The last three days in Xi’an have flown by! This historic city, which is southwest of Beijing in Shaanxi province, once served as imperial China’s capital as well as the eastern starting point for the Silk Road trading routes. There’s clearly a lot of history here, which I’ve tried to digest with as much gusto as I’ve been digesting the unique local cuisine.
What have I seen? Xi’an’s most famous sight, the Terracotta Warriors, did not disappoint. Discovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well, these life-size pottery figures of soldiers were created to guard the tomb of the emperor who unified China. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the museum’s experts, who had previously received dignitaries including former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and former Russian President Vladimir Putin. She was very gracious, despite the fact that I’ve never helped run an economy, much less a country.
Other highlights of my visit included strolling atop the city walls, which form a 9-mile-long rectangle around the city center, and wandering through the Forest of Stone Tablets Museum, which displays ancient stone pillars carved with classical Chinese text. I also stopped by the Muslim Quarter, where the Hui minority group can be seen practicing their religion at one of the largest mosques in China, built in a purely Chinese style.
Who have I met? For all three days, I’ve been in the good company of WildChina’s local partner, Gerard, who has taken me to the city’s sights, hotels and restaurants. A jolly, knowledgeable and well-traveled man who spouts more Confucian proverbs than I can keep track of, he has also very willingly indulged my need for spicy food.
Beyond meeting local guides and hotel and restaurant staff, I have also had the chance to speak directly with villagers living outside of Xi’an. These moments were very meaningful to me, given that I had studied about rural China during my recent graduate studies. Three women, in particular, made an impression:
In Liaoyuan Village, I visited a family who has built a home out of a cave, which was nice and cool compared to the hot outdoors. The family’s daughter, Emma, is a 20-year-old college student studying English at a university that is a 4-5 hour train ride away. When I asked her what English name we should give her 9-year-old brother, her response confused and amused me: “Ambition!” (I’m still trying to figure that one out.)
Also in Liaoyuan, I met with a female doctor who runs one of the village’s two clinics. She offers the most basic level of medical care to the village and goes on house calls for elderly patients. Here’s what I found interesting: she started the clinic 10 years ago, and her husband serves as her assistant. She didn’t let on to this fact right away, though, leading us to assume that her husband was in fact the doctor.
Finally, in Huxian County’s Donghan Village, I met with a female painter, Ms. Pan, who has made a name for herself both in China and abroad. By continuing a tradition of peasant paintings that originated in the county in 1958, she has made a good living for herself. These paintings use very strong colors and offer a vivid portrayal of daily peasant life. Unlike traditional Chinese paintings, color fills the entire page, allowing no white space.
The majority of peasants who were trained in this style have given up painting after getting married, joining the army or moving to the city to find work. Yet, when I asked Ms. Pan why she had continued, her answer was simple: “I can’t give it up. I love it too much!”
So, as I prepare to leave Xi’an to head down south to Guiyang, my mind isn’t just filled with thoughts about China’s long history. It is also filled with visions of where women—like the museum expert, college student, doctor and artist—can take China next.