Times Past

Times Past: Xi'an is a marvelous and ancient city to see

“Let us now . . . tell you of another great city called Chang’an, a great and rich place.”

Marco Polo traveled through earlier versions of the massive gates that allow passage into the modern center of Xi’an, one of China’s oldest cities.

We entered the legendary city of Xi’an from the main railway station. Xi’an is also one of the four great ancient capitals of China. Today, it is most famous as a tourist destination because of the discovery of the army of terra cotta soldiers in agricultural fields just outside the city.

During the 8th century, at a time when Rome had shrunk to a population of less than 50,000, Xi’an, then known as Chang’an, was referred to as a “million people’s city” in the official Chinese records.

Archaeologists believe that 800,000 to 1,000,000 people lived within its city walls. It was the eastern terminus of the legendary Silk Road that began at Aleppo in modern Syria.

We had come to Xi’an with Weijun Song and his parents. Weijun (“Vincent” is the name he chose to make it easy for us language-challenged Americans) came to live with us as a Rotary Exchange student at San Luis Obispo High School in 2008.

After graduating from a secondary school in Beijing, he returned in 2010 to start work on a degree in computer science at Cal Poly. At the end of last summer, he invited us to meet his parents and grandparents.

They asked what we would like to see in China. I immediately replied Xi’an. They said that they had family in Xi’an whom they had not seen since before Weijun’s birth.

Xi’an was at the geographic center of the Song Dynasty’s (960-1279) kingdom. The Song period is important for the first use of gunpowder and the discovery of the magnetic compass.

These inventions didn’t help keep the Manchurian Jin Dynasty or the Mongols under Genghis Khan out of their territory. It was during the reign of Kublai Khan, the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294, that the Yuan Dynasty replaced the Songs.

This was when the Venetian brothers Maffeo and Niccolo Polo passed through the gates of Xi’an.

Niccolo’s son Marco begreat journeys between the Mediterranean world and China that profoundly altered the culture of southern Europe.

We thought of this at the amazing and joyful Song family reunion dinners which featured lots of lamb, including a lamb’s shank prepared in a sauce of “jujubes” (Chinese dates). It had the appearance of the delicious Italian veal shank dish “osso buco” (Italian for “bone with a hole”).

I can’t reproduce the wonderful flavors of Xi’an for you, but you can participate in the 55th year of a truly San Luis Obispo event.

You can share the flavors and imagery of the Chinese New Year with Cal Poly’s Chinese Student’s Association.

The Chinese New Year Banquet will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 in Cal Poly’s Chumash Auditorium. Doors open about 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children.

Entertainment includes performances by the lively and beautiful Lion Dance/Ribbon Dance Teams, and Liu Yu and Norm Petredean’s worldclass Wushu Taichi Center. The push and pull of Chinese and U.S. culture are always apparent in the upto-the-minute humor of the student-created drama.

To order tickets, email calpolycsa@gmail.com   or call Jenny Peng at 408-677-6730.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.