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A Trip to Henan Province

central plains

Recently an old friend of my wife invited us to her home in Henan province. I came here on my first trip to China in 2007, visiting Shaolin Temple and the city of Luoyang to see the Longmen Buddhist Grottoes. I was particularly excited to be coming back here after almost 10 years, as now I have a much better understanding of Chinese culture and history, there would be a lot to learn from visiting. The plan was to base ourselves in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, and either have our friend take us in her car, or take a short train ride to some surrounding sites of historical interest.

Zhengzhou: Capital of Henan Province

Zhengzhou was really an unattractive city in every sense of the word. The density of high rises, combined with the overcrowding of people and terrible traffic gave the entire city a claustrophobic feel, the dry and dusty air seemed to make the pollution feel all that much worse, to the point that by the end of the day my nose and throat were sore. Zhengzhou comes in at number 10 on the list of most polluted cities in China. Going back to our friends home, the traffic was absolutely gridlocked, scooters and motorbikes whizzed in all directions, and people just walked through the traffic freely. Dinner consisted of the local speciality of pulled noodles in soup, which would be basically all we could find to eat sans Mcdonald’s for the next few days. We turned in early, and got ready for our first trip which would start early in the morning, Kaifeng, a city which boasts a reptutation as capital of seven dynasties, and is supposedly very well preserved.

Kaifeng: Ancient Capital

Kaifeng was the capital of China for seven dynasties and was provincial capital of Henan until Mao moved it to Zhengzhou due to the frequent flooding, and was high on my list of places to visit in China. Our friend drove us an hour or so out of Zhengzhou, into Kaifeng on a hazy, smoggy morning. Pulling into Kaifeng, it was not quite what I expected, it looked run down; sure there were few high rises compared to other cities, but it was grotty and old, old as in it looked like the 1980s, not like the 1880s. However, my spirits lifted as we crossed a moat and then saw the old city walls ahead, entering through a large gate and driving through a street of traditional Chinese houses. I wasn’t quite sure what we were going to see or do, I was just been driven here and taken around. It turned out our friend had planned to take us to a Song Dynasty theme park, called Qing Ming Shang He Yuan, which was built in a replica of the city during the Song Dynasty, and had staff in period costume and little performances in squares around the town. The thing that did impress me here was the reenactment, on horseback, of general Yue Fei defeating the King of Liang, which had soldiers in period costume doing a martial arts performance alongside acrobatics on horseback.

After a lunch of, yes you guessed it, more noodles (this time with donkey meat), we went to the shrine of Lord Bao, a local governor of the Song Dynasty renowned for his sense of justice and the tough legal system he implemented. There were two huge stele in the courtyard, I’m not sure if they were very old or not, but they were totally covered in graffitti, to the point that the original writing was illegible. In the nearby Kaifeng Palace, a sort of mini-Forbidden City, there was a mock up prison where you could see explanations of some of the cruel punishments given out to criminals such as being boiled alive, pulled in half by horses or having ink poured into your nose until you drowned.

Sights all seen, what I really wanted to do was to explore the old streets, not the tourist traps. Although many of the main streets were jazzed up for tourists, the back alleys going off the sides were old, gritty and real. Tiny iron doors which had mostly rusted away had Chinese character couplets over the doors blessing the houses, and old people sat around chatting and playing Mahjong. Passing through a huge gate with Arabic writing on, we entered a large food square, apparently renowned in Henan, Kaifeng street food is a must eat. However it was so dirty, even by my standards, we requested to just go back to Zhengzhou and have a McDonald’s.

Kaifeng I feel on the whole was a bit of a disappointment. I know a lot of people who love the city, perhaps you need to spend much more time to scratch underneath the surface. All I saw was grime and dirt plus some modernly renovated tourist sites, apparently it is a real Mecca for old Chinese culture, but I guess you need contacts to take you to see the right people in the right places.

Yinxu: Birthplace of China

This was the big part of the trip for me. Having mentioned to my professor that I’m going to Henan, and will visit Yinxu, the Shang Dynasty tombs, he suggested for our Chinese characters class I take the opportunity to research Oracle Bone Script, the first ever Chinese characters, which were found inside these very tombs. I took his suggestion, and made this the focus of my trip to Henan.

