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?

 

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

DSC00245

“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

GoldenGingko

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  www.thisiscolossal.com 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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

http://www.yicai.com/images/2015/11/4715614.html

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/11/an-ancient-chinese-gingko-tree-drops-an-ocean-of-golden-leaves/

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.

Sunnier Days Ahead?

SunnyDayIn Xian

If you look above and just to the right of the squarish building in the distance, you’ll see a faint orange dot. This was the sun on a “clear” (i.e., no clouds) day, struggling to shine through Xi’an’s prodigious smog.

I loved returning to Xi’an in 2005 but after two months there, I was desperate to go someplace where I could breathe a big lungful of clean air. When I flew home I had to change planes and terminals in LA. After the 14 hour transpacific flight I decided to stretch my legs and walk instead of taking the tram. I stepped outside the building and looked up to see blue sky, paused, and breathed deeply. Aaahhh! Then it occurred to me: I was in Los Angeles. Compared to China, the air seemed pristine.

It’s not like the Chinese were oblivious to their terrible air quality. Everyone talked about it, and when I told my friends that our industrial cities used to be that way but no longer were (think Pittsburgh in the 1950s) they all asked how the U.S. had accomplished this.

Even at the end of 2005 I saw efforts by the Chinese to change the situation. Xi’an’s taxis could run on either standard petrol or much cleaner natural gas. You could drive right into a conventional gas station without a wait, but there was always a line of taxis at least a quarter mile long waiting to fuel up with natural gas.

There may be a lot of things we don’t like about Chinese government, but they are efficient at enacting change when they want to. Within five years of my leaving Xi’an, they had built a subway system in the city. And I’m sure there was a subsidy for those taxis to use natural gas.

This article from the Sierra Club magazine gives us reason to be at least a bit optimistic.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-2-march-april/feature/clearing-skies#1

Xi’an Food–The Secret is Out!

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

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

A radical change between my two experiences in Xi’an was in food. In 1981 there were few restaurants and even for home cooks, the selection of ingredients was limited. When I returned in 2005, residents of the ancient city seemed to be making up for the culinary experiences they had been deprived of during the hard times of the late 20th century. Their exuberant cuisine could be sampled on the streets or in exclusive restaurants where willowy silk-clad waitresses brought dishes garnished with orchids.

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

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

One of our most memorable meals in 1982 happened when our student, Aaron Li, took us for yang ro pao mo—Xi’an lamb stew—at the one restaurant in town that served it. Now you can find restaurants all over town that serve the dish, as well as other local specialties: spicy noodles, “Xi’an hamburger,” dumplings, and soups seasoned with fiery red peppers and tongue-numbing Chinese peppercorns. The food is addictive and I try to replicate it at home when I can.

Xi’an cuisine has been in the U.S. for a few years, courtesy of Jason Wang, who started a little chain of restaurants in New York called Xi’an Famous Foods. http://xianfoods.com/

I eat there whenever I go to New York—the noodles are to die for but the Yang ro pao mo falls short of the true Xi’an experience. It’s definitely worth a visit. And just this week Jason Wang appeared on the public radio show The Splendid Table. http://www.splendidtable.org/story/xian-famous-foods-bringing-a-little-known-chinese-cuisine-to-new-york-city

Fish Head Soup (yü tou)

Quiet City

August, 1981

I was surprised as the plane began to descend. I saw no cues that we were anywhere near a city: no street lights in sight, no ribbon highways of white headlights and red tail lights, no neon signs. Shouldn’t we be in the city of Xi’an? What was going on? Only when we got within feet of the ground could I see a string of lights casting a weak glow on the runway. It was 9:00 p.m.

After landing, we walked out into cool, misty air and then into a building that made me think of a small-town armory, bare and lit with naked fluorescent tubes. Like other “nice” places we’d seen during our first week in China, the airport looked like a worn out version of a pretty place, with high ceilings, fancy moldings and unused decorative light fixtures. It was furnished with crinkly brown vinyl sofas. Papers, apple cores and other refuse littered the floor. Chairman Mao smiled down from a prominent place. We had finally arrived in the city that would be our home for the next year.

A posse consisting of the university president, a driver, and two handlers from the Foreign Affairs office had driven out in a single car to greet us. Counting Gauss and me—and the handler dispatched to Guangzhou to fetch us—we now totaled seven. Incredibly, since we were going to one of China’s leading technical universities, nobody had considered the logistics. There was not enough room in the vehicle to take us back to the campus. At this time of night, and this far from town, there were no taxis. We would have to make the trip in installments.

Gauss and I waited for another hour in the shabby terminal with half our luggage until the car returned with only a driver and one handler. We had left Minnesota weeks ago, driven across the United States, flown across the Pacific, and spent several days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. The day’s flight from southern China had been delayed several hours, and by now we were dead tired and ready to finally be getting to our new “home.”

