Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tang Conquest, by train

My host and I with
the great Timothy Richard.
There was also a photo of him
in the student's cafeteria, but the
university is less kindly
disposed to those of its students
who share his faith, I learned.  Note
the hazy skies.
I didn't plan the trip this way, but in retrospect, it seems I followed the footsteps of the founders of three great Chinese dynasty -- only rather than traveling by foot, in each case I took a night train, no doubt sleeping through many battlefields.  In the next three posts I'd like to recapitulate those journeys, describing a bit of what each shows about China along the way. 

My first stop in China was Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, where I stayed for three days.  Beautiful old buildings are rare, aside from the Twin Pagodas, as they are popularly called, which we climbed.  The city is flanked on two sides by mountain ranges, which traps the air, like in Los Angeles or Taipei, making it a smoggy and dusty town when the wind forgets to blow.  This was the case during my visit, and so I was somewhat hard-pressed to compliment the city to friendly locals.  But people were so friendly and helpful in Taiyuan, and the work that I came to do was very successful.  I won't say much about the latter now (I may post later on what my results say about the New Atheism), only that it included a bit of field research to complete the chapter of my dissertation in greatest need of improvement. 

My hosts were extremely generous, along with helpful.  In fact, the food was so good it didn't require any desserts, just or otherwise.  Honestly, some of the best days of eating in my life.  (The rest of the trip, I ate more with a view to economy and convenience.)  The final night's tender white fish, cooked so succulently in red spices without losing its own gentle flavor, it practically hopped onto my chopsticks by itself, would by itself have been a superb main course.  Add delicate green balls of vegie the consistency of a light chocolate confection, dipped in a kind of strawberry sauce, delicious meat balls, a form of potato swimming in flavorful sauces that made me almost ashamed of our humble mashed potatoes and gravy, celery and peanut hors douvres, some of the best baozi I've had, added to good company and cool lanterns, made it a meal to cherish.  Remarkably, all this without a trace of ill aftereffects of holiday eating -- this stuff goes down easily.

Only the service was rather surly.

That was but one of four highly memorable meals.  My host started us off with a very expensive meal at what he claims, and I can believe, is the best restaurant in the city.  The food AND service were excellent.  Later we ate at a much less pricy noodle restaurant founded in the 19th Century.  It was nicely decorated in period pieces, and had the feel, rare in China, of an Udon shop in Japan, or an English pub.  The noodles were flavorful and delicious, hinting of spice and vinegar.  This was across the street from a school that was the old Shanxi University, founded by Timothy Richard with money from Boxer indemnities.  They wouldn't let us go in to see the inside, though. 

Finally, for lunch the next day we foraged in the dirty, messy back alley that serves the present Shanxi University as a combination "Snake Alley" (old Taipei) or "The Ave" (present Seattle).  An egg pocket sandwich loaded with lettuce, Muslim noodles (my host thinks they're more trustworthy than some other public eats), and potatoe chips on a stick, make from slicing one spud into a spiral, necessarily a little moister than conventional chips. 

Having completed my research, and cleaned some clothes, I followed the route of the Tang conquest of the Sui, rather approxiately, and took a night train south to the Yellow River Valley.  Li Yuan was a governor in the Shanxi area, under the Sui.  When it became clear the corrupt regime, bankrupt from attacking Korea and building the Grand Canal, was due to fall, a prophecy arose that someone surnamed Li would conquer the Sui.  This prophecy might have been partly self-fulfilling, since it encouraged Lis to revolt, and the government to suspect any powerful person with that name.  Eventually Li Shimin persuaded his father that the Sui would get them if they didn't act first, and the governor and his war-like sons moved south, eventually to conquer the city of Xian, then further west in the Yellow River Valley.

It was Li Shimin, now emperor of China, who greeted the first Christians known to arrive in China, the Nestorian missionaries who traveled overland and came to Chang An (Xian) in 630 AD.

Moderning China: this little doggy is NOT going to market.
My destination, admittedly, was further down stream: the city of Zhengzhou, not far from Luoyang, at times the eastern Tang capital -- the present capital of Henan Province, which would be about the 10th biggest country in the world were it independent.  (Also one of the centers of Christianity in China.)  After some searching, I found a clean hotel in my price range, managed to change to money (this all took hours), and set out to explore the city. 

Zhengzhou is not set in any dramatic natural geography, nor has it preserved any beautiful old buildings.  It's a governing center, a center for commerce, and home to millions of people -- but the town is clearly trying to make something of itself.  The modern center of life in the city seems to be a large square, with two lit pagodas constructed where it borders a major intersection, with a mass of lively shopping and eating places on the site of the square facing it.  This is a few blocks from the trainstation, but since the streets are at odd angles, it takes a bit of searching. 

You can't deny Peoples' Park in central Zhengzhou lives up to the aim implicit in its title.  Four or five heated pingpong battles are waged in one corner, fathers and sons, husbands and wives (some of the women are pretty good!), friends, the ball flying and spinning to my untrained eyes like Forrest Gump's contest in Beijing.  Children blow bubbles, and climb on rocks overlooking the canals.  Visitors photograph one another in front of late-season golden chrysanthemons and dahlias.  The dahlias in one prominent patch are probably each photographed dozens of times in a day.  (it is still a gritty city, in need of much more green to make it tolerable to a Seattlite.)  You can't say they don't get any love -- or CO2.  One orchestra plays nostalgic songs about missing one's home or the hills with about 100 middle aged people watching.  For how many does the song tell the story of their lives?  What has China lost, in being industrialized and urbanized?  What is the world losing? 

Song Shan, the "Central Mountain" of China's peaks representing the five directions, is a two hour bus ride from Zhengzhou.  I described my trip there in an earlier post.
Shaolin temple. 


Joshua said...


I just got into Timothy Richard's work just a couple of weeks ago. Nice to see there's still some visible remnant of such a trailblazer in Chinese missions.

Unknown said...