Xi’an, Shaanxi, China 西安
Xi’an is one of the most significant cities in China, having been its often-renamed capital during some of China’s most significant dynasties. It’s so full of cultural and historical significance, with plenty of attractions showcasing it, that one of my hosts says “You could pick up a rock and it would probably be considered a cultural artifact.” At one point during the Tang dynasty sometime around 750, Xi’an (then Chang’an 長安) was the largest city in the world, and now it’s a sprawling 10000 square kilometre megalopolis of 8 million people, with its ancient city wall still intact and forming the core of the city’s downtown.
And yet, within two hours of getting off the high-speed train from Shenzhen, I found myself in an alley next to a large hotel just outside the city wall, handing out condoms to grateful cross-dressing prostitutes. Talk about an introduction to the city.
I’m here on my dad’s behalf to visit one of the Christian church ministries he supports in mainland China, through Partners International (Canada), an organisation that supported him when he was a child. Under their care for the duration of my stay, which was organised by them, I was introduced to their work caring for disabled orphans under two years old. With two friendly university student volunteers present while I was there, they were elated to learn from my hosts that permanent homes had just been found for three of the children they were taking care of. Orphans under their care have previously been adopted by Canadians, Americans, and Europeans, though also by locals.
But far more controversial is their work in mitigating the spread of HIV/AIDS through free testing, protection, and education, as well as education on how to live with AIDS. This work involves outreach to university students and migrant workers (in Xi’an, this means many from rural areas of Shaanxi province 陕西), but most notably and controversially, to the somewhat underground world of gay people, prostitutes, and drug users (not necessarily synonymous with each other, but sometimes so). As gay people are a “small minority” in China complete with stigma attached (which makes the known minority even smaller), they tend to live on the fringes of society, with their problems (notably the spread of HIV) pushed under the covers and essentially ignored.
This stigma exists in the Protestant Christian church in China as well, with the leader of the Chinese state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement 三自教会 (TSPM) umbrella of churches speaking out against gay people. Churches outside of TSPM are considered “underground” or “house churches” 家庭教会 and are technically not legal, but can exist without government intrusion as long as they don’t stick out too much. (Out of excess caution, it’s why I’m choosing not to use names in this entry. They just want to avoid undue attention.) One of the most prominent underground church leaders of China also spoke out against gay people. When my pastor host started his outreach to gay people in particular, many members of his congregation left, denouncing their work as heresy.
Anyway, back to Xi’an, in the daylight. My hosts were exceeding polite, taking me all around Xi’an and the vast 200 km-radius surrounds, as they gave me a quick lesson on China’s 5000 year history — the oldest civilisation in the world that’s still in contiguous existence — with Xi’an being part of the Zhou 周 (starting 1046 BC), Qin 秦, Han 漢/汉, Sui 隋, and Tang 唐 (ending 907) dynasties, with the city destroyed thereafter and the city walls rebuilt in 1370 during the Ming dynasty. Whew. The original Han wall enclosed 36 square km and only took 4 years to build; a Sui expansion brought that to 84 square km, and the now-remaining Ming 明 wall surrounds 12 square km. As “small” as that sounds, we biked for forever on the wall (which is really a cool way to see the city) and still only covered a quarter. Heh.
I returned on my own in the evening to see how city life blends into the shadow of the wall. Lit up beautifully and with the temperature far more comfortable, crowds come out to just relax. And of course, like in most other big Chinese cities, any reasonably large amount of public space is taken by “square dancing grannies” 廣場舞 doing lo-fi routines to 1970s propagandist Chinese music. Awesome.
And within the city walls, crowds start to appear, particularly in the Muslim Quarter populated by Hui people 回 (practically indistinguishable from Han except visibly Muslim). The pedestrian streets come alive and of course, it’s food food food, with vendors hawking local specialties like paomo 羊肉泡饃 (lamb soup noodles with shredded bread), roujiamo 肉夹馍 (like a spicy meat burger in pita bread), and biangbiang mian (unprintable character with well over 50 strokes that I stopped counting; local thick noodles), with plenty of lines for the best stuff.
After spending a day visiting a bunch of pagodas — the Drum and Bell towers in the center of the old city, the Wild Goose Pagoda built to house the Buddhist scriptures Xuanzong brought back from India (mythicised in the famous Journey to the West 西游記 TV dramas and movies) — as well as the enormous fountain plaza in front of the Wild Goose Pagoda, along with the Forest of Stelae Museum, home to beautiful examples of stone-carved calligraphy (along with one stelae from Nestorian/Syrian missionaries commemorating the arrival of Christianity in China), our focus lay outside the city center of Xi’an.
Far out to the east are the infamous Terracotta warriors 兵馬俑, commissioned by the extremely accomplished emperor Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇 — historical claims vary as to whether he was incredibly efficient and effective or just brutal. (He created the title of “emperor”, he was the first regnant to unify the previous warring states in 221 BC and create “China” in the first place, and he also commissioned the Great Wall!) Discovered only in 1974 after farmers dug for a well and ended up finding ceramics, archaeologists began the vast project of excavation (which still continues) and found the largest example of funerary art in the world, with over 8000 life-sized ceramic soldiers (among other things: horses, chariots, acrobats, officials, and more), each with completely unique facial and body features. They also used to be ornately and realistically painted, though the paint has since mostly peeled off. Not only that, they were arranged in formations, covered with textured roofs made of fibre and covered with metres of earth, and even rammed-earth walls and entrances as if actual cities. They were buried with the emperor so as to protect him in the afterlife.
