D.卡尔顿 罗西
D. Carlton Rossi

The Riddle of Xian

                                                     The Riddle of Xian                                                               


Erecting the Buddhist Pagoda in Dunhuang Grottoes, Northern Zhou dynasty (557-581 CE). The sutra instructs the people to practice good deeds as they sow as many seeds as possible in the field of good fortune.

First Day Cover dated March 25, 1988

From the collection of D. Carlton Rossi


Xian (长安) was the capital of four major dynasties and many other minor dynasties over the centuries. Under the name of Changan it served as the start of the overland journey to the Silk Roads. One might ask simply though "Where is Xian?" To answer this question one may look at four, different, time lines: around (4500-3750 BCE), Han Dynasty (206 BCE -220 CE), Ming Dynasty (1368 BCE-1644 CE) and today. Since the location of Xian doesn't change one also has to extend the question in the following manner. "Where is Xian relative to what? The answer is the Yellow River.


                                             Banpo Pottery

The poet has dwelt on the topic of Yangshao culture at Banpo Village (near modern day Xian) which was the root of Chinese civilization. He has drawn poems in his Banpo Poetry series based on zoomorphic and geometric designs of Banpo pottery. As well, he has equated the "read "downword" the mountain (shan) with the "journey downward" the Yellow River from its source, to Banpo Village, to Yangshao Village in modern Anyang (安阳), to Fu Shan, to Dawu Village and onward to the delta of the Yellow River.  It mirrors the journey down into the subconcious and the return to light-logic of the conscious with regard to psychology expressed by Jung, dialectic by Hegel and fluid dynamics of both physics and geology. This was done in the Poetic Analytics.

Yangshao culture flourished because of its proximity to the Yellow River. Tributaries of the river met at that location. As a result, sophisticated pottery evolved based in part by inspiration provided by the frog and fish, the idea that life had an ordered pattern and a sacred respect for the Big Dipper.


                               Ordos Loop of the Yellow River

During the Han Dynasty a major war began with the Xiaongnu and its allies. That war ended after two hundred years with a battle of the Xiongnu and Han near Lake Baikal. Changan was now oriented to the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River. The Great Wall is found at the southern boundary of the Ordos Desert. Much further north one finds the site of the victory and marker of territorial extension at Lake Baikal. This lake was referred to as Beihai for the first time in 110 BCE. (The Face of Baikal--Names, S.A. Gurulev)

More importantly, Changan was now oriented north or more specifically northwest because of the nascent trade routes opening in that area. The security of those routes were enhanced with victories of General Ban Chao 班超 (brother of Ban Gu) further west in the Tarim Basin. He was made Protector General of the Western Regions.


                                Hua Shan    Shaanxi Province

During the Western Han Dynasty of Emperor Gaozu the city of Changan was also beginning to be oriented to the West with respect to one mountain called Hua Shan (华山) or Splendid Mountain. Hua Shan is in Shaanxi Province some 124 kilometers from Changan and at the southeast corner of the Ordos Loop.


           Four of five Sacred Mountains are close to Yellow River

Hua Shan was one of Five Sacred Mountains representing cardinal directions; namely, north, west, south, east and center. For our purposes four of those mountains are important in terms of their proximity to the Yellow River. Hua Shan (华山) was the West. Heng Sheng (恒山) which is found in Shanxi Province represented the North. Song Shan (嵩山) which is located on the south side of the Yellow River in Henan Province represented the Center. Tai Shan (泰山) is found in Shandong Province and its peak called Jade Emperor is the most sacred of the five mountains. It represented the East. The only exception to a cardinal direction located near the Yellow River is Heng Shan (恒山) in Hunan Province whose capital is located on the Xiang River or tributary of the Yangzte River.


                                  Northwest Rectangle (NWT)

Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

D. Carlton Rossi
copyright 2018

The northeast line of the NWR runs from the source of the Yellow River through roughly the mountain range of five peaks associated with Hua Shan to close proximity to Xian (Changan) to a locale close to the Ming capital of Beijing and then onward to the East Sea. The line reflects that the political center of the Empire has now shifted over thousands of years from Xian to Beijing. It may be away from the Yellow River, but politically it is toward the Ming Emperor whose reign is a continuation from the first Emperor Huangdi who was known as the Yellow Emperor.

