The Heart of Old Xian

By Patti Isaacs

My husband Gauss and I are cycling toward downtown Xian, passing through the city wall at Heping Men (Peace Gate.) The wall is intact largely because Xian has long been something of a backwater; there’s been no building boom to warrant tearing it down. We cross a bridge over the weedy moat that encircles the wall. Crenellations top parts of the wall but not others, and faded Cultural Revolution slogans cover the gray brick span above our roadway. A creaking, overloaded bus honks as it passes by us, but there is little other vehicle traffic. Donkey carts clop by, and bicycle bells ring in warning as cyclists squeeze together to pass through the narrow arches of the gate.

It’s the autumn of 1981, and our destination is the city’s main shopping street. If we’re lucky, we may find something exotic like peanut butter or strawberry jam at one of the state-run stores. And if that happens, we’ll buy several containers because it likely won’t be back on shelves for months.

For five cents we park our bikes in a gated corral, where two elderly ladies, one with bound feet, sit watch. The stores carry a small variety of utilitarian goods: straw brooms; enameled metal basins; yarn in only two colors, pink and brown.

There are no special finds today, no powdered milk or precious peanut butter, but we are content to observe everyday life on the city’s streets and sidewalks.

We wander toward the Muslim neighborhood, inhaling the aromas of garlic and roasting lamb. I have my camera with me. Xian is the most exotic place I have ever visited and I want to record people going about their daily business – women washing clothing by the side of the road; a man grinding chili peppers outside his front door; a worker hauling construction materials with a donkey cart, leaving a cloud of dust redolent of hay and dung in his wake.

The streets are filled with the sounds of tinkling bicycle bells, squealing children, twittering pet birds, and water sloshing into basins. Men joke and women gossip, the tones of the Chinese language lending a singsong lilt. The human symphony is occasionally interrupted by the honk of a truck from a busy street several blocks away.

As we cycle back toward the campus where we work, we hear the faint clanging of cymbals. It grows louder as we approach the gate where we will leave the walled city. Just outside the wall, next to the moat, we find singers assembled on the packed earth performing Qinqiang, Shaanxi Opera. Musicians play the erhu and beat drums and cymbals in accompaniment. Gauss and I pull over, delighted at what we have found. We lean our bikes against a tree and linger, enjoying the show.

During our one year in Xian, Gauss and I returned often to that spot by the city wall where reliably, even on chilly winter days, performers gathered, wearing padded clothing to ward off the cold. Back then fashion was frowned upon, and people dressed uniformly in somber colors: gray, navy, olive green. I loved the earthiness of Qinqiang with its guttural intonation and broad gestures, and I admired the way the performers, like our friends, sang aloud in public, happily and fearlessly, pulling entertainment and camaraderie out of thin air with their breath. For too long we Americans had depended on radio, TV, and cassette tapes, and now we had forgotten how to sing in front of others.

Gauss and I were among the first wave of Americans to work in China after our two countries established diplomatic relations. Gauss majored in Chinese in college, an interest that began when his family rented a house from the renowned Chinese linguist Chao Yuen Ren in the early 1960s. After graduation Gauss secured teaching positions for both of us at Jiaotong University. While I wasn’t particularly focused on China, I was a geography major, keenly interested in culture and environment. I’d traveled extensively in North America but longed to see the wider world.

I met Gauss in 1973 through the University of Minnesota’s outdoor activities club. Initially friends, we became a couple two years later. Together we canoed the lakes on the U.S.-Canadian border and backpacked in the mountains of the American West, taking to the road in an unreliable old VW bus that he had learned to fix. We accepted the uncertainty of our transportation by expecting the unexpected and bringing a full complement of tools on these trips. Gauss was a quiet, deliberate foil to my loquaciousness and impatience. And unlike Minnesota born-and-bred me, he had been born in Italy and lived on three continents before we met. Although we had different styles, we shared a fascination with the world and its people, and he happily took me on as his partner in adventure. The two of us were kindred spirits, curious and flexible. I wouldn’t say he “made me the person I am,” but traveling with him helped me become a more complete version of myself.

