Category Archives: Culture

Beautifully Grotesque

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It’s not everyday that you look at a work of traditional Chinese art and become reminded of Millia Jovovich and sub-par horror movies, but that did happen to me, and it did happen in Changzhou. How is this possible? I was looking at the above sculpture. Specifically, I was looking at the pits, nooks and crannies in the dog’s torso, and I had a vague feeling I saw something similar once. It had something to do with tendons and ligaments stretched over bare, exposed bone. And then it hit me all at once: Resident Evil. The above sculpture was reminding me of the zombie canines featured in that movie adaptation of a video game.

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Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.

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Tu Yidao 屠一道, a native to Changzhou, was born in 1913, and he went on to attract fame across China for a very particular form of Chinese art: root carving.

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The tradition of carving roots extends back thousands of years to the Warring States period. In art, form is often an extension of the medium. Some of resulting sculptures take on a slightly grotesque appearance because the wood being used is oddly shaped in its natural state. It takes a skilled eye to actually look at a stump and network of roots and see a peacock. It takes even more skill to then fashion that tree root into something resembling an actual peacock or any other type of bird.

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Or a horse.

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The Changzhou municipal government began funding a small museum in Tu Yidao’s honor in the 1980’s, according to the Chinese language Baidu version of Wikipedia. So, this place has been around for a long time. I have been there a few times since I moved here in 2014. Sometimes I have gone there, and the doors were locked. Other times, it has been open. It sometimes felt like a gamble on whether the place remained open to the public or not.

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It’s relatively tiny, and it’s in a northern corner of Hongmei Park — not to far from the RT Mart near the downtown train station. It costs five RMB to get in, and each time I visited, the worker behind the front desk had to turn the lights on. Each time I have visited, though, I have always left thinking about more than just zombie movies and reanimated canines. Chinese culture is more inventive than what some foreigners give it credit for.

Elegant Nanjing Embroidery

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Silk has long since been intertwined into Chinese culture. There is the functional use of it in high end couture and fashion, and then there is the use of it to produce cultural objects and art. Such is the case with embroidery — which like many other things in China, has a rich history going back more than a thousand years.

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Like any art or craft, Chinese embroidery can be separated into different categories. One of which is native to Nanjing. It is often refered to as Nanjing Yunjin, with the Chinese characters and pinyin being 南京云锦 Nánjīng yúnjǐn. The characters 云锦 refers to clouds. As they are a common motif on this style of brocade, but the style can be used to dragons, religious imagery, and much more. These designs are stitched by hand and can take many years to complete. The attention to detail is that exquisite. Also, since gold and silver lining is involved, the resulting brocades become extremely expensive and highly valuable.

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The Wujin Museum in the Yancheng complex has a temporary exhibit of such brocades that runs to the end of March. There, a visitor can see first hand such fine attention to detail.

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Guanyin at Baolin Temple in Wujin

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According to local legend, Guanyin was key in the formation of Gehu Lake — which is also known as “West Taihu Lake.” The body of fresh water is located near the flower expo grounds in Wujin. This act of Guanyin’s was a way to show mercy to locals besieged by floods. And that is what she does. In Buddhism, she is a goddess of mercy. Some pray to her in times trouble and turmoil. This is just one of morsels of information that can be learned at Baolin Temple.

This is a Buddhist religious attraction near the Wujin’s Martyr’s Memorial. Baolin is perhaps one of the biggest cultural treasures in a district that is currently seeing a lot of construction. This is true for the temple itself. In the few thousand years it has existed, Baolin has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple of times. So, it’s largely renovated now and not in its original state. One of the more recent additions in the past two years is a pagoda a friend of mine compared to a pineapple.

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This pagoda is dedicated to Guanyin. She is all over the exterior with golden statues and exterior paintings depicting her showing mercy to people.

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Baolin has a lot of the stuff you could expect to see at Buddhist temples. But the real attraction here is the four-floor-high Guanyin statue inside the pagoda itself. It is simply a wonder to behold.

