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A Journey to Ancient China
By Marc-Stephan Arnold | NO. 19 MAY 11, 2017
A memorial ceremony for Huang Di, or the Yellow Emperor, in Huangling County, Shaanxi Province, on April 4 (XINHUA)

"Jesus! This thing looks like a time machine!"—That was the first thought that shot through my mind when I first saw the newest generation of China's bullet train. On my recent trip to Xi'an, I finally got to travel in one of these futuristic marvels. I searched for my seat in the spacious interior: Car 6, row 12, seat A—a window seat. Excellent!

How long would it have taken an official of the emperor's court to get from Beijing to Xi'an? That was just one of the many thoughts that raced through my mind at bullet train speed as beautiful Chinese landscapes flew by my window, going at 300 km per hour.

As the train glided silently through Hebei Province, I fell asleep.

Only six hours later, I arrived in Xi'an, where one can visit the mausoleum of Huang Di, also known as the Yellow Emperor, the mythical first emperor of China. Even to this day, modern China still honors and celebrates this legendary ruler, whom many believe to be the "Ancestor of all Chinese people."

Every year at Qingming, the Tomb-Sweeping Day—the day on which the Chinese commemorate their ancestors, the people of Huangling County hold a big sacrificial ceremony to honor Huang Di.

This year, I was fortunate enough to be at the ceremony. As it began, I started to feel that my reality had shifted, from the bristling modernity of China's new and rapid bullet train, to a colorful ceremony of ancient China. I was surrounded by soldiers dressed in golden armor, their weapons drawn, looking suspiciously at the strange foreigner that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the holy sacrificial square, the big altar in front of the massive mausoleum of Huang Di. But since the ceremony had already begun, they quickly lost interest in me and joined the rest of the guard of honor that had gathered in the square. I saw scholars in gray robes, soldiers in red armor, and the golden armor of the imperial guard was everywhere. Soldiers carried the yellow standard of the emperor. They marched in formation toward the mausoleum, and positioned themselves at both sides of the massive building. The scholars, in their long, grey robes carried silver trays full of fruit and treasure to the altar. After putting it there, they all got down on their knees before the holy building, to honor the Yellow Emperor.

Just moments after that, beautiful women filled the square in a riot of mesmerizing color. Court ladies in blue, red and yellow dresses performed an enchanting dance before bowing deeply toward the holy shrine of Huang Di. Their performance must have made the Heavens very happy, because what happened next is almost too fantastic to describe: Thunder clapped, and the crowd, as if on cue, fell silent. A large shadow swooshed over our heads, followed by an ear-deafening roar. What a joy! The rarest, most mythical and most powerful creature of ancient China had decided to visit the people honoring the Yellow Emperor—Heaven had sent us a dragon!

Cheers erupted from the assembled throngs of people as the dragon began a wild dance right across the square. The soldiers raised their banners and the court ladies started to dance faster as the mighty dragon positioned itself right in front of the mausoleum. The crowd cheered even louder, the honor guard bowed even lower, and the dragon, satisfied with this great ceremony for the Yellow Emperor, gave them an approving nod. The gigantic creature turned its head—and looked directly at me. The dragon started to growl, as if to say: "You don't belong here!"

It was finally time to leave the seemingly timeless spectacle of ancient China and embrace the modern world once more: Back on China's modern marvel, the bullet train, for my return journey to Beijing. Arriving back at Xi'an train station to catch the bullet train, I could barely believe that so little time had passed since I had been wrapped up in China's ancient past. In my mind's eye, and on my camera, I could still see pictures of imperial guards, officials, beautiful court ladies, and even a gigantic dragon. It felt like a dream, and even more so when juxtaposed with the gleaming modernity of the bullet train waiting for me at the platform.

As I sipped my coffee, I heard my train back to Beijing being announced. I walked briskly to the platform and entered the train. Checking my ticket, I searched for my seat: Car 6, row 12, seat A—a window seat. Excellent!

As the train glided silently through Shaanxi Province, I fell asleep once again.

The author is a German working in Beijing

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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