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Xiao Xianhua and the Yellow River

The Yellow River in Northern China has long been seen as the country's central bloodstream, and the base for one of the world's earliest China's mother river. Its futile river basin cradled the first Chinese civilizations. In the year 2000, a thirty year old scholar named Xiao Xianhua has embarked on a quest torediscover the Yellow River's ancient roots of Chinese civilization, and has so far spend six years exploring its banks and nearby regions. In over six years time, he'd traveled much part of the Yellow River and its neighboring regions on foot three times, retracing the development of Chinese nation and studying the ancient customs on route.


Xiao Xianhua came into our studio a man with very few extra words is a man of few unnecessary words. His sun-tanned face now tanned from years of exploration, his black eyes show his firm will. It was this firm will which took him on a root-finding tour in the year 2000, he talks about his six years of exploration, following his shortly after his graduation from Guangxi Normal University at the turn of the century.



"The route I chose took me decided is to walk alongside the Yellow River and its visit the nearby villages, towns and cities along the way. On my way, I visited various the sites of historical interest, learning the local customs and folk culture, and also called upon local scholars on local gents and scholars of knowledge. During this tour, I found that the  Yellow River region, especially in the middle reaches of it, is a historical and cultural treasure house, which has accumulated after wealth over thousands of years of accumulation. Indeed, whichever village you stumble into, you can't find some very knowledgeable local, gents who will tell you a lot of things that can't never be learned in from books."


The Yellow River is approximately 5500km in length. It is the second largest river in China. The river originates in the mountains of Qinghai Plateau and finally flowing exits into the Bo Hai Sea east of Beijing. The Hukou Waterfall west of Jixian County in the Northern Shanxi Province, is one of the most spectacular, sheerest sections of the Yellow river. The section of the river here is like the mouth of a water-flask, hence the name "Flask Mouth waterfall". It was here that Xiao Xianhua began his first trek,  started his first discovery tour about the Yellow River.


It was also this part of the Yellow River which Xiao Xianhua arrived on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year of 2000, that gave him the strongest impression.


"I arrived at Hukou Waterfall in March 2000. This waterfall is grandiose and magnificent. It carriesflows the spirit of the Yellow River, of the Chinese people's perseverance and uncaving unyielding spirit. In the past, there used to a great deal of business centered around the Hukou Waterfall area. Indeed, in ancient China, there weren't many convenient modes of transportation in the region, so water became an extremely important means of travel. The merchants on the upper reaches of the Yellow River would send their goods by ship. However, when a ship reached the Hukou Waterfall, the steep drop forced them to temporarily quit their water travel. They would push their ship and wares on to the bank and then struggle over miles of sand, until they finally passed the waterfall and could return to the river. So at that time, the waterfall was an area of bustling business and even today you can find abandoned cave dwellings there."  



Starting from the Hukou Waterfall, Xiao Xianhua's footsteps proceeded to cover much of Northern China, including the regions of Shanxi, Henan, Shandong, Gansu, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia during his several trips in the past six years. Meanwhile, his latest trip took him to Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Starting late February, on the second day of this Chinese lunar new year, Xiao Xianhua walked along the Yellow River from Yinchuan in Ningxia to Baotou in Inner Mongolia, which is about 600 kilometers as the crow flies. On route, he passed many important landmarks, for example the place where the first proper Chinese empire - the Qin dynasty - began to build a Great Wall to fend off northern nomads. Xiao also came across the tomb of Princess Wang Zhaojun from the Han dynasty, which immediately followed the Qin dynasty. Married off to a king of one of the potentially dangerous northern tribes, Wang Zhaojun's life is interpreted both as an example of sacrifice and as a symbol of friendship between Han and nomad. In fact, such is her legacy, that today there are many so-called tombs for Wang out on the Mongolian steppes. Yet, no one knows where she was actually buried, because it was a custom of nomad nobles to have secret burial places. Xiao Xianhua recalls the scene he witnessed about arriving at one of her tombs.


"The tomb I came across that night was only two to three miles to the south of the Yellow River. It was not a scenic spot. The village was named after the tomb. Standing at the foot of the tomb, I saw willow, elm, and jujube trees harmoniously intertwined. Looking up I saw the top of the tomb, looking down I saw pasture land. I could hear the splash of fish in the river, and the bark of dogs on land; I could see lamplight from nearby houses and even red new year couplets on their door frames. This was a place where so many historical events had taken place, where so many famous figures had left their names in the annals of history. Soldiers had been stationed here, wars had been waged here and different cultures had been mixed here. Furthermore, not far from this spot was where the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation, the Yellow emperor, fought the Yan emperor, before the two tribes later became part of the Chinese nation."


Needless to say, traveling alone and armed with only a backpack, Xiao Xianhua expected, and experienced, a great many hardships. Many times Xiao found himself running out of food and water, or forced to sleep out in the open, under the cold night sky. He also faced moments of extreme danger.


"Some parts of the Yellow River are really dangerous. I remember once I walked along a part of the river which goes through a valley. There was no way of going forward, but also no way of turning back – both routes were very dangerous. I threw my backpack into the river, along with all my belongings, except for a notebook, pen and camera. Then I managed to crawl on all-fours across this cliff. The dirt underneath me would roll into the river at every one of my movements."


Dangerous indeed, but according to Xiao Xianhua, well worth the risk.


"Throughout my trip, I encountered many exciting new things. At the moment, there are some people who are suspicious as to the vitality of traditional Chinese culture. What I found is that not only does the cream of Chinese culture still exist, with its traditions, ethics, and customs, but that it is showing strong signs of life in the region where it originated."


Based on what he saw and discovered during his trips, Xiao Xianhua has written three books about the Yellow River and its accompanying culture. In response, many like-minded adventurers have begun their own copycat expeditions in the Yellow River Region. However, Xiao remains one step of the pack, and plans to cover the entire length of the Yellow River in ten years' time. In fact, following our interview, Xiao was back on the road, or rather back on the river, for his next long march. And with 5500 kilometers of water, scenery and tradition ahead of him, he should have enough material for more books.


(CRI April 28, 2006)

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