Arriving in Anyang train station I was immediately taken by the clean, fresh air, especially after the hell-hole of Zhengzhou. The train station, as quite a few are in Henan, was a huge concrete building, menacingly designed to look like a Ding, a huge bronze urn used in temples for offerings, and the station name was written in Oracle Bone Script too. We took a taxi through town, which was suprisingly modern and clean. A typical newly built Chinese town, it had huge multi-laned roads set out in a perfect grid pattern, with high rises either side of the road, and imposing local government offices in neo-Soviet style. We then passed through an old town, of authentic, grubby looking traditional style houses around a small lake, and a couple of temples, before crossing a bridge with huge Shang Dynasty style towers either side.

The Shang Dynasty ruled the area around the Yellow River in modern Henan province from around 1600-1000BC, and is the first dynasty in China to actually have a recorded history, anything before is just myth. However, much of the history of the Shang is attributed to the Han Dynasty scholar Sima Qian, and is also full of mythology. What is certain is that they had their capital was named Yin, hence the name Yinxu (the ruin of Yin), and several tombs and ruins have remained. In modern Chinese, the word for business man is shang-ren, literally meaning “person of the Shang”, which has its origin from this time.

We decided to hire a tour guide to show us around the tombs, which was definitely worth it, although I wasn’t going to pay the extra 100 for an English language guide, as I have little faith in their language level! The guide first took us into the museum and began introducing various bronze ware and other treasures found inside the tombs. A point of interest was the elephant skeletons; supposedly 3000 years ago, central China had elephants, and a little known fact is that the Chinese abbreviation for Henan province, Yu 豫, actually represents a person 予 leading an elephant 象. There were many human remains too; it was common for the Shang kings to make human sacrifices as life held little value with ten slaves being worth only one horse.

Then came the Oracle Bones, my real purpose for visiting. So Oracle Bone Script is the oldest known Chinese writing, and it consists of heiroglyphs etched onto bones or turtle shells. The purpose of these was a form of divination, the bones or shells would then be heated over fire and the cracks which appeared would be interpreted as a sign from Heaven as to whether an activity was to be favourable or not. Much of the questions relate to asking for weather forecasts, or whether certain festivals and rituals should be held or not. There are 4000 Oracle Bone characters, of which scholars can read less than half. Some are obvious rudimentary versions of modern characters, whereas some are totally unrelated.

Luoyang: Another Ancient Capital

I came to Luoyang nine years ago, as part of a trip to Shaolin Temple, so I was keen to return and see the city again with more experienced eyes. Getting of the train on a dull, slightly rainy day, we took a taxi to the Longmen Grottoes, the largest collection of Buddhas carved into rock in the world. The Buddhas are carved into the cliff faces on both sides of the river, and there are literally thousands of them, dating from the Northern Wei, Sui, Tang and Song Dynastys.

Got off to a bad start, as at the ticket office they refused my student card for a discounted ticket, claiming “foreigners are not elligable for discounts”, which is bullshit, as I’ve never been refused before. Getting my full priced, and not cheap, ticket, we headed for the golf-carts which whizz you to the actual grotto several hundred metres away. In the queue was a rowdy tour group of men in their 30s, with their hair dyed in ridiculous colours like pink and green, and equally ridiculously coloured clothes, being led to chant some weird song by a tour guide waving a flag. It felt more like I was waiting for a football match than a holy Buddhist site.

Of course, this being China, there isn’t anything holy about the site any more, its mass tourism in and out. This doesn’t detract from the sheer amazingness of the site though, the largest Buddha having ears which are over a metre long. Unfortunately many of the small Buddhas have been defaced, missing heads and hands, partly due to war and politics, partly due to ending up in various museums or private collections. Luckily most of the Buddhas now are protected from graffitti, although you can see some where people have got past barriers.

On my first trip to Luoyang, I didn’t actually see the city at all, only the Grottoes, so this time we decided to head to the preserved old town, which was much less touristy than I expected. There was a huge reconstructed Sui Dynasty gate, which was really impressive, and inside hosted many shops and restaurants, and once you enter you come to the original old city centre. Some of the building have become tourist souvenir shops, but a lot of them are in fact still inhabited by locals and you can see many old people going about their daily life. Wondering down some small back alleys you feel like time has been forgotten here. This small area can give you a feeling what the city would have been like before all the high rises and concrete blocks took over. In my opinion I feel like Luoyang is a much nicer place than Kaifeng, and there is still so much more to see, and so is definitely deserving of a return visit.

