China. Changing slowly, in the blink of an eye

China is time. When you visit buildings and places measured in many centuries, while trying to grasp the breadth of development over thousands of years, simply keeping track of dynasties on the timeline alone is a daunting task.

Years ago, I was extraordinarily fortunate to have visited China on a trip with my father and mother were invited along with many other Wall Street luminaries to speak to and teach the then Chinese leaders about investment banking, bonds, securities, capital formation, and the rest of seeming alien capitalist methods. Part of that excursion included an audience with Deng Xia Peng and a dinner in the Great Hall of the People just off of Tiananmen Square. The year was 1986. Telling someone that you met Deng in 1986 is like someone telling an American they met Abraham Lincoln. Today the statement is led with incredulity until I bring out my pictures. A gasp and “your father must be very important man” is the common reply, squelching the skepticism. From that trip, my most powerful recollection of Deng’s talk was the statement, ” 30 years from now China will take it’s proper place in the world economically and socially.”

Right on schedule.

Most of today’s guides and people we come across were not yet born or were quite young during my first visit. This is because Chinese elders do not speak any English. Only the young and usually the fortunate Chinese youth of the Communist Party members have both the language chops and the outward facing jobs. And the trust of the Party to speak the vision and “truth.”

People often ask, “what was it like then?” To try and describe the extraordinary change that has taken place in Beijing specifically, and China generally over the past 30 years is like trying to describe the sensation of diving into the water to someone that has never been swimming. Almost everyone rode on bicycles and mobs pressed against the gates of the few hotels that existed. Pollution was so thick I recall climbing about 3 to 5 stories and coughing up blackness from the low-grade coal burned from smokestacks and coal-burning factories and from trains that chugged like those in TV Westerns when I was a kid. We were watched and listened to. It was like something from a spy movie. We were photographed, stared at, and studied like curious animals in a cage. And we were driven around in old Mercedes with country flags over both headlights.

Shanghai was even more stunning. While today it is home to over 20 million people, at the time it was barely open fields on one side of the Yangtse river that runs through Shanghai’s center. As recently as 1999, one entire half of the city on one side of that river Did.Not.Exist. Imagine drawing a line through New York City or Los Angeles in the year 2000. In your mind now, place an open field of grass and tumbleweeds on one side, and over the next 15 years building the equivalent of one more New York City or Los Angles on that barren patch. Mere words cannot describe the transformation.

I have since returned to China in 2008 and 2009 at the bottom of the global financial crisis, and here again in 2017 with my family. It is perhaps my strongest recommendation for any trip idea.

In Chinese, the word for ‘crisis and opportunity’ is the same. Approaching 2008 I felt that the 2008 Olympics would mark the debutante coming out party for the Chinese. Anyone that watched the drum performance in the opening ceremonies that night will never forget the powerful statement made that evening. And to say that the Chinese have turned a country in crisis just 50 or 60 years ago into opportunity would be an understatement.

Pay attention to the statements made by President Xi. Pay attention to their 5-year plans and objectives. Make note of the longevity inherent in their planning and subtle nuance of their statements. President Xi speaks of one of his major objectives being the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the revitalization of the Silk Road, that runs from Central China all the way to the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Europe, and UK. Through India, the “Stans” like Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Bangladesh. An overland trade route that bypasses the traditional shipping lanes and seeks to uplift many countries with which the US is not always friendly.

“Faites attention”, as the French say, pay attention. The world is dramatically shifting right under our feet and has been for the past 30 years. The Dragon has awakened. In China the people say, “Mr. Deng was a great man.” And apparently a visionary.

I fear that the short-sighted U.S. worldview colored by our quite limited history, our embedded complacency, our lack of patience, and the anything-goes social structure might prove dangerous to our very survival.

In China, the sands of time can shift dramatically in a New York Minute.

Me upper left corner, Mom, and Dad lower left.

Dad and Deng, 1986

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Beijing to Xian. A video and study template for the next week

Xi’an Video Story Board, Research Subjects


Why is the One belt, One Road Initiative of current President Xi So important to modern China? How Does it relate to the view of China by the rest of the world. And versus the United States and it’s current worldview and policies?

