Xiamen, China on the Maritime Silk Road
Come with us to Xiamen, China, where the ancient wonders of China unfold.Article and Pictures by M. Maxine George. Featured pictures by Lenora Hayman.
I was off to visit the historic Silk Road in China. The first destination on my travels was Xiamen, China. This historic trade route had been incorporated into China’s new promotion to expand to a Maritime Silk Road along its south coast. The bamboo curtain had been rolled up and on the stage was China in all its ancient and historic wonder. A new openness seemed to be emerging across the Pacific Ocean between China and North America. Journalists from all over North America were converging on the country at that time to attend the Asian Expo that was to be held there that month. I felt I was privileged to be visiting there too.
My friend Lenora and I were lifted away into the sky, and on to our destination in this ancient land, by Xiamen Air, a Chinese airliner that had begun making non-stop flights between Vancouver and Xiamen, China. A very welcoming seat in business class, meant we were ensconced in spacious, self-contained seats, where we would spend the next twelve and a half hours with all our needs met by the kind, attractive and courteous stewardesses, who all spoke fluent English, fortunately for me. The cabins were decorated in a restful combination of blues, grey and a soft white. Each of us had our own TV screen, with buttons on the console beside us, to control our choice, with a good assortment of options.
We soon learned that with the touch of another button our seats would not only recline, but could open right out to become our beds for the night. As soon as I chose to settle down for the night, the stewardess appeared with a puffy duvet and a fresh pillow. She gently tucked me in for the night. Waking during the night, I discovered I had slept right through dinner, which really did not bother me. However, the very kind stewardesses brought me a tasty looking fruit platter with a cheese, crackers and veggie plate on the side. A couple of cups of green tea touched the spot too. As soon as I finished my tasty snack, I curled up under the warm duvet and went off to slumber land again. After a very comfortable sleep, I woke up, well rested, in time for a very nice breakfast. Shortly after finishing breakfast, we were preparing to land at Gaoqi Airport, Xiamen, China.
Xiamen, Fujian Province, China
Xiamen is on an island, on the south-east coast of China, across the Taiwan Straight from Taiwan. The harbour was one of the five original treaty ports, opened for trade in China, between 1842 to 1912, becoming part of the Maritime Silk Road. With the sea as their gateway, many diaspora, of this Fujian Province, settled throughout the South Pacific, in places like Malaysia and Singapore, their descendants still flourishing there. Today it is still a busy deep-sea port, with cruise ships stopping there, as well as cargo vessels. In spite of being an active port city, Xiamen is a clean city with little air pollution. As we drive through the busy streets we see modern skyscrapers and ancient buildings, many colourful flowers, lots of green vegetation and palm trees.
One unusual thing I noticed is that many trees had neat braces around the lower part of them. Our guide told us that a typhoon, passed through here about ten days before our arrival and took down a lot of trees. I was amazed to see what a thorough job these people did to clean up the mess that was left in the wake of the typhoon, and to replant the trees and shrubs, supporting the new or replanted vegetation with neat, supportive braces. I wondered if that was the same typhoon that was expected to finish up with high winds and rain in BC just as we were leaving Vancouver, for our flight to China. (Fortunately, my son let me know before we left the airport that the high winds had dissipated, bypassing Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.)
Notice the contrasts between the ultra modern skyscrapers and the ancient temples.
Our first stop for the day, was at the Pan Pacific Hotel to drop off our luggage. The staff were very efficient and courteous so our luggage was soon locked away for our pickup when we checked in later. We also had a delicious buffet breakfast at the hotel, with many choices, both Chinese and Western. We had a full day ahead. Our tour bus and guide were ready and waiting for us to continue.
Nanputuo Temple or the South Putuo Temple
To me, temples are a symbol of China. So our stop at the Nanputuo Temple was very symbolic of the country and its ancient history. Nanputuo Temple or the South Putuo Temple, is nestled between the sea and the mountain, Wulaofeng or the Mountain of Five Old Men, on Xiamen Island. A temple has been on this site since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). It became a Buddhist temple when it was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi. Today, we entered the site through the ornately carved triple arch. Our guide suggested that we all meet back there at a specified time. Not speaking or reading Chinese I chose to stay close to our guide.
There are four main buildings on this historic site. The Hall of Heavenly Kings or Devajara Hall, contains the statues of four “Heavenly Kings”, deities revered by Buddhists. Our Buddhist guide told us we were not allowed to take pictures in this building. In the centre was the most revered statue of all, a Golden Buddha. This smiling Buddha, with his golden paunch, is known as the Laughing Buddha.
The Mahavira Hall or the main hall is home to many golden deities. Among others the statues of The Three Ages: the Buddha of the Past, the Present and the Future are housed here. This hall was rebuilt in 1921.
The Dubei Hall is also known as the Hall of Great Compassion. This impressive octangular tower was rebuilt in 1921. Inside a lotus flower base holds four sacred statues.
