Bound Feet

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi'an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi’an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

Just today a friend posted a short video about foot binding on Facebook. Living in interior, rural China in 1981-82, I often saw elderly women with bound feet; the practice continued longer in the country’s interior than in the big coastal cities of China’s south and east.

In an earlier post, I mentioned elderly women with bound feet who nonetheless made the arduous climb to the top of Mt. Huashan not far from Xi’an. It was a challenging climb for me with my youth and big feet. I was doubly impressed by the women, many in their 70s and 80s, who picked their way  up 5000 vertical feet on lotus feet.

View the video here:

Scroll’s Facebook video of bound feet


Xi’an’s Terracotta Army—influenced by the Greeks?


Terracotta Soldiers

By Peter Morgan from Nomadic – Detail, Terracotta Warriors, CC BY 2.0,

A controversial new theory has arisen about Xi’an’s famous army of terracotta soldiers. I first saw them in 1981, only six years after they were discovered in a farmer’s field east of the city.

New research—and the results of a genetic study—hint that Western explorers may have reached China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo. Some experts think ancient Greeks may have inspired and helped build China’s famous Terracotta Army.

The BBC reports that the new theory is based on evidence from excavations at the tomb of China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, as well as the results of a genetic study. Read the full article here:

Did those who made the terracotta soldiers learn from Greek sculptors?


Xi’an Food Gets Famous

This makes me a little happy…and a little sad. I’ve loved that Xi’an food has been my little secret. But after Anthony Bourdain discovered Xi’an Famous Foods in New York people are learning about the region’s spicy, tangy cuisine. Here are a couple of shots from restaurants I frequented when I lived in Xi’an, and a link to Business Insider’s profile of the New York chain.

Xi’an Famous Foods gets noticed again

Street Food

Meats, vegetables, and tofu ready to be skewered and grilled at a sidewalk eatery


“Pants Belt Noodle”—a Xi’an specialty. Often served in the leftover broth from Spicy Fish Head. Sounds weird, tastes amazing!


Golden Autumn in Xi’an


The instant I saw the landscape in this photo, I thought, “This must be just south of Xi’an.” Sure enough, when I read the full article from I discovered that this 1400-year-old gingko tree sits in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple in the Zhongnan range of Shaanxi’s Qinling mountains.

Foothills of the Qinling Mountains south of Xi'an, Shaanxi. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

Foothills of the Qinling Mountains south of Xi’an, Shaanxi. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

In 1981 Gauss and I went with our students to nearby Cuihuashan. It had not been developed as a tourist destination and was a poor but scenic agricultural area.


Rice paddy at the base of Cuihuashan. Photo © Patti Isaacs.


Every bit of arable land was used. Photo ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

The following spring we were able to bike to a nearby monastery, one of the few left intact following the Cultural Revolution. Steve Jackson (far left in the photo below), another American teacher, rode with us. He got a flat tire just south of the city and when we stopped for a quick roadside repair we drew a crowd of onlookers who were quite willing to give advice to the guy fixing the innertube.


Steve Jackson (left) looks on as a roadside repairman fixes his flat tire. Photo ©Patti Isaacs.

Monks spread grain on pavement to dry at the Xing Jiao monastery in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.

Monks spread grain on pavement to dry at the Xing Jiao monastery in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.


Inside the monastery. Photo ©Patti Isaacs

For more gingko tree eye candy, visit the Chinese website where it originally appeared, or go to This Is Colossal for English captions.

Chinese National Day, October 1

In America, it’s July 4. In China, October 1 is the national holiday, and the beginning of a one-week holiday in honor of the anniversary of founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Here’s how Gauss and I celebrated National Day in Xi’an in 1981, when the Republic celebrated its 32nd birthday.

October First—National Day—in Xingqing Park, Xi'an. ©1981 Patti Isaacs

October First—National Day—in Xingqing Park, Xi’an. ©1981 Patti Isaacs

With no work the long week stretched before us. We felt bored and homesick. Adding to my funk was a nasty cold verging on bronchitis. The evenings were turning colder, and charcoal burners were firing up all over the city. The air was becoming thick and sooty.

The daughters of one of the scholars Gauss had helped back in Minnesota knocked on our door that morning.

“Please come with us to visit the park across the street,” the older daughter said.