The Trip: Train to Xi’an

Food: Defachang resto for handmade dumplings. Can we film in the back?
Place: Wild goose pagoda 652 ad
Bike walls
Silk road source research
Bell town circle. Time square
Activity: Sang ye tang foot washing17 dollars

Ancient Islam at the Source of the Silk Road: Old city center. Muslim district pay
[60k Muslims in Xian
Ok inside of Mosque
When and how did Islam come to China
First in China by silk road
Dress ok? Only Muslim
Muslim shops]

Red lanterns

Terra Cotta Warriors
700k workers, 38 years
3rd century BC
Each worker buried inside to protect identity
1200 exposed. 6800 to go
How they are made, see the place. One month to make, price 7USD to 2000 USD (in 2008)

Watershow North square, light city walls, run across 66million bucks

Fighting stage show Ting Dynasty Theater

Basic Research Topics and background

Xi’anyang, just north of the present day Xi’an, was the capital of the Qin empire, home of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and site of the fabled terracotta warriors. Chang’an (another name for Xi’an) was the home base for the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), a starting point for caravans heading west on the Silk Road, and a center of Chinese art and culture during the Tang dynasty. Visiting Xi’an with kids, plan on spending more than one day to explore this ancient capital of China.


Bell Tower and Old City Wall – During the Ming dynasty, Xi’an was defended by a substantial city wall and watchtowers. You can walk on top of ancient city wall, it’s quite flat and wide, and beautifully restored. The grassy area just outside the wall would have been a moat. In the center of the old city wall is the Bell Tower – the bell was rung to mark times of the day. Climb up the Bell Tower, a wonderful three story wooden tower with glazed tile roof, there’s an observation deck on second level.
Shaanxi History Museum – The Shaanxi History Museum is a beautiful modern museum, with tons of exquisite Chinese treasures, including paintings from Tang dynasty tombs in the area. The collection is fabulous – golden bowls and dragons, jade weapons, seals and bracelets, ceramic figures (the camels are fantastic), and don’t miss the exhibit of Tang costumes and personal ornaments.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda – In the 7th century, the Tang dynasty monk Xuan Zang took off for India, collected Buddhist texts, and returned to China, bringing the Buddhist religion with him. The Big Goose Pagoda was built to store the Buddhist scriptures, and although the Pagoda has been rebuilt over the centuries, it hasn’t significantly changed in appearance. Climb up the pagoda, winding stairs up seven levels 331 ft. high, with windows to look out at each level.
Tang Paradise (Tang Dynasty Lotus Park) – Tang Paradise is a newly opened cultural theme park that re-creates life in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD). Explore Tang style buildings, listen to Tang music, watch colorful dance shows, acrobatics, and martial arts demonstrations. There are water play areas for kids, get your picture taken on the back of a two humped camel, and in the evening, watch a spectacular water show, a movie projected on water fountains in the lake.
Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses – In the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Museum, Kids will be impressed by the boggling terra cotta army, thousands of ceramic warriors and horses guarding the nearby tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (Qin Shi Huangdi). A truly amazing archaeological discovery, the terra cotta warriors stand in rows in earthen tunnels, prepared for battle (pit 1 is bigger than two football fields). The expressions on the faces of the figures are so real, it’s like staring into the face of ancient China over 2000 years ago.
Spend time checking out the details of these life-size warriors, plated armor, footgear and headgear, and Mongolian horses. Pick up the audio tour for on-the-spot information. And don’t miss the smaller museum with a shiny bronze sword and two large reconstructed bronze horse chariots.


Silk Road and Islam Primer

An ancient imperial capital and eastern departure point of the Silk Road, Xi’an (formerly Chang’an) has long been an important crossroads for people from throughout China, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and thus a hub of diverse ethnic identities and religious beliefs.  The central location of Xi’an in what is now the Shaanxi Province, near the confluence of the Wei and Feng Rivers, helps explain why the area was the site of several important imperial capitals for almost a millennium of Chinese history. The first unified Chinese empire, the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), had its capital just north of the current city, where the impressive tomb complex of the Qin emperors was discovered, famously containing more than 8000 terracotta statues spread over some 56 square kilometres.

