The Forest of Stone Stelae (Xi'an)

Part 2 of the Silk Road journey

Posted 18th May 2017 by David McGuinness

The Forest of Stone Stelae in Xi’an is a collection of more than 1,000 stone carvings, stelae for the most part, with beautiful Chinese writing on them. They cover a period of about 2,000 years from the Han dynasty to the Qing dynasty (the last dynasty, which fell in 1911). The topics of the writings are endless and refreshingly diverse – religious texts (Taoism, Buddhism & Confucianism feature), poetry, history, literary criticism, biography, cartography, administration, legislation, family history, tombstones, legal texts and letters of complaint. My favourite, in concept, as I am not equipped to understand the content, was a Tang era complaint about a seating arrangement. It is unclear if the seating arrangement itself was set in stone but the complaint clearly has been! The carving and calligraphy is stunning and many stelae sit atop turtles crowned with elaborate headers. Faithful copies of stelae are made by draping and pressing rice paper and gently brushing the paper. Ever commercially minded, copies are available to buy in the museum shop.

The most famous stele outside China exhibited here is the Nestorian Tablet, a Tang era stone documenting early Christianity in China. First erected in 781, it contains text in both Chinese and Syriac script. The stone tells how the Christian Missionary Alopen from Daqin (Roman Empire) was recognised by the Tang Emperor. The stone was buried for almost 800 years (possibly due to religious suppression) and only rediscovered in 1645.

If you tire of script you cannot read, out in a courtyard stand a selection of grisly-but-photogenic hitching posts from all around Shaanxi province, where horses would have been tied. Most sport either a demon or an old woman sitting on a demon, and are charming examples of folk art from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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