Shadow of the Silk Road - PDF Free Download
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However, their binary structure admits complexity with two other mixed terms, born from the union of the first two: Yin containing Yang, and Yang containing Yin. A neutral term, the Center, is beyond the conjunction and the disjunction of the other two. Because the eye gazes but can catch no glimpse of it, It is called elusive.
Because the ear listens but cannot hear it, It is called the rarefied. Because the hand feels for it but cannot find it, It is called the infinitesimal. These three, because they cannot be further scrutinized, Blend into one. Endless the series of things without name On the way back to where there is nothing.
They are called shapeless shapes; Forms without form; Go towards them, and you see no rear. Yet by seizing on the Way that was You ride the things that are now. For to know what once was, in the Beginning, This is called the essence of the Way. Bronze with gold inlay. Hebei Provincial Museum, Shijiazhuang. Mountains have played a key role in the history of Chinese religions — and the image of the 'sacred peak' as an axis joining 'heaven and earth' has been prevalent for centuries in Chinese philosophical and religious thought.
A cult of Five Sacred Peaks has traditionally comprised mountains that define both 'cardinal directions' and a 'centre': The concept of mountains as numinous 'pivots' joining heaven and earth was given form during the Han dynasty — in the bronze and ceramic incense burners termed BOSHANLU "universal mountain centre". Little silver cellphones glittered at every ear.
But now they had wakened into difference: A few reminded me of friends in the West. I half expected them to 8 The Capital ignite in recognition. Couples were walking hand in hand, even kissing — a Maoist outrage. Women with auburn-dyed hair were walking little dogs. Something had been licensed which they called the West. I gawped at it like a stranger. Yet the outbreak of individualism, I sensed, was not quite that.
Being Western was a kind of conformity. Even as the West touched them, they might be turning it Chinese. And among these crowds of urban young an undertow of rural migrants — like shockwaves from their past — was threading the streets: On this transforming city, old people gazed as if at some heartless pageant.
Dressed in their leftover Mao caps and frayed cloth slippers, they would settle by a roundabout or park and stare for hours as the changed world unfolded. It was hard to look at them unmoved. Men and women born in civil war and Japanese invasion, who had eked out their lives through famine in the Great Leap Forward and survived the Cultural Revolution, had emerged at last to find themselves redundant.
Under their shocks of grey hair the faces looked strained or emptied by history. Sometimes they seemed faintly to smile.
They smoked continuously, if they could afford it, and tugged their trouser legs above their knees to catch the sun. And sometimes their expressions had quietened into a kind of peace, even amusement, so that I wondered in surprise what memory can have been so sweet.
Stray from any avenue within the walls, and you become lost in a skein of old suburbs. You hear only the squeak of bicycles or the clatter of a pedicab as it deposits its bone-shaken passengers. In one street, where artists and calligraphers toiled in dark 9 shadow of the silk road studios, I was surrounded by classical ink-stones for sale, and ranks of badger-hair brushes in discrete sizes with a stuffed ferretbadger hanging alongside as guarantee.
Vendors of bamboo pipes and bottle-flutes blew them in quaint seduction as I passed. Beyond it, lanes selling painted fans and classical opera costumes merged into a market of massed artefacts in lacquer and porcelain, jade and bone.
Reproduced as antique, they occupied a shadowland where the old crafts had grown nostalgic, food for tourists. Among them all — the quaint and the occasionally beautiful — I even found mementoes of the Cultural Revolution, manufactured as curiosities. On a popular wristwatch a painted image of Mao Zedong waved his hand jerkily with every second.
The pain was leaving them. They had become kitsch. But that afternoon a storekeeper offered me another Little Red Book, almost forty years old. Then an old unease came over me. The terror of the Cultural Revolution — its unknown millions persecuted, its hallmark mental cruelty — had never quite left me. Eighteen years ago I had encountered its human wreckage everywhere.
I fingered the book tentatively, almost with reverence. It seemed to breathe a corrupt mana. Had this been one of them? It felt rough and small in my hands. And as I fingered its paper, that nightmare became real again, and I wondered what had happened to Yang Shaomin, and what he had done.
Then I was back in the daylit street. It was snarled with traffic, and children were coming out of school. Years before, they would 10 The Capital have followed their teacher in a dutiful crocodile, the infants strung together by a long cord.