We had been married for just over a year when we moved to Xian. There we lived mostly within the confines of our “work unit,” Xian Jiaotong University. The university’s foreign affairs office kept close tabs on us. They monitored our comings and goings and kept an eye on our visitors, sometimes scolding students who they felt had become too friendly with us. When we could socialize, there were few entertainment options, so we made our own fun, preparing dumplings together or playing tiao qi – literally “jump chess” – what we in America call Chinese checkers. Our friends often sang at our gatherings and begged us to teach them songs in English. I was shy about singing and knew only a few tunes well enough to share.

But we also spent many days alone. Gauss and I often filled our spare time the city, immersing ourselves in its atmosphere. We were impressed at how the residents made do with limited resources. A young woman made chalkboards by coating sheets of wood with black paint; a man ground fiery chili peppers just outside the door of his home using a metal roller that he rocked back and forth with his feet; people added rooms to their homes by stacking bricks against an outside wall and adding a plastic-tarp roof.

Xian was small then, filled with low, tan brick and packed-earth courtyard houses just behind the commercial buildings of Dong Da Jie and Xi Da Jie, Big East Street and Big West Street. While I found some parts of our life there hard to live with – monotonous cuisine, ever-present handlers who watched us – over the months Xian had become a part of me. I loved the city’s human-scaled neighborhoods and its ochre, central Asian palette, even though – or maybe because – it was so unlike Minnesota’s emerald forests and verdant farm fields.

At the end of that year, however, Gauss and I went back to the United States and re-established our lives there. We found jobs and raised two sons. We set down roots and while we still traveled, our trips were now constrained by hours of paid vacation, the school calendar, and the cost of bringing four people instead of two. We still camped in North America’s wild places and often traveled with only a skeleton of an itinerary, but now we did so in modern, reliable vehicles.

China was never far from my mind, however. As I went about my daily chores in our Minnesota home I never forgot what it was like to heat water on the stove or scrub my jeans on a washboard, as I did for the year we lived there. Even years later whenever I turned on the tap and hot water came out, or threw a load of laundry into the machine and let it do the work, I marveled at the convenience of it. Living in the Spartan conditions of China in the 1980s had instilled in me a permanent sense of gratitude.

We observed China’s economic transformation from afar with a mixture of marvel and worry. I was happy to see China’s living standard rise – a billion Chinese deserved hot water and washing machines as much as I did – but I also feared that materialism and the issues that came with it might overwhelm the simplicity and ingenuity that characterized China as we knew it. Five years after we left, KFC established its first restaurant in Beijing.

Beyond American fast food, I thought about things like traffic jams and garbage dumps. I recalled America’s headlong rush into urban renewal and the construction of freeways, when beautiful buildings were razed and whole swaths of my city were dug up to accommodate cars. Many of us now regret what we lost to the bulldozers. As an outsider I wanted to scream, “Hold onto your culture. Someday you will miss it!” the way I would want to warn a good friend not to enter into marriage with a questionable character, or buy a car they might not be able to afford.

I longed to return, and finally in late October of 2005 I had a chance to spend two months working again at Jiaotong University. Gauss, still my champion, stayed home with the kids, then in high school and college.

The Xian I returned to was now surrounded by freeways and skyscrapers. Some changes were immediately apparent: Grocery stores and restaurants abounded; food was varied and plentiful. Cars were everywhere and fashion was back with a vengeance. Visitors to my university-run guesthouse were free to come and go; nobody cared with whom I socialized.

Within three days of arrival I had purchased a second-hand bicycle so I could explore the city once again. I wanted to revisit the parts of town that I had photographed years before to see what had changed – and what was still there.

It was early November. The weather had turned cold, and the wind had a decided bite to it. But I had a rare day off, so I piled on the polar fleece and rode the mile or so to the city wall’s east gate and an old neighborhood, now labeled on smartphone maps as the “Baishulin Residential District,” where I’d taken many pictures.

I was astonished. Instead of traditional brick houses, the street was now lined with five- and six-story apartment blocks. Some were utilitarian boxes made of raw concrete with battered windows and exposed electrical wires; others, faced with tiles in white or subdued pastel shades, looked more luxurious. As I rode the warp and weft of streets in the neighborhood, it became evident that there were almost no old buildings left in the southeast quarter of the city.

