Yearning to Breathe Free

China’s notorious smog has made the news again.

I lived through episodes of smog there even in the early 1980s. Back then, individuals did not own cars, but nearly everyone in Xi’an heated and cooked with coal. The greasy pall blanketed the city and invaded our lungs.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi'an, 1981.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi’an, 1981. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

I returned to Xi’an for two months in 2005. People were cooking with natural gas, but coal was still being burned in power plants, and cars were everywhere. The city was shrouded in smog most days. You can read in more detail in this earlier post.

A sunny day in Xi'an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background.

A sunny day in Xi’an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background. ©2005 Patti Isaacs.

Everyone was acutely aware of the problem, and looking for answers. “We do not need sunglasses,” said one of my students. Xi’an’s taxis could run on regular gasoline or natural gas. There was never a line at the petrol station, but the cabs would be lined up for blocks waiting to be refueled at the natural gas facility.

About six weeks into my two-month stay, I began to feel desperate to get out, to go someplace where the air was clear, to take a deep breath that didn’t feel bad. I finally got my chance on my return trip home, when I had to change planes and terminals in Los Angeles. I decided to walk instead of taking the shuttle. I stepped outside, looked up at the blue sky, and drew the Los Angeles air deep into my lungs. It seemed so clean.

Every American who thinks that environmental regulations place too much of a burden on industry should be required to spend a few months in China, breathing smog without the chance to escape.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2909770

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?

 

Brilliant Cultural Revolution Photos

A Cultural Revolution era poster

My photographer cousin, Steve Penland, alerted me to a New York Times book review of images taken by a Chinese newspaper photographer during the Cultural Revolution in the city of Harbin in the northeastern part of the country. Photographer Li Zhensheng knew he was witnessing history and had the courage and foresight to stash negatives under the floorboards in his house. Here’s a link to his publisher’s website.

http://red-colornewssoldier.com/index.html

The Cultural Revolution, characterized by violent swings in policy and violence against those perceived to be “counterrevolutionaries,” ended several years before Gauss and I went to China in 1981, but the damage it did—physical and psychological—remained. Fear of standing out from the crowd, and thus risking criticism or punishment, crippled policymakers and ordinary citizens. History’s impact shaped the choices our friends and colleagues made and directly affected the trajectory of their lives.