A personal journey through China

Unraveling my connection to its history and its complex approach to religion, culture and the West.

THE FORBIDDEN CITY of the Chinese emporer in Beijing. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE FORBIDDEN CITY of the Chinese emporer in Beijing.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Li Mingyuan is an eye-opening figure for an American-Israeli who was taught in Columbia University in the 1990s that modern China is anti-religious.
In a draw-dropping moment in my journey through China with an Israeli delegation, this mayor of the 12 million person city of Xian revealed to a lunch gathering of around two dozen Israeli and Chinese officials that he owned copies of the Hebrew and Christian bibles and took time to periodically read through them.
Suddenly, I found myself shifting from asking hard questions about Israeli-Chinese differences on Iran and the Haifa Port to answering why I wore a yarmulke and how I saw the differences between Moses and Jesus and the different bibles.
Multiple times throughout my visit in China with seven other Israelis in the media or serving as government spokespeople, I was asked with genuine interest to explain the laws of keeping kosher since I was often eating something different than our Chinese hosts.
The genuine interest and absence of being judgmental when I was unable to eat much of what they were trying to honor us with stood out.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s attempts to handle Jewish religious concerns were not always perfect, but it was clear that they were trying hard. This struck me in a country which still cracks down on certain religions and has been in a conflict with protesters in Hong Kong.
While my visit to China was a public event with a delegation in which I covered and reported on hot issues like booming economic cooperation, new agricultural hi-tech approaches, Iran and the Haifa Port, it was also a much more personal journey. My personal journey through China was both an intellectual exchange, connecting me with my earlier university studies, and a fascinating trip through a nation of history that is one of the few that can rival Israel’s ancient story.
On the intellectual side, after about a week in which the Israeli delegation visited Beijing, Yangling, Xian and Shangahi, I cannot say where I believe China stands today on religion.
Were they just being extra tolerant of me because I was a special guest from Israel and they wanted to impress our delegation to facilitate additional growth in economic and technological ties? Or is there some deeper change going on in Chinese society that is more tolerant as a result of their readiness to grow relations with democracies like Israel and their exploding middle class, who is far more aware of global trends than prior generations?
ALL OF this took me back to my university studies. At Columbia, I was fortunate to study with William Theodore de Barry, who, back in 1996, was already 77 and one of the luminaries “credited with broadening the way colleges nationwide study Asia” (according to his New York Times obituary in 2017) and Robert Hymes, who is still teaching and writing about “the problem of ‘believing’ (xin) in both secular and religious contexts in the Song” dynasty of China.
By the way, it is interesting that Hymes finds parallels between secular China and religious China.
In one of my more personal-ideological conversations with some of the Chinese officials we interacted with, we covered Confucius, who I studied at Columbia. It was fascinating to hear where they fit Confucius into their social thought in an area that is rarer in Judaism – somewhere in between religion, culture and history.
I cannot fully explain the Chinese and there are many differences between them and Israel not just regarding religion-culture, but also regarding democracy and rule of law that will probably never be solved.
But as Israel barrels forward in making the Chinese relationship one of the centerpieces of its foreign and economic policy, I was at least heartened that the Chinese surprised me with their openness in a number of areas.
Of course, they had a big advantage with me, which brings me to the touring-history part of my journey.
When this trip took me back around 20 years to when I spent almost a full year studying China at Columbia University, in the touring-history sense I became as giddy as a school boy. I was finally getting to see legendary sights that I had learned about and seen pictures of.
The first highlight for me was the Forbidden City of the Chinese Emperor in Beijing. Chinese emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties ruled here from 1368 until 1912, when the boy emperor, Puyi, was deposed.
Actually, though he was deposed of his power in 1912, the Chinese allowed him to stay in the Forbidden City until 1924.
This was interesting since in many cases where the Chinese deposed their rulers in the past, the rulers were assassinated or otherwise dealt with more harshly. The new rulers of China in 1912 let him live on in relative wealth until the new-new rulers of China in 1924 gave him three hours’ notice before tossing him out of the palace.