Now they jostled and shouted and ran amok. I felt foolishly comforted. In the local cinema a Shanghai romance called Why me, Sweetie? Now I was walking in fascinated confusion. My eyes kept alighting on those vaguely disturbing advertisements featuring Europeanised models.
Their eyes were unnaturally rounded, the epicanthic folds surgically cut, their noses subtly arched or thinned by photographic lighting, and the bud-like mouths were stretched in a Western smile. We have no time and no security. You say we walk differently from the old, well that is why. And they want to go on as before, cautiously, preserving. But my generation — our world depends on us.
This was the sea-change that was transforming China. All at once the future had grown more potent than the past. Change was rendering things obsolete. You could see this where high-rise apartment blocks barged into the old suburbs, bulldozing the clustered generations of the communal courtyard and banking up tiers of nuclear families in their place. Whole regions of the city had become unrecognisable, the man said.
And of course it was not merely buildings that were being exchanged, it was the values they fostered. Relationships were warmer then. I wondered if he were not simply regretting being adult. He was an only child. Parents and relatives all dote on these single children. I read the other day of a ten-year-old boy who died drowning, trying to save his friend.
He imagined he could do anything. He had eaten almost nothing. Mao Zedong had died years before he was born: They were Red Guards, of course, and I heard that my father smashed up old things. He may even have killed a man. When we take group snapshots we sing silly Mao hymns. They sang hymns before taking a photo. The truth is my whole generation is sick of politics. People just join the Party to get on. However incoherently, its victims had died for change. But even as I asked him, I realised he had been nine years old at the time.
I remember the noise and the soldiers, and later we saw blood in the streets everywhere. Soon afterwards I crossed that square with my mother, and I realised something terrible had 12 The Capital happened. But that was all, and she said nothing. Then he said with the sudden, paradoxical spareness of his people: When I close my eyes, I go cold. Many young people are afraid of it, I think. Old people can look back on rich lives, perhaps, and are not afraid. But we young people are unfulfilled, and afraid.
Some of my friends go to the Buddhist temple, but only because they want something. To the north the plateaux of windborn loam mount towards Inner Mongolia; to the south the hills, suddenly humid, are terraced for rice and tea. It was in the mild basin between, now spread with wheat and cotton, that the tyrantemperor Qin Shi Huangdi proclaimed the first capital of a unified China in BC, and was buried in a tomb guarded by massed echelons of terracotta warriors which came to light more than two thousand years afterwards.
In his reign the fiefdoms of the past were brutally homogenised: He knit together the Great Wall with the labour of a million conscripts and peasants, who died of exhaustion and were immured in it like landfill.
Nothing survived that was not his. So a recognisable country came into being: The terracotta army still marches where it was found, through a subterranean vault fifteen miles east of Xian. Fear of the SARS 13 shadow of the silk road virus, which was spreading north that April, had brought tourism to a standstill, and I found myself almost alone in the cold-lit tunnel.
No photograph prepares you for these eerie legions. They move through the earth in their hundreds, eleven columns deep. Once brilliant in vermilion and green, shiny with black armour and pink skin, they have faded to spectral beige. Their robes fall thick and loose over their concave chests, and their hair is knotted in tight buns or bunched behind winged headdresses. Studded platearmour overlaps their shoulders. But instead of the stone-hearted war engine a despot might demand, they wait in a disparate regiment of watchful and unequal men.
Almost no two are alike. There are veterans with wide moustaches and sloping stomachs, thin recruits and scholarly-looking campaigners sporting little chips of beard. In the wan light their expressions are those of expectation, even alarm, as if they await the enemy charge.
But everything wooden — all their arms — has disintegrated. The fists of the spearmen are closed delicately around nothing. Arrows and lances, halberds and crossbows have left behind only splinters of bronze. Circling the dim gangway above them, you imagine this massed and intricate armament, with its mailed elite infantry and expendable conscripts, to be the upsurge of a self-sufficient realm: But already I was dreaming of the road to the west, and it filled my head with a complex ebb and flow.
Behind the terracotta horses the earth was printed with the rings of vanished wheels, for at the heart of the imperial armies rolled the leather-bound war chariots, manned by aristocratic archers and armoured spearmen.
