Howard's Blog

Western Pacifist Meets Eastern Warriors!

  • April 18, 2012

There are two reasons for the deafening silence from this quarter of late. First, my shiny new MacBook Pro developed a temperamental streak about a week ago, and second, I’ve just been so busy there’s been no time to write. Let me begin with how my techno-savvy grandson Justin solved the computer woes. Not wanting to  burden you with too many details, let me just say that Justin needed to see my screen. So, first he called my cell phone to give me a short primer on how to work the Skype on Maggie’s iPad. Then I was able to train the iPad camera onto the MacBook screen, and Justin was able quite magically to solve the problem. This kid deserves a medal or at least a couple of extra scoops of ice cream!

When we last talked, I think we were anticipating another dinner, courtesy of the Yunnan Arts University senior administration. Once again, ’twas a feast to remember. We counted 20 dishes! The item I think I most enjoyed was the soup of water buffalo tail! (I’m not making this up!) Here’s the photographic evidence…

Soup of Water Buffalo Tail

The table looked like this…

Dinner with the YAU folks and one grimacing Canadian!

Of course there always has to be the post-repast group photograph…

Tummies full; everyone happy!

That was Monday the 9th of April. Rehearsals and conducting classes that week went well (more about which later). Maggie and I were looking forward to our first excursion since arriving in China March 1. Friday morning we (with Mike in tow) took an early flight (2 hrs.) to Xian (pronounced She-ahn), capital of Shaanxi province, north north-east of Kunming. Our reason for going  was to see the famed terra-cotta warriors dating back to 220 BCE and accidentally discovered as recently as 1974. In the intervening 38 years, this monumental archeological site has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and it has also become a major tourist destination, attracting 2 million visitors annually. What we hadn’t anticipated was the city itself. Long before Beijing, Xian was the ancient capital of China, and now is a fully modern metropolis of 8 million. Amber, a delightful (if only sketchily informed) 23 year old guide, and her very efficient driver met us at the airport and we were off on our weekend adventure. The Sheraton Xian North City Hotel was, we thought, adequate…

Middle Kingdom luxury

In fact, it was a luxurious, 5 star establishment, which we enjoyed enormously after our grueling days of sight-seeing.

Roughing it in Xian

Mind you, we didn’t get to the hotel until about 9 that evening after a full day of visiting other noteworthy sights, such as the ancient Xian city wall.

Atop the Xian City Wall - 12 to 14 metres wide on top

Howard and Maggie on the Xian city wall

Saturday was devoted to the terra-cotta warriors, located about an hour south of the city. It was, simply put, a jaw-dropping experience. It all goes back to Emperor QinShihuang, the first Chinese emperor (259-210 BCE). By the age of 39, he had conquered the 6 other states in ancient China and established the Qin (“chin”) dynasty. Progressive in many ways (roads, canals, implementation of  a central government), he was a ruthless despot and he was obsessed with the notion of preparing for the afterlife. With a slave labour force of 720,000 prisoners taken during his subjugation of the 6 other Chinese states (and all of whom were killed when the emperor died), he set about building an underground city populated by thousands of clay warriors, all slightly larger than life-size, and each having distinct facial characteristics. All of the necessities for life were also interred with these terra-cotta warriors. Qin died during one of his many travels throughout the empire. The intrigue that accompanied his demise is a fascinating story. His letter nominating his eldest son to succeed to the throne was not delivered. Instead, another letter was forged, instructing the eldest son to commit suicide and naming another son (a toady to one of Qin’s chief ministers) as the new emperor. Until all this was sorted out, news of Qin’s death had to be kept secret. In the meantime, the  body was decomposing and so, to counteract the stench, a carriage filled with fish accompanied the one bearing the dead emperor. Qin was finally buried in his vast mausoleum in September 210 BCE. His dynasty was doomed, however. Shortly into the reign of the younger son, a peasant rebellion put an end to the Qin dynasty, and the vast underground city lay forgotten for more than 2000 years. It was in 1974, that a group of farmers drilling a well, stumbled upon some pottery fragments and bronze weapons. An archaeological team arrived a few months later, unleashing one of the most ambitious excavation projects ever. There are now three pits (with an area of 16,000, 18,000 and 1,700 square metres respectively) which are open to the public.

