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Beyond Shaolin Temple: excavating China's earliest dynasties

SHAOLIN Temple in Henan Province is famous worldwide for its kung fu monks, but few foreigners know the fascinating province itself where China's Han culture originated.

"China is little understood by the rest of the world, and Henan is really where the Han culture began," says Yungshih Lee, editor-in-chief of newly launched Chinese National Geography International edition.

"It's a good start point for anyone who wants to understand China but it's neglected by many people who visit the country," he says.

The English-language edition was launched in May and aims to "bring China to the world," starting with Henan Province in the inaugural issue.

Shanghai Daily accompanied the magazine's staff to three cities - Anyang, Zhengzhou and Luoyang.

Anyang, a small, little-known city in northern Henan, is one of China's eight ancient capitals, the origin of oracle bone inscriptions, the world's earliest written word system.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan, was the earlier time capital of Shang Dynasty (16th-11th century BC) before its eastern exodus to today's Shandong Province. Shaolin Temple is on Mt Song between Zhengzhou and Luoyang.

First ancient capital

Maybe because Anyang includes extensive imperial graves, I feel a sudden chill as we enter Yinxu, or Yin Ruins, the first excavated Chinese capital. It dates from the 13th century BC.

Unlike Egypt, where the pyramids and sphinx are above ground, Yinxu's evidence of its past is entirely underground.

The Yinxu site, within Anyang City, is most famous for the discovery of oracle bone inscriptions in 1899, proving that China's civilization was 500 years older than previously believed.

The earliest excavation started in 1928 and is still going on, though work was suspended during periods of conflict and war. Relics are still being unearthed and most of China's first-generation modern archeologists and workers started on this site.

The site contains the buried ruins of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty. According to historic records, the 20th Shang King Pan Geng moved the capital here from today's Shandong Province in the early 13th century BC, about 3,300 years ago. It served as the capital for more than 250 years with 12 Shang kings.

UNESCO inscribed Yinxu on the World Heritage List in 2006.

At first glance, the 36-square-kilometer site seems like a park, covered with grass fields and high hedges. Five or six ancient-style buildings are hidden behind trees. The first impression is emptiness - there's nothing in the fields except for Simuwu Ding, a four-footed bronze vessel. It's the largest ancient bronze unearthed in China, weighing 875 kilograms.

The tour guide smiles a bit strangely when I ask where all the relics are. She invites us to take a closer look at one of the lawns and a small section surrounded by hedges.

"This is exactly where they excavated all the relics you will find in that house," she says pointing to a Shang Dynasty-style house nearby. She still wears a strange smile and warns us: "Don't get too scared later."

The house is the first museum of Yinxu, housing the discoveries and some reproductions of precious relics unearthed in the ongoing excavations. Inside is a recreated excavation chamber; the dark room has a strange ambience as the central part is sunken a few meters into the ground.

From above we can barely see two rectangular ancient chariots with huge wheels. The walls are covered with all kinds of pictures and small items found on the site.

One is the real chariot from the site and the other a replicate. The shape of the chariot is really familiar and I only realize what it is after looking at the pictures on the wall - it's the shape for the Chinese oracle character che, meaning a vehicle. The earliest known oracle character for the word "vehicle" is written just like the chariot artifact.

I look back at the authentic chariot, 10 meters down in the dim pit, and now I can make out skeletons on each side of the axis. The guide confirms my guess that they were horses or human beings drawing the chariot. In the Shang Dynasty, slaves pulled chariots, just like horses, but were less valuable than equine property.

"They could have been buried alive to accompany the owner in the afterlife," the guide explains.

Somehow, her soft voice sounds so cold in the dark room and I can almost see how the poor creature struggled underground while locked to the chariot.

I quickly move on. I don't have the courage to ask whether the skeletons on the authentic piece down there were horses or human.

The second museum house, in the same ancient style, also has a central sunken area containing holes, similar to an excavation pit. Again, I see dozens of skeletons in each hole and the tour guide says these holes were for animal sacrifice or for prisoners of war, some of whom were buried alive.

We move outside to another vast empty field. I look more carefully this time and I detect the shapes of similar holes, square and rectangular, that have been filled in and planted over.