Politically and religiously speaking Beijing became the earthly center on The Selden Map which was drawn near the end of the Ming Empire. Beijing is directly below the center of the compass rose which was drawn as the Sun-Moon. By the way, it is said by some that together the characters Sun-Moon are the most beautiful in the Chinese language.             

While Xian was the start of the religious piligrimage to India it was from the new capital of Beijing that the Ming emperor began his pilgrimage. The imperial pilgrimage had been undertaken over the ages from the capital of the time. The word "pilgrimage" actually meant paying respect to a holy mountain. From Beijing the emperor would begin his journey at the start of his reign to the Five Sacred Mountains (五岳). These mountains were made by the creation god Pangu.


                                Heng Shan in Shanxi Province

The southeast line of the NWR ran from the Kun to just south of Heng Shan to the crossroads in Shanxi Province to Quanzhou. In one respect it symbolizes the shift in trade from the Silk Road routes to the Maritime Trade Routes. The line runs to Quanzhou from which all Maritime Trade routes began. In summary, the whole east quadrant of the NWR became important with respect to religion, politics and trade.



 Courtesy of Bodleian Library

The illustration called Sandglass offers another way to look at change over time. Basically, the western section represents the journey to the west for spiritual pilgrimage and trade over the Silk Roads in the northwest. The two seas are the North Sea and the West Sea which are the lakes Baikal and Qinghai respectively. They were markers which defined territory against the barbarians who were generally the Xiongnu Conferation in the north and Mongols in the west.

The eastern section of the illustration emphasizes the sea journey over the Maritime Trade Routes and the spiritual presence along the coast at Nanjing where Buddhism flourished and at Quanzhou which supported various creeds. The East and South Seas met at the Taiwan Straits between Taiwan and the mainland. In the northeast, Tèlín (特林) was an ancient, symbolic marker of peace while the Luoyang Bridge in Quanzhou was well recognized for linkage in a cosmopolitan city. The barbarians to be defended against were the Mongols and Manchus.

Politically speaking, the Sandglass had been full in the west since the capital had been located at Xian over many centuries and dynasties. However, at the beginning of the 17th century most of the sand had shifted to the new capital in Beijing. The political center was now the Forbidden City from which decrees and dictates were sent. With respect to religion, trade or politics one might say that the year 1600 represented a change from the old to the new.

                                       Sand and rain

                        Sandal sank in waterless desert
                        stirring up dust carried east
                        past the Great and Forbidden Wall
                        where washed away by heavy rain.

                        D. Carlton Rossi


                                        Yanran Square

Courtesy of the Bodleian Library

D. Carlton Rossi
Copyright 2018                                   

The poet wanted to find out what was far north of Xian on The Selden Map. In the middle of nowhere is a small inscription. It reads as follows when translated. Who first was here is victorious. What might this mean?

It needs a better translator to understand its meaning. The main problem experienced was in what direction to read the four characters. Is it read top to bottom, bottom to top, left to right or right to left?

One also notes that the inscription is within a square which for clarification is called the Yanran Square. However, it is a square drawn with what seems a purposeful opening in the upper right hand corner. This resembles the opening in the upper right hand corner of the mysterious, large rectangle. It is suspected that it is a peculiarity of some esoteric school of Buddhism or Daoism. It will be necessary in the future to determine which school.

The square and the rectangle have something else in common. One can draw a horizontal line going east from the top of the Yanran Square through the center of the compass to the outside edge of the rectangle. One need not stop there as the line can be extended to the middle of the void within the smaller rectangle. In other words, the middle of nowhere --meaning the location of the Yanran Square-- is linked to the middle of the void.

                                     Inscription of Yanran

It is recalled that the Han fought the Xiongnu Confederacy for over two hundred years. The war began in the Qin Dynasty when Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) launched a preventative strike against the Xiongnu in 215 BCE which had the goal to expand the empire. This began the war known later as the Han-Xiongnu War. In the year 89 CE, General Dou Xian (窦宪) pursued the enemy northward to the Altai Mountains near Lake Baikal where he won a strategic victory. He returned on a triumphal march and on Yanran Shan erected a stela commemorating his victory. This is called the Inscription of Yanran or more formally as "The Inscription on the Ceremonial Mounding of Mount Yanran (封燕然山銘).The expression "to carve a stone on Yanran" (勒石燕然) entered the Chinese language as a synonym for achieving a decisive victory.