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The pagoda has an elevator. I usually like to take it to the fourth floor, walk circles around the statue, and then take the stairs down one floor at a time.

Biji Lane’s Questionable Comb Museum

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As I have mentioned in the past, part of how I explore places relies heavily on Baidu Maps, my phone, and learning Chinese keywords. For example, 故居 Gùjū means “former residence.” 名胜 Míngshèng translates roughly as “famous place” or “attraction” (in a tourist sense). Another common one I use is 博物馆 Bówùguǎn. There is sometimes a problem with the last one. Sometimes, a business lists themselves on Baidu Maps as this. You show up, and it’s a retail store, not a museum.

When this happens, I just shake my head and walk away. There is one that I will make an exception for. There is something that translates as Comb Museum over on Biji Lane. This is in the small little historical alley behind the Injoy Mall, downtown.

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This is historical home for one of Changzhou’s oldest traditional industries: handcrafted combs. This city has been well renowned in China for this for at least two thousand years.  Only, the museum is not a museum. It’s actually a gift shop, and some of the combs can cost upwards of 1000 RMB. I, however, never treat it like a gift shop. A lot of the more exquisite items are behind protective glass cases.

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There are also non-comb realted items like bejeweled hairpins.

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The place also has other traditional Changzhou crafts, like carved bamboo.

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While I have given Changzhou combs to people back in America, they were the cheap 10 RMB knock offs. This place is too expensive for me. And, even though its not a museum, I like to treat it like an art gallery. I go in browse, but never buy.

Should You Visit Dinosaur Park’s Spring Festival Display During the Day or at Night?

It is that time of year again. Spring Festival is rapidly approaching, and most of the colorful displays are already up, or will be going up very quickly. The best of the lantern displays, however, is usually at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. Yes, Yancheng in Wujin has some lights, but this year it is a few roosters and lot of colorful eggs. It really doesn’t compare as of this writing. Dinosaur Park usually has very large, very detailed lights. This year is no different. As always, it’s usually a fun, family friendly thing to do. However, there is one question. Should one look visit Dino Park during the day or during the evening this year? Look at the following pictures and draw your own conclusion. This is just a quick sampling of what has been put up at Dinosaur Park this year.

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What Was Unexpected at the Changzhou Martyr’s Memorial

“To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is nobler and much less trouble.” Mark Twain

America and China usually have had some misconceptions going between them, and as an American living in China, I am usually surprised when I run across some nugget of American intellectual culture in China. Sometimes, they turn up in odd places. For instance, there is bust of President Jefferson over in Wuxing Park in Zhonglou. It’s near a statue of a rather fierce looking unicorn. However, I recently ran into another bit in a place I thought i would never see an American face. Turns out, I found two of them at Changzhou’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning. This place is down the road from Jiuzhou New World mall, and it is dedicated to all of the Changzhou people who died during the Communist Revolution / Chinese Civil War. I went there for a walk and sort of got flabbergasted by two minor details.

img_20161217_215846 If a foreigner visits this place, they should show some respect. It’s open to the public, but it’s not a public park. It’s actually a cemetery. Human remains are housed here. But first, the other facilities.

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The museum and other facilities are locked and shuttered. However, you do see some people milling around, and most of them are in the mausoleums respecting family members who are at their final resting place.

img_20161217_215906 img_20161217_215929 You also can find the typical sort of Communist party imagery that you might expect at a revolutionary memorial.

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The first picture above depicts Yun Daiying, Qu Quibei, and Zhang Tailai. All three were important members within the Communist Party. All three came from Changzhou. Qu was actually a party leader before Mao Zedong. The second picture is from the sculpture wall behind the statue.  However, here is what surprised me.

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To translate the quote: To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is nobler and much less trouble.