Terra-cotta warriors in Pit #1

Terra-cotta horses with knotted tails

A friendly warrior!

But beware of this one!

There is of course no shortage of gift shops where one can purchase the usual worthless trinkets. However, one turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Copies of the book “The Qin Dynasty Terra-Cotta Army of Dreams” (translated from Chinese into many different languages) was being autographed by the very farmer who dug that fateful well back in 1974. He, by the way, is now a wealthy elderly man, spending his days signing books. I of course bought the book just to get his signature.

The discoverer of the terra-cotta warriors signing my copy of the book!


And this is his signature!

Which reminds me of a cute story. On the first couple of pages are photographs of various celebrities visiting the “warriors”. Included are Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton who toured the museum in 1998. Clinton had expressed the wish to meet the farmer who had first discovered the warriors in 1974. The farmer spoke no English and was given a few hasty lessons. He learned to say “hello”. He was taught to say “How are you?” and, the president presumably replying positively, the farmer was to reply “me too”.  Well, as they say, a little learning is a dangerous thing! After saying “hello”, the farmer, understandably somewhat nervous, instead of asking “how are you?”, queried “who are you?”. Mr. Clinton replied, “I’m the president of the United States of America”, to which our farmer friend replied, “Me too!” The story may be apocryphal, but it deserves to be true!

There are so many other important things to see and do in Xian. We spent a couple of delightful hours in the city museum.

Camel with musicians

Buddha in Xian city museum

And we went for a stroll in a gorgeous new city park where we were treated to a spectacular performance by a group of young drummers.

Drumming in the new Xian City Park

I took literally hundreds of photos all weekend, and had a difficult time deciding which ones to include in this blog. However, I’m open to bribes for private showings when I get back home in July!

We arrived “home” in Kunming late Monday, exhausted and exhilarated. Next day it was back to work for me. Fabulous rehearsal with the La Traviata chorus.They’re getting better with every session, and on this occasion they had a surprise for me…they had memorized all the sections we were going to rehearse that day and they assured me they would sing everything “off book” next week as well. I love these kids! The Chenggong campus choir too is making strides in the Mozart Requiem, although their progress must be measured in very small increments. We got through the entire “Introitus” and “Kyrie” yesterday, and with Latin text too!

Rehearsing the YAU chorus in the Mozart Requiem

Mike is a Mozart Requiem veteran; his presence in the tenor section made a huge difference!

Rehearsing the YAU chorus

We’re aiming for a June 19 performance, and today I had a meeting with Kunming Symphony Orchestra officials to explore the possibility of their accompanying the choir. I told them I wouldn’t be able to give a definite go ahead until about the middle of May by which time I should know whether they’ll be ready for performance. Meantime, it’s a continuing joy to see how they respond to this magnificent music. The usual comparisons with other performance standards just don’t apply here; we work as hard as we can and see how far we can get.  Now if I can only get them to leave their cellphones outside the rehearsal room, we’ll be in business!

And so it goes in this vast, fabled, exotic, endlessly fascinating world! It’s getting under my skin, and I’m beginning to love it more every day!

1 Comment on Western Pacifist Meets Eastern Warriors!

  • operajoseph says:
    April 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Bravo Howard! This is the most enjoyable of all your blog entries so far! Loved the story about Xi’an. Which domestic airline did you fly? I flew to Xi’an from Beijing in 1985 on the now-defunct CAAC – then the only airline in China. Had my terrific sightseeing trips and all that, then was trapped in that city for two days because of “inclement weather”… The Xi’an airport at the time was still quite primitive and frankly a bit of a nightmare, and perhaps they didn’t have “instrument landing” at the time! Glad to hear your trip was totally painless. And what a coup to meet the farmer/author! All best, Joseph


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