The old city wall, made of packed earth with a brick outer façade, used to form a free fourth wall for homes built at its base. I ventured down a nearly deserted side street to get closer to the wall. Perhaps I would find a few little rammed-earth homes still snuggled there. Instead, I came upon the partial shells of old two-story houses standing amid acres of bricks from other homes that had been razed. Bundled against the wind in down jackets and colorful scarves, a few people picked through the bricks and stacked them for reuse.

I felt a pang, as if I were witnessing the funeral procession of an old friend. I recalled the urban renewal that took place in Minneapolis in the 1960s, when ornate Victorian stone buildings were leveled to make way for parking lots and bland office structures. Xian was no longer home to donkey carts and sidewalk laundresses. (Of course this made sense; donkeys don’t belong on freeways, and who wants to scrub their clothes on a washboard when they can throw them into a washing machine?) Within the walls of this metropolis, I would no longer find the rural character that occupied my mind when I thought of old Xian.

I cycled west, toward a particular street I remembered. I stopped on the sidewalk and leaned the bike against a fence. Dashing across Heping Lu (Peace Street) to avoid traffic, I caught sight of the seven-story high Big Goose Pagoda through the arch of Heping Men (Peace Gate). Made of the same yellow-brown earth as many other local structures, the pagoda is one of several Tang Dynasty landmarks emblematic of Xian. The wind had blown the air clear enough that it was visible, even a couple of miles away.

I had exactly this shot in my photo album from 1982. Back then, with little traffic on Heping Lu, it was easy to stand in the middle of the road and construct the shot so that the pagoda was neatly framed by the arched opening in the wall. I’d had all the time I needed to compose. That had been a rare day, the air so clear that the serrated edge of the Qinling Mountains, perhaps 25 miles south of the city, could be seen.

I was eager now to get an updated version of that photo, but the only way I could get the shot was to stand in the traffic lane. I had to turn my back to the oncoming traffic, frame the pagoda through the gate, and give the camera a chance to work. Even using autofocus, it took three or four seconds. I made several hurried attempts, fearing for my life.

Just the day before, Gauss had emailed photos of himself in the snowy woods behind our house, and news that our younger son, Emilio, had been accepted into the college that had been his first choice. It occurred to me that I had obligations at home and hoped to enjoy thirty more years on the planet. I had better take care of myself. I gave up on the photo and decided to tell the story in words instead of pictures.

The city wall had also been rebuilt since my first stay in Xian. In the 24 years between my visits, the entire wall, front and back, had been faced in uniform dark-gray brick, and the missing crenellations restored. Tourists could now rent bicycles from concessions near the main gates, ride around its paved top, and gaze down at the newly renovated moat, its sides neatly landscaped. Numerous small guardhouses, their curved tile roofs festooned with red lanterns, had been added to the wall in the spaces between the four main gates. Several new, smaller gates had been punched through the wall, and bridges for these streets spanned the moat. At night, the crenellations and guardhouses were outlined with lights.

The wall was an impressive sight, but as with other changes I observed, its renovation had come at a price. A strip of land inside the wall had been bulldozed, along with the small houses that used to huddle up to it.

In 1982, I had taken another picture some distance away, at the West Gate of the city, looking toward downtown. Like those in the southeast part of the city, the homes and buildings had been mostly one and two stories tall, tan or whitewashed. The palette matched that of the surrounding countryside that gave Xian its distinctive look. It was a shade different from the metallic gray of its big eastern counterparts, or the misty blue-green of Chengdu to the south. There had been quietness and grace in the color and shape of the buildings that seemed at once earthy and refined.

So now, years later, I biked back to the spot and aimed my camera east. The little tan houses were gone; in their place stood burly hotels and stores of black brick decorated with curved tile roofs, red pillars, and trim that matched the new guardhouses on the city wall. I thought again, fondly, of the modest homes that used to occupy this spot – and the shop where, if we were lucky, we found peanut butter once every three months – razed to make room for boutiques selling Gucci and Prada.

The economic boom that made all this construction possible was, for many, a good thing. But when I saw these oversized, over styled buildings, it seemed like a caricature of old Xian, a fantasyland. I felt like I was looking at a Disneyland version of the city – more polished than its old country-bumpkin self, self-conscious, and a little vulgar.