Like museums in the U.S. and Europe, parks in China were often walled off with an entry gate and ticket sellers. How different this was from home, where you could wander into the park to eat your bag lunch, throw a Frisbee, or take a stroll after dinner, any old day.

Most days the park was nearly deserted but today, the place was as packed as the Minnesota State Fair on a warm Saturday. It was hard to move, and curious people pressed in on us, eager to get a glimpse of the foreigners.

“It’s free because of National Day,” one of the girls told us.

Normally it cost 4 fen (2 cents) to get in.

At home, we would go out of town for a holiday, but for Chinese people, going to the park was a twice- or thrice-yearly treat.

The park had walking paths, a willow-shaded pond with rowboats to rent, and a picturesque crooked bridge where a professional photographer had set up a booth. Few people had their own cameras, so for a yuan he would take your picture, and a week later you could pick up a black and white print.

And on this day, they could enjoy the added novelty of two tall foreigners with a camera. Whenever we stopped to take photos with the girls, a crowd gathered. We found ourselves darting from one place to another to find a spot where we wouldn’t be followed and stared at, but such a place simply didn’t exist. It was an interesting experience, but hardly a relaxing one, and after about an hour we headed back to our apartment.

Under the Dome

I’ve posted this photo before. It was taken in Xi’an on a rather ordinary day in 2005. The sun is a faint orange dot visible above and to the right of the small rectangular building on the horizon. I really enjoyed my return to Xi’an, but after two months I was dying to get home, primarily to breathe some clean air. I saw blue sky about 20-30% of my time there, but mostly it was gray, hazy, and nondescript.

SunnyDayIn Xian

A movie about air pollution in China, “Under the Dome” was released just a few weeks ago. I wanted to link to it because it explores the concerns of ordinary Chinese people about their polluted environment in much greater depth, and from their point of view, not mine as an outsider. has a great summary and short clip of the movie if you don’t have time to watch the whole film:

The Upworthy summary highlights many of the same things my Chinese friends discussed with me. I told them that we used to have prodigious pollution in the U.S. as well, citing big industrial eastern cities like Pittsburgh. They wanted to know how we cleaned up the air.

Technology initially played a big part in it. But now we’ve taken care of much of our pollution problems by outsourcing them, along with our manufacturing jobs, to China—but that’s another issue, and it’s addressed in the full movie. If Upworthy is too radical for your taste, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube—with English subtitles, but not the summary—here:

And the movie gets into topics like alternative fuels, urban planning, and public policy in a very accessible way that anyone can understand.

The Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered the movie removed from Chinese websites after 300 million views. Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote about it here:

Dancing Grannies

The Christian Science Monitor just published an article about the culture clash between China’s young, prosperous urban dwellers and the old guard accustomed to collective activities and neighborhood loudspeakers.

In 1981 we were awakened each morning by the rhythmic squawking of the Happy Drill Sergent, who barked out the numbers one through eight while heroic music played in the background. Good citizens were supposed to do calisthenics to this beat, but in fact most ignored it.

Dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005.

Dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard. © Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Middle-aged women dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005. ©Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Middle-aged women dancing and drumming in an apartment courtyard, 2005. ©Patti Isaacs, 2005.

Television and recorded music were rare luxuries. There were barely any bars in China, let alone karaoke, so local people gathered in parks to dance and sing. In Xi’an this meant Qinqiang, Shaanxi opera. People gathered most afternoons just outside the city wall near Heping gate to sing and play the traditional music. A friend told me that everyone knows the stories and songs the way Americans know nursery rhymes or Christmas carols.

Singing Shaanxi Opera just outside Heping Gate, Xi'an, 2005

Singing Shaanxi Opera just outside Heping Gate, Xi’an, 2005

When I returned to Xi’an after nearly a quarter century, the city looked completely different. Many of the old style homes within the city wall had been replaced by modern mid-rise apartments. I worried that the place had lost its charm, but when I biked to Heping Gate I was gratified to see that the heart of old Xi’an continued to beat in the center of the city: The Qinqiang tradition continued even then.

American teacher Kandace Einbeck and I joined the ladies drumming and dancing.

American teacher Kandace Einbeck and I joined the ladies drumming and dancing.

Visiting the north side of the city, I came upon a group of women dancing and drumming in the courtyard of an apartment. It was midday, so I assumed it was OK to join them and add to the din. Perhaps the neighbors weren’t so happy!