Qi remains a beacon of ancient prosperity
From millennia-old remains and ancient ruins to the birth of the 'beautiful game', a visit to Linzi is a journey into China's rich cultural history
I walk through an underground tunnel and stare at the 2,600-year-old funerary horses and chariots. There is a seeming confluence of millennia as I hear the hustle and bustle from the highway above my head.
Adding to this sense of timelessness, the buried chariots face the same direction of the traffic above.
Clockwise from top: A performance of cuju game; 2,600-year old funerary horses and chariots; highlighted Xizun bronze ware from the Warring States Period; a museum staff member plays Qi musical instrument. Photos by Wang Kaihao / China Daily
Linzi - a district of Zibo city in Shandong province today - is not an unfamiliar name for anyone with a basic knowledge of ancient Chinese history: It is one of the oldest Chinese cities which is still inhabited today.
Despite that, it is the highly developed chemical and mining industries for which Linzi is probably most famous, though. Even many of the locals tell me that their hometown is hardly ever associated with tourism.
However, during construction of the aforementioned highway in 1990, the discovery of the funerary pits unveiled the city's past glory and made people realize that their history is the most precious resource they have.
Because this area is also a hotbed for Houli Neolithic Cultural Heritage - which dates back about 8,000 years - prior to the thoroughfare's construction, archaeologists conducted field research to ensure that no important relics got missed or damaged during the work.
Accidentally, they unearthed two intact funerary pits from the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC). As well as many exquisite ornaments, the find included 10 chariots and 32 horse skeletons in the larger 32 meter by 8 meter (No 1) pit, and three chariots and six horse skeletons in the smaller 8 by 3 meter (No 2) pit.
Although the canopies of the chariots have rotted and disappeared over the centuries, it is still easy to imagine the high status of the tomb's occupant through the remnants.
Upon its discovery in 1990, the site was named among the entries in the first edition of China's top 10 new archaeological findings, an annual list which is often dubbed "the Oscars of Chinese archaeology".
It is, perhaps, a shame that no grave has yet been found to identify the aristocrat to whom all of this finery once belonged, but it is enough to reveal the prosperity of the Qi state, of which Linzi was the capital.
Qi first rose as a vassal state of Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century to 771 BC) and gradually grew into a superpower in its own right, before surrendering to the first emperor of China, Qinshihuang, as part of his unification of the country.
On the basis of the chariots discovered in the two pits, the China Ancient Car Museum was established to offer a comprehensive view of how the chariots, and other types of ancient Chinese vehicles, have developed over time. To date, it remains the only museum in China to focus on the subject.
The exhibits range from models of early chariots from the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century BC), to those reflecting various kinds of siege equipment from different historical periods, which are all based on archaeological discoveries made nationwide. Other carts and transportation are also on display, showing facets of people's daily life.
Standing in the exhibition hall, it's easy to envisage busy caravans trundling along the ancient Silk Road.
Home of football
While the Qi state may have missed the cultural opportunities offered by the famous Eurasian trade route by decades, one of its creations is, to this day, used as an important platform to connect people around the world - football.
Cuju, literally translated as "kick ball," is an ancient iteration of the world's favorite sport and, according to multiple historical records, it was first played as public entertainment in Linzi, before later being used for military fitness training. The ball was made of four pieces of animal hide, stitched together and filled with furs.
In 2004, Linzi was designated by FIFA as the wellspring of football and the true home of "the beautiful game."
Consequently, it seems somewhat fitting that a Football Museum has been established as a way to connect the area's rich cultural past with today.
About 30,000 artifacts have been collected by the museum to offer a clear introduction about how cuju evolved and became popular in ancient China.
The development of the ball from a four-piece construction to a more complicated 12-piece design is also shown. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the ball was no longer filled with furs, and inflated pig bladders were introduced to give the ball more resilience and buoyancy, enabling them to fly through the air rather than simply roll along the ground.
The Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) ushered a national cuju championship, which was held on the top of a mountain.
During President Xi Jinping's visit to the United Kingdom in 2015, he presented a copper statue of a cuju player to then British prime minister David Cameron, a replica of which displayed in the museum.
I am lucky to arrive just in time to watch a performance depicting an ancient cuju match, played between a red team and a blue team - who knows? Maybe back then there was also a blue-red rivalry as fierce as today's Manchester derby.
After President Xi's state visit in 2015, an annual football symposium was launched, alternately hosted in Linzi and Manchester, to explore cooperation of the two country's footballing industries, also strengthening the emotional bond between the birthplaces of ancient and modern football.
The museum, though, is not only about the ancient version of the game. Every season, before all tiers of the Chinese professional football leagues kick off, ball-picking ceremonies are held in the museum to pay homage to this birthplace of the sport.
As a football fan myself, I am pleased to also see exhibits related to the FIFA World Cup on the second floor of the museum.
However, when I take a rest on the veranda and glimpse out at the horizon, my thoughts are immediately pulled back to the imagination of the Qi state.
Heritage, physical and psychological
The lingering hills on the backdrop of the city's skyline are the mausoleums of Qi kings and aristocrats. Archaeologists have decided to keep these rulers resting in peace without disturbing the huge earthen pyramids. Consequently, tourists like me can only learn more about the magnificence of that vassal state by visiting the Qi Heritage Museum.
Opened in 2016, it traces the nearly-one-millennium history of Qi through the 3,000 cultural relics on display.
From the exquisite bronze wares and figurines, to weapons and musical instruments - it is worth spending at least an hour-and-a-half there to gain a comprehensive understanding of this land and people leaving on it.
One of the most highlighted exhibits is Xizun, a bronze wine vessel in the shape of rhino, which dates back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). It was decorated with gold and silver wire, as well as turquoise, and represents the state-of-the-art techniques of that period.
With plenty of detailed information and accompanying displays. the museum is also a good place to learn about iconic local figures like Duke Huan of Qi, who created the first superpower in the Spring and Autumn Period, and Guan Zhong, a renowned reformer and chancellor of the state.
"Sages of Qi state advocate practice, reform, creativity, and open mind," Ma Guoqing, director of the museum, says. "These ideas of governance still resonate today in our finest traditional culture."
Another section of the museum particularly interests me. It is about the history of Jixia Academy, often considered to be the earliest university in China.
The academy was the highest education institution in Qi during the Warring States Period, and is the place where different schools of thoughts - including Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, and many more - were debated and got mixed with each other, which is how Chinese philosophy formed in the first place.
That scenario reminds me of the contemporaneous Platonic Academy in Athens, which consolidated the foundation of Western philosophy through the similar debate and mutual learning between various schools.
Perhaps, we can all be grateful for that Axial Age.
According to Ma, Greek scholars were recently invited to a symposium, being organized by the museum, to have a cross-cultural communication via comparison of the two ancient academies.
The actual location of the Jixia Academy remains uncertain, though there are several areas among the Qi capital city ruins that were believed to be the place. Locals tell me that there is a plan in Linzi to construct a replica of the academy as a new tourist attraction, which begs the question: is it better to have a physical shrine to worship or should we just leave the great spirits of the academy wander in our boundless imagination?
Everyone will have their own choice, but for me, I prefer the latter.
(China Daily 09/22/2018 page10)