A to Z Abroad: Ya’nan


One off-the-radar place for an American to visit in China is Ya’nan, as it is considered the birthplace of the Communist Revolution. Aside from monuments and museums dedicated to Mao Zedong (the leader of  communist China until his death in 1976), Ya’nan is also home to beautiful cultural traditions.

Ya’nan, Shaanxi, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Ya’nan usually isn’t on a Westerner’s agenda, but it does serve as a major destination for Chinese tourists looking to see iconic locations associated with Chinese history. It was interesting to watch anxious tourists waiting in lines to go through a museum preserving relics from the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Weapons, articles of clothing, and documents that would be objects of curiosity in the West are instruments of hero worship in Ya’nan.

Statue of Mao Zedong outside a museum dedicated to him and the Communist Revolution
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

As I walked through this museum, guards followed me. As an American, I stuck out and was instantly treated with suspicion. After all, what would a pro-democracy, capitalist be doing in a communist museum? If they really must know, the history teacher in me was fascinated. Luckily, my shadow kept a distance and let me roam freely.

Parts of the hills around Ya’nan are essentially an extension of the museum. In 1934, Mao Zedong lead around 12,000 communists and supporters on The Long March to escape the pursuits of the Nationalist army. Mao settled in an area around Ya’nan, where he as his army lived in cave homes. Many of these homes are preserved and opened to tourists, including the home where Mao lived throughout the revolution.

Of course, I walked through Mao’s cave home. I don’t know what was more interesting, the fact that the interior was so cool without the use of A/C or watching a group of Chinese tourists excitedly feast their eyes on the every day items of a man that still has idol status. Again, I was looked upon as being out of place, but at this point I was accustomed to being an outsider.

Entrance to a cave home in the hills Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

The star above the doorway is a symbol of Communism and continues to be used today in China’s flag. All around the cave homes are speakers dressed in revolution military uniforms. The man below claimed to fight alongside Mao, but I’m no so sure about that. My guide warned us that most Chinese accept the concept of “authentic fake” when it comes to relics and witnesses. Essentially, if something is realistic, then it’s authentic enough.

Historical speaker in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

He spoke English quite well, so I sat down and listened to him for a little while. In a way, it was like listening to my grandpa tell stories about his experiences in the war. However, the Chinese tourists around me listened with incredible enthusiasm.

Ya’nan also boasts a nine-story pagoda built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Aside from beautiful dynastic architecture, the tower is also significant to the Chinese revolutionary movement. When the Communist Party had it’s headquarters in Ya’nan the bell was used to toll the hour of the day and sound alarms.

Ya’nan Hill Pagoda
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

After getting my fill of Chinese revolutionary history, I was treated to a performance of  tribal dance. China is actually home to at least 68 ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. The people in the hills of Ya’nan are full of smiles and brilliant color as they moves across the stage.

Traditional dance in Ya’nan
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

Besides being followed and regarded with confusion, I look upon my time Ya’nan as one of the more interesting experiences I had in China. The West sees Mao Zedong in a rather negative light, (rightly so in many respects), but in China the man is still revered by many. History, of course, will be the ultimate judge, but for now the duality of his legacy remains in place.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!


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c.b.w. 2013