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


The Yellow Emperor’s Tomb


Much like King Arthur,  The Yellow Emperor of China straddles the line between reality and myth. There are those who view him as a historical figure who helped pull China out the chaotic Warring States period and others who see him as nothing more than a deity crafted from old world mythology. The truth is ultimately lost to time, but the filial piety of a nation has brought people and their offerings to his tomb since 442 BC.

Dragon tiles adorn an entry gate, symbolizing the Yellow Emperor. During the Warring States Period the color yellow was associated with Earth, dragons, and the center. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

Up in the hills of Shaanxi Province, near the city of Yan’an, The Yellow Emperor’s tomb stands as a testament to his legend as the founder of Chinese culture and the single ancestor of all Han Chinese. The mausoleum complex is an awe inspiring tribute to China’s equivalent of a founding father. Upon arrival to the complex,  visitors are greeted with a huge white building that serves as an entryway into a large outdoor temple filled with gardens and memorials to the emperor. The grounds are shaded by huge cypress trees, one of which is purported to be more than 5,000 years old and planted by the Yellow Emperor himself.  I stood in awe of this tree as it towered overhead with rutted bark and twisted branches.

As per mythology, this cypress tree is believed to have been planted by The Yellow Emperor. Wires and metal rods help keep it standing and guide its growth. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

One of places where people are invited to leave offerings is at a site that claims to have footprint castings of the Yellow Emperor.  I’ve been to a lot of tombs and mausoleums in my travels, but I’ve never encountered a relic quite like this one.  The prints are enormous and clearly meant to be symbolic The Yellow Emperor’s status in Chinese culture, rather than be taken as authentic.  Worship isn’t of the relic itself, but the idea of the Yellow Emperor’s footprints and what he means to the Chinese people.

The Yellow Emperor's "Footprints." Offerings of money (both coin and cash) are a common sight at Chinese temples and tombs. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

One of the core components of Chinese culture is filial piety, which is a Confucian virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors.  Very often Chinese families have an alter in their homes that honors all previous family members and sometimes political leaders or historical heroes.  The Yellow Emperor puts this virtue on a grand display as people continue to pay respects to an individual that is considered the ultimate ancestor.

At the base of the actual tomb is an area which houses several memorials, stone steles commemorating the emperor’s accomplishments, and temples with offering tables.  Besides coins and cash, the most popular offering is a bundle of lit incense.  The believer bows at least three times, kneels, and then places the incense in a large vat of ash. I watched one man in particular take special care to make sure the incense remained standing so it would burn through completely.

In an act of filial piety, a man offers incense to honor The Yellow Emperor. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

The tradition of filial piety continues to pass from one generation to the next as a boy lights a candle on the alter to pay homage to The Yellow Emperor.  As I observed this boy carry on such an old practice, I realized just how central the idea of ancestry is to the Chinese.  It is an emotional experience that creates amazing strength of character and a sense of honor.

A young boy carries on the tradition of filial piety by lighting candles on the offering table at the Yellow Emperor's Mausoleum. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

The mausoleum is mostly a memorial, whereas the tomb of the Yellow Emperor is believed to be the actual burial site.  To get to the tomb, I had to climb 277 stairs that lead to another beautiful garden of flowers and cypress trees.  It’ll take another 77 steps to get to the top of Qiao Mountain, where the prayer mound is situated.

Wear good walking shoes! There are a total of 354 stairs to climb in order to reach the Yellow Emperor's Tomb! (Photo by: c.b.w.)

The tomb is marked by a beautiful arbor painted and carved with traditional Chinese motifs. A large stone stele is essentially the gravestone of The Yellow Emperor’s burial site.  There is yet another place to leave offerings.  Two bowls with “eternal flames” flank the offering site, allowing everyone a chance to light incense and candles for the emperor.

Several individuals pay their respects at the tomb of The Yellow Emperor. (Photo by: c.b.w.)

It was an honor to visit such a sacred place.  The eternal devotion and emotional connection to The Yellow Emperor on the part of the Chinese people is incredibly powerful.  The concept of one individual tying so many people together is a beautiful idea.  We aren’t as different as we think, considering we all have a need to honor those who came before us, even if in our own unique ways.

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c.b. 2012