by Ed Boles, Coordinator, Faculty Led International Programs (FLiP)
During the earliest hours of the morning on April 2, twenty-eight Aggies returned from a very successful excursion to northwestern China. This group was led by Elvira Masson(College Associate Professor of History) and Margaret Goehring (Assistant Professor of Art History). Our journey was the one-hour lab component of HIST 323/549 and Art 311/511 Splendors of Imperial China that explored the history of China through art and was open to students of both departments. This journey of discovery was a ground-breaking Faculty-Led International Program (FLiP) course in many ways. Besides being the largest FLiP course to have run, it was opened to interested community members, and ultimately included twelve students and thirteen “non-students” (actually we were all students!). Our group was made up of NMSU faculty and administration, retired NMSU faculty and spouses, NMSU alumni, and the son of an NMSU faculty member, giving our group an age range from 14 to 76 years.
This multi-generational band of Aggies accumulated at the airport Wednesday, March 19 at 6:00am to began a trip that included two connections, the last flight lasting 14 hours, arriving in Beijing on Thursday at about 9:30pm (a fourteen-hour time difference from Las Cruces). Our guide met us at the airport, escorted us to our private bus, and we were taken to our hotel for a good night’s rest. Following a traditional Beijing breakfast, we set out to explore the sights of this old city rooted in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and built in rings around the “Forbidden City.” Although the skyline of Beijing was dominated by skyscrapers and construction cranes, this historic city harbors an ancient heart and a network of hutongs, or alleyways centuries old that radiate outward from the center, intersecting concentric streets to form networks.
Over the next three days, our band of Aggies had the opportunity to explore a few of Bejing’s hutongs and experience first-hand the magnificence of the Forbidden City, the intricacy of its traditional design and architecture; the Temple of Heaven, or Tian Tan; and the Ming Tombs, the final resting place for thirteen of the Ming Dynasty’s sixteen emperors. On Friday, we stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square, the center of China’s recent history under Chairman Mao, and watched history being made as the motorcade carrying First Lady Michelle and her daughters rolled past. Saturday, as our incredible luck would have it, we hiked a section of the Great Wall northeast of Beijing. The day before it was closed to public access to accommodate First Lady Michelle, her daughters, and accompanying dignitaries.
That night we celebrated with a traditional marinated and roasted Peking duck dinner. The next day we were exposed to the contemporary art of China, ranging from dream-like scenes of nature to political statements within the National Art Museum and 798 Art Zone. 798 is an old industrial area of the city that has been converted into a new use. Now quaint streets are lined with modern art studios, shops, restaurants, and sculptures ranging from the Mao government to proclamations challenging government control. Our last night in Beijing ended with a viewing of the traditional Beijing Opera that dates back to the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736- 1796).
Flying from Beijing to Datong on Monday morning, our group was met by our second local guide and driver and began a trip by bus through the city, also dominated by skyscrapers and rising skyscrapers topped with cranes, into the countryside to visit the Yungang Grottos, considered to be one of the grandest achievements of Buddhist art. Dating back to AD 453, this site consists of twenty caves carved into the face of a sandstone cliff that collectively contain more than 51,000 statues ranging in size from very small to gigantic.
Next we visited the Hanging Temple, or Xuankong Si, perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the Heng River. Rooms were carved into the cliff face and covered by a wooden front. This temple accommodates Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist gods, with their representations in stone, iron, and bronze found throughout the forty or so halls of the structure. Our group visited the Yingxian Pagoda, one of the oldest surviving pagodas, dating back to 1056. The next day we visited the Huayan Temple before driving to our next destination, the walled city of Pingyao.
Pingyao, a former banking center until the financial collapse of the Qing dynasty, is surrounded by the few remaining walls still standing from the Ming Dynasty. We checked into the quaintest accommodation we had on our journey, and our nomadic band of Aggies disbursed in small groups to explore the traditional Ming and Qing architecture displayed in the houses, temples, and many, many shops. Several members of our weary band treated themselves to a visit to the local foot massage parlor. The following morning, we traveled to Yuncheng and visited the Houtu Temple and the four life-size Iron Oxen and their four tenders, dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to 907), before checking into our hotel. After breakfast, we visited the Pujiu Temple and Youngle Palace, before driving to XiánProv’, capitol of the Shaanxi Province and formally capital to eleven different dynasties during the past 4,000 years of Chinese history. The next day, we visited the Shaanxi History Museum, the Great Mosque and the Terracotta Army of over 7,000 life-size soldiers, archers, and horses guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi, first emperor of China (221-206 BC). The day was topped off with a dinner featuring a delightful variety of scrumptious dumplings and dipping sauces.
Saturday morning we boarded a train to Luoyang to find our new guide and driver waiting when we arrived. We visited the Longmen Grottos, one of the most impressive examples of Chinese Buddhist art, and the Luoyang City Museum before catching a flight to Shanghai that afternoon. On arrival, we were met by our last guide and driver and introduced to Shanghai, the largest and fastest growing city in China. Once a small fishing village, Shanghai was taken over in the mid 1800s by British merchants and transformed into the third largest global financial center. We visited the Bund, an area of the city flanked on one side by the Huaungpu River and on the other side by old Shanghai. Its front street is lined with westernized hotels, banks and offices from colonial times, and the back streets are bustling with local shops and vendors selling food, clothing, and souvenirs. On the other side of the river is the new Shanghai, with its modern business skyline skyscrapers, towers, spheres, and office buildings. While in Shanghai, we visited the Yuyuan Garden, a maze of natural stone walls and lush greenery, with a zig zag bridge leading across a reservoir to the Huxingting Teahouse sitting in the very center. Right after lunch on Sunday, we boarded our bus one more time for a ride to the airport to take the long flight that would ultimately bring us back to Las Cruces.
Besides the barely comprehensible range and wealth of history captured in the artistry of western China to which we were exposed during our ambitious itinerary twelve-day journey, our travels by bus and train gave us a glimpse into the rural lives of the Chinese people and the landscape, as we sped past on a modern highway or high-speed rail. The arid lands in the northern latitudes were terraced with farms and farmers preparing their fields and orchards, but the ground was still frozen and not ready for seed. Fields and orchards within moister and warmer southern extent of our journey were already green. Almost everywhere across the rural landscape was agriculture of some type—corn, peaches, walnuts, sheep, cattle, and many types of vegetables produced in acres of grow-houses. Whatever land not being used for producing crops is planted in trees, an investment in the future. The challenge to not only feed 1.5 billion people, but to develop exports for trade, especially within arid lands must be met with many innovative strategies and solutions. Given that arid land agriculture and water management are areas of NMSU expertise, there is a great potential for creating an active exchange with partner universities in China.
An amazing part of this learning expedition was watching a diverse collection of people develop into a traveling group consolidated by a shared identity. We got to know one another during airport layovers and long bus trips. With each main meal, we occupied three or four round tables, in the middle of which sat a rotating glass disk upon which would always be filled with delectable varieties of foods, including regional specialties. Each time we sat in different combinations, talking, laughing, sharing, and enjoying this moment of life together. We looked out for one another along this sweeping educational journey. I believe benefits from this experience will be unfolding for years to come.