“If you don’t like it, you can get the hell out of China!” was the response I got when I told a lady sat next to me on the train to Zhengzhou, Henan province, that there was in fact a toilet on the train, and I didn’t want to watch her child pee into a bottle. Standing in the concrete jungle of shoddy apartment blocks, dodging motorbikes held together by celotape and breathing in thick smog, you would never imagine this was once the cradle of all Chinese civilization, a place where dynasties rose and fell, emperors adorned in silk gave out orders to eunuchs and poets and philosophers gathered in beautiful gardens. The very mention of Henan makes rich, big city Chinese turn up their noses and makes sarcastic comments about drain-cover thieves.
But I wasn’t here for captivating old towns or well-kept gardens. The reason I came to Henan was to visit a place well off the tourist radar, a place called Yinxiu in Anyang county. I had chosen to do some research into the origins of Chinese characters for a university project, and Yinxiu was the place where the oldest examples of Chinese writing have been found; the so-called Oracle Bones.
Chinese characters are basically evolved hieroglyphics, pictures which represented their meaning, such as Sun, Water or Mountain. The oldest characters known were carved into bones or tortoise shells, by shamans who would ask questions to the gods such as when the rain would come, would there be a drought, or would the king have a successful hunting trip, and then place them into fire and interpret the cracks which formed when heated.
I arrived at Zhengzhou station, the largest railway station in China, a huge, overwhelming building full of migrant workers dressed in faded old army uniforms or Mao suits carrying huge DIY style suitcases which looked like they were about to collapse, hair looking like a birds nest, spitting, smoking and pushing past everyone. The station was full of small shops selling all kinds of snacks, aimed at the migrant workers, such as tea pickled eggs, packaged chickens feet, sunflower seeds, and all the shops had these loudspeakers blaring out unintelligible noise. Blundering through the chaos I found the train going onwards to Anyang, from which I took a short taxi to my destination.
The bones are on display in a museum at the site of the Shang Dynasty Tombs, where the first kings of China, who ruled almost 4000 years ago, lay to rest, among numerous human sacrifices and artefacts of bronze and jade. The museum was built pretty much on top of the original tombs, and the architecture is all in the Shang Dynasty style; much more archaic looking than what we usually regard as Chinese building style, simple white buildings with red roofs and large red supporting posts, nothing ornate besides some odd totem symbols on the posts which look more Polynesian or Native American than anything else.
This was a time before dragons had been conceived of by the Chinese, but you could see a kind of prototype in the designs. There were several buildings in this style which either took you into the tombs, or housed tomb related relics, but the museum itself was a very modern building, designed in the shape of a Ding, an ancient Chines urn used in sacrificial ceremonies. Inside the museum was one of the most impressive collections of bronze and Oracle Bones in all of China, all of which had been found at this unassuming site. Nowadays only a few scholars can read the Oracle Bone Script, and of the 5000 characters, only less than two thirds have been deciphered.
Looking at these strange scribbles, written by the very people who founded Chinese civilisation, I couldn’t help but try to get inside their minds. How did they perceive the world? What values did they hold? Very little is actually known about these people as it was only several hundred years later that history began to be properly recorded, and much that is written about these people is just myth.
While Henan province is not exactly the most accessible or tourist friendly province, it is a treasure-trove of artefacts and sites relating to early Chinese history, and some places such as Luoyang, Kaifeng and Shaolin Temple see hordes of tourists, for either the intrepid traveler, or history nerd, there are places like the tombs at Yinxiu in Henan that most people have no idea about, and provided a really rewarding experience, and thanks to the high speed railway are easily accessible.