Climbing up the stairs leading to the ornate Dubei Hall, which towers over the site, I was amused to see two little twin boys – toddlers – climbing up the stairs ahead of me. Their pants had Mickey Mouse pictures stamped on their bottoms. I think about the fact that kids and parents are the same the world over. Having twins would be a happy occasion anywhere, but in China where a one-child policy was in place for many years, the parents would be thankful to know that policy has now been changed. The two little boys are certainly a blessing and with their Mickey Mouse pants toddlers are always a joy, in China as they would be in Canada.
The Sutra-Keeping Pavilion and other buildings, on this sacred site, hold many Buddhist sculptures, scriptures and other precious works of art. There are many other visitors wandering casually around the site. We would have been happy to have more time to explore this fascinating temple, however we had to move along. As we gathered at the meeting area, we counted heads and discovered one of our group was missing. We were only slowly getting familiar with the people in the group we were traveling with, so we didn’t know everyone by name. The search was on for the “fellow in the orange t-shirt.” Before long he turned up, having gone off to take pictures, he came back to a different meeting place. We were glad to find him but, we all had a laugh to discover he was not wearing an orange t-shirt.
The Xiamen Huihe Stone Cultural Garden
The Xiamen Huihe Stone Cultural Garden offered us a look at another aspect of Chinese culture and history. We were welcomed by a young lady with a unique blue floral scarf over her head and shoulders. She guided us into the museum, explaining the various aspects of the exquisite stone sculpture we were seeing. The garden sculptures are meant to be the decorative elements in the landscape of the surrounding area. These wonderful works of art have the ability to provide a year round garden in spite of seasonal changes.
Inside the museum, we see the many aspects of stone carving as it has been produced over many centuries. Some of the works have religious aspects, others cultural aspects or document history, or then again some are just done for their beauty or decoration, as in jewelery. Deities, human figures and animal figures are all depicted in the sculpture.
A table looked like it contained a sumptuous banquet however, everything on the table turned out to be stone sculpture. A truly amazing exhibit! Another unusual exhibit was kept in a series of cabinets, each having closed doors. Opening the doors we found a display of sculptures depicting human sexual activity.
Shadow Carving appears to be a finely repetitive art form, which transfers pictures onto black stones, dot by dot, creating permanent pictures which can be preserved in their new form forever. We watched as a lady sat producing a picture, dot by endless dot, an infinitely tedious procedure with amazingly accurate reproductive results, like a human computer.
We left the museum through another exit, where we saw a variety of stone sculptures among the garden and walkway.
Gulangyu Island, considered one of China’s National Scenic Spots, was our next destination. The small island had to be reached by ferry. Visitors to the Island are restricted, therefore we had to produce our passports to get tickets. The trip across the water took only about five minutes. As we emerged from the ferry, we found ourselves in a different world. It was quiet and peaceful. First of all, it is traffic free, no motor vehicles with combustion engines or bicycles are allowed on the island with the exception of a few electric tourist vehicles and several fire engines. No crowds of visitors, just people ambling along the narrow streets. Scenic views of the beaches, lots of flowers and palm trees. Such a charming place to spend an idyllic day.
Gulangyu Island has a unique history. It was officially constituted as an international settlement soon after Xiamen became a treaty port, open for trade with the world. Foreigners from thirteen countries, who were doing business through the Xiamen port, settled on Gulangyu Island. The British played a predominant role in the administration of the island and surprisingly, Sikh policemen were responsible for policing the area. As a result of this origin, the architecture on this island favours various other parts of the world, mainly European styles, which are unique in China. As I strolled along I noticed what appeared to be a relic from WWII, it looked like a mud hut once used to guard the harbour. I wonder if it relates to the Japanese occupation of this island during the second world war.
The island is known as the Island of Music. It was originally named for the sound of the waves pounding on the reef with a particularly drum-like sound. With the influence of other nations, music forms of other lands were introduced here, and soon the island became known as the Cradle of Musicians. The spread of Christianity in the area, during the early part of the last century, is the reason attributed for bringing the western music here. The local cultural environment brought in foreign art too. A concert hall, churches and museums were built. There is a Piano Museum located at the top of a small hill, where a huge collection of pianos are on display. There are supposed to be over two-hundred pianos on this small island.
Our walk followed a ring road, which stayed close to the picturesque sandy beach for much of our early walk, before going through a more inhabited area. As we walked along I was drawn to the sound of piano music coming from a nearby building. I hoped we would be able to stop and listen. However, it turned out to be coming from a restaurant nearby. We had not yet arrived at the Piano Museum.
Upon leaving the Piano Museum, time was short and darkness was coming on. We were led through a well-lit business area, one with shops and markets, a rather colourful and fun place to stroll through in the evening. It was not long before we arrived at another ferry terminal for our return to Xiamen. This unique island is a place I dream of returning to explore again, at my leisure, another day. It has been a long day with so very much to absorb, trying to learn about this fascinating land and its ancient culture.
Article and pictures by M. Maxine George
Last Updated February 4, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster