x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Where rose the empire's sun

Feature The dawn of Chinese civilisation can be traced to the enchanting province of Henan.

Luoyang was the eastern capital of the Tang dynasty and ancient crafts are still sold on its streets while restaurants serve traditional meals.
Luoyang was the eastern capital of the Tang dynasty and ancient crafts are still sold on its streets while restaurants serve traditional meals.

The very beginnings of my story are somewhat contentious: Henan, known as the central plains, is one of two provinces that lay claim to being the cradle of Chinese civilisation where Neolithic people lived more than 4,000 years ago. Henan means south of the Yellow River and settlers used its fertile banks to plant crops, leaving tortoise shells inscribed with the first Chinese script. Generations later, Chinese are still farming here but much of Henan's history can be found in Luoyang, a city to the west.

Once the Eastern capital of the great Tang dynasty and home to 1,300 Buddhist temples, a visitor to the old town can feel the sense of reverence for its past. Ancient crafts such as seal carving can still be found going on in its many antique shops. From one of the busiest on West Street, antiques and paintings are overflowing onto the pavement outside. Also sitting out on the street, Li Shandong, who has been practising his trade for over 50 years, feels like someone from a forgotten era - a relic, himself.

With his black, square-framed glasses and toothless grin, the 70 year-old is witty and a fan of erudite people, carving seals in script from the Warring States period (475 to 221BC) on a variety of different types of stone. When I told him that I had attended school in London, he said that I must pick out a really expensive seal - they cost up to US$40 (Dh150), depending on the rock. However, in spite of this very Chinese reverence for education, I bought the cheapest for just $4 (Dh15).

Walking around the old city centre, directly east of the old city gate - east from the Li Jing Gate - such traditions are everywhere. Down a side alley, there was an old man blowing sugar figures to entertain children. Using sticky, liquidated brown sugar the wrinkly old man, a wispy figure, rolls the substance into a ball in his hands, pinches out an area to blow into, making the shape of the brown sugar elongate and balloon. He forms animals such as deer and rabbits. Then, he sticks the shapes onto bamboo poles and lines them up on top a box for people to admire and buy. In the western part of the old city, there are handmade noodle shops, stalls selling beef and rabbit meat, and gift shops selling ceramics and traditional, Chinese paper-cuttings. The coloured paper, often red, is cut into the shape of swallows, and wrought into the Chinese character meaning fortune or more elaborate designs such as a couple of Tang dynasty court maidens.

A short ride on the number 58 bus going south from the old town brings you to the Guan Yu Temple. The temple is the burial place of the severed head of one of the most legendary figures in Chinese history: Guan Yu. Many stories from the period of the Three Kingdoms (476 - 221BC), portray Guan Yu as a red-faced, knife-wielding warlord, whose deeds reached mythical status after his death. Today Guan Yu is popularly worshipped as a "saint" of wealth and peace. Visiting the brightly painted temple, I saw people kneel before the saint, burn incense and pray. There were also fortune-tellers next to the statues of Guan. Many Chinese believers ask a fortune-teller to predict when they'll get rich. The ritual is open to any traveller - for a voluntary donation.

There are two main temples inside, one dedicated to fortune and the other to peace but the most spectacular sight is at the back of the complex, where Guan's head is buried. Now a grassy hill stretching an impressive 2,000 square metres, it's marked with cypress trees on top, knotty and bent at strange angles, some of which are thousands of years old. In front of this tomb, underneath the mound, is a small metallic door, which does not actually open, with two very well -worn slots for coins. The left slot represents peace and the right for fortune. Legend says that if you throw a coin into the slot and there's a clear clinking sound, Guan knows that you've visited and your wishes for either prosperity or peace will come true. I reached into my rucksack and found a small coin, and trying not to think too much threw it into the nearest slot, which just happened to be for fortune. There was a jarring noise and it crashed into the pit with the other coins instead of making a clean sound. I guess I'm not going to become rich any time soon.

Left hungry by my wanderings, I thought I should try a Henan speciality renowned throughout China: the water banquet. Enjoyed since the time of the only female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian (624 to 705AD), the water banquet consists of twenty-four dishes - as soon as one set of dishes are taken off the table, another set replaces it, like flowing water. Another possible reason for this evocative name is that every dish is served with soup, whether it's a light watery broth or a thick gravy with shredded meat or fish. Luoyang is far from the sea, and also lacking in juicy fruits and so, perhaps, officials came up with this watery feast to compensate.  

 I tried this epic meal at one of the most celebrated restaurants in Luoyang, Zhen Butong, which means really different. Served by waitresses dressed up like maidens from the Tang dynasty courts, the food came thick and fast, and there was almost no time to eat (or drink) each course, which included meats in soup, delicious mushrooms of different types in a peppery broth, and sweet vegetables, such as pumpkin, again, in soup. The bill came to about 1,600 yuan ($235) for ten people - with fewer diners, it would have been an impossible task to finish the huge quantity of food.

There were two dishes that particularly stood out: one is the oddly named peony swallow dish, made of sliced raw turnip with other distinctively coloured vegetables. A heavy, tasty soup with a salty flavour is poured into a big bowl in front of you. The second memorable dish was one of vegetables and deep-fried clusters of rice. When the soup is poured in, a sizzling sound fills the room. The waitress, in her elaborate headgear and traditional red silk qipao said: "This sound is our applause to welcome you, our guests, to Luoyang."  

Full and happy, I made my way to the White Horse Temple which was built in 67AD after the Eastern Han emperor sent a delegation to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. In Afghanistan, the emperor's emissaries met two Indian monks on two white horses, carrying sutras and Buddhist statues. The party returned together and the temple, built to honour them, became their home and final resting place.

 According to a monk who I met there, Guo Chao, the local Buddhist community originally helped to build the temple. The monks who live there today are clothed in brand-new looking, sand-coloured robes - the temple's significance as an early Buddhist site means the local government is trying to turn it into a major tourist attraction, and the brightly painted statues of Buddha are yet more evidence of this. Visitors and monks mix and pray together and there is some great architecture donated by both India and Thailand. The atmosphere was cheerful yet peaceful: tourists gather in some sections of the temple, such as the main halls, but in the park area the monks walk around idly. There is a sense of community as locals relax in the garden and chatter in low voices.

My last stop in Henan was at the Longmen Caves, a Unesco world heritage site that has more than 10,000 images of Buddha in about 23,000 caves. The biggest Buddha is said by legend to be made in the likeness of Wu Zetian, who was one of many rulers during its 400-year construction. Seeing this mighty figure with its surrounding protective spirits was an awe-inspiring experience - although one sometimes crowded out with tourists and flashing cameras. Ultimately, there was something very sad about seeing all these statues with their lost heads and ruined torsos, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Others have been looted, like many relics in the province, by the French, British or American soldiers who have invaded over time.

The Lotus Cave contains the smallest Buddha statues, at two centimetres tall, but the largest carving of a lotus flower on the ceiling overhead. There is a headless Buddha: the French stole the figure, and it now resides at Paris' Musée Guimet. The lotus symbol is sacred to Buddhists and my tour guide said this carving was the inspiration for the red star on top of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

I too found myself moved by my experiences and memories of Luoyang. The emotion that I felt standing on the earth that had been occupied by the earliest Chinese people for thousands of years was extraordinary, and coupled with a feeling of awe. travel@thenational.ae