XI'AN, China — We've landed in the heart of the country.
Our Air China plane taxis through darkness to a gate at the Xi'an (pronounced "she-an") airport. The first significant snow in a decade has recently blanketed the burgeoning city of 8 million. Phalanxes of laborers chip at ice and furiously shovel runways and the 10-mile connector road to the city center. Xi'an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi is proud and — despite a construction explosion — an elegant city. It dates back 4,000 years when it anchored the eastern end of the Silk Road that stretched to what is now Istanbul and ports west.
Today, Xi'an is an unsettling mix of antiquity and tomorrow. Even after dark the suburban outskirts' dizzyingly massive construction projects are evident. This region is China's Silicon Valley. But the skeletal forms along the expressway are mitigated by thousands of red silk lanterns that line the vehicular route into town. They hang from poles like dangle earrings to form a dazzling allée of lights. The décor signals upcoming Chinese New Year: 2018, the Year of the Dog.
After dull skyscrapers and swaying lanterns, Xi'an's hulking city walls, erected in 1370, come into view. This fortresslike, crenelated, 39-foot-high barrier is enlivened for 9 miles by strands of white lights. Currently, the height of new construction inside the old walls is regulated to antique scale. But this can't contain the old character: At certain special and sacred places, such as the Forest of Stelae Museum, where some Confucian stone pillars date to 837, looming skyscrapers that rise beyond the city walls interrupt historic view sheds and negate enchanting architectural settings, landscapes and gardens.
Despite its go-go, boom-boom, high-tech present, what gives Xi'an its élan is a remarkable discovery made in 1974. In that year farmers came upon the clay figures that came to be known as the Terra Cotta Army. These some 7,000 military figures guard the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huanghi, who ruled 2,200 years ago. Much of the necropolis, including the mausoleum itself, remains unexcavated. The site extends far beyond the mammoth, shedlike structures that shelter both hordes of tourists as well as ongoing archeological conservation at the World Heritage site.
The warriors were my lure to join this Virginia Museum of Fine Arts-organized media trip. Its purpose is to gain deeper understanding of the "Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China" exhibition now being featured on the Boulevard (in April the show moves to the Cincinnati Art Museum). Leading our posse are the exhibition's organizers and scholars — Alex Nyerges, the museum's director; Li Jian, the museum's curator of eastern art; Cameron Kitchin, director of the Cincinnati Museum; and its curator of Asian art, Hou-mei Sung. The journalists and tourism officials are from Richmond, Cincinnati and New York.
On our first full day in China, it's clear that the snow has flushed pollutants. Blue skies prevail. In the afternoon, our entourage visits the expansive archeological site that contains three massive pits containing clay warriors. Our official guide allows us to break from the continuous stream of tourists and descend a few steps, covered by a bright red carpet, to better inspect the resolute figures, each unique. That morning French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, had begun a state visit to China and had stood where we now stand: hence the red carpet. Apparently this first stop is de rigueur on diplomatic missions to China, as if to imply: "Top this."
As we Americans, slack-jawed, survey the vast acreage of raw dirt pits and the figures they contain, we are admonished. Our guide, who monitors and photographs our movements, commands: "Look busy." Lest the tourists who view us with curiosity think we are receiving favorable treatment, camera shutters snap, pads and pens emerge.
The next afternoon we settle into a plush lounge in the modern Shaanxi History Museum complex. The room has thick beige carpets and oversized club chairs. An attractive wait staff serves hot tea in porcelain cups. Here we interview Qiang Yue, the museum's director. He stresses that Chinese history, no matter how ancient, is not isolated incidents, romantic or lost in the haze of centuries. No, it is part of a continuum that preceded and instigated China's current and growing investments in technology, infrastructure construction and education. The legacy requires significant investments in preservation and tourism. Indeed, our host's hospitality exemplifies the charm and cultural initiative at which the Chinese are adept. Similar hospitality is offered at other places we visit in Xi'an and in Beijing, especially those institutions that lent many of the 130 objects, in addition to the impressive figures that comprise the ""Terra Cotta Army" exhibition.
It is also clear that the Chinese, as they march to the future, seek out excellent designers and architects internationally to join them in creating settings for their cultural treasures. Many of the various museum interiors were designed by Italian talents. We visit the National Museum of History in Beijing, the biggest museum in the world, which was designed by German firm of Gerkan, Marg and Partners. And we eventually will depart via Beijing airport — not just the world's largest airport, but its largest building — designed by a team headed by London's Norman Foster Architects.
On our last afternoon in China, on a crisp, cold January day, we visit Beijing's stunning Summer Palace, a sprawling, 700-acre parklike complex. Its current form was shaped by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), one China's most dynamic leaders. As I survey the sublime scene, late afternoon sunlight casts a silver sheen over the frozen Kumming Lake. Hundreds of people glide across ice at a hypnotic pace. Few, I suspect, contemplate lost dynasties, slave labor, concubines, bound feet, eunuchs, or former regimes. They are taking a well-deserved afternoon break from whatever part they play in the frantic reality of a nation on the move. S
Edwin Slipek, Style Weekly senior contributing editor and architecture critic, is an adjunct instructor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.
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