Anyang: graveyard of empires

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 27th, 2011 | Updated: September 20th, 2012 | Comments
China travel_Chinese cities_China travel destinations China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>> The story of Anyang is one of legendary sage-kings, forgotten slaves and the grave diggers who are now trying to bring it all back out into the light. Anyang is one of four cities in Henan Province—Zhengzhou, Kaifeng and Luoyang being the other three—that once served as ancient capitals but have since become dusty backwaters bearing little resemblance to their former imperial incarnations. The Shang Dynasty, once thought by many to be pures myth but now confirmed as China's first stable dynasty, made their capital just north of present-day Anyang along the Huan River. For four centuries, the Shang ruled China's heartland between the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys, but when they finally fell to the Zhou Dynasty at the start of the 11th century BC, so fell Anyang's star. There are eight ancient capitals in China and of them all, it is only these four cities in Henan on which the dust has come to settle. The others, Beijing, Nanjing, Xi'an and Hangzhou are all thriving, prominent metropolises today. So what happened in Henan? Why did the cradle of Chinese civilization have so much to offer 2,500 years ago and yet hold so little for the modern world? Probably, as we shall see, for many of the same reasons that that other "cradle of civilization," the Fertile Crescent has become a disputed desert...

Oracle bones

In 1899, inscriptions on tortoise shells and cow bones uncovered by farmers gave credence to the old myths of an ancient "Yin Xu" kingdom ruled by sage-kings. Over the next several decades, numerous excavations took place, providing fascinating insights into the social, political and cultural framework of the Shang civilization. The Yin Ruins (Yīnxū, 殷墟), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a main Anyang tourist attraction. The Yin Ruins Museum includes thousands of jade, bone and bronze objects as well as the invaluable oracle bone inscriptions. The inscriptions are questions posed by concerned noblemen and kings and, after heating the bones and reading the cracks, the answers are then also inscribed, giving historians a lot to work with when piecing together the Shang civilization. We know now that the Shang were led by priest-kings who used an early variation of the Mandate of Heaven (Tiānmìng, 天命) to turn the land-working classes into serfs and slaves while struggling with landowning nobles for control of the realm. Numerous conflicts between the center and the periphery resulted in a weakened state that was easy prey for the Zhou, who would found their own dynasty and rule, although often only nominally, for the next 800 years. Fu Hao (Fù Hǎo, 妇好) the wife of the Shang king Wu Ding, is also buried here, her tomb filled with precious objects including Neolithic bronze and jade items that would have been considered antiques by the Shang. Not only a wife, Fu Hao was also a military general and was buried along with her six dogs and 16 slaves.

Descent into poverty

Like many ancient cradles of civilization, Henan Province suffered from being "too comfortable, too early." The once-fertile plains north of the Yellow River gradually dried up and the capitals of subsequent dynasties moved according to their own whim; sometimes west to present-day Xi'an, sometimes north to Beijing and other times south to the lush and steamy cities along the Yangtze River. For centuries, Henan was a battleground between the countless warlords and petty kings who believed they had what it took to rule All Under Heaven. Most, unfortunately, did not and their bones and the bones of their soldiers litter this desolate dry plain. The last warlord who though he had the right stick to hit with was Yuan Shikai, a Qing general who rose to power in the chaos following the fall of the dynasty. He was president and then emperor before losing support as quickly as he gained it. He died in 1916 and his burial place, the Tomb of Yuan Shikai (or Yuan Lin), is also near Anyang, the graveyard of empires and their arrogant rulers. The last-ditch effort to revive Anyang came in the 1950s, when the Communist Dynasty built the Red Flag Canal, which was supposed to relieve the drought-stricken dust bowl around Anyang and Linzhou. The canal was a successful propaganda stunt, but not as successful as a drought reliever. You can now visit the canal as part of China's vaunted Communist-themed "red tourism" chain of sights and statues.

More than just old bones

Aside from the fascinating archaeological and historical sites of Anyang, there are a few other notable attractions, one of them being the Taihang Grand Canyon. Outside of town near the Red Flag Canal, they both cut through the Taihang Mountains near Linzhou. This area makes for a great day trip after looking at the relics of the past—you can take those dusty images of bones and pottery and contrast them with the landscape around the canal and the canyon. Another interesting site is the rebuilt Sui Dynasty Tianning Buddhist Temple, and the unique 10th century Wenfeng Pagoda that stands within the temple grounds as well. But truly, if you are going to be travelling through Henan, then make it a full bone-collecting mission and explore all four of the province's great ancient capitals—Zhengzhou, Luoyang, Anyang and Kaifeng—and compare the ancient glory with the modern society you see there today.
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