Yet the chariot was not a Chinese invention. For two thousand years before BC these fleet cars had criss-crossed the steppes of Mesopotamia and southern Russia, and they reached China along the Silk Road a thousand years after their origin. The bronze metallurgy which shaped those vanished weapons perhaps originated in the steppelands too, and all the ancestors of those horses — alert and chariotless in the museum dust — had come along tracks from the west.
Fewer than seven hundred figures have been restored out of an 14 The Capital estimated six thousand. Many lie unexcavated under the roofs which crashed in at the end of the Qin dynasty in BC: In another pit an estimated nine hundred soldiers and ninety chariots lie buried under a debris of sagged timbers, where platoons of bowmen kneel to arms.
Their bent fingers cradle weapons which have perished, but in the hardened loam nearby, the perfect outline of a long-rotted crossbow startles thoughts of medieval Europe.
These exchanges swarm with question marks. Chinese inventions which percolated along the ancient road — printing and gunpowder, lock-gates and drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning-wheel and equine harness that transformed agriculture — flourished behind the Great Wall for centuries before emerging phoenix-like in the West.
And the knowledge of other prodigies — iron-chain suspension bridges, deep-drilling techniques the Chinese were boring for brine and gas at two thousand feet in the second century BC — took over a thousand years to travel. But the notion of China as a sealed empire was breaking apart around me. Reassembled from the grave-pits, a terracotta messenger stood ready with his horse behind him.
His harness and saddle were in place, but there was not yet a stirrup. The heavy stirrup was a Chinese brain-child as early as the fourth century AD, it seems, and as it travelled westward, stabilising its rider in battle, it made possible the heavily armoured and expensively mounted knight.
To this simple invention some have attributed the onset of the whole feudal age in Europe; and seven centuries later the same era came to an end as its castles were pounded into submission by the Chinese invention of gunpowder.
These imaginings followed me at will through the dim vaults of the Qin emperor. He himself lies a mile away beneath a foot mound, where years before I had wandered alone. Now the 15 shadow of the silk road Chinese tourist board had discovered it. A flight of steps beetled to the summit among firs and marigolds. Souvenir sellers thronged to meet me at the top, and a fancy-dress Qin dynasty band — drums, horns, squealing pipes — marched in from time to time to shatter the quiet.
But beneath my feet the terrible emperor still lay entombed — if contemporary chronicles are accurate — in a vast and intricate facsimile of his empire, threaded by quicksilver rivers, set in motion by invisible machinery, with his executed wives beside him. Seven hundred thousand workmen, it is said, laboured on this mausoleum through the last years of his reign, and on its completion those who knew too much were immured inside by the descent of stone gates.
Within the tomb-chamber, among mountains carved from copper and cities in precious stone, he rides in a boat-shaped coffin on a mercury river, which flows to a mercury sea beneath a night sky printed with pearl stars. So in death he contrived a self-contained mirror-kingdom, perfect control. Its gemstone cities were laid out for eternity, echoing the stasis of the heavens.
The internal gates and passageways, raked secretly by primed crossbows, sealed the borders of his posthumous state. He had walled off the past and the future. The seal-fat lamps which lit his tomb were supposed to last for ever. I wondered what he wanted. He spoke a breathy English, split by bursts of Mandarin, and above his broad peasant face his hair sprouted so low that it almost met his eyebrows. He invited me home to meet his family, but his family were not there. He was racked by some intense, festering energy.
In his three-room flat, seated on rock-hard upholstery, he unfolded the old ambition of his people with a bright fixation. I want my life to go like this! Up, up from nothing, until I die. You are like a tree, he said. Drinking, smoking, gambling are branches to be cut off.
Cut them off, and you grow high. Our society has changed very fast. We are addicts to gambling. But young people are ruined. And the massage parlours are everywhere, calling themselves beauty salons. A generation ago all this had been unimaginable. He noticed my friends. If they were dutiful to their parents, he approved. If not, they were like wolves, he said, bad for the spirit, and I should leave them. They will turn your heart sick, he said.
The old man had been persecuted in the Cultural Revolution for owning books. But to trees now, and flowing water, and a newspaper. In a belated Maoist spirit Huang had recently volunteered to help farmers, harvesting vegetables into a basket strapped to his back. There are poor people in the mountains here, people who have 17 shadow of the silk road nothing.
He has no money, no school for his sons. So I give money for his oldest child to go to school for the first year.
