Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Venturing back into the Tang Capital

Long long ago, when I lived in what was once within the walls of the capital of Tang China (Chang An長安)--the most populous city in the world during its heyday--I would sojourn out of the back gate of the Xi'an Foreign Language Institute. It has been a long time since I have excavated back into this particular mnemic landscape, now for so long forgotten, buried by the shifting sands blown in from the Gobi.

Yes, I would walk out the back gate, and can still see the vague outlines of the people I passed on the street, shadows without form. Now I can't for the life of me make out the paths I walked. The way is like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are all rearranged and out of place. And yet, for brief but passing moments, the way is clear. I am there again. Do you see it? I can see the lifeless crow on the muddy ground--a sight that at the time I saw it reflected an internal mood of mine, a situational vision of remorse. I passed this crow on my way through a narrow passageway where four ladies played cards, to the fields, which I called Sanctuary.

Let me tell you about Sanctuary. I used to go there when I needed to escape, when I felt homesick, when I felt down, when I wanted to just stare off into space, when I wanted to immerse myself deep in thought, and believe me, I spent plenty of time thinking that year spent so far away from home and the familiar.

Sanctuary was a large field--much of it farmed--with paths crisscrossing it and surrounded by villages. I walked along one of the paths to my favorite spot on a hill where I would sit. In one direction was a road where farmers traveled towards the city on carts led by donkeys (or were they mules?). In the other direction, the direction towards which I liked to sit, was the Great Wild Goose Pagoda (dayanta大雁塔).

When I looked in that direction, and avoided the sight of the modern apartment buildings to the left, and focused all of my attention on the pagoda in the distance, I was teleported back to the Tang Dynasty, when the monk Xuanzang returned from his magical mystery tour of India, for it was at that pagoda that he supervised his massive translation project of Buddhist sutras.

I didn't always just look at the pagoda, but allowed my eyes to roam the countryside, and that was one fascinating feature of the location. Xi'an Foreign Language Institute is in the southern suburbs of Xi'an; it is about a 20 minute walk from the city wall, within which is the heart of the city. And yet, a 5 minute walk out either of the campus gates and I was in the countryside. I don't know how Xi'an has changed in the more than 10 years since I left, but in no other Chinese city I have been to since have I witnessed this proximity between urban, suburban, and rural landscapes.

Back to Sanctuary. On more than one occasion, as I sat on my spot, a flood of little giggling children emerged from their daytime classroom, wearing colorful costumes and wielding strings attached to homemade kites that hovered above them.

One time, as I sat there lost in thought, a teenage boy with kite in hand appeared; he was alone and out to play. I sat there as he ran to and fro. Sometimes he approached, observing me with curiosity. I was a little uncomfortable because I wasn't sure if I was trespassing. Then, he started to talk to me. Unfortunately, at the time I could barely say a word of Chinese, except for the names of all the different local delicacies one could purchase from the street vendors, and to say "I want..." and "No thanks..." and a few other smatterings of Mandarin.

Despite my lack of Chinese words and his lack of English ones, we somehow communicated. I don't remember what we said, but there was definitely some kind of verbal exchange. Before I knew it the sun was going down, and we began to walk along the path, and then we said goodbye, as I returned to the Foreign Language Institute and he followed the path towards his home. We never met again, despite my repeated visits to Sanctuary.


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