Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

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Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.

Two from Jiangsu: Nanjing


An ancient Chinese capital marked (but not marred) by recent history.

Before I came to China, I knew about Nanjing.

I knew about the war crimes committed there. I knew about the looting, arson, and destruction committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew about the monstrosity of rape and murder that occurred there. The horrifying details (which I’ll not name, but can be accessed here) I had mostly put out of mind. Physical and mental distance from the massacre coupled with a human desire to not dwell in past atrocity let me forget how terribly gruesome and inhuman we humans can be. The Rape of Nanjing is an apt name for this massacre of human life and morality.

I went to Nanjing to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I saw the mass grave where corpses — infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle-aged, and elderly alike — were buried hastily and indiscriminately. I saw signs bearing the unholy number 300,000 and the monuments erected in memoriam.

But Nanjing, due to and despite its history, is much more than historicity.

The city is authentic, the people and places genuine. Events big and small happened here, and will continue to do so for a long, very long time. The actions we take in Nanjing are a real part of what Nanjing is. You’re part of the scene, as is everyone else. That means other tourists will sneak a photo of you or take it overtly with gusto. If you’re not asked for your permission beforehand, then, well, speak up or get over it.

It should be noted that Nanjing is home to the BEST potstickers in China. Ground meat (usually pork) with green onions or spinach wrapped with thin pieces of dough into half-moon-shaped pockets then pan-fried in a large, shallow wok — what could possibly go wrong there? Somewhere near the eastern entrance to the city’s Purple Mountain scenic park you can find the best of the best.

Nanjing Potstickers

The beautiful Purple Mountain scenic area [Tiles 1-4] is much bigger than you think. You could wander around the park’s trails, temples, Ming Dynasty palace and tombs for days, but you’re here to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum [Tiles 5-8]. The 中山陵 (zhong1shan1 ling2) commemorates the life and accomplishments of one of greater China’s most formative leaders.

Sun is well-respected in both China and Taiwan despite lingering ideological (and subsequently, separatist) disputes from the Chinese Civil War, in which Sun’s Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, played a central part. He is seen as the “Father of the Nation” (国父 孫中山先生) in Taiwan or the “forerunner of democratic revolution” (革命先行者) in the PRC because of his role in ending Qing dynastic rule and establishing the Republic of China.¹

Nanjing’s most famous Confucius temple, Fuzimiao, has 11th century roots as a temple and university, though the standing building dates from the 19th century Qing Dynasty.² The temple and nearby complex were restored in 1985 after it was used as army barracks during the Kuomintang regime of the late 1920s and early ’30s.²

The city’s downtown food scene is incredible. Surrounding the Fuzimiao and all along the nearby Qinhuai River are countless made-to-order buffets. The food is cheap and unbelievably tasty, and the restaurants are an absolute melee by lily-livered Western standards. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or berated into buying far too many dishes. Just go with it — you won’t regret it anyway. Personal recommendations are the tangbao//汤包 (like a giant xiaolongbao eaten with a straw and chopsticks) and whatever the sweet, jelly, fruity soup is below.

Once you’ve had a nice, over-sized lunch, take a walk along the ancient city wall to digest — you’ll need to make room for dinner.

How Vientiane Is an Analog for the World


I complained about the weather, walked the backstreets, and ate cheap.

This time the bus was a large, cyan blue thing with leather sleeping berths and cotton blankets. Upbeat folk music and the neon lights mounted above every bed gave the whole thing a strange feeling — as if I had somehow fallen asleep in a gaudy Lao nightclub. But none of this is to say that the overnight journey to Vientiane was uncomfortable. It wasn’t. It was like sleeping on a very peculiar southbound cloud.

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The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos


Evening, approaching the Mekong/Nam Khan confluence.

Tucked in the far back corner of an outdated sleeper bus headed toward Luang Prabang, an impatient American passenger searched through the dirty window for a sign — any sign — that might suggest an end to his 27-hour journey from Kunming, China.

Bumpy, unpaved dirt roads had led him here: cramped and sweaty, peering into the darkening of North Laos. His bus, now hurtling at about 45mph on a thin, one and a half-lane highway in dusk, couldn’t arrive fast enough. A series of yellow-white lights off the left-hand side of the bus peeked through the blanket black night; the passenger blinked back at the shy lights. Air whistled through his opened window, damp like breath. Two left turns separated by a stretch of road resulted in a bus station where he alighted.

Shoving his shoulders back and stretching his arms into the sky, he stepped into the blacked-out indigo-blue of Luang Prabang.

Continue reading “The Two Rivers of Luang Prabang, Laos”

Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple


Housed in its own worship chamber and sitting in pristine silence is the Jade Buddha statue after which this temple is named. Enormous and impressive, you’ll have to experience it in all its transience: photos aren’t allowed. However, they are allowed in the temple’s spectacular inner courtyard and grounds.

Here are a few I took while visiting this colorful place:

You can find out about the Jade Buddha, the temple’s century-long history, and more here and here (Chinese).

You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This


A Heart Sutra in the heart of Shanghai.

Shanghai can be a bit rough around the edges sometimes. I fully acknowledge this. Most locals would say the same when asked about the traffic, crowds, air quality, and surprisingly cold winter. The Shanghainese themselves can sometimes also be a bit rough around the edges (in a lovable sort of way) to faint-hearted Westerners. Get between a Shangher and their food and they will assuredly cut you in line, order, and pay before you even notice.

But really, the city and its people have a soft side. Which happens to be the same side that loves glittering gilded gold pagodas, towering ornate statues of Buddha, high-vaulted worship halls, impressive and expensive art exhibits, intricately carved wooden screen doors, and, of course, an ever-present assortment of merchandise.

Continue reading “You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This”