More to Xi’an than terracotta warriors

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

In June 2017 I had the opportunity to visit China in preparation for a potential student trip—part of the Phillips Academy Learning in the World program. My traveling companions included Anne Martin-Montgomery and Jingya Ma, who aided in developing the itinerary, which delves into China’s ancient past. With a dizzying number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (52 on the list, with even more proposed sites), our goal was to create a student travel experience that blends adventure, archaeology, and learning.

One destination was Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Xi’an boasts lots of historical and archaeological sites, most notably the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. The mausoleum is best known for Emperor Qin’s terracotta army, which doesn’t disappoint. Pictures don’t do it justice and it is fun to look at the sea of soldiers lined up, ready to march up ramps and out the false doors. The site—located in Bingmayong outside of Xi’an, was mobbed with visitors, all ready to pose for a selfie with some of the emperor’s immortal warriors. Xi’an, however, includes other ancient sites, which can be found in other suburbs like Bànpō.

Bànpō Neolithic Village is tucked into a neighborhood of this Xi’an suburb. It was found in the 1950s during construction for an industrial site, and if you peek over the fence today you will see a factory complex, including a billiard table manufactory.

Image of interior, Banpo excavation hall, with features like the moat and postholes from structures.
Interior of Banpo excavation hall–the moat is in the foreground, posthole outlines of structures can be seen as well.

Bànpō was the oldest site on our itinerary, dating to the Neolithic Yangshao culture, with occupation going back to 6,500 years ago. Like Emperor Qin’s mausoleum, the excavation site is covered by a fairly substantial structure, so visitors can observe the outlines of houses, the moat, burials, and in place features. Exhibit halls showcase artifacts from the site, along with dioramas of Yangshao life. Markings on the early pottery from the site have suggested to some precursors to the writing systems known from the Bronze Age.

At the rear of the museum property are the remains of the Bànpō Matriarchal Clan Village, which apparently offered a living history interpretation of Neolithic life. This has been replaced with a newer area that showcases Neolithic activities on the weekend, including thatching your hut, fire making, and other early technology and skills.

Marxist ideology has heavily influenced the interpretation of Bànpō, emphasizing that this was a matriarchal culture. This is not surprising, since in Marxist thought matriarchal clan based society was a hallmark of early stages in a unilinear social evolution that moved inevitably toward patriarchal family based society. These ideas have been largely abandoned today, though the site is replete with signage that emphasizes this interpretation.

Image of Peabody director Ryan Wheeler with reconstructions of Banpo woman and man.
Ryan Wheeler with Banpo woman and man.

A cute 2015 graphic novel style guide book tells the story of the site and the Yangshao culture. The matriarchal focus is still there (one of the main characters is Bànpō girl), but there is lots of accessible info on foodways, pottery making techniques, and the layout of the village.

We are looking forward to visiting Bànpō again and catching some of the Neolithic lifeways demonstrations. Interactive and hands on activities have become the norm in US museums, but we encountered few such programs in China.

One thought on “More to Xi’an than terracotta warriors

  1. I was in Xi’an last week and our guide told us that the warriors may in fact predate Emperor Qin? We really enjoyed the Shaanxi History Museum there as well. Although not hands-on, it was a modern museum and we were able to enjoy it without Chinese language skills. Also a must in Xi’an is the Muslim Quarter to eat amazing food! I hope you got to enjoy it.

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