In any case, with its three or more levels of entrances and inner sanctums, for me, the Forbidden City gave some of the feel of what Jews must have felt 2,000 years ago when they approached the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Most of our delegation was at least a little bit bothered by the extreme heat (anyone who comes in the summer should buy and bring a Chinese-style umbrella for shade – you will not stick out) and massive crowds, which sometimes one had to push through to move to the next area.
While I was clear-eyed in my view of our events with modern Chinese officials, I admit that my starry-eyedness had me ignoring the effect of the sun and the crowds at the historical sites.
I do get some of that feeling when I walk through the Old City on the way to the Western Wall. But physically speaking, the Temple is gone, and only the Western Wall, a retainer wall of the Temple, is still standing.
Essentially, the entire multiple levels and palace grounds of the Chinese emperor are still intact. Not that every wall is 650 years old. Our tour guide told us that many walls and pavilions had burned down at one point or another since they are mostly built out of wood.
However, many times fires were avoided through a system of wells distributed throughout the grounds to help put out fires.
Furthermore, at many stages, the emperors and now the modern Chinese government made sure to rebuild what was burned and to keep the same style of architecture.
JUST LIKE the ancient Jewish temple, which had outer courtyards for women and non-priest Israelites, followed by a courtyard for priests, followed by a holy area and followed by the Holy of Holies, there are several layers at the Forbidden City.
First there are several divine gates. After entering the gates, you get to a series of important halls, including the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony in the outer court.
From there, you enter the inner court with the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Hall of Union and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility.
In some ways, the Hall of Supreme Harmony could be said to be the highlight. It stands in front of a spacious square covering 30,000 square meters.
Its three-tier marble terrace and size make it the “grandest timber framework ever in China,” according to travel guides.
Emperors used it to receive high officials and exercise their rule over China.
Grand ceremonies portrayed in movies were held here, such as when a new emperor ascended the throne, royal wedding ceremonies, the Chinese New Year and dispatching generals and their armies to go to war.
All of that said, I was even more taken in by the Palace of Heavenly Purity. Though smaller than the Hall of Supreme Harmony, this is deeper into the Forbidden City, in the inner sanctum, was even more off limits to anyone other than top officials and was the actual personal living quarters of the emperor and where he ran the country on a day-to-day basis.
From this palace, emperors also occasionally held banquets, including two special events exclusively for men over 60 from across China.
Like us Jews, the Chinese were also always a people of rituals and ceremony. Their Hall of Union was a special side palace mostly just for keeping the emperor’s holy seal and for stamping important documents.
There was one more key event at the Forbidden City. Throughout our tour, we had access to a number of Chinese officials and diplomats to discuss both history and current events.
While their responses to questions about Iran, the Haifa Port, Huawei and Tnuva controversies were noteworthy, some of points in the visit for me when I felt I most understood their perspective were spontaneous comments we got to hear, from the benefit of being travel companions.
During the tour of the Forbidden City, one official tossed out on his own that while the Forbidden City is not used for public events or concerts in general, it was specially closed for US President Donald Trump’s visit to China in November 2017.
Immediately after the visit, Trump tweeted, “THANK YOU for the beautiful welcome China! @FLOTUS Melania and I will never forget it!” recalled the official, as if staring back into ancient history.
Then he went back to the US and started a trade war, said the official (note: he used some slightly more moderate phrase than trade war as Chinese officials will not use the phrase, continuing to, as they say, “hope to avoid a trade war.”)
This comment was one of many that showed the seething and deep anger at Trump in China, and that they feel used, betrayed and a lack of trust for him which could undermine cutting any sort of comprehensive deal to end the ongoing trade war (Trump has also said he has felt double-crossed on various promises.)
LIKE IRAN and some other countries in conflict with Trump, China may want to try and hope to ride him out and cut a deal with the next US president in November 2020 – as they hope he will be replaced.
Returning from this injection of modern controversies to history, our tour moved next, ironically, from Beijing, backward in history to the more ancient capital of Xian.
If the emperors started in Beijing in 1368, the emperors started a nearly continuous reign in Xian – including building what some say is the oldest still standing large wall in China – as far back as 582. We were told that the wall is older than the currently standing “Great Wall” which dates back to 1368 or later, its earlier versions having been nearly completely destroyed (though some of this was also probably to soften us about the Great Wall not being part of the itinerary!)
