I am thinking of a young, impoverished son of a farmer with secret dreams of becoming a poet and a faithful, humble servant of his emperor. This is during the Ming Dynasty – roughly around the year 1406. His name is Gu Xiaofeng (古小风)，and he’s walking along a narrow dirt road flanked by farms. Around him, he sees garlic sprouts, types of lettuce, and bulbs of cabbage. He can also smell the pungent stink of manure fertilizing the fields. He’s used to it; after all, he grew up on small farms not unlike the ones he is passing. While he is not homesick, he is thinking of his brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles he has left behind. He remembers his mother’s hopeful expression the last time he saw her face. Ever defiant, she refused to cry during his farewell. Despite all her efforts, a few rogue tears did slip down her cheeks. He also remembers his father’s stern, but non-judgmental eyes. Behind that stoic face, Xiaofeng knows there is a profound sense of hope his father doesn’t want him to see. To Xiaofeng, it’s a burden. He may walk this farmland path alone, but it feels like his large, peasant family is with him, weighing his shoulders down. This is in Jiangnan, nearly fifty or so kilometers from the banks of the Yangtze. Centuries later, this whole area would be known as greater Changzhou. Gu Xiaofeng is walking to the triennial imperial exams. If he does very well, he can get an important job, a very good income, and he raise his entire family out of its meager economic existence. If he fails, the exam will not be offered again for three more years. For Xiaofeng, these stakes are extremely high.
Let’s stop here, for a moment. Gu Xiaofeng is not a real, historical figure. Before anybody rushes to Google or Baidu to research him, I’ll confess I just made him up while typing this. In a way, I wanted to dramatize something common in Chinese history: the extreme importance of the imperial and civil service exams. The test was grueling and could span days while in isolation. For the poor, it was one way to achieve upward social mobility. In China’s long history, one can easily assume there were many people in Xiaofeng’s circumstances. My choice of this fictional character’s location is no accident, either. Changzhou has been well known for producing intellectuals over its long history. One of the metrics, historically, for measuring this has been how many people from the area have done well on the imperial exams.
One high achiever was Chen Qia (陈洽), who was quite real and not a figment of my imagination. He ranked jinshi (進士). People scoring this high are the best of the best, and are often seen as the people most qualified for top imperial jobs. Chen Qia apparently excelled at poetry and history. His upward mobility landed him the position of as minister of war under Emperor Yongle. This was at a time when China was not a reclusive society. They Ming Dynasty sought an expansive and intrusive foreign policy, especially when it came to Southeast Asia. During Yongle’s reign, rebellion broke out in a region that would later become Vietnam. Chen Qia went personally to oversee the military campaign. That didn’t go so well, with his army scattered and defeated, Chen chose to take his own life rather than personally concede to humiliation of defeat. Apparently, his corpse was brought back from Vietnam, and the imperial government honored him in death by called him a patriotic hero. All these centuries later, you can still visit where he is buried in Changzhou. It’s a protected cultural site.
It’s located on the lower edge of Tianning District. If one were to take a B1, B16, or B11 bus north on Wuyi Road, one would pass the Wujin Injoy shopping mall. Once those buses go a little more north, they come to a large bridge passing over a canal or a river. (Sometimes, in Changzhou, it’s hard to tell which is which). This water body acts as a boundary between Wujin and Tianning districts. Once over the bridge, the bus will pass an Auchan supermarket. This is where one would hop off. Then, one would have to walk south, back towards the bridge. Once you pass Auchan and keep walking, a potential visitor will come to a very large residential complex. Chen Qia’s grave is located on the other side.
It can be divided into two parts. One is the grave itself. There is no headstone. There is, however, an inscribed stone tablet with a summation about Chen Qia’s life. Two of my good Chinese friends helped by reading it for me. The grave itself is a circular mound with a tree and a lot of overgrown grass and weeds. This area is partially walled off, but the gate is open with old Chinese characters chiseled and colored gold. The other area takes the form of a small garden with a pond, walkways, a little bridge, a gazebo, and what looks to be recently built traditional Chinese architecture.
In the times I have visited this place, I have only seen locals – a father walking around with his daughter, some dude taking a mid-afternoon nap in the gazebo. One woman decided to bring a drying rack here to air out her laundry.
There seems to be a shop of some sort with traditional handicrafts, but I didn’t bother to look in. The guy inside was also curled up on the floor and taking a nap. As I walked around taking cell phone pictures, one middle aged man did take an interest in my presence. With a huge grin, he tried to tell me more about Chen Qia, but we both were slightly frustrated. My Chinese sucks, and we couldn’t convey meanings accurately enough through our phone’s translator apps.
The language barrier frustrated me even more once I actually tried looking Chen Qia up. Even on Baidu and in Chinese, he’s obscure. What I could find, Google Translate rendered unreadable. Again, this is where I benefited from the kind, enabling generosity of my Chinese friends and the stone tablet at the grave itself. Oddly enough, Chen Qia is listed as being born in Wujin. Yet, I couldn’t find any mention of him at the Wujin Who’s Who Museum. You think somebody ranking jinshi on the imperial exam would have had some sort of blurb there. Then again, having your grave preserved centuries after the fact – and not bulldozed to make way for more urban development – is no small consolation prize. Not everybody gets their own culturally protected monument after their death.
That includes Chinese people I totally fabricated out of literary convenience and research laziness. So, what ever happened to Gu Xiaofeng? Nothing, of course. He never existed. But if I were to continue writing his story, here is the ending I would give him. He did very well on his exams. No, he didn’t score high enough to rank as jinshi. He never worked directly for Emperor Yongle. He stayed around Changzhou and had more of a provincial, local governmental job. Still, his mother and father became very proud of him. His wife doted on him every day, and he returned such warm affection in kind. Xiaofeng continued to write poetry and practice his calligraphy in his spare time, but his profound sense of humility kept these verses quiet and unpublished – until he reached old age. Then, he recited them only to his legion of rambunctious and energetic grandchildren. How energetic? They all wanted to wrestle and play with him – all the time.