Okay, so some of the figures are a little… odd? Too skinny to be real, sometimes a little too rotund. But the amount of skill involved is simply breathtaking, and the fact that archaeologists haven’t even found everything, let alone properly excavated the actual tomb of the emperor, only further shows the depth, strength, and advanced nature of such an old civilisation — far beyond anything in the West ever had at that time. (And those advancements go way further into the future: China was already printing stuff on paper by 200, and was already using gunpowder by 1000.) Oh, I haven’t even mentioned yet! This emperor died in 210 BC!
Up northwest is another example of funerary art, but for the peaceful Emperor Jing 景 of the Han dynasty. In contrast to the show of strength Qin Shi Huang, Jing commissioned lots of tiny ceramic people (with eight possible unique faces, dressed up with moveable wooden arms, except both dress and arms have since disintegrated) and animals, arranged according to his governmental ministries. There’s even an example of what archaelogists think they look like. It’s actually kinda… cute?
Even further northwest is the Qianling 乾陵 mausoleum, notably housing Wu Zetian 武則天, China’s only female emperor, who started all the way at the bottom as a concubine and worked her way up, vastly expanding China’s territory in the process and promoting Buddhism (whose adherents, since the Cultural Revolution, have now declined to maybe 20% of China’s population) and the place of women in society. She also interrupted the Tang dynasty and started her own, which didn’t continue after her. The mausoleum itself is rather boring, but hey, it was an opportunity to learn about yet another important figure.
But back again to Xi’an, yet again in the daylight, but somehow… hidden. Armed with another few boxes of condoms, my hosts brought me to a park just outside the northwest of the city walls. While publicly maintained, it seemed little visited. There wasn’t a single woman in there: we passed benches and benches of men, young and old, numbering around 50. Turns out this is a discreet cruising area. As we handed out condoms and AIDS protection pamphlets to every single person we passed by, all were grateful and none seemed offended by the suggestion that we knew what they were up to. And some started chatting with us, as we sat down for a few minutes.
While it was a bit uncomfortable to have had more than one person flirt with me (because embarrassingly, I had to have it translated to my attention since my Mandarin isn’t quite up to snuff), after they dropped the facade, they were all surprisingly open. My pastor host got them to open up about their lives: some were married and had kids. Some were migrants, working restaurant jobs at night. Some of them were out, open, and proud; others were ashamed and I could see cracks beginning to show.
My hosts later told me that they go to this park twice a week — and the Monday we picked wasn’t especially busy, as their typical visits see about 300 people! But the fact that they go regularly, with no ulterior motive but to provide protection, meant that their presence became accepted and that they began to build interpersonal relationships with some people that they saw regularly. Though they obviously would love for people to join their church, they don’t openly proselytise: all they do is approach people with love, and open up a dialogue over time. While I struggled and never fully understood in Mandarin their church’s position on homosexuality (which may or may not vary among members), the fact that all they want to do to “win people over” is to make sure people are safe and feel cared for is a moving testament to how the best way to spread faith is to live it out.
Under the umbrella of their AIDS-eradicating organisation, they’ve since received recognition from local authorities and plenty of media attention. But they’re also an unaffiliated church, and they can’t promote themselves as such while conducting their ministry — in fact, they’ve sort of not-so-secretly had to hide that fact. Their ministry is therefore supported by their church, but not an official part of it — that’s as best as I can describe it. It’s an awkward position to be in.
The next day, we went far east to visit Hua Shan (華/华山, Mt. Hua), considered one of the sacred mountains of China in Taoism, and site of many pilgrimages. For us, we… skipped that part, and took the cable cars. Even then, we had hours of steep climbs and enormous, precariously perched stairs ahead of us, as went from the north peak (over 1600 m) to the south and west peaks (2000 and 2100 m respectively). Imagining the work that must have gone into making them — and the methods of traversal before the stairs existed — is mind-boggling. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
But the most notorious thing on Hua Shan, and one that my hosts refused to join me for, is the Plank Walk in the Sky, a via-ferrata of planks supported by iron bars, with nothing but a chain bolted onto the mountain to hold onto. Thankfully, they’ve introduced harnesses in recent years. Less thankfully, this has introduced major, major crowds. It’s not the fact that you’re one footstep away from a barrier-less oblivion that’s the scary thing, it’s the enormous part of waiting and waiting and waiting as you’re staring right below you that’s crazy. Not only that, but passing people going the other direction. That, and thinking about how much weight those planks are really holding. After over 30 minutes covering not much distance and not reaching the end, I had had enough and had to turn back!
We returned to Xi’an, and to my surprise and deep gratitude, my primary host had personally covered the extremely hard-to-find (high season) train tickets to my next destination — leaving the very next morning. Unfortunately, along with fatigue from a long day of leg-shaking hiking, that meant that he couldn’t take me that night to one of the gay bars their ministry typically makes the rounds for. (Out of context, that sentence sounds awfully weird, doesn’t it?)
This visit to Xi’an felt like two different trips happening simultaneously, and leaves me with a lot to think about. I learned a ton of history, and then I learned something completely different about contemporary problems in China, state control, an increasingly open and frank attitude on sexuality in a traditionally conservative culture, and how audacious Christian ministry can be. I haven’t seen all there is to Xi’an, and I haven’t seen all there is to this ministry either. But I hope to be back, and I also hope to be a supporter.
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