Crammed in the thickly upholstered back seat of a tubby little car reminiscent of a relic from my childhood, we bumped down the pitch-black streets with the headlights off. The driver periodically flashed them on for a second or two as if to get a quick mental picture of what was ahead, and then shut them off again. We were too tired to ask why, and in any event, we had seen much that puzzled us. There were more questions to ask than there was time to answer them. We seemed to be driving through a ghost town: the roads were devoid of pedestrians and any other vehicles, and we were unable to see beyond the ten-foot walls that lined the boulevard. I was too puzzled to find this alarming or worrisome. Instead, I gulped in snatches of visual information when I could.

Occasionally in the distance, I saw a single bulb casting a circle of light in the middle of an intersection, the adjacent streets swallowed by the darkness. Our car took several turns, the last one through an opening in one of the high walls. Finally I could see low brick apartment buildings, a few windows glowing dimly. The car slowed to a crawl and pulled up onto the dirt behind one of them.

White Rabbit

August, 1981

On our last morning in Guangzhou, the car took us to the airport for a noon flight that the CTS personnel had booked for us. The Jiaotong University representative would be accompanying Gauss and me to Xi’an; Yang was to make sure all three of us got on the right plane.

The terminal, a single open room with a barrel ceiling and full-length windows that looked out onto the tarmac, was a tropical-latitude version of the World War II-era airport that served my home town of Minneapolis until the early 1960s. It was not air-conditioned. Fans turning lazily overhead stirred up the sticky air; benches were cool woven rattan.

At the ticket counter, we learned that our flight had been delayed for at least four hours. Most passengers seemed well-prepared for the lengthy wait: surrounded by a hodgepodge of parcels and luggage, they would periodically root through to extract an orange or some cookies for a snack, alternately snoozing, visiting, and smoking. Men and women alike were comfortably dressed in light cotton shirts and dark cotton pants, nearly indistinguishable from the peasants we’d seen tending the rice paddies. Chinese society was so homogeneous that even those rare individuals in a position to fly on airplanes dared not stand out by dressing ostentatiously. A few flight attendants who worked the international routes looked startlingly chic by comparison, slim young women in narrow, knee-length gray skirts and fitted blouses.

There was no restaurant in the terminal. Our stomachs growled, and Yang, knowing he had time to spare, left the building to find some food. He returned half an hour later with lychees, oranges, and crackers.

Finally, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were directed out onto the blistering runway and up the stairs into an ancient Russian Ilyushin 18 propeller plane. The aisle was flanked by two rows of sagging seats covered in white sheeting that refused to assume the full-upright position. Some had seat belts made of army-green webbing and leather, but most people didn’t use them.

The cabin looked like someone’s messy living room, stuff piled every which way in the aisles and on the unused seats: big cardboard boxes, net bags filled with pineapples, grapefruits, and stinky durians; rattan cages of chickens; mysterious bundles covered in white sheeting. The percentage of the Chinese population in a position to fly was small indeed—high-ranking civil servants and academicians, perhaps. There was little economic stratification, and few goods were transported from one part of the country to another. Anyone lucky enough to be traveling from the wealthy south to the isolated north used the flight as an opportunity to stock up on hard-to-find items.

Three-fourths of the plane’s fifty or so occupants smoked cigarettes, which they did not extinguish for takeoff. The air was blue with smoke. On this domestic flight, our cabin attendants were young ruddy-faced women wearing baggy white shirts and even baggier navy trousers. One of them, a sturdy, pigtailed girl, sealed the door with a little grunt trapping in the stifling air and picked her way around the parcels in the aisle to her seat the back of the cabin. The plane taxied to the end of the runway and then the pilot started to rev up the engines, causing the aircraft to shudder until I thought the wings might shake loose. Then the brake was released, but instead of shooting down the runway as I’d expected, the plane slowly started to amble down the tarmac: putt…putt…putt. I wondered if we’d really get airborne. After what seemed like too long to have any runway remaining, we finally left the ground, ascending at a painfully shallow angle.

Ilyushin II-18. Original image at http://www.vectorsite.net/avil18.html

The plane had little round windows with free-hanging aqua blue curtains that swayed as we banked. Occasionally a precariously placed parcel would fall, eliciting a screech from one of the chickens and further blocking the aisle.

There were no in-flight facilities for serving food; instead, we made an unscheduled meal stop in Changsha, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, where everybody deplaned and walked across the runway and a street to a dining room to eat. This was the most basic place we’d eaten in yet: battered vinyl cloths on the tables, a stack of badly chipped bowls and well-worn chopsticks, rice with pebbles in it, some kind of stir-fried mystery food with chunks of fat and bones, and people spitting those pebbles and bones on the floor everywhere.

After about 45 minutes, we were herded back aboard to resume our flight to Xi’an. Once airborne again, the cabin attendants elbowed their way through the junk in the aisles, passing out sticky White Rabbit brand taffy and damp wash cloths. Unlike commercial flights back home, we never flew higher than about 8,000 feet. We watched the landscape beneath us until the light faded altogether.