Xi’an: Day 3

On the morning of my third and final day in Xi’an, I visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, about a ten-minute bus ride south of the old city walls.

The pagoda was originally built in 652 to hold Buddhist sutras brought from India by the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, whose travels were the basis for the enduringly popular novel, Journey to the West.

Xuanzang set out for India at age 28, heading west from Chang’an (Xi’an) along the Silk Road through the deserts of central Asia, and then south into India via present-day Afghanistan.  He then spent about 15 years traveling and studying in India before returning to Chang’an with 657 sutras.  Xuanzang had to sneak out of Chang’an when he began his trek, since China was at war with the Eastern Turks and travel was restricted, but after his return, he was made the abbot of a temple and received imperial support to create a translation bureau to convert his mountain of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese.  The translations he produced spread throughout East Asia and had a significant effect on Buddhism in the region.

So Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a very important historical site.  Unfortunately, the temple’s current state is somewhat depressing.  The buildings are kept in good condition, but at least four have been turned into souvenir shops, and there was even a shop on the first floor of the pagoda itself, selling tacky toys with flashing lights and noisy sound effects.  Meanwhile, signs prohibit any “superstitious activity” – i.e. actual religion – at the former religious institution, which is now a tourist attraction first and a temple not at all.

Luckily, my day didn’t stay depressing.  When I moved on to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the situation was very different.

With its position at the northwest edge of central China, Xi’an has a community of perhaps 60,000 Muslims, mostly belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, and mostly living together in the city’s “Muslim Quarter.” This is a halal restaurant in the Muslim Quarter.

If you look closely, you can see Arabic on the shop sign and the glass case.

The Great Mosque has been the center of worship for this community since its foundation in 742, and it was clearly clearly receiving the love and respect sadly absent from the pagoda.  For example, shortly after I arrived an afternoon prayer service began, and when it was finished, I saw the worshipers clearing fallen twigs and seed pods from the walkways as they departed.  And certainly, no one was selling anything.

Here’s the worship hall.

The name board is in Arabic, but you’ll notice that the building is completely Chinese in style.  In fact, the whole mosque looks like a temple.  The current buildings mostly date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

This is the mosque’s minaret.

Least traditional minaret ever.

Leaving the Great Mosque with my mood repaired, I wandered around Xi’an for the rest of the afternoon and then took an overnight train to Beijing.

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.


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7 Responses to “Xi’an: Day 3”

  1. Doug Says:

    What were your impressions of the modern day city based on your wanderings between or following visits to historic sites? Did you feel conspicuous as a Westerner?

  2. Andy Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    I was stoked to stumble across your blog last month when I found out I’d be heading to Kobe as a JET for 08/09……and just yesterday I discovered that like you, I’m assigned to Hanayama and Hibarigaoka Junior High!

    Obviously the way your predecessor described the school as “hell” has scared the crap outta me! Would be great to hear advice on the school/area before I leave….

    Cheers and thanks in advance!

  3. kevinjames Says:

    Xi’an was, like most (all?) big cities in China, dirty, modern, and heavily under construction. They’ll have a subway in another year or two, which would have been nice.

    As a Westerner, I got some stares, but not that many, and I’m used to being an obvious outsider. We *are* regarded as walking sacks of money by vendors and beggars, but it wasn’t anything like the constant barrage in Yangshuo.

    Two possibly interesting anecdotes with no particular point:

    On the bus to the Terracotta Army, there were a bunch of college students bound for a stop along the way. One sat next to me, and we chatted in a mixture of English and scribbled Chinese characters. I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he was studying petroleum geology/engineering and wanted to go to graduate school in the States (alas, I don’t think his English is good enough). He said I was the first foreigner he had ever spoken to.

    As I was walking back to the center of town, after visiting the Stele Forest, I was approached by a young woman who said she was a student, and had a homework assignment to have a conversation with an English speaker. I was very cautious as I talked, but she turned out to be what she claimed. She said she was having a very difficult time doing her assignment, because most foreigners would ignore her. I explained that they were afraid to trust her because there are many scams involving young women claiming to be students. These girls lead their targets to “school art shows” where they try to pressure the mark into buying overpriced art, or they’ll get the target to have some drinks with them, and when the bill comes, it’s 10 times what it should be and some very large men are insisting that it be paid, and on so on. But like I said, this girl was what she claimed. It’s a shame that there’s a need to be so wary, but you really do have to be on guard.

  4. kevinjames Says:

    To Andy,

    Congratulations on getting into JET and congratulations on being placed in Kobe! I’m sure you’ll love it.

    You might *not* love Hibari, but it’s much, much better than it was. The worst kids have graduated and the first years are fantastic. There are quite a few bad cases among the second years, though, but if you have the right disposition, you’ll be fine.

    My advice is: 1) Never be adversarial; and 2) Always be firm and confident. You’ll have to accept that you won’t be able to get the most messed up kids to behave and participate in class, but you can’t let them run completely wild either.

    If a kid walks out of class (and some will) let the Japanese teacher handle it.

    If a kid is sleeping at their desk, wake them up and try to get them to participate, but don’t press it too much, at least not at first. When you get to know the kids, you’ll figure out which ones can be prodded into listening/doing work and which are better off asleep and not causing trouble. (Also, while I always wake up the sleepers, you should be aware that a lot of these kids are genuinely exhausted due to their ridiculous schedules. Club activities run from after class to 5 or 6pm, every day, *and* there is morning practice, *and* they have practices and games every weekend, *and* at least half of the kids have cram school in the evening, and then they have to fit in study and homework, too.)

    If you see fights or bullying, put a stop to it, but the kids play rough, so be sure of what you’re seeing before you start wrestling them apart.

    Hmm, what else . . . well, here’s an example of a recent incident: A bunch of kids got ahold of some dollies (i.e. hand carts) and were racing each other through the halls. The other free teachers were busy dealing with a different group of kids who were turning a stairwell into a waterfall, so I handled the racers. Rather than yell or get angry, I just said, “Yeah, you can’t do that,” and took their carts. They didn’t want to cooperate, but I pulled the carts out from under them. Gently, of course. But anyway, the important bit is that since I wasn’t adversarial, they weren’t either. Of course, if they’d been looking for a fight, that would be a very different situation, but even then, my basic advice wouldn’t change.

    Also, being young and foreign makes us cool, and that helps.

    I’m tired and coherence is losing the battle with fatigue, so I’ll stop here and go to bed, but if you have any more questions, I’ll be happy to tell you what I can.


  5. Barthe Says:

    Your handling of the students is fascinating and (I think) is also a very good model for a new teacher.
    I’m surprised that the Japanese kids are so rowdy. The usual picture that we get is that they’re automatons.

  6. kevinjames Says:

    I do know of schools that have robot-like kids. With those, the students stay in their seats and do written assignments, but they won’t respond to verbal prompts. “Good morning!” is greeted with dead silence, and the kids have to be coerced into doing anything interactive.

    Of course there there are *some* schools that have a majority of well-adjusted kids, who are neither climbing out windows (that’s not an exaggerated example) nor sullen. And with those, I think the students are usually harmlessly rambunctious, rather than facelessly perfect.

  7. Nara Revisited: Day 2 « Erratic Dispatches Says:

    […] was built in 1991 to hold a portion of the cremated remains of the famous Chinese monk, Xuanzang (Jp: Genjō Sanzō).  Another portion exists in a museum in India.  That one was a gift from the […]

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