chestnut book blog

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Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an, China, July 2013

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, China, July 2013

This is one of the pictures that I find the most moving of all my many photographs from our recent trip to China. His unique clay face peers out of the Earth, waiting to be brushed and glued and returned to his former glory, like the rest of his comrades in Pit 1. For two thousand years he has guarded the Emperor Qin faithfully, long after the roof fell in, the lights went out and those that made him died. To me, these soldiers are as much of a legacy to the ordinary people who made them, modelling them after brothers, friends and cousins, as to the Emperor himself.

There are six excavated pits at the Xi’an location of the terracotta warriors and there could be more. The tomb of the Emperor himself is half a kilometer away from Pit 1 and has not been excavated. Ancient texts talk of rivers of mercury in his tomb, and initial modern probes into the tomb show unexpectedly high levels of mercury, perhaps confirming those ancient reports. This is one of the reasons the Emperor’s tomb remains undisturbed and will do for the foreseeable future. This feels the right, respectful course of action and also sensible given Qin’s legendary ruthlessness – who knows what horrors will be down there!

I had the good fortune to see some of the terracotta warriors when they visited the British Museum a year or so ago (actually, just checked and it was 2008, opps, time flies!), but I am so glad I saw them in their proper context. Nothing will make me forget the first view of Pit 1, an aircraft hangar filled with row after row of ancient memories; a last effort by an incredible ego to control, even in death.

Terracotta Warriors, Pit 1, Xi'an, China

Terracotta Warriors, Pit 1, Xi’an, China

A holiday of a lifetime

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I am now back from the holiday of a lifetime. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing lots of photos and thoughts about my time in China. For now though, I’ll just say that I have had my eyes well and truly opened. China was vibrant, loud, hot, beautiful, contradictory and a little bit mad and I’ve fallen in love with it.

I’ll leave you with some Chinese roof guardians for now.  These little figures, found on the roofs of imperial buildings, really appealed to me. I’ve never seen anything exactly like them before, but they felt a little familiar, like the gargoyles on Fountains Abbey and York Minster. I’m not sure the gargoyles had such an altruistic purpose though – we were told the guardians look after people’s homes, preventing fire and flood. May they do the same for you. More soon…

Roof Guardians at the Summer Palace, Beijing

Roof Guardians at the Summer Palace, Beijing

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China. Tea. All the tea in China. Rice paddies. Silk. Willow Pattern. Porcelain. Luxury. Royalty. the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square. Communism. Censorship.

I thought I’d try a quick word association game about China. As you can see I have quite conflicted views! I am flying out there shortly and am excited about what I am going to discover. I talked about doing some preparatory reading before I go in a previous post but to add to that here are two books I’m going to be tackling while I’m there.

The Story of the Stone (Book 1)

The Story of the stone Book 1 by Cao Xueqin

The Story of the stone Book 1 by Cao Xueqin

A Chinese classic, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber. The story of Baoyu, a young man of aristocratic birth and his romantic entanglements with two of his female cousins, but also an allegory about the soul’s journey towards enlightenment. I have heard that this book will help me understand Chinese life and character, even though it was written in the eighteenth-century. I thought I’d start with Book 1 (there are five) to see how I get on before pursuing the others. John Minford wrote this excellent article about The Story of the Stone which persuaded me that I needed to add it to my Chinese reading list.

The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The story of Lily’s long life, through the turbulent nineteenth century history of China. This is a story about friendship and the abuses women were subjected to. I will let you know what I think of both books when I return.

I’ve got a few posts prepared for while I’m away and I’ll be back properly in a few weeks with some photos and stories from my adventures!


Daunt Books and Wild Swans

I went to Daunt Books in Marylebone for the first time last week. I’m a bit of a tourist when it comes to finding unusual bookshops. I’d heard a lot about it and seen a few of its bags floating around London. The interior is Edwardian according to their website and it was stunning – a mini cathedral of books.

Interior of Daunt Books

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Daunt Books specialises in travel books I believe and this means that many of the books are arranged by geography. As I browsed the shelves, I found travel guides, travel writing, history and fiction from the country concerned. As I am going to China this summer, I gravitated towards that section. I am definitely going to read some Chinese literature and history books before I go, but was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choice in Daunt at the time. I have since found some suggested reading lists which have helped me narrow it down. Do you have any recommendations?

The only book I have read about China that I can remember is Wild Swans. I read this almost ten years ago now I think, but I still remember the emotional power of it. Written by Jung Chang, this book tells the biographies of three women in one family; Jung Chang’s grandmother, mother and herself. It shows recent Chinese history through the lens of three very personal stories and I found it very moving. I believe that Wild Swans is banned in China. This very interesting interview with Chang suggests that censorship in China is getting worse rather than better. I find it astonishing that general censorship and specifically the Great Firewall of China holds. Maybe one day it will fall but, in the meantime, I will certainly be interested to visit a country that is poised on the edge of being a world power and yet in so many ways is so traditional – no, traditional is not the right word – authoritarian or controlling may be better. I hope the literature I plan to read before I go will help me to understand China a little better than I do now.