A few days in Xi'an pt.2 The Terracotta Warriors

One of the highlights from my trip was finally seeing the Terracotta Warriors. For those who may not be familiar with the warriors let me give a quick history. The army was built to surround the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. During his rule the Qin Dynasty emerged out of the warring states period establishing a singular written script, national road system and other infrastructure that became the foundation for a unified China. The army is part of a larger burial complex spread over 22 square miles. (In comparison the Island of Manhattan in New York City is 22.7 square miles.) Since farmers first discovered a warrior shard in 1975 a slow excavation has taken place. While most of the network of 600 pits has not been excavated, approximately 7,000 figures have already been found. (For more detailed history check out this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.)

The museum that I visited is focused on three main pits. The stark contrast between the exterior building and the interior pits is breath taking. My first view of the warriors will be permanently burnt into my memory. After a short 10 ft hallway the building opens up to a room that spans the entire length of the pit. The pit is 750 ft by 200ft, or roughly the size of 2 football fields stacked longways. The buildings high partitioned roof allows light to bath the figures while keeping them safe from the elements. After visiting all three pits I felt humbled from the amount of labor involved in the creation of the army. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the output of skilled labor that was necessary to individually detail the armor, facial features, and weapons of the warriors. Even from its beginning China has been willing to expend man power on a scale that few others can match.

One of my favorite images of the trip is the eighth picture from the top. Fragments of the warriors are scattered around the pit like a puzzle waiting to be finished. Some of the fragmentation was caused by looters ransacking the warriors for their metal weapons and some was the natural effect of burial. Imagine the difficult reality of excavating this site. The picture above it shows pigment samples that where left in the dirt surrounding one of the warrior's hands. After more than 2000 years the warriors, like the sun bleached sculptures of Greek antiquity, have completely lost their original color. It is interesting how time reduces a material to its most durable color. 

My visit to the warriors left me wondering what our culture will leave behind. Our burial practices don't include objects as durable as ceramic replicas, so how will future generations look back at our time? Will we be remembered by the non-biodegradable Mcdonalds cartons that fill our landfills, or for the art that hangs in our museums? Will we organize our wealth to document our living history, or will we focus on transient pleasures while fading into obscurity? Will the digital age step in allowing the individual and the culture to record its history in a permanent but invisible data cloud? These questions show that our distant history is often the best inspiration to live and document a more memorable life in the present.  

This is the second installment of a travel series on the Northern Chinese City of Xi'an. The first installment can be viewed by clicking the following link A few days in Xi'an pt.1 The City Wall and the Muslim QuarterCheck back later in the week for the next post on sculpture from the Shaanxi History Museum. 


A few days in Xi'an pt.1 The City Wall and the Muslim Quarter

I just returned from the northern Chinese city of Xi'an. One of the four ancient capitals of China, Xi'an now serves as the provincial capital of Shaanxi. This city of eight million was the easternmost origin of the Silk Road. Long term trade with the middle east has created a culture rich in people, religion, and material goods. 

Xi'an's city wall is a unique remnant of a more violent time. It's hard to imagine a time when you needed a 40 foot wall to keep your enemies out. It lends whole new meaning to the term "gated community".  Guard post structures are perched at the four corners of the wall. Archers were placed along the ramparts at 120 meter intervals to allow maximum ground coverage in the face of attack. Even with the early invention of explosives breaking into this city was no easy task. The fourth picture above shows the beautiful but imposing nature of the gate houses. They are in the architectural style of the Tang era with elongated roof spans that round up at the corners. Chinese city walls were designed to be a psychological deterrent as well as a physical one. Every aspect of the design is a show of power.

Although the earliest wall was started in the second century B.C. the current wall dates to the Ming dynasty (late 1300's). The wall's four sides subdivide the center of the city. As transportation methods evolved the wall was adapted to fit the size requirements of automobiles. It was a bit surreal to watch cars drive through gates that where constructed eight hundred years ago. Every time I passed underneath I felt I would walk back in time to find horse drawn carts and open marketplaces on the other side.

The top of the wall is more than 20 feet wide making biking and walking a popular activity. For 20 RMB (around 3 U.S.D) you can rent a bike and ride the 8 mile circumference. As I pedaled over the roughly hewn cobblestones I experienced a fascinating but unusual view of the city. The sensation was that of a giant looking down on a much smaller society. The height of the wall enabled me to be in the middle of the city without having to interact with the crowds of people. This was a peaceful break from the commotion of the tourist trade.

One corner of the wall forms the boundary of the Muslim Quarter. This area is known for its food and thriving night market. We spent an evening sampling the best street food that Xi'an had to offer. I went for the lamb sticks, which were well-spiced and hot off the open charcoal grill. (Click here for an excellent Muslim quarter photo essay by the Art of Backpacking.) The variety of meat on display confirmed this was not a place for the vegetarians among us. Sunflower seeds, honey candy, dried fruit, and sweet breads covered the desert options. I settled on dried kiwi to add a little color to my meat filled dinner. If not for my full stomach I could have walked through the Muslim Quarter for hours.

