Graduation from the Summer Institute at Nanjing University

Last Thursday I finished my summer program at Nanjing University. The program was very demanding and classes were sometimes eight hours a day! It did not leave much time for other pursuits while in Nanjing, but it helped me better appreciate how much I still have to learn about the Chinese language. This quest is a journey, not a destination, because the Chinese cultural and historical tradition is simply too vast.

Sorry I have not been more active with wordpress, often I have not been able to access the site even with a VPN. This morning I tried again to add photographs to the blog, but I keep getting error messages.

I am looking forward to going back to teaching next week and seeing my students make great progress in their studies. Meanwhile, I am still here in Beijing another two days tying up loose ends. See you in the States students and relish your final days of freedom!

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The southern Silk Road

After finishing our business in Gansu Chris and I took a plane flight southwest from Lanzhou to Kunming, Yunnan. Kunming is known as the “spring city” and Yunnan Province sits at the juncture of China, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. If you remember from some of the documentary movies we watched in class, the “Silk Road” actually also had a southern leg that ran into Yunnan Province from Burma. This road was the only overland passage into China for many centuries, when the northern routes were blocked by snow. This particular route was used mainly for trading tea and horses. 

It was fascinating to compare the lush, almost tropical landscape of Yunnan with the parched, desertlike appearance of China’s rugged northwest. We were lucky to be able to take in these two dramatically different regions in one trip and see the contrasts so clearly. That said, the fact that both the northwest and southwest represent gateways into the Middle Kingdom and the junction of disparate cultures, we could see the influences of so many different cultures and faiths on the streets of Kunming as well as Lanzhou. Muslim traders (the Hui) made significant contributions to the culture and cuisine of this area along with the numerous minority groups inhabiting the southwestern frontier. Just walking around and looking at all the different faces one encounters is really interesting.

If I were to come to China to study today I believe Kunming would be my number one choice. The air is clean, prices are relatively inexpensive and the city itself is international, verdant, and laid back. There are a number of universities, great parks, bookstores and restaurants. 

From Kunming we headed north to Zhaotong in Yunnan’s far northwest. Zhaotong was also an important hub along the southern Silk Road. To get here we crossed several dramatic mountain passes nearly 3000 meters in altitude. Unfortunately when about one hour outside Zhaotong we were delayed by a major traffic accident. Chris and I spent four hours in a small roadside town chatting, eating a meal and being stared at by curious locals who had never seen westerners before. We finally got back on the road at dusk and arrived at our destination tired and hungry late that night. More on Zhaotong next time. 

Chris and I ended the Gansu leg of

Chris and I ended the Gansu leg of our trip along the Silk Road in Lanzhou. From Lanzhou we went west by car to Bingling Grottoes 炳灵寺.

Getting to Bingling was quite an adventure. We spent a couple of hours driving into the foothills of the mountains before reaching the last major town on the route. It was our understanding that the grottoes were inaccessible by car and that we would have to take a boat across a reservoir to the site. When we reached the reservoir locals told us there was now a road to the grottoes. This road ran nearly three hours along the ridgeline of the mountains on what must used to have been a horse track. The last couple of miles were dirt, snaking down through high hills on each side.

The landscape surrounding Binglingsi was remarkable, large rock cliffs and columns surrounding a pristine body of water. The locals have not thought of having an inn there, but I am sure it won’t be long. 

It was a blessing being with Chris looking at the Bingling Sculptures and frescoes. He pointed out to me that although they are ostensibly a Han creation, almost all the murals dating from the 5th- 8th centuries were painted by Tibetan painters. This was obvious to him by the style, iconography and examples of Tibetan script illustrated on the temple walls.  Chris theorized that the Tibetans were the most capable painters at that time and were thus hired to create the murals. Walking around we also noticed old Tibetan graffiti scratched onto some of the walls. The earliset sculptures from the 5th century were found at the top of the cliffs and looked completely Ghandaran. This is the same style found in Pakistan and Afghanistan at that time, meaning Binglingsi represents some of the earliest examples of Buddhist material culture in China. 

Binglingsi was the last stop before leaving Lanzhou for Kunming, Yunnan. More to come!

The Silk Road in Gansu

Chris and I travelled into Gansu and first stopped first at Tianshui 天水, one of China’s most ancient cities. People have been living there since the Neolithic period and the city is also reputed to be the home of both Fuxi 伏羲 and the Yellow Emperor 皇帝. The highlight of Tianshui is Maijishan 麦积山, a huge complex of Buddhist sculptures carved into a towering rock face. They are viewed while ascending staircase perched precariously along the cliff face. Most of these carvings date to the 5th- 8th centuries and many of the figures appear to be non- Chinese.

From Tianshui went south to Gangu and Luomen, viewing more Buddhist and Daoist mountain grottoes, eating delicious food and meeting many super friendly people along the way.Image