It was getting late in the afternoon, and I was reeling. I thought of the people we used to see gathered outside the city wall performing qinqiang. This had never been for show or profit; it was socialization and entertainment that predated radio and karaoke. Would they still be there?

Locals proudly say that qinqiang is the grandfather modern Beijing Opera. Shaanxi people grew up hearing the melodies and learning the operas the way Americans know the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” or the song "Happy Birthday."

As I approached the spot where they used to meet, I could see perhaps 100 people congregated despite the cold. A makeshift sound system had been set up, with a microphone in the center of a cleared area, and a loudspeaker mounted to a tree. An extension cord snaked its way across paving stones and past dormant flowerbeds to an outlet at a construction site. A handful of musicians sat at the edge of the clearing, playing the two-stringed Chinese violin, or erhu and a banjo-like sanxian, and wooden blocks and cymbals, their sound overpowered by car horns and the roar of trucks on the adjacent thoroughfare. In the center, a sweet-faced woman in her 40s belted out a song, punctuating the lyrics with stylized gestures and tilts of her head.

I locked my bike nearby and walked into the crowd. Engrossed in the story, people paid me no heed. The onlookers were mostly retirees: soft-bodied grannies with hair cut short, in sensible padded jackets in muted colors; old geezers wearing dark blue Mao jackets and black cotton shoes, just as they had decades earlier, some sporting oversized glasses that flashed reflections as they nodded their heads. Several had grandchildren in tow. A few young people in jeans and puffy nylon down jackets of blue and red, sat on a bench. As I watched, three utility workers in grimy coveralls, still wearing yellow hard hats, came out of a bus and hurried over, lighting cigarettes as they walked.

The woman's song ended, and the audience applauded enthusiastically. A pretty, young woman in a black jacket announced the next performer: a lean, dark-skinned man of about 50. He wore a neat tweed blazer over a black turtleneck sweater. The music started, and out of his mouth came the earthiest, huskiest singing I'd ever heard. His simple, expansive gestures matched his deep, gravelly voice. The pace of the music increased, and his delivery became more emphatic. It was clearly a dramatic tale, perhaps the story of a battle, or a love affair gone bad. The crowd buzzed, and the frenzy built, until he was literally spitting out the words.

The wooden blocks and cymbals kicked in, ratcheting up the drama as a thrum of excitement rippled through the audience. In a final gesture, the singer threw his head back and his arms out; the percussion hit one last beat, and the crowd erupted in cheers. Like lovers after a passionate encounter, everyone now seemed to need a break. Many lit cigarettes, and the crowd murmured.

Moments later they began to chuckle as a skinny old fellow emerged from the knot of performers standing to one side. Bent in an exaggerated way over his walking staff, he had pasted a thready white mustache onto his upper lip. He sang and then spoke, sometimes stopping to walk in a circle while leaning on his cane. Soon, a middle-aged woman in a burgundy jacket with a lined face and dyed auburn hair joined the drama. The two of them alternated singing, and periodically she, too, walked in a circle, employing a highly stylized gait and gestures that indicated she was on a long journey.

In her "absence," the man sang some more; she returned, and conflict ensued. Although well past youth, the woman became a coquettish ingénue, tilting her head flirtatiously, pleading and cajoling. Rejected! She looked bereft as she sang her lines, dabbing at her eyes with her woolen scarf. The character so overtook her that I mentally dressed her in flowing silk gowns and applied her makeup, transforming her into a fresh-faced twenty-year-old.

The audience, knowing what was coming next, smiled and commented to each other. The rhythm seemed random to me, but when I looked down, I could see people tapping their feet to the music. Watching them, the beat emerged for me, too.

Patricia Isaacs - Patti Isaacs is a cartographer and the owner of 45th Parallel Maps and Infographics. In 1981, a few years after graduating from the University of Minnesota with degrees in art and geography, she and her husband Gauss Rescigno, a Chinese major, went to Xi'an to teach English at Jiaotong University. At the time most institutions in China were state-run, and she witnessed and documented the city's very first steps toward a market economy.