The Real Thing in Anyang

Written by Jun 28, 2005 18:06
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.


China's Cultural Treasure in Bone

China's too big. You could spend your whole life travelling around the country and it wouldn't be enough to see everything here. Most travellers only get a couple of weeks, however, in which to squeeze a brief overview of just one or two of China's highlights, and most of those never achieve any intimate connection with what they've come to see. Let's face it - new travellers coming to China rarely have more than a rough idea of what the country really is. They have some vague impression that there's an awesome culture and history about the place, stories of emperors and palaces filled with jade, Buddhism and Kung Fu and old men playing chess. But the standard itinerary of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Terracotta Warriors and the Bund hardly scratches the surface.

If, however, you do have the chance to see a little more, and if you are interested in penetrating the mysterious veil of China a little deeper during the brief time you are here, what should you choose to see? There are loads of old temples and pagodas and parks and mountains all over the country, but if you're just passing through, these places can leave you a little unsatisfied, particularly if these beautiful attractions are littered with stalls selling trinkets. If you want to escape the tourist traps and see the real thing, where do you go?

I found it - something genuine and precious, something that really spoke to me, in a little museum in the small town of Anyang, in Northern Henan province. I haven't been travelling with a guidebook recently, having been misled by them too many times, and have been asking locals instead. The first clue was when a friend told me the following:

To understand modern China, go to Shenzhen; to understand China of 100 years ago, go to Shanghai; to understand China of 1000 years ago, go to Beijing; to understand China of 2000 years ago, go to Xi'an; and to understand China of 3000-5000 years ago, go to Henan.

I'd only really passed through Henan beforehand on my way to more famous places, but I was intrigued by this remark and decided to have a look around the province. Henan is the site of four ancient capitals: Luoyang, Kaifeng, Anyang, and (briefly) Zhengzhou. I knew that the province is the site of some of the earliest archaeological findings of ancient Chinese civilisation, and that on the banks of the Yellow River in Henan, primitive peoples developed the first Chinese culture. So, when I arrived in Anyang, I had the expectation that I'd find something old.

Anyang doesn't rate highly on standard China tour itineraries, and so I hadn't previously heard much about the place. From the front of the train station, I could have been anywhere in Central China - the dusty streets and front courtyard full of travellers from the countryside sleeping on newspapers was already a familiar sight. I bought a map and tried to work out what there was to be seen. An ancient tower didn't seem far away, and so I walked out along Jiefang St towards it.

Wenfeng Tower, otherwise known as Tianning Temple Tower, is several stories high, octagonal in shape, and capped with a Tibetan-style dome. The introductory material told me that it was built over a thousand years ago in 952 AD. It was about to rain, so I rushed across the temple courtyard, itself dotted with a few interesting prayer halls, and took shelter inside, climbing the exceptionally steep staircase to the outer terrace at the top.

The view over Anyang was captivating, but the clouds were gathering quickly, and within a few minutes it began to rain quite heavily. I retreated down the stairs and squatted in a corner, leaning against the wall as the wind whipped through the windows tunnelled into the thick marble, making a terrific noise as if the tower's history were about to end with me inside.

When the storm cleared, I crept out and found a bus headed for the museum I'd seen on the map, the Yin Xu Museum Garden. In the days when Anyang was the capital of all China, it was called 'Yin Du' (Yin Capital) and 'Yin Xu' means 'Yin Ruins', so I was sure I'd find something of distinct historical value.

I did - the Yin Xu Museum is home to the exhibit of the earliest examples of Chinese writing known. I didn't realise this until I stepped off the bus and walked down the long road through the park, surrounded by trees and swooping swallows, said in China to indicate a favourable place. When I reached the doors, I suddenly realised what the museum was and kicked myself that I hadn't remembered before. I raced inside excitedly and hunted through the exhibits - mostly replicas of the dig sites - until I found them. Simple shard of bone with tiny hieroglyphs etched on the surface.

What's so special about scraps of bone? How on Earth could a dull museum exhibit be the so-called 'real thing' on the China travelling road? To answer, you have to know some things about Chinese writing.

Everyone knows that China uses picture-writing instead of phonetic letters like we do in English, and for this reason, many Westerners are of the opinion that Chinese writing is something of a pretty anachronism. I've read articles that say that Chinese is an inefficient language, and that the memorisation of all those incomprehensible scrawlings retards the education of Chinese youth.

It's nonsense - Chinese writing is far more than pictorial script: each character is a very carefully designed code block that not only represents meaning, but also contains clues to pronunciation, elements that identify the general category of the word, and some kind of poetic image to flesh out the semantics. Those Westerners who start to study Chinese characters usually reach a moment of insight when they conceive that the written language is a complex, interconnected network of symbols that unite phonetics with meaning; and it's at that moment of clarity when it becomes obvious that written Chinese is not only the world's greatest language, but also the world's most complex and rich cultural achievement.

People who want some kind of deep impression of China need to know something of how the written language works in order to really get there. That's why, to me, that moment, looking over the bones in the Yin Xu museum, I really felt the significance and the ramifications of what I was looking at - the linguistic ancestors of a language I've spent a lot of time trying to learn. I could see the grubby clanspeople clad in animal skins bending over the bones with a sharp rock those thousands of years ago - the very bones I was looking at now - and scratching in a series of basic symbols they'd begun to adopt - a circle with a dot for the sun; stick figures in action, fishing, hunting; animals and trees. Combinations of these represented more abstract concepts - a moon next to the sun captured the idea of 'brightness'. Then, I could see many thousands of years later, when the generations of scholars in Anyang and Kaifeng sat together and worked on a plan to elaborate and standardise these characters that had been developing over the centuries - ensuring words that shared similar pronunciation and meaning had similar elements to connect them. I saw the characters on the bone shimmer before my eyes, and reform themselves into the words I'd seen all over China, on signs, bottles, cards - these etchings flowing out from Henan in a torrent of voracious words like the waters of the Yellow River, flooding the entire country with an indelible culture, instruments in uniting and preserving this, the world's oldest continuous civilisation.

 More Henan Travel Reviews
Comments (0)

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.