                     Altai Mountains in relation to Lake Baikal

By Dmitry A. Mottl - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3688708

It is proposed that the four character inscription within the square on The Selden Map is a reference to the Inscription of Yanran (rectangle) discovered in 1993 and translated recently. In addition, the short inscription pinpoints the location of Yanran Shan. It is located within the range called the Kangai Mountains. In ancient China it was known as 燕然山 or Yanran Mountain in pinyin. The coordinates of the Inscription of Yanran are 45°10′40.3″N 104°33′14.7″E.             

The Selden Map is concerned with land trade routes from the Han to the Ming period and maritime trade routes during the Ming period. The sea trade was undertaken in sailing vessels. It so happens that the poet successfully completed a sailing course in Vancouver. Basically, he wanted to understand the city and since it is on the water he thought the best way to understand it was from the perspective of the sea.

He enrolled in a sailing course. His fellow students were mostly airline pilots who wanted to buy yachts so that they could relax in their spare time. To pass the course one had to rescue a team mate in a simulated exercise. A life jacket was thrown overboard and the prospective sailor had to retrieve it. This is no problem if your 35 foot yacht has a motor, but this yacht had sails. It was racing along at an extreme angle, at high speed with a strong wind.

One has to tack against the wind to accomplish the exercise. It is very easy to go with the wind. Our instructor said that "a monkey could do it". Mind you the poet is not aware of any monkey that has tried or accomplished it. However, one has to tack in zig-zag patterns against the wind to return to your floating comrade in a simulated exercise on that big ocean. The poet accomplished it on his first try and was granted a certificate.
There is one thing though that the poet did learn on his two week course. In order to face adversity or an adversary one must neither act like an oak or palm in a strong wind because both will be uprooted. When conditions are favourable then go with the wind. If conditions are unfavourable then tack against the wind.

It is now important to determine whether or not the Maritime Trade Route was open or closed at the beginning of the 17th century and relative to what. It was decided to quickly assess whether the land and maritime trade routes were open or closed.

To begin with it appears that the overland route was successful because it was open. One might look to at least the following four reasons for its success.

1. the Xiongnu Confederation was defeated which reduced a potential threat. 2. the protection of the beginning and end of the route was secured by a military garrison. 3. the establishment of Buddhist monasteries fostered the growth of trading centers 4. its strength was based on the silk trade for which they retained a monopoly up to the sixth century.

There were times though when the land route was closed. For example, the Xiongnu were able to capture and destroy both Luoyang and Xian respectively in 311 and 316 CE. This necessitated the movement of 2 million people further south and the transference of the capital to Nanjing on the east coast. At this time the Maritime Trade Route was able to make inroads to mix metaphor.

The Maritime Trade Route grew rapidly in an open system of trade. At first, it supplemented the overland route and then supplanted it. It was protected by a powerful navy which under Zhang He promoted trade and projected power. New markets were accessed and developed. Quanzhou became a cosmopolitan center with over a hundred nations represented in one of the world's largest ports. In summary, foreign trade flourished as a source of revenue in an open sea under the Tang, Song and Yuan.


                 Pirate raiding between 14th and 16th century

However, the adoption of the Haijin (literally "sea ban") clearly signalled a closed sea for most of the Ming Dynasty. The first emperor of the dynasty forbade private trading on punishment of death. This was mainly aimed at curtailing pirates known as Wokou (倭寇) of multiple ethnic groups; although, other explanations have been proposed. Nevertheless, the Haijin (海禁) had the unintended consequence of increasing piracy.


                                          Emperor Longqing

It was only when the sea ban was abolished in 1567 under Emperor Longqing (隆慶) that piracy was checked. One can say that beginning at this point and later when The Selden Map was drawn that it was an open sea. There were brief interludes when trade was interrupted; such as, the Japanese invasion of Korea or when the Dutch used pirates and coercive tactics to seize junks and ports in order to further their monopolistic interests.


                               1602 letter of Queen Elizabeth I

It may not be well known that Queen Elizabeth I sent three letters over a period of 44 years to Emperor Wanli (萬曆) 1573-1620. They were sent in the years 1583, 1596 and 1602; although, there were problems of delivery. In the latter letter she hoped that trade relations could be established. One might say that the "medium was the message" because the letter was carried by George Waymouth (or Weymouth) who had been sponsored by the East India Company to search for the North West Passage. However, even if his letter had been delivered to Emperor Wanli it is highly unlikely that there would have been a response because the emperor was in self-imposed retreat.

D.卡尔顿 罗西
D. Carlton Rossi


The Riddle Unravelled