This is big education for me, for my wife and daughter. I just work with a computer. I want to dream a big dream and go abroad. He is my only foreign friend — and now you. Money is important, of course, but later. Friends will be more important for my life. Oh, Mr Huang, I have good news — my father or my uncle works in a company that needs.
He had grown up in the new China of Deng Xiaoping, the land where riches were glorious, an arena of accelerating mobility. But I felt an amazed misgiving for him. It has some economic problems. Many people have no job.
But some economies are better than 18 The Capital here in China, some companies. After that we sell them back to the Brazil company. Then he advances down other avenues, to other schemes. And slowly, as he juggles with a ferment of percentages and notional deals, my fear for him dissipates.
I start, with dim foreboding, to pity the Brazilians. I imagine Huang conquering the world. Under his squat hands the tinny bell gets substituted by a porcelain saucer, which is joined by a vinegar-pot. He is talking like a machine-gun.
His mind has a tough, calculating acumen. His English floods into Mandarin. His eyes never leave my face. They glitter with an innocent cunning. The company puts its own label on it, of course — but same quality! For twenty-two miles its ramparts enclosed nearly two million inhabitants, and immured them again in a nest of inner walls and gates, as ward after ward piled up around a vast chessboard of avenues.
On one side it sucked in tribute by canals stretching to the South China Sea; on the other it stood as a lodestar at the eastern end of the Silk Road, where the Tang empire stretched to the Pamirs. Fabulous birds flutter for a moment out of the plaster. They look like exquisite children. Their men, meanwhile, are playing polo, a game imported from Persia, in a charge of weightless cavalry. Under these dim vaults their lives are reinvented in a vacuum — their colours faded to rust and grey — yet are sweetly precise.
When they follow the chase, their hunting leopards perch on saddles behind them, with a falcon or two, while a pair of provision-laden camels lumbers contemptuously behind. They inhabited a city of fabled refinement and excess, whose street plan mirrored an imagined cosmic order.
In spring its boulevards drowned in a snowstorm of apricot and peach blossom, with women sailing through the air on swings. These were the people, connoisseurs of the peony and the courtesan, who lifted to their lips the amber wine-cups which now rest in the city museum.
Its cabinets still shine with their vanity: But beneath this artifice, of course, a power was throbbing: In the Western Market where the Silk Road came to rest, two hundred guilds of merchants worked.
Their reach was immense. They embraced almost every people between Arabia and Japan: There were times when whole echelons of the Tang court — including its elite bodyguard — were foreign. The moneylenders — sometimes so extortionate that people pledged their slaves and sacred relics — were Uighurs from the west. Along the Silk Road too came the music and dance of Turkestan — a fearsome, whirling flamenco was the rage for years — along with acrobats, jugglers and trapeze artists; and in the inns near the Gate of Spring Brightness the fair girls of Central Asia sang to flutes and befuddled the poets with their green eyes.
Although the imperial supervision of foreign merchants stayed rigid and finicky, a new tolerance was in the air. The silks and 20 The Capital ceramics of the time show winged horses and peacocks — the decorative motifs of Persia — flying alongside Chinese dragons; and no burial was complete without its attendant figurines of roaring camels led by a gnomish barbarian in a Phrygian cap.
The classier brothels gave puppet shows satirising big-nosed people in peaked bonnets. The enveloping mantle of the palace ladies slid away, and by the early eighth century women were to be seen riding like steppeland men in boots and Turkic caps, even bare-headed.
And deeper attachments were at work. For two centuries the capital reverberated with the gongs of Buddhist temples and monasteries. In the pilgrim-monk Xuanzang returned from India laden with more than six hundred scriptures, settling to translate them in a pagoda that still stands, and the whole city massed to greet him. Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Manicheism — all were accepted with benign curiosity, while the indigenous faiths of China — Taoism and Confucianism — bided their time.
But by the tenth century this city of complicated glory lay in ruins. The willows binding its canal banks had been cut down for barricades, the beams and pillars of its mansions lashed together into rafts, on which its people floated away to greater safety in the east. Somewhere in the northern suburbs the imperial palace of Changan is turning to dust.
I cannot find it. The people living in the district are recent immigrants, and poor. It is hard to ask among their hovels for the Palace of Great Light. In any case, they do not know. Only through a Tang historian Hu Ji — friend of a friend — do the gates of a forbidden compound clank open, and we enter a building site ringed far away by smoking suburbs.
