inside to admire the artefacts and artwork. The structure looks more precarious than it actually is, with oak crossbeams fitted into holes chiselled into the cliffs to provide structural integrity. I suspect that the Chinese government carried our extensive repairs before it was opened to the public, including the construction of concrete steps and guard rails to ensure that visitors and the faithful do not fall to their deaths!

After the excitement of the hanging temple, we drove for three hours drive to the sacred Buddhist mountain of WuTai Shan. Associated with Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who is the special guardian of Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, much of the temple architecture has a “Tibetan” look to it. A testament to the religious piety of the area, Tibetan monks, dressed in their distinctive red robes, wandered the village streets. The area is home to over 53 sacred monasteries, mostly from the Ming Dynasty but some go back as far as the Tang Dynasty. Unfortunately, we only had time to visit a few of them. My personal favourite was the upper terrace of the Tayuan Monastery. It was a bit of climb to get there, but the view from the top was spectacular and well worth the effort.

Exhausted but happy, we celebrated a successful tour at the Wutai Friendship Hotel in Taihuai village, where we enjoyed a traditional Chinese banquet before retiring for the night, in readiness for an early start for our long journey back to Hong Kong and modernity.