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Notes on the Geography of China: Xi'an

Xi'an, near the confluence of the Wei and Yellow rivers, was China's capital during the Han Dynasty, when it was called Changan, again during the Tang Dynasty, when it was still called Changan, and again during the Sui Dynasty, when it was called Daxing.  Its most striking relic from imperial times, however, is its great wall, which was built by the Ming, whose capital was in Beijing.  Unlike Beijing, Xi'an has managed to keep its wall and put it to good use as a tourist attraction.  At the same time, Xi'an has grown far beyond that wall and welcomed, even within the old city, both the low-rise residential blocks of the Communist era and the emblems of the consumer society that has virtually replaced it.  Finding anything of Old China within the walls is a challenge. 

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The main east gate.  Traffic flows in the traditional pattern, which is to say through gates on either side of this protuberance or barbican bulging from the main wall.

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The same gate from inside the gate-yard. Highrises are kept outside the wall.

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The view from the top.  The wall is rectangular and has a total length exceeding eight miles.  Classic manuals governing Chinese capitals say that such cities should be oriented to the compass point and be penetrated by three gates on each side, dividing the city into nine superblocks.  Xi'an doesn't quite conform--some gates have been added; others, blocked--but it comes very close to the ideal.  Strikingly, it is much smaller than Tang Changan, whose wall encompassed not only Ming Xi'an but an area perhaps seven times as great--very nearly as great as the area of the modern city of 6,000,000.

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The view from the southeast corner of the wall and looking along the south wall.

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The city side of the wall; the contrast of low buildings within and high without is striking.

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Land is too expensive for much land to remain open; here, a market is squeezed inside the southeast corner of the wall.

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Nearby, residential blocks.

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Street trees along one of the north-south axes.

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The city's main north-south axis, Nan Dajie--"South Avenue"--enters the city here at the south wall and continues north to the Drum Tower in the distance.  Beyond the tower, which is not at the center of the city but about two-fifth's of the way to the north wall, the street continues as Bei Dajie--"North Avenue."

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Ramp up to the Drum Tower.

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View from the Drum tower over the sterile park between it and the Bell Tower. The buildings on the far side of the park line Xi'an's main east-west street, Xi Dajie and Dong Dajie--predictably, West and East Avenues.

The park design, by Zhang Jinqiu (1996), is for some reason highly praised by Peter Rowe and Seng Kuan in Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China (2002). 

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Stroll along Dong Dajie. 

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How better to show your with-it credentials than naming your shop after your website?

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Not familiar?  Well, Samuel and Kevin is part of Baleno, which is part of something else.  The company has almost 800 stores in China alone.

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Bad enough to name your store in a language that most of your customers and employees can't read; take it another step and sell equally foreign wedding dresses.  Then try to say with conviction that globalization has nothing to do with Westernization.

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Ah, a name foreigners recognize.

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And more.

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Commendable honesty.

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Need a breath of air? We've gone slightly northwest of the Drum Tower to the Huajuexiang mosque.  It was built in 1392 during the Ming Dynasty and restored in 1606 and again in 1764, under the Qing.

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The grounds are a narrow rectangle with an east-west distance five times greater than its north-south distance.  This creates a problem, since mosques are usually oriented in the direction of Mecca. In this case, cardinal axiality wins. 

Here, the wooden archway at the entrance to the mosque.

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The view back through the gate to a screen wall. Normally, such a screen wall would block the view from the street beyond, but in this case there is no street behind the wall, which instead marks the east boundary of the mosque property.  The entrance is past the gate and to the left.

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It may not look like your prototypical mosque, but hang on.

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A second gateway, from which the very Chinese axiality and symmetry of the mosque is plain.

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Stone gateway with tablet pavilions rising behind it on either side.

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Octagonal self-examining (xingxin) or Bangke Tower, serving as the minaret from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.

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The Unmatched Pavilion (the name comes from the fact that it has no twin)is said to resemble a phoenix about to take flight.

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Notice anything obviously Islamic as we continue past another pair of flanking tablet pavilions and toward a platform beyond the central door? 

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How about here?

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Can't miss it now.

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"The mosque is the house of pious people."  (The phrase is not from the Qu'ran.)

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This, on the other hand, certainly is: "In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate."

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Gates on the west side of the courtyard of the prayer hall.

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Another view of the courtyard, with the Unmatched Pavilion in the center-left.

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Carving detail in the courtyard.

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Eaves of the prayer hall, seen from the alley north of the mosque. To create a deep prayer hall, the two roofs overlap.

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Sure enough, and despite all tradition, the prayer hall's mihrab is oriented due west, not toward Mecca.

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Though the grounds are open to the public, the hall is closed except to Muslims, a point that's irksome until you think of the difficulties the small Muslim community has here, where, to quote from a tiny pamphlet published by the Management Committee of Xi'an Great Mosque, "Owing to the correct religious policies for the minority nationalities by the Communist Party and the People's Government, the authorities concerned allocate special funds for the renovations of the mosque...." 

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Ceiling detail in the prayer hall.

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Outside, Huajue Lane skirts the mosque and borders the heavily rebuilt Muslim quarter.

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Along it, bread is cooked over a barrel oven.

Recommended reading on Xi'an: Zou Zongxu, The Land Within the Passes: A History of Xian, Viking, 1991.  For the Huajuexiang mosque, see Sun Hazhang, Ancient Chinese Architecture: Islamic Buildings, Springer-Verlag, 2003.


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