It is a scarred hillside. On one hand it descends to broken-down cottages and workshops. On the other I look up and see with chill astonishment the huge, sepulchral terraces glimmering in blue-white stone.
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The palace foundations have just been restored. Hu Ji is slight and greying. He carries an old canvas shopping bag, and seems more fragile than his years. A sharp wind is cutting 21 shadow of the silk road across the terraces. He has come with his twenty-eight-year-old daughter Mingzhao, who looks like porcelain, like him.
The last time he was here, he says, the foundations were a heap of rubble. For a long time we climb over this perfect, sterile geometry.
Beneath us the city moans invisibly through smog: Sometimes his daughter takes his arm, as if comforting him for something. I try to imagine the imperial Son of Heaven conducting state affairs from this gashed hillside, gazing down on the ocean of his prostrate officials or the passage of a military parade.
Viewed from below, wrote chroniclers, the palace seemed to float in clouds. But now the great ramp of platforms, shorn of all structures, all colour, makes a cold, Aztec symmetry against the hill. They lie isolated in the waxy sheen of reconstruction. Nearly forty years ago, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards had rampaged all through the country.
We were happy for a moment. But Hu had come because he loved history. He belonged to that lost generation who were banished to the countryside after the chaos grew too great. Many Red Guards returned years later with their faith annihilated, their schooldays wasted, to a world which was forgetting them. Some lived with the 22 The Capital memory of unspeakable things. Yet Hu Ji, I sense, has escaped. As we mount the Linde hall, the pleasure palace of nineteen successive Tang emperors, his daughter falls back beside me.
Her father is tracing where the columns of the banqueting chamber have left their circles in the flower-speckled earth. He had silicosis in his lungs long afterwards. But he kept up his studies even there.
This man committed suicide just before the Revolution, knowing what was coming. My father feels a great debt to him, and great sadness. Its flutes and harps still sound on their tomb walls. He enjoys these transmutations, as I do: He ruled for forty years or more, but his generals were catastrophically defeated by the Arabs.
In an episode beloved of poets, says the professor, the concubine he adored was executed by the army; and civil war weakened his dynasty for ever. Hu Ji speaks with whispering fastidiousness. I cannot imagine him a Red Guard. But some broken ideal, perhaps, has healed in the rational glow of the Tang. He taught them to dance. The Xian municipality commissioned a train of camels in commemoration, sculpted in red sandstone, twice life size.
So the camels occupy a traffic island nearby. In Tang times nobody spoke of the Silk Road. It was a nineteenth-century term, coined by the German geographer Friedrich von Richthofen, and it was not a single road at all, but a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid to the Mediterranean.
Historians claim its inception for the second century BC, but the traffic started long before accounts of it were written. Chinese silk from BC has turned up in tombs in north Afghanistan, and strands were discovered twisted into the hair of a tenthcentury BC Egyptian mummy.
Four centuries later, silk found its way into a princely grave of Iron Age Germany, and appears enframed — a panel of sudden radiance — in the horse-blanket of a Scythian chief, exacted as tribute or traded for furs twenty-four centuries ago.
Silk did not go alone. The caravans that lumbered out of Changan — sometimes a thousand camels strong — went laden with iron and bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and those returning from the west carried artefacts in glass, gold and silver, Indian spices and gems, woollen and linen fabrics, sometimes slaves, and the startling invention of chairs.
A humble but momentous exchange began in fruits and flowers. From China westward went the orange and the apricot, mulberry, peach and rhubarb, with the first roses, camellias, peonies, azaleas, chrysanthemums.
Out of Persia and Central Asia, travelling the other way, the vine and the fig tree took root in China, with flax, pomegranates, jasmine, dates, olives and a horde of vegetables and herbs. In eras of stability, when the great Han imperium reached across central Asia towards ancient Rome, or the Mongol empire laid down its unexpected peace, the Silk Road flourished. But even in 24 The Capital these times the same caravans never completed the whole route.
No Romans strolled along the boulevards of Changan; no Chinese trader astonished the Palatine. Rather their goods interchanged in an endless, complicated relay race, growing ever costlier as they acquired the patina of rarity and farness.
My answer — eight months — would have sounded nothing to these men. They were sometimes gone years. Their bones scattered the sand. With their popping eyes and knob-like noses, they smack of Chinese caricature.
