Looking beyond the Terracotta Warriors

Xi'an is an interesting city to explore when you've had your fill of the famous sites of ancient history.

As the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the capital of 13 dynasties and the resting place for 72 emperors, Xi’an boasts an incredible amount of history.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the brilliant halo of sites like the Terracotta Warriors, dozens of emperors’ tombs, old palaces and numerous ancient temples and towers. That’s, of course, where most tourists flock.

I was thinking about all this as I strolled along the red lantern-flanked streets of the Shaanxi Province capital. Some 2,500 years of history does give Xi’an a special cachet, but what happens if we focus the looking glass more recently?

I found the answer at the Xi’an City Memories Museum in a tumbledown former steel factory in the city’s eastern suburb. It displays more than 5,000 items collected from ordinary Xi’an families over the past 40 years.

Bamboo baskets, wooden barrels, iron woks, tin pots, aluminum lunchboxes, enamel cups, cookie cans, oil bottles, spatulas and farm tools are but a few of the items of daily life that illustrate how Xi’an has developed in more modern times.

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Visitors at the Xi'an City Memories Museum can walk through the modern history and lifestyle of Xi'an from a people perspective.

“I observe the city and its people from a perspective of an ordinary citizen,” says Song Qun, a Xi’an artist who is the museum’s founder.

The trigger for the idea for such a museum came when he couldn’t find a clear, readable book about Xi’an’s last 100 years.

Song interviewed and filmed 1,000 Xi’an families, collecting their stories about life in the city. Individual memories gradually coalesced into an overarching retrospective of Xi’an.

“What we see in an official museum is always about the country or royalty, especially in an old capital city like Xi’an,” Song says. “But the lives of ordinary people sometimes get neglected.”

Indeed, what makes Xi’an the city it is today are not only the 13 dynasties or ancient emperors. The city’s population has soared from 400,000 in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, to 9 million today. Along with that surge came economic development.

“My collections might not be as refined as those in big museums,” Song says. “Though more coarse and down-to-earth, they present a valuable insight into how a city’s residents view their surroundings.”

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Old photos

Tan Weiyun / SHINE

Used enamel bowls and plates

Tan Weiyun / SHINE

Various old turners

I was stuck on a city street after 11pm one night due to serious traffic gridlock in the downtown area. The bus lines and Metro were already shut down, and the taxi I was in didn’t move for 20 minutes. The lines of red-brake lights seemed to mirror the red lanterns hung along the roadside.

“Red lights dispel evil spirits because we have so many tombs underground,” the taxi driver said jokingly.

The Ming Dynasty Circumvallation might be one big reason for traffic jams. About 12 meters high, it is China’s biggest and best-preserved ancient city wall. With a girth of more than 13 kilometers, the wall surrounds the 11-square-kilometer Old Town.

The city wall protected old Xi’an, but today it has become a hindrance for transport systems and construction.

Shanghai dismantled its old city wall in 1912. Guangzhou tore down its walls in 1917. Beijing in the 1950s decided that it was crucial to go ahead with city construction.

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The Yongding Gate of the Ming Dynasty Circumvallation

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Historic buildings within the city wall

Urban development vs heritage protection. That is a tricky issue for any old city. Proposals to dismantle Xi’an walls have been beaten back six times.

“I hate the wall every time I drive across it, but as a Xi’an native, I also love it because it’s the emblem and pride of my hometown,” the taxi driver told me.

The city wall is worthy of a visit, I decided. So I hopped on a bike the next day to inspect it more closely.

It marks such a dramatic delineation between old and new in Xi’an. Inside the wall are old buildings with traditional gray-roof architecture; outside it are towering steel-and-glass structures.

The Old Town is a perfect setting for the Xicang Flea Market, which has been operating for 120 years. You can get pretty much anything you want there — fish, birds, crickets, fruits, vegetables, flowers, old books, antiques, rat poison, clothes, secondhand shoes, medicine, grains, spices, dentures, to name just a few.

It’s a higgledy-piggledy bazaar of free-wheeling trading. Vendors are unlicensed. Local government’s attempts to close the market have failed, such is its enduring popularity.

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You can get pretty much anything you want at the Xicang Flea Market.

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Every Thursday and Saturday when the market is open, people jostle along crowded lanes to look for bargains. It was quite an eye-opening journey for me. Vendors were shouting sales pitches, shoppers were squabbling over low-priced merchandise, and the air was redolent with a heady mixture of different aromas.

The market has become a symbol of the “melting pot” that has helped the city thrive for hundreds of years.

Xi’an has been a magnet for migrants since days of yore. More than 2,200 years ago, skilled incomers from other states settled here. About 1,400 years ago, migrants from Japan, India and West Asia gathered in Xi’an for trading and cultural exchanges, helping push the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) to its heyday. Xi’an was a prominent center of finance, culture and politics.

Today, the ancient city is still seeking fresh blood. Rapid development opened a big job market. A local friend told me Xi’an police officers even started yelling out on the streets: “Anyone who wants a Xi’an hukou (residence permit) just follow me!”

Since March, the city has implemented incentives in housing, work, medical care and education to attract more young talent to the city.

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What would the ancient Buddhist monk Xuanzang think of modern Xi'an? His statue is stony silence on the subject.

I stood in Dayan Tower Square, gazing up at the tall statue of Xuanzang (AD 602-664), a monk who traveled to India for Buddhist scriptures before returning to Xi’an and who is the inspiration for the world-famous literary classic “Journey to the West.”

I wondered what the Buddhist monk was thinking when he returned to find busy roads, shopping centers and throngs of people. Maybe he was puzzled at the pace of change. Or perhaps he was just content to see that the old city was treasuring its history while still moving forward resolutely.

If you go:

How to get there: It’s a three-hour flight from Shanghai to Xi’an, or you can take a high-speed train, which takes about six hours.

• Xi’an City Memories Museum
Address: 109 Xingfu Rd S., inside a former steel factory
Admission: Free

• Xicang Flea Market
Address: northern side of the Miaohou Street, northwest corner of Xi’an’s Old Town
Date: Every Thursday and Saturday


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