Friday, April 25, 2008

Taiyuan : Dragon City

Ziying's Brush

IT IS not without reason that Shanxi’s 2,500-year-old municipality of Taiyuan is called Dragon City. Not only was it home to several emperors, the most famous of whom are the Tang dynasty’s great Li Shimin and China’s only woman emperor Wu Zetian, but its location smack in the middle of Shanxi makes it a natural choice as provincial capital. Taiyuan is also a centre of the province’s all-important coal and steel industries.

Interestingly, the very name of Li Shimin’s dynasty originated in Taiyuan. In the remote past, a state called Tang was located here and when Li’s father became emperor, he named his dynasty Tang in honour of his home district.

Perhaps less well-known is the fact that Taiyuan is deemed the ancestral source of the Wang clan.

Wang (Ong, Wong) is a common enough surname amongst people of Chinese ancestry all over the world. But last April, Xinhua News Agency reported that Wang, meaning “king”, has overtaken Li to become the most common in China, accounting for 7.25% of the population, or a staggering 95 million people. A subsequent report says in Beijing alone, more than 10% of the residents carry this name.

There are several sources of this ancient name whose origins date back 2,600 years. With few exceptions (such as minorities who adopted the name), the roots of the Wang clan can be traced to the royal family of the Zhou dynasty.

The most prolific branch appears to originate from Zi Qiao, the Crown Prince Jin of eastern Zhou. The story goes that this outspoken prince offended his father the king who demoted him to commoner and banished him. Prince Jin eventually settled in Taiyuan. After he died his son adopted Wang as the family name as he was already commonly addressed as such due to his royal lineage.

Over time the Wang clan spread to other parts of China. In Fujian a military commissioner named Wang Shenzhi even set up a short-lived kingdom called Min with the capital at Fuzhou after the collapse of the Tang dynasty.

In the 1990s the Shanxi government refurbished the 500-year-old mansion of a high ranking Ming dynasty official surnamed Wang and converted it into a memorial hall for Zi Qiao, so that his descendants from all over the world can have a place to gather to pay respects to their root ancestor.

Called the Jinxi Academy, the hall is situated on the grounds of Jinci, a memorial temple complex 25km from Taiyuan.

Jinci’s beginnings are so ancient nobody knows when it was first built but it is believed to have its origins in a 3,000-year-old memorial temple to Shuyu, the first duke of Tang in the western Zhou dynasty who was noted for his wisdom and good governance. After he died, his son re-named the territory Jin to honour the river that flowed through it, hence the memorial temple to his father is called Jinci. After 30 centuries this legacy is still alive in Shanxi whose short name “Jin” recalls the ancient state.

Behind Jinci’s imperial vermilion walls the extensive temple grounds seem like a palace garden in a Chinese landscape painting. A stream winds around “flying” bridges of white stone, grassy lawns and graceful pavilions, terraces and halls amidst tall willows and ancient cypresses. The oldest, a cypress called Zhoubo with leathery, weather-beaten bark, was planted 30 centuries ago and so tired it is almost reclining horizontally.

The oldest and most important edifice in Jinci is the imposing 1,000-year-old, 19m high Shengmudian or Saint Mother Hall which commemorates the mother of Shuyu. Topped with a double-layered roof of finest blue and yellow glazed tiles, Shengmudian is said to represent Song dynasty architecture at its finest.

Inside the stark, bare hall, 45 gorgeously moulded clay sculptures of Song palace ladies and court eunuchs stand against the walls waiting to serve the Saint Mother. The subtle expressions on their milk-white, refined faces reveal each individual’s mood, feelings and personality. A happy, confident beauty; a resigned dowager fallen from favour; a sad serving maid deep in reflection. Each lady has a unique hairdo and gesture and their flowing court garments, shawls and ribbons fall softly and naturally around their figures. Even after a thousand years, their original predominantly red, teal and midnight blue colouring is still evident.

Jinci’s extant halls, offerings pavilion, opera terrace, archways and other structures were constructed over a 1,000-year-period spanning four major dynasties. Regrettably, aside from the roofs, many of the buildings and sculptures need refurbishment.

Still, poets like the Tang dynasty’s Libai have sung its praises and even Emperor Li Shimin eulogised the architecture and scenery of the place in a tablet. Jinci is indisputably one of the most beautiful imperial temple complexes I have seen in China.

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