Xi’an reached its prime during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, when its influences extended far and wide, primarily because of the opening of the ancient Silk Road.
WHILE visiting the Amir Timur Museum during his 2013 visit to Uzbekistan, Chinese President Xi Jinping saw a map of the ancient Silk Road. He pointed to a spot on its right side, telling his host, “That’s Xi’an, the starting point of the Silk Road, and my hometown.”
Xi’an, or Chang’an as it was called for many centuries, has been a built-up urban area for over 3,000 years, and served as the national capital of feudal China for 1,100 years. It reached its prime during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, when its influences extended far and wide, primarily because of the opening of the ancient Silk Road. Through this route of trade and cultural exchange, the Han and Tang empires imported and embraced the salutary elements of other civilizations, incorporating them into the Chinese cultural system. This resulted in the inclusiveness, openness and diversity that defined these two periods of Chinese history, and created Xi’an’s rich and diverse culture of historical heritage and cuisine.
China’s inland had developed trade with the Western Regions (today’s Central Asia, Western Asia, Southern Asia and China’s Xinjiang), as it was then called, as early as the third century BC. During his reign the Han Emperor Wudi (156-87 BC) twice dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian to the khanates in the Western Regions. Over a dozen years, a trade passage between Chang’an and Europe through Central and Western Asia came into being. To maintain its safe and smooth functioning, the Han Dynasty established the Western Regions Protectorate, which had jurisdiction over a vast area including present-day Xinjiang and Central Asia. German traveler and geographer Ferdinand Baron von Richthofen first referred to this passage as the Silk Road in his book China: The Results of My Travels and the Studies Based Thereon, a name that was later widely accepted and used.
Chang’an of the Tang Dynasty had two bustling markets – the East Market and the West Market, which were the CBDs of the city and the industrial and commercial hub of the nation as well. The East Market targeted the royal family, dignitaries and the elite, and was therefore glutted with luxury goods for sale. The West Market, also known as the Gold Market, catered to international customers, including those from Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan. Mercantilists from Central Asia, Persia and Arabia – collectively called “Hu merchants” by locals – constituted the largest community of such foreigners, and at certain times numbered several thousand among local residents. The cultures and customs of their native countries gradually found their way into local life in Chang’an, in terms of clothing and food. Celebrated Tang poet Li Bai depicted a spring outing by young Chang’an blades:
Mounted on white horses with silver saddles,
A group of lads from rich families roamed in the eastern part of the Gold Market amid falling spring flowers.
At the end of their excursion, They chortled and jostled into an inn where they were served by Hu wenches.
After economic activities between the East and the West intensified, their exchanges of belief systems, science and technology, culture and art also grew. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Islam all reached China, and coexisted and evolved side by side with its indigenous creeds.
A painted clay figurine of a Hu man dated 657.
Buddhism was introduced into China in the second century BC, and thrived by Tang times. Chang’an was home to a conglomeration of renowned figures and preachers of various Buddhist sects from different countries, and was strewn with temples and pagodas packed with devotees. Historical archives show that there were 122 monasteries and 31 nunneries in Tang dynasty Chang’an. The emperors and dignitaries all took pride in funding the construction of Buddhist shrines and approving the ordination of monks and nuns.
Monk Xuanzang (602-664) was the most accomplished Buddhist scholar of this period and had the best knowledge of orthodox Buddhism from India. In 627 he left Chang’an on a 25,000-km journey along the Silk Road to India. There he studied at the Nalanda Temple before touring the country to acquaint himself with various schools of Buddhism. When he returned to China, he brought back 657 volumes of Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit, many Buddhist relics and several Buddhist statues. With the support of the Tang emperor, Xuanzang founded the national sutra translation academy in Chang’an, and recruited translators from all over the nation and from other East Asian countries. In the following 20 years he and his aides translated 1,335 volumes of 74 Buddhist titles, which totaled 13.35 million Chinese characters.
The book Buddhist Records of the Western World in the Tang Dynasty by his disciple Bianji recorded his experiences in more than 100 khanates and city-states west of Gaochang (an ancient kingdom in today’s Turpan, Xinjiang). It is an invaluable source for studies of the history of Central and South Asia.
Many religious sites in Xi’an survive as testimony to inter-faith exchanges during Xuanzang’s age, including the two Wild Goose Pagodas, a number of Buddhist monasteries, most prominently the Famen Temple (where four Buddhist finger relics were unearthed), Taoist shrines and the Huajuexiang Grand Mosque.
As a city expands, its economy thrives and its population swells, local culinary art booms as a result. A cradle of Chinese civilization and culture, Xi’an is also the source of a number of time-honored Chinese foods, such as liangpi cold noodles from the third century BC, guokui from the 10th century BC, crystal cakes which date back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), and osmanthus persimmon cakes from the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They are still popular in Xi’an. Roujiamo, or “Chinese hamburger” – chopped pork sandwiched into a piece of pocket bread, harkens back to the 1920s and is beloved all over the country.
One of the many small restaurants along Muslim Street in Xi’an.
Xi’an cuisine was intimately influenced by foreign traders who plied the routes between the ancient capital and other – in particular Arab – countries. One example is naan bread cooked in lamb soup. Beef and mutton dominated the diet of people in the Western Regions, and unleavened wheat biscuits were a staple for trade caravans. Steeping the stiff biscuit in steaming hot broth easily produced a dish that could long keep the body warm and the stomach full. Other Xi’an specialties like huma (seasame) cake, tuotuo bread (pocket bread) and kabob also have Muslim roots.
This culinary influence went both ways. For instance, Italian pasta is an offshoot of Chinese noodles. Orecchiette is strikingly similar to the popular Xi’an snack Mashi. Ravioli obviously resembles the Chinese jiaozi (boiled or steamed dumplings). And spaghetti bolognese is an alter ego of Xi’an saozi noodles in both appearance and recipe. It is hard to corroborate this, but we can still imagine the confluence of foods along the ancient route linking East and West.
Tang West Market Museum
Located on the Laodong South Road of Beilin District, Xi’an, the museum sits on the former site of the ancient West Market. Its exhibition area of 11,000 sq.m. includes 2,500 sq.m. of historical sites. Its collection of more than 20,000 exhibits offers visitors a glimpse of the bustling scenes in the market over 1,000 years ago.
Access to the museum’s first to third floors is free on showing valid ID. The exhibition on the fourth floor costs RMB 30 per person, but is free to those holding annual Shaanxi tourist passes. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Transport: Take buses No.24, 43, 106, 107, 201, 502, 503 and 916 from downtown Xi’an to the Da Tang Xi Shi (Tang West Market) Stop.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The pagoda sits in the Ci’en Temple in the southern suburbs of Xi’an. Built at the order of the Tang ruler, the stately temple was greatly venerated. Xuanzang was its first abbot, and supervised the construction of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in 652 to house the scriptures and statues he had brought back from India. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is the oldest and largest existing Tang brick-structure rectilinear pavilion-style Buddhist pagoda from the Tang Dynasty. It still houses two pages of Pattra-leaf scriptures from Xuanzang’s journey, in addition to two Buddist relics donated by Shi Wuqian, an overseas Chinese monk residing in Calcutta, India.
Located in Huxian County, 40 km southwest of downtown Xi’an, this Taoist shrine was the preaching and burial ground of Wang Chongyang, founder of the Quanzhen sect. At its peak, the complex consisted of more than 5,000 rooms that accommodated approximately 10,000 Taoists. It slipped into decline in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and most structures were lost except the Linggong Hall, Qizhen Hall, Living Dead Tomb, Zu’an Inscribed Stele Forest, Taiqing Court and Yuxian Bridge.
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