Xian is one of the oldest cities in China and you can feel how different it is than ultra modern Beijing.
It was the oldest of the Four Great Ancient Capitals, the starting point of the Silk Road and was the capitalfor most of the time from 582 (also some earlier periods) until the capital was moved to Beijing in 1368. Because of this legacy, I was struck by the effort they have made to have at least the rooftops of even many modern buildings reflect the architecture and imagery of the much older wall of Xian – much the way parts of Jerusalem must look the part of an ancient city.
As a student of military history, I appreciated that the main fortress of Xian has extremely high walls, a moat, drawbridges, watch towers, corner towers, parapet walls and gate towers.
The Archery Tower, which is one of the main military sites of the wall, is designed to force any invading enemy to enter through a narrow passage into an exposed area, where they would be easy for archers to pick off from on high. The only stairwell up to the top is very steep (which I felt quite personally as I was nursing a leg injury) and narrow making invaders continued easy pickings for archers.
BUT CHINESE history goes back much earlier than 582.
Not far from central Xian is Xianyang, the site of the unbelievable terracotta warriors, which date back to 210 BCE, having been commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China (the first to unite China’s vast mosaic of city states.)
I had not only studied these approximately 8,000 clay-based earthenware life-size soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses at Columbia, but, as an action adventure movie connoisseur, I also “saw” them come “alive” as the magic evil army of the mummy Chinese emperor in Hollywood’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in 2008.
In that Mummy movie, the third of a series, the story of the terracotta warriors is retold as their having been a real army of China’s ancient dragon emperor.
They are magically turned into clay and trapped underground by an enchantress, only to be revived as evil mummy warriors later to take over the world.
While fantasy, one of the reasons that the narrative – as fantasy goes – had a hint of plausibility was because until 1974, no one knew that this massive army of terracotta warriors existed.
According to our tour guide, there were textual references deep in history to a peasants’ revolt (one of many in Chinese history) leading to the burning of aspects of Qin Shi Huang’s palace areas.
But the assumption had been that everything was destroyed. We saw that many of the terracotta warriors were broken and there is an ongoing slow process of restoration (the process takes even longer since each warrior was made to be somewhat unique.) In fact, an I-MAX style video presented the theory that many of the terracotta warriors were broken by the revolting peasants. However, the fires they lit and general destruction led to them being covered over with earth and to being mostly preserved.
No one knew that the full army had survived intact and over the years, they were covered with many layers until some random farmers digging a well happened upon them by mistake. They truly were an army, as we saw each unit had sub-commanders nearby, running all the way up to a lead-general, who had a variety of special indications regarding his high rank.
The prize of the collection is the Qin bronze chariot, which actually confusingly refers to two Qin dynasty bronze model chariots. They were kept in a much smaller room where you could barely move because of the volume of guests and everyone was pushing up to get a good look. Unexpectedly, our tour guide told us that the main individual on one of the chariots is not the emperor, but his driver.
The emperor’s tomb has still not been unearthed and will not be in the near future. We were told that it will not be unearthed until technology is developed that can prevent the destruction of the emperor’s underground chambers by the inward rushing in of oxygen.
These were my various journeys through China.
One week is not nearly enough time to unravel the full intellectual-religious-cultural questions of the present or the historical complexities of this massive country with a mix of such a rich and sometimes troubled past. One thing that blew me away during my trip, and as I tried to reconnect with my past studies of China, was the how prophetic the final line of the main text I focused on back in de Barry’s class in the 1990s seems today.
The last line of the 1996 version of A History of Chinese Civilization finished with, “The West has been too quick to identify modernity with Westernization. Perhaps we shall yet become aware of the grave handicap for our future that our ignorance of this part of humanity, of its history, and of its roots, presents.”
As Israel continues to build its relationship with China to new heights, while both it and the West struggle in different ways with how to understand China and areas where we differ substantially, learning about Chinese history and being open to complexity and being surprised may be crucial to more successful outcomes.