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Yes, that is Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain in a communist cemetery. But then again, my surprise belies a sort of nationalism I didn’t think I had. There are no such thing as exclusively American ideas and exclusively Chinese ideas. There are just ideas, and they do not know borders or nationalities. This part of the cemetery demonstrates that perfectly. Twain and Lincoln are on a wall that has other quotes from Chinese thinkers, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and many others from countries far away from the Changzhou and China in general.

Tianning Temples Luohan Halls

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Someone once joked that I visit too many temples. It’s something I freely admit to, as well. The beauty of Buddhist and Taoist temples are the ornate attention to detail. If you love art, you will always see something you never noticed before. You just have to look closer.

This is especially true at Tianning Temple in downtown Changzhou. One of the things I most often like returning to are the two halls of luohans. These are relatively close to the front entrance — so, nowhere near the pagoda. Here are some of the shots from my recent visit.

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Zhang Quanhai and Microscopic Masterpieces

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Could the Mona Lisa have been painted on a single kernel of rice? Yes, it sounds like a fundamentally absurd question, but then again, the Changzhou Museum currently has a mind blowing temporary exhibit that led me to ask myself the question in the first place. Zhang Quanhai specializes in making colorful art so small, you need a magnifying glass just to look at it. He uses tiny, polished stones. While many are bigger than a rice kernel, the amount of precision and skill it takes create such small pictures is a bit breath taking. The exhibit is divided into two sections. One has the stones in ornate display boxes, and the other has Zhang’s work with magnifying glasses positioned over them. Out of the two options, the magnifying glasses were a better viewing experience. It allowed me, at least, to fully appreciate talent it takes to produce such tiny works of art. Time is running out on this exhibit, however. I cannot read Chinese, but the sign said it was supposed to end a few days ago. If it is still there, it’s on the third floor.

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Qianbeian: Another Pocket of Recreated History

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As been noted often both here and elsewhere, Changzhou is more of a modern Chinese city. There is not to say that there isn’t a rich history here, it’s just hard to find relics of it still standing around after thousands of years. You can in Nanjing and other places, but sadly in Changzhou most of those attractions just do not exist anymore. There is, however, a move to recreate more places that have an antiquated feel. Qianbeian is one of those places.

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It’s not that far from Wenhuagong — where Changzhou’s downtown subway station is being excavated and built.  A Starbucks is also nearby, and one of Changzhou’s antique markets sits behind it. When I first came to Changzhou in 2014, the place was empty. Weeds were growing through cracks in the walkway, and the windows were dirty and unwashed. Walking through here, back then, felt like walking trough a forlorn, white-washed labyrinth.

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It’s a classic trope in this city. Parts of it looked like a ghost town, but over the years, things have slowly filled in. Qianbeian is a like Qingguo Alley — which can also be found in the city center. Even though it’s either reconstructed or currently under reconstruction, real Changzhou history did happen there. For instance, the great Chinese poet Su Dongpo, once had an academy here, and recently it has been turned into a small gallery for calligraphers and brush-and-ink artists. There is also a tiny display place dedicated to him. There is also a small museum dedicated to local history, and a lot more.

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Holy Men with Absurd Eyebrows

Image courtesy of Yahoo.

More than a decade before I ever thought of moving to China, I had fallen in love with martial arts films. I especially loved the ones set in ancient Chinese history. While shopping for DVDs back in 2002, if i saw a Taoist or Buddhist monk on the cover, I was easily sold. One image has stuck with me ever since then, almost like a animated gif or Wechat sticker eternally lodged into my mind: a Shaolin monk in a simple white robe stands in his fighting stance, and his absurdly long, white eyebrows flutter in the wind. I didn’t see this in just one Hong Kong kung fu flick, but many — too many to count.

At the time, I thought the image was a bit silly. Part of me always wondered why monks chose to grow their eyebrows out so long. Then again, part of me never cared enough to spend some time actually googling the subject. However, I recently realized that there really was a cultural meaning behind it all, and it came from my usual random-association pattern of thinking.

Over at Dalin Temple, in the eastern part of Changzhou near Wuxi