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Chinese New Year with the Dong People of Guizhou

In the southwest of China, Guizhou is one of those provinces that wealthy Chinese roll their eyes at the mention of. The stereotype is a poor backwater with no proper infrastructure. Arriving in Kaili on Chinese New Year, this stereotype appeared to be true. It was an ugly town of square buildings covered in cheap bathroom tiles that had discoloured and faded neon signs pointing to cheap noodle shops. The supermarket was full of people carrying live chickens clucking and squawking, totally unaware of their fate as New Year’ dinner. Kaili is the centre of a large rural area home to many ethnic minorities, but the Miao and Dong are dominant. The Miao tend to get a lot of press, however it was the Dong people of Guizhou, who are much lesser known, were the reason I was here.

Several hours in the back of a rickey minibus I arrived in Zhaoxing, the largest village of the Dong people of Guizhou in the area. If you’ve ever watched old Kung Fu movies and seen those bandit villages in the mountains, then you have a pretty good picture of the place. Set in a valley and surrounded by rice paddies, the entire village was composed of simple wooden houses and the main feature was a huge drum tower, the roof of which
looked like sharks teeth menacingly pointing upwards, and a “wind and rain bridge” which is a roofed bridge used as a social gathering site across the large stream which pierced through the centre of the village.

I was woken up at dawn by the sound of a pig squeeling for well over an hour. I don’t know exactly what they did (and I don’t want to know), but it is an unfortunate tradition in these rural parts to slaughter a pig in as cruel a way as possible. The day got better however as the parades began, and all the villagers got dressed up in traditional costume, with some dressed as mandarins from the imperial court,
criminals and ghosts. The constant firecrackers and cymbal clashing made my ears feel like I was at a rock concert, rather than a tiny Chinese village, and the kids throwing the firecrackers at each other didn’t do much to alleviate that.

Later in the day a huge feast was held, the highlight of which was the incredible roast pork, handed out to everyone present. Delicious crackling fat, and juicy meat aside, it was hard to really enjoy it thinking about what I’d overheard in the morning. I’d drank enough homemade rice wine though to numb my conscience. The day finished with a bonfire and singing and dancing well into the night, little of which I really remember as the rice wine did its job!

Chinese New Year is the biggest festival in China, just like Christmas for us it’s a time for family and feasting. However, modernisation has diluted the festivities, so that most city Chinese do nothing more than have a large dinner and watch the New Year Variety Show on TV. However, if you look hard, and go remote enough, you can find celebrations such as this, particularly among the ethnic minorities, such as the Dong people of Guizhou.



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The Miao and Their Buffalo Fights by David Leffman

The Miao (Hmong) ethnic group of Qiandongnan – southeastern Guizhou province – are hill-dwelling farmers, best known in China for their embroidered jackets and complicated silver assemblages that women wear during the many festivals dotting the Miao calendar.

Buffaloes – aside from their obvious agricultural uses – crop up everywhere in Miao life (not to mention the fifty or more places in Qiandongnan called Niuchang, “Buffalo Market”). They appear in mythological poems and as decoarative motifs on men’s jackets, they get sacrificed as ancestral offerings at various times of the year, and are paired up to fight each other at most – perhaps all – Miao festivals.

These buffalo fights aren’t as cruel as they might sound. Like many farming peoples in China, the Miao look on their buffaloes as workmates in the fields and often treat them with real affection, taking care to groom and look after them and even decorating them in red ribbons for public events. True, injuries do happen at fights, but bulls are usually separated if things get too serious; animals rarely kill each other.

In fact there’s usually more danger for the spectators than the buffaloes at these events. The first two I went to – one at a traditional funeral in the highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the other at the annual Sisters Meal festival at Taijiang, in Guizhou – were held out in the open, with no protective barriers for the audience to hide behind if things got rough.

As a guest of honour I was pushed to the front on both occasions. The two animals launched themselves at each other, collided with a titanic crash, locked horns and began wrestling head-to-head, foaming, snorting and scrabbling for footholds in the dirt. After a few moments the weaker bull turned tail and ran, chased by the victor, scattering spectators like confetti. I was lucky that they always seemed to run away from me.

About the Author: David Leffman is a travel writer and photographer. He was one of the original writers for the Rough Guide series, and has been visiting China since the 1980s, writing and photgraphing, including accompanying George Michael on his historic visit. His latest project has been researching Victorian era adventurer William Mesny and his excellent book, The Mercenary Mandarin, is available on Amazon. More information about him can be found on his website: