The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither?
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors.
–Mao Zedong, from Yellow Crane Tower
Some people, especially foreigners in The Middle Kingdom, do not know that Mao Zedong once wrote poetry. Whether that poetry was quality or not is not for me to say. I don’t have much to judge it against when it comes to Chinese verse. I know little bit of Li Bai, Du Fu, and Su Shi (Su Dongpo), and that’s about it. It should also be noted that I know these writers in translation, not in their native language. The two above lines strike me for another reason.
They remind me of a local irony in Changzhou. In the northern end of Zhonglou District and the border with Xinbei, you can find a large statue of Mao Zedong. It is basically close to the shipping / offloading area behind the Metro supermarket. He is in a visionary stance with one arm held aloft to the sky — as if to hail people or the sweep of history and the future to come. You see this a lot with the statues of monumental leaders.
How he is standing is not the irony. Nor is how unnaturally long his arm looks. It’s what surrounds him; it looks like a wasteland. On one side, footpaths twist around mounds of earth, grass, and garbage. The farther you walk into this field, the more you secretly planted crops of vegetables. If you retrace your steps back and cross Mao’s plaza, you find a different sort of wasteland. Some sort of building or buildings used to stand here. My guess would be factories or some sort of industrial site. Smashed bricks and building materials smother the ground. When I was there, a few guys with a truck picked through the refuse — as if looking for whole bricks to reuse elsewhere. Some of the still-standing buildings are also abandoned.
This gets me back to Mao’s Yellow Crane Tower poem. Of course, he wasn’t writing about Changzhou those many decades ago. Yes, I am taking these lines out of context. But these two lines remind me of the eerie sort of ambiance here. “The yellow crane is gone.” Here, yes, I heard no sounds of birds. You could here the crackle, however, of a few smoldering piles of trash. As for the second line, the “tower” and the “haunt” is Mao himself. And the only reason to go to this desolate place is to see him — to be a “visitor.”