The Qin was succeeded by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), who began the construction of Chang’an. It was under the Han Emperor Wu Di (141-87 BC) that the first Chinese missions were sent to south-eastern Asia, central Asia and eventually even Rome, marking the beginnings of the Silk Road. Han Emperors substantially expanded the capital city, erecting many new palaces, but the glory of Chang’an came to an end in 24 AD with the collapse of the dynasty, and after looting and destruction, it subsequently fell to the status of simply a provincial city.

Chang’an was revived as the capital city in the 4th century AD, and witnessed a cultural florescence in part thanks to the fact that it became a centre of Buddhist learning. Several important Buddhist pilgrims and translators resided there in the early 5th century, among them Faxian, who travelled to India, and the scholar Kumarajiva. Following the accession of the Sui dynasty in 581 AD, the first Sui emperor decided to move the capital, and built an entirely new city just south of the original, on the exact location of modern Xi’an.

The city continued to be the principal capital of the Empire and entered the greatest period of its development under the Tang Dynasty (618-904), occupying some 84 square kilometres, with around one million inhabitants. The Tang period was noteworthy for the impact of Western products and fashions on Chinese elite culture, and the teeming markets of the capital played a significant role in the dissemination of such goods. Among the dominant figures in this era were Sogdian merchants from the region of Central Asia which encompasses today’s Samarkand, who were vital agents in the transporting and trading of goods to China.

Under the Tang, the city was also a major religious centre, not only for Buddhism and Taoism but also for several religions which were relatively recent arrivals in China: Zoroastrianism, Nestorianism and Manichaeism. The most famous of all the Buddhist pilgrims, Xuanzang, brought copies of the Indian scriptures to the city, which he then translated. One of the few major Tang-era buildings left in Xi’an today is the Big Wild Goose (Dayan) Pagoda, first built in 652 AD, housing the library that Xuanzang collected. The current structure was re-built in 701-704; by climbing to its seventh story, which “rubs the blue sky’s vault,” a Tang poet Cen Shen felt he was able to “bypass the world’s bounds”.

The Japanese pilgrim Enin was in Chang’an in 840 and noted that there were monks from the “Western Lands” (apparently India) in one of the several hundred monasteries there, who still did not know Chinese very well but presumably were helping with the interpretation of Sanskrit versions of the Buddhist texts. He later described South Indian, North Indian, Ceylonese, Kuchean (Kucha in the Tarim Basin), Korean and Japanese monks among the foreigners in the city. He goes on to note that there were four teeth of the Buddha in the city, three of them having come respectively from India, Khotan and Tibet and the fourth from heaven.

The spread of religions other than Buddhism under the Tang Dynasty can be documented fairly specifically. A stele (an inscribed stone pillar) erected in 781 relates the introduction of Nestorian Christianity as early as 635 AD by Syrian priests. The text and carvings exhibit a syncretism of Christian and Chinese traditions. Zoroastrianism received some impetus when the last of the Sassanian (Iranian) princes Firuz took refuge in China in the 670s, having fled the Arab invasions. Manichaeism also was connected with the arrival of Persians at the Tang court as early as 694 AD.

However this atmosphere of tolerance and religious pluralism broke down in the 9thcentury, and disorder and looting accompanied the last years of the Tang Dynasty, as its power weakened in the capital. With the collapse of the Tang at the beginning of the 10thcentury, Chang’an decayed rapidly. However, it continued to play a role in Western trade and experienced a revival under the Ming, beginning in the late 14th century.

Undoubtedly it was in the Ming period that the large Muslim community in Chang’an really took root and its members became largely Sinicized. Muslim merchants arrived in China much earlier both by sea through the ports of the South China coast and from Central Asia, but their full integration into Chinese society came later. Although first built in 742, the architecture visible today in Chang’an’s Great Mosque (the Qingzhen Dasi) dates from the late Ming period, for example, its entrance gate was erected in 1600-1629. In its arrangement of courtyards and purely Chinese-style architecture, the mosque is visual evidence of the degree to which there was a syncretism of Islam and Chinese culture. The inscription on the “One God Pavilion” is the Muslim declaration of faith “God is One” rendered in Chinese characters. The mosque as we see it today is located in a Muslim quarter of Xi’an, not far from the location of the western market whose merchants played an important role in the continuing trade with the West throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, along with the Silk Roads to Inner Asia.