Dispatches from Abroad: On Monumentality

A number of years ago, Alfred Runte wrote an insightful article on the rationale for the creation of the United States’ (US) National Park System (“The National Park idea: origins and paradox of the American experience,” published in the Journal of Forest History 21[2], 64-75; April 1977)   He argued that in the 19th century, the US was still insecure about its identity as a nation. We felt that we didn’t have the cultural history, cathedrals, and other iconic buildings that Europe did, but we had awesome landscapes that Europe couldn’t match. This fixation on monumentality was enshrined in the enabling legislation for the National Parks (the 1916 Organic Act), has carried forward in management strategies and policies that emphasize retaining the parks in their “original condition”, and persists in such language as “National Monuments”.

But why write about this now, from China?

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. One of my very first thoughts on seeing the hoodoos and other rock formations in these parks and monuments was that they ought to compare favorably with the figures in the Terra Cotta Army at Qinshihuang’s tomb site that I expected to see when I got to Xi’an in August. And in fact, the similarities did not disappoint. I felt as awestruck walking into the excavation halls of the Terra Cotta Army and standing at the base of Qinshihuang’s tomb as I did when I hiked above Cedar Breaks or into the canyons at Bryce.

[All these photos look much better enlarged. Click on each one for a larger version]

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Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah, USA
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Terra Cotta Army Pit 1

To me, one of the most astonishing things about China is the large scale—indeed, the monumentality—of both the human creations here and the manipulations of the landscape. From the Great Wall to the Xi’an City Wall, the Forbidden City to Qinshihuang’s mausoleum, which is guarded—2-km distant!—by a vast army of individually crafted Terra Cotta warriors, Terra Cotta horses, Terra Cotta chariots, etc.—the mausoleum itself covers 3.5 km2 and the tomb once stood 120-m high (erosion has reduced it over two millennia to just over a paltry 50-m high)—I am continually astonished at the grand scale of cultural artefacts in China.

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Reconstruction of a Tang Dynasty Palace at the Danfeng Gate Heritage Park

I had a similar sense of vertigo when we drove from Chengu to Beichuan, seeing the incredibly steep mountains and ravines that I’d previously known only from Chinese paintings and poetry, and ending up at the epicenter of the massive earthquake that levelled Beichuan on May 12, 2008. (for more on that drive, see the three-part posting on Walking in the Footsteps of the Giant Panda: I, II, III).

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Core of the Foping National Natural Area and Panda Preserve
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Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial Park and Museum

What’s worth remembering is the Eurocentrism of Runte’s article, and of the US from its establishment in the 18th century through the time of the founding of the National parks. Unlike Europe, Africa, and the rest of Asia, which had well-established trading routes with China since before the Common Era, the US has looked to Asia far less frequently for trade, cultural comparables, or intellectual interchange. Certainly the language barrier is high, but it is clearly not insurmountable. And there are constant surprises to be found here, from the seemingly mundane (a 13th-century spinning wheel and early domestication of silkworms for producing thread to be turned into garments and tapestries) through the utilitarian (the 11th-century invention of moveable type, 400 years before Gutenberg), to the vast palaces, squares, and walls of the past, and the superhighways, hyperfast trains, and megacities of the present and future.

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View from the Nan Yang Hotel

The US may still be secure in the primacy of its National Parks and Monuments, but for overwhelming cultural monumentality, China is at least on same level with Europe, if not far above it.

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