Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Spring Rain Arrives

We arrived safely in Xi’an last evening and were greeted very warmly by our hosts, the Xi’an Foreign Language School. Our arrival was seen as quite fortuitous by our hosts. Xi’an is in the midst of a 3 month drought, but it rained today. Headmaster Liu, in greeting us, told of the old Chinese saying, “Spring rain is as valuable as oil,” and then he thanked us for bringing the spring rain. Our morning was filled with time in school. Our students attended classes with their hosts and found it interesting, though I think the explanations of factoring, given in Chinese, were lost on our kids. Following classes we attended a welcoming assembly, complete with speeches by students from each school. Each of our students introduced themselves and then Whitney gave a wonderful speech, on behalf of all of us, telling how she has learned so much already and will never be the same again.

After lunch it was off to begin our tour of the historic city. We learned about Xi’an history, with a visit to the Shaanxi History Museum. Xi’an lies in the Yellow River valley, and is the cradle of Chinese civilization, tracing its history to a Neolithic culture around 5000 BC. It’s location in central China made it an ideal location to establish a civilization. The valley is fertile and provided food for the earlier Chinese, while the surrounding mountains protected them from invaders from the north. Chang’an (on the site of modern Xi’an) first served as a dynastic capital in the 11th century BC, with the Zhou dynasty, and was a capital city for 1100 years, until 1271 AD, when the Ming dynasty moved the capital to Beijing. The name Xi’an means “western peace,” and is a reference to the hope for peace under an emperor’s reign.

The museum was followed by a trip into the inner city, surrounded by an intact nine mile wall that was built during the Ming dynasty. Our first stop inside the wall was the Forest of Stelae Museum. Stelae are stone tablets, and this museum has a collection of over 1000. At one time it served as a stone tablet reference library and still contains tablets with the oldest existing text of books by Confucius, samples of different styles of Chinese calligraphy, maps and other documents of historical significance. The teacher in me found the stone tablet textbooks most interesting. They were used to study for the imperial exams that one had to pass in order to become a civil servant. When our students complain about how heavy their books are I’ll remind them of the seven foot high stone textbooks they could be using.

From there it was on the Drum and Bell Towers. Their contents are fairly obvious and there function was to tell time of day and to ring out warnings. We saw a brief musical performance in each and got a spectacular (well as spectacular as you can have on a drizzly day) view of the city. As we left the Bell Tower we passed by Starbucks and it took all the willpower our students and we could muster to keep walking, without going in.

The day ended with a return to school for English corner. Usually held outdoors, but moved inside because of the weather, the English corner is a gathering of students, Chinese and American, to share experiences. We were seated in circles, and if the students’ experience was anything like mine, they were peppered with questions about school, sports, interests, you name it. The teachers’ questions showed just how universal the profession is, and included “how do your grade students?” “do your students feel pressure to do well?” “does your school encourage religion?” and the ever popular “what do you do on your vacations?”
All in all it was a very full first day in Xi’an and a great start to our visit here. Tomorrow it is off to see the terracotta warriors and we’re hoping for a change in the weather.

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