But they grasp recalcitrant beasts, and their quaint-looking shoes are upturned only to reduce friction in the sand. Their chances of death — by bandits or sandstorm or flash-flood — were a calculated risk, a percentage in hard heads.
By comparison my own chances — an Afghan mine, perhaps — only frivolously existed. That night, in the idle interval before sleep, I imagined one of these grizzled entrepreneurs. What are you going for? What did you go for? To trade in indigo and salt from Khotan. Why should your understanding dispel fear, idiot? Are you, then, afraid? That is what the modern traveller fears forgive me. Then you hear only yourself. I offered two pounds of incense to the Buddha for that.
I know a sorcerer in Bukhara, sells bronze mirrors. The rest is illusion. Is that why you go alone? Only pilgrims 25 shadow of the silk road and madmen go alone. England does not exist. No part is more meaningful than any other part. Even in Siberia, there is amber. It was made in the reign of the emperor Wudi, about BC, from the fibre of hemp and a local nettle.
Nothing is written on it. It is as if a camel had rubbed off its hide against the museum wall. You gaze on this wrinkled ancestor with a sense of time shaking. It would be over twelve hundred years before paper-making reached Europe. Meanwhile, in Changan, paper was being used as clothes, armour, handkerchiefs, kites, belts, money.
Beautiful coloured vellums appeared the favourite was Pure Heart Hall paper, finished in scrolls over fifty feet long. The imperial library owned two hundred thousand scrolls, catalogued by coloured ivory labels, their wrappers studded with rock crystal and their paper glossed with mica. As early as the sixth century the production of sacred texts was so common that a noted mandarin was forbidding his family to use them as lavatory paper.
Only after ADwhen the Arabs routed the Chinese at the battle of Talas, did the jealously guarded craft of paper-making travel west, along with captured Chinese artisans, to Samarkand. It would not reach Europe for another three hundred years. In the hushed museum this first page looks too rough to inscribe. But by ADletters written on mulberry bark were travelling the Silk Road. The archaeologist Aurel Stein, while investigating a watch26 The Capital tower in the Lop desert, came upon a cache of undelivered mail, with messages in Sogdian dating back to AD These are the first known inscribed paper.
Their words are in carbon ink. Another touches on the failing state of China — the sack of cities, the flight of the Emperor — and its implications for trade. But for the rest, across their fragments, the script runs neat as a company balance-sheet: Kharstang owed you 20 staters of silver.
He gave me the silver and I weighed it, and there were only 4. They share the same small mouth and slim nose. She is studying the Sung dynasty, as he has studied the Tang. Sometimes she laughs, while he smiles. He is writing a book of essays — they are complex, provocative — which will expose old pieties to a new light.
Instead of surrendering, he first killed his wife and fed her to his soldiers, then one by one killed the weaker men and fed them to the stronger.
Finally his troops were reduced to a hundred. They were overwhelmed three days before relief came. How should it be judged? I feel for his compassion — surprising 27 shadow of the silk road myself — a surge of consolation, and I realise that I have never lost some misgiving at this hard land.
It is the residue, I know, of the Cultural Revolution. Hu Ji says quietly: We have opened up too much to the world now. So has nothing really changed?
I glance round the restaurant. Twenty years ago the place would have been pompous with the stiff suits and buttoned collars of banqueting bureaucrats.
Now there are family groups, business colleagues, teenagers flirting. Yet for a moment my anxiety imagines that all is as before, and that the men sitting in their black or grey jackets, dark shirts, have merely exchanged one uniform for another. But Hu Ji is looking at his daughter, says softly: But I think mine are more selfish. They have a conscience. They must decide things for themselves. She is twenty-eight, but looks a child. For a moment I do not understand her — the equation of conscience with selfishness is strange.
But ever since the Cultural Revolution, she implies — when morality was vested in a nearmystical leadership — the lifeline between authority and virtue had snapped. Responsibility could no longer be displaced upward, but had come to rest, with guilt, in the confines of the self.
Implicitly Mingzhao is announcing the death of the whole Confucian order, which places in an immutable hierarchy every person under heaven. Prematurely, smiling back into her earnest face, I imagine a huge, tectonic shift beneath the Chinese surface, as the timeless submission of selfhood to the group loosens into individual life.
These thoughts are still jostling in bewilderment as the last dumplings vanish down our throats. Hu Ji has relaxed, sighing, 28 The Capital over a little glass of rice wine. It was like a fever. How could I understand?