This market is a great example of the effect capitalist commerce has on mixing old and new China. The art of selling blurs time periods and styles reducing every object to a base commodity. Within the back alley maze of vendors you can buy everything from traditional paper cuttings, to ObamaMao Tshirts, to whole legs of lamb. There was very little order in each booth's display. Surprisingly this visual smorgasbord was not overwhelming. The sales people where pleasantly nonaggressive compared to Shanghai's fake markets where they pull on your shirt sleeve wanting to sell you the "highest quality" copy of your favorite products. As one of China's most popular tourist cities Xi'an strikes the perfect balance between respecting the past and packaging it for easy consumption by foreign visitors like myself.

This is the first installment of a travel series on the Northern Chinese City of Xi'an. Check back later in the week for the next post on the Terracotta Warriors.


Pot of the Day V.6- Tricolored Bowl and Plate - Jin Dynasty - 1115 -1234

These lead glazed beauties where made during the Jin dynasty. They show the glaze influence of the Tang sancai ware that was made in the Shaanxi area a few hundred years earlier. I don't know too much about this dynasty which makes these pieces an exciting new find for me. The Jin was a Northern dynasty that held power around the same time as the Song dynasty. They officially fell in 1234 after Ghenghis Kahn swept into mainland China from Mongolia.

The swift sgraffito drawings attracted me to these pots. The curvilinear lines of the fish motif are a nice contrast to the banded concentric circles. Seeing this surface treatment reminds me of Kathryn Finnerty's work. Her raised images and runny translucent glazes make her one of my favorite contemporary potters.Click here to visit her website.

The Pot of the Day series features art that I encounter on my museum visits. These pots are from the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an, China. The museum features art excavated within Shaanxi province. Xi'an was the imperial capital of multiple dynasties including the Tang dynasty. Click here to check out the museum website.


A week of firsts- Xi'an and Beijing Sneak Peek

I feel rejuvenated after a short vacation to Xi'an and Beijing.  It was my first visit to Xi'an and the terracotta warriors. Wow, what an experience. Every clay lover should make the pilgrimage to this holy of holies at some point in their lives.  

I will be doing a travel series on my trip in the next few weeks. Enjoy the sneak peek.


Dog Day Afternoons

Well folks, it is hot. With the heat index hovering around 100 we have reached the dog days of summer. If you are breathing then you are probably sweating. After living many years in Florida I have grown to like the heat. The smell of wet concrete after a late evening shower is one of my favorite scents. On my recent night runs through the neighborhood my iPod's shuffle reminded me of these great summer songs. I've added them to my mixpod playlist. To listen click the player on the right side bar and enjoy.

My Gal is Red Hot - Billy "The Kid" Emerson - 1955
A great release from the early years of Sun Records. Oh to be a fly on the wall of that studio as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many more made their first albums. Click here for the Sun Records Discography. This song has my favorite lyrical come back in music. One guy brags about his virtuous woman "I got a girl who's never been kissed" and the other responds "I got a girl who's never been missed. My gal is red hot." I know which one I would go for.

100 Yard Dash - Raphael Saadiq - 2009
A champion of neo soul Saadiq brings his energy to the stage on this track from Bonnaroo 2009. Starting as a singer in the 90's pop group Tony! Toni! Tone! he later evolved into a producer for albums by John Legend, The Roots, and others. Click here for a 2008 World Cafe interview promoting his album The Way I See It.

Mary Jane's Last Dance - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - 1993
Predating Petty's hugely successful Wildflowers album this song dominated the cd player my freshman year of high school. It reminds me of how cool I thought I was smoking cigarettes outside of the neighborhood pool that summer. Petty dancing with Kim Basinger's corpse is a classic moment from 90's music videos. Do you remember when MTV still played music videos?

Hound Dog - The Jimi Hendrix Experience - 1967
Hendrix needs no introduction but how about that hair? Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell have the best white man Afros of all time. The barking dog sound affects combined with Jimi's improvised lyrics make this a memorable cover. This version comes from the BBC Sessions released in 1998.

Jackson- Johnny Cash with June Carter- 1968
"We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout, We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out"

I have many of Cash's albums but Live at Folsom is the most frequent visitor to my music rotation. How surreal would it have been to be sitting in that crowd while serving your time? Cash made the prison concert a musical concept staging a follow up later that year at San Quinten. In 1982 Jerry Garcia followed suit playing at the Oregon State Prison to fulfill his community service on a drug charge. Click here for the recording. The video below is of this same tune from At San Quentin.