Friday, July 27, 2007

Xi'an Part II: The Great Mosque & the Wild Goose Pagoda

We visited two great religions today: Islam and Buddhism. Both came to China from other countries, both came to China very early in its history, and both flourish today. Of course, Buddhism has far outstripped Islam in China. Still, there is a very active Muslim population throughout China.

First we visited a small museum dedicated to “farmer paintings.” These are familiar to me, but I’ve always heard them called peasant paintings. They are brightly colored and usually represent village scenes. Farmer painting is similar, but in the 1950s it flourished in Xi’an as Party propaganda – or as the museum docent told us, the themes were “political.” The paintings would show happy farmers reading Mao’s little red book; even in a painting where there was no overtly political theme, Mao’s little red book could be seen peeking out of a farmer’s breast pocket!

The museum also has traditional Chinese scrolls with Chinese painting and calligraphy. The girls got a chance to try their hands at calligraphy, first learning how to hold the brush.
The teacher told them about the four treasures of Chinese calligraphy – can you identify them in this picture?

They are: 1) the painting brush, 2) rice paper (which is not actually made of rice!), 3) the ink stone (where the ink is mixed), and 4) the ink stick (Chinese ink comes in a stick which is ground into powder and mixed with water to make ink). I love how elaborate things are in China; we have to name these simple instruments "treasures!"

This was also one of the usual “shopping stops” that is included in every tour (tour guides customarily get kickbacks for bringing their groups to these places – some tour companies won’t even pay a salary to their guides, the only money they earn is from these kickbacks and from tips. OCDF does pay a salary, so we’ve not had to do too many of these shopping stops while on their tours). But the opportunity to see the paintings and learn a little about Chinese calligraphy made this one the best disguised “shopping stops” I’ve seen! For most, the “museum” part is so pitiful that they shouldn’t even bother. (The next day we went to a place “to learn about jade,” and they barely tried to pretend it was anything other than an excuse to shop.)
After the museum, we visited the Great Mosque. It was hard to tell that the Great Mosque was actually a mosque, given the very Chinese design of the place. Apparently it was originally an imperial palace, and the Emperor gave permission to use it as a mosque back in the 8th century.

Following through on the Chinese design, even the minaret was a Chinese pagoda!

The prayer hall was recognizably Muslim, with rows of prayer rugs inside. We were not allowed inside, but you can see the Arabic script on this column, and behind the girls are clocks marking the times for the five daily prayers.
There were two old bearded men sitting in front of the prayer hall, and an Arabic-looking woman, with headscarf, and accompanied by a Chinese man came up to the prayer hall. She was speaking English with the man, whom I suppose was a guide or translator. One of the old men asked where she was from, and she said Bahrain. He motioned her to come to the door of the prayer hall, and let her look in. He pointed at something, and proudly said, “Koran.” He seemed pleased to be able to show a “real” Muslim that the Chinese were “real,” too. The mosque is not just an historical site – it is still an active mosque, as you can see by this group of men leaving the mosque after midday prayers.
Muslims in China are ethnically Chinese, having become Muslim from conversion. But it was an Arabic population who came to China and converted them. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of intermarriage, and Chinese Muslims still show traces of that Arabic heritage in their ability to grow beards. We saw more facial hair in one hour in the Muslim quarter than we’ve seen in our 5 months in China! (Of course, having a beard is a religious thing for them, unlike for other Chinese, some of whom can in fact grow facial hair but are likely to shave it.) The Muslims are one of the recognized non-Han minority groups in China, and the one child policy does not apply to them.

After the mosque, we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built over 1,000 years ago.
Does it look to you like the pagoda is leaning? It is, indeed. It seems that overuse of the water table has caused it to sink slightly, though we were told it didn’t as yet pose structural problems. I guess a little wear and tear is to be expected after 1,000 years!

The history of the pagoda is interesting; it was built at the request of a Buddhist monk who spent 15 years traveling in India and collecting holy books of Buddhism there in the 7th century. When he returned, he asked the Emperor to construct the pagoda to house the books. The pagoda is actually built in the style of Indian temples, and is named Wild Goose Pagoda after a pagoda the monk saw in India. What’s really interesting is that the monk wrote his memoir detailing his travels, and that served as the basis for the famous novel, Journey to the West, written in the 1500s. The fictionalized version of the journey is now much more famous than the factual version, and the girls have been watching the TV version for 5 months! They can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about BaJie (the pig), HuGu (the Monkey King, who also goes by many other names), WuJing (the friar), and XuanZang (the monk traveling to collect scriptures). The first three are the monk’s disciples, and are in charge of protecting him from humans and demons during his journey. There’s both a cartoon version and a live action version, and the girls are mesmerized by both of them.

As you can see from the picture of the girls with the happy Buddha, they had a great time wandering around the pagoda grounds and imitating the statues. Above they are happy, and below they are reverent.

And so ends our first day of sight-seeing in Xi’an. Back at the hotel, the four girls played together, had dinner together, and tried out the swimming pool (it’s an indoor pool and so frigid they lasted less than 10 minutes! I never managed to go in past my knees.)

I enjoyed the Mosque and the Pagoda, but it was only prelude for the REAL reason I came to Xi’an – the terracotta warriors. That will be the next exciting installment!


Anonymous said...

can i ask you a question?
this place at xi'an or xia'men

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