Shadow of the Silk Road
Not even in the intellect, let alone the heart. I was born into a society of other inhumanities. Before gloom can gather, Mingzhao asks me brightly: Surely he would choose to live under the Tang. But he only smiles, and says uncertainly: Its colours are rich, faintly synthetic.
The woman asks forty-five yuan five dollars per square foot. She says her cloth comes from the old silk-producing cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou in the east, and I imagine their patterns unchanged since the Sung. They are bustling with dragons and phoenixes, or webbed in a gold skein of flowers. It is hard to imagine who would wear them now. They reek of past leisure and artifice. Yet this silk is supremely resilient, temperate to wear, absorbent to dyes, almost rot-proof.
When all else has disintegrated in the two-thousand-year-old graves of the Han, their silk gifts and shrouds remain, often thinned to colourless slivers, sometimes shockingly vibrant. By Han times the women of every household cultivated silk, and the whole imperial court was shimmering in a hierarchy of complicated grades: The Tang emperors, dripping with silks, were portrayed in full-length silk 29 shadow of the silk road portraits, or riding in silk-curtained chariots flying ceremonial silk banners.
The Chinese discovered in silk an astonishing tensile strength. It was strung to bows and lutes, and became fishing-lines. Even waterproof silk bags appeared for transporting liquids, and lacquered silk cups. Along with bone and wood, silk became the first surface to be written on.
It sanctified imperial edicts and in ritual sacrifice carried messages to the dead. Long after the discovery of paper, books of divination and magic were confined to silk, together with all names of ancestral spirits. As a surface for painting, too, this was the most precious.
The once vast imperial collections of silk scrolls did not last — in one cataclysm rebel soldiers used them for tents and knapsacks — and from those earliest years only copies or fragments remain.
But landscape painting became a near-mystical art. Around its mountains and people — sometimes touched in with brushes made of sable hair or mouse whiskers — the expanses of sky or invisible ocean were given up to unpainted silk.
Its lustrous emptiness became a living presence.Jade Empire: Closed Fist Silk Fox Lesbian Romance Acquiring Death's Hand
All solids, said the Taoists, were on their way to nonexistence. The silken void was more real than they: Above all, for more than a millennium, silk was used to pay off and soften the nomads ravening beyond the Great Wall. Often it took on the status of currency. As lasting as coin, it became salaries, taxes, tribute. By the first century BC the ancestors of the Huns were exchanging its beauty for their horses. In Rome, beyond the other end of the Silk Road, it began fascinating the rich, and subverting the economy.
Long afterwards the Visigoths of Alaric, besieging the tired city, were deflected by a partial ransom of four thousand Chinese silks. His Arab ancestors had come along the Silk Road seven hundred years ago, he said, and one of his forebears had been general to the first Ming emperor. Arab and 30 The Capital Persian blood made his Hui people more handsome than the Chinese, he laughed.
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But his teeth were blackened pillars on shrunken gums, and he was running to fat. As early as the seventh century these traders had arrived along the Silk Road while their Islam was young, or filtered in through the ports of the South China Sea.
But through intermarriage, whatever the man said, they had mostly become indistinguishable from those around them. Sixty thousand strong in Xian now, they remained avid traders, and Arabic words still littered their talk. You roam the streets of their quarter at dusk, sensing new activity.
They walk in tall white hats, like chefs, and sometimes dangle beards. In their chief mosque, the fusion of China with Islam is like artful theatre. You wander through courtyards interlocked like those of a Ming palace, where the stelae are carved alternately in Arabic or Mandarin, and a minaret rises out of a porcelain-tiled pagoda.
Stone dragons and tortoises coil and slumber here and there, ignorant of the Muslim ban on living images. The roofs tilt and swing above their high-coloured eaves, and across the lintels Chinese birds and flowers flock round Koranic inscriptions. The voice is emphatic, overamplified, but I can barely comprehend a word. Then, alongside my disquiet, an excitement rises: The purity of cultures, even the Chinese, becomes an illusion.
So the hybrid mosque is like a promise or a warning. It is the work of the Silk Road, long ago. Nothing ahead of me, I sense, will be homogeneous, constant. To follow a road is to follow diversity: One evening he caught me returning to my hotel, and grasped my arm in sudden conspiracy.
He knew a man, he said, who collected things.