Treasures of China’s Heritage: Touring with the Global Heritage Fund
(Seventh of a Seven-part Series)
Some of my best memories of the “Middle Kingdom” include my nine-day tour of historically significant sites with the Palo Alto-based Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide. Upon my return, I published recollections of the trip. A record of the final stretch, again illustrated primarily by my personal photographs, follows. (Links to the other installments in this series can be found at the end of this article.)
For the final stretch of our trip, we returned to Taiyuan for a visit to the Shanxi Museum of relics and art and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the ancient Jinci Temple before returning to the U.S.
DAY 9: DATONG TO TAIYUAN
Our final overland trip was a four-hour bus ride back to Taiyuan, a modern city of more than four million citizens. Our ultimate goal was the Shanxi Province Museum of archaeology, art, and culture and the sprawling ancient Jinci Temple.
En route, we passed a kaleidoscope of scenery, from desert roads to rice paddies, from parts of the ancient Great Wall to power plants and highways under construction.
Built in 2004, the Shanxi museum sprawls over more than twenty-seven acres on the banks of the Fen River. It’s the largest and most comprehensive of a handful of significant museums in China, with more than 400,000 relics on display.
I especially liked the fact that it was organized chronologically and by subject, in order to present a capsule of Chinese history.
LUNCH AT SHANXI MUSEUM
Since American museum food is usually unexceptional, we were pleasantly surprised by an exquisitely cooked and presented lunch in the museum’s dining room that included some dishes new even to me. We were well fortified for the long day ahead.
SHANXI MUSEUM HISTORICAL GALLERY
The permanent exhibits in the historical gallery were organized in an easy-to-follow way, under the headings Cradle of Civilization, Modern Traces of the Xia & Shang Dynasty, Achievements of the Jin Kingdom, The Ethnic Melting Pot, Buddhist Relics, The Legacy of Opera, and Shang Merchants of the Ming & Qing Dynasties.
SHANXI MUSEUM ART GALLERY
On permanent exhibit in the art gallery were architectural relics, jade, painting and calligraphy, ancient currency, and Chinese porcelain.
In addition to its permanent exhibits, the Shanxi Museum offers temporary shows exploring artistic movements from various periods. During our visit, there was an exhibit of Buddhist sculptures, each beautifully carved and lit to create an ethereal atmosphere. It provided a perfect opportunity to compare the styles of each era. I was only sorry that we hadn’t more time to linger.
Shanxi’s Jinci Temple is the most famous ancient ancestral temple complex in China, located sixteen miles southwest of Taiyuan.
After the bus dropped us off, we strolled through the tourist area to reach the temple.
Founded about 1,400 years ago, during the West Zhou Dynasty, the Jinci Temple was expanded during each subsequent dynasty. It is now a huge, sprawling complex that encompasses landscaped spaces and plenty of structures that include towers, pavilions, terraces, and bridges.
One of the outstanding features at Jinci Temple is its classical garden. The crystal-clear Nanlao (“Life-Long”) Spring runs through it, and a 3,000-year-old cypress, dating from the Zhou Dynasty, still stands majestically.
Traveling in China is an unparalleled adventure. The country is so vast and has such a rich and ancient cultural history that it provides never-ending opportunities to see things that are beautiful, intriguing, and exotic.
The prospect of traveling with the Global Heritage Fund ratcheted my excitement up several notches, for I knew that I’d see places so far off the beaten track that I had never seriously contemplated visiting them. Touring the ancient tulous in Fujian Province; the 2,700-year-old city of Pingyao, where the roots of modern commerce were established and the nearby temples are fabulous to behold; and the jaw-dropping artistic and architectural wonders in the Wutai Mountains, I felt I had traveled through time as well as the landscape. The sights I saw were literally marvelous—I marveled at every turn.
China continues to modernize at an astonishing pace, but its citizens are at last beginning to appreciate their homeland’s history and tradition. The designation of places as Heritage Sites is attracting tourists and, with them, the money that can make it possible for residents to stay in their homes and maintain their traditions. The challenge is finding ways to bring visitors to well-preserved sites of historical significance without turning them into quasi-Disney Worlds.
Working with local officials and organizations, the Global Heritage Fund is trying to halt the wholesale process of tearing down and replacing old structures. Instead, they hope to encourage and facilitate the preservation and repair of the existing infrastructure with only minimal modern improvements such as sanitation facilities and running water.
It is my hope that GHF’s work will inspire other local and international organizations to help manage and maintain the integrity of China’s historical treasures. And it is my more modest hope that my enthusiasm, memories, and photographs will inspire other individuals to support these efforts and visit this truly amazing country.
Visit globalheritagefund.org to learn more about the Global Heritage Fund.
LINKS TO OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
Part 1: Days 1 and 2—Visiting Hakka tulous (earthen residences) in Fujian Province.
Part 2: More of Day 2 and Day 3—The historic port town of Zhangzhou, plus more tulous in Pinghe and Nanjing counties.
Part 3: Day 4—Our first day in the ancient walled city of Pingyao.
Part 4: Day 5—Our second day in history-packed Pingyao.
Part 5: Day 6—Our last day in Pingyao, visiting historical Taoist and Buddhist temples.
Part 6: Days 7 and 8—Exploring the amazing historical sites on Wutai Mountain.
Photos by Jeanne Lawrence