"The rectangular ones are for intact bodies, heads included, that were buried (alive) and the square ones are only for the heads of prisoners who were killed," the guide adds.

One of the many discoveries is the tomb of Fu Hao, one of the wives of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and the earliest-known female Chinese general. The tomb contained almost 2,000 funerary objects in one of the largest archeological finds in China.

Temple under heaven

The city of Dengfeng is part of Zhengzhou. Deng means climbing/hiking and feng refers to the earthly emperor's ceremony to honor the heavenly emperor. This was a royal tradition, especially when the country was stable and prosperous.

The ancient Chinese emperors took great pride in conducting such elaborate ceremonies to show they had governed the country well - this despite the huge cost and involvement of hundreds of government officials and servants who had to scale the mountain for the ritual.

Mt Song in Dengfeng City has always been favored by emperors as it is in the center of China's Central Plain. It is known as the Mid-Sacred Plain, one of China's Five Sacred Mountains. It is steep and dramatic, a place of breath-taking scenery.

Dengfeng is named after China's only female Empress Wu Zetian climbed Mt Song for the ceremony to honor heaven in 696 AD.

Records of the time reveal this caused a stir in the country, as only emperors and male attendants were permitted to conduct the ceremony. Women were not even allowed to pray to ancestors in family ceremonies.

A beautiful city of cultural relics, Dengfeng is right at the foot of Mt Song, most famous as the home of Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Zen Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu.

All kung fu fans know about Shaolin and Wudang, the two biggest martial arts genres in China. While Shaolin kung fu was developed as a way to protect Zen Buddhist books, Wudang kung fu was known for practicing the Taoist essence through martial arts.

Mt Song consists of two mountains, Taishi and Shaoshi. Shaolin, originally set up in the woods of Mt Shaoshi, is named so for its location - shao for Mt Shaoshi and lin for woods.

The Shaolin site became famous as the Indian monk Bodhidharma, creator of Zen Buddhism, meditated nine years in a cave there. The fame of Shaolin Temple reached its peak in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) as Emperor Li Shimin was rescued by 13 Shaolin monks in his youth.

With considerable imperial support, the temple became known as the "No. 1 Temple Under Heaven."

In ancient times, women were not allowed to enter Shaolin Temple for fear they might distract the gods and the monks. This old tradition continued for a long time. I remember that when I was three or four, I had to wait outside when my dad took me to visit the temple. Now women can visit but the temple hardly ever accepts female students.

Dozens of martial arts schools are on the road to Shaolin Temple and some do accept female students. But none of them belongs to Shaolin, though some Shaolin monks teach there.

First-time visitors might be disappointed by the small area open to visitors and the crowds. I would suggest a tour guide; or ask a monk in the temple to explain.

The temple is well known for all the interesting stories behind its frescoes and virtually every piece of stone.

For example, one of the little-noticed rooms is filled with the imprints of footsteps on stone and faded paintings on the walls. The simple room was a secret place for monks to practice martial arts.

In a few ancient dynasties, Buddhist or Shaolin monks were suppressed for political reasons because emperors feared their formidable martial arts and enormous following. Hence the small room became their secret place to practice at night, following poses depicted in the wall paintings. So many monks for so many years left their footprints.

Although we see hundreds of monks in the temple, chatting or selling souvenirs to tourists, they are not all Shaolin monks. I encounter an old monk, one of the generation that trained the current master of Shaolin Temple. He says only around 200 monks in the temple are registered ones. They can live in the dorms adjacent to the temple and receive monthly compensation from the government and the temple. He says they receive about 2,000 yuan (US$292), not bad since room and board are free.

Many people come to the temple with hopes of becoming registered monks. They walk on their knees on the stone steps of the temple and wait on their knees, without food, for days, hoping to be accepted.

"It's difficult unless they are destined to become a monk at Shaolin, and this is decided by head monks," he says. The young "monks" hanging out may not even be monks.

This old monk is leaving on a pilgrimage; such travel is permitted if approved by high ranking monks.

Although Shaolin is the most famous temple, it's not the only sacred place on Mt Song. There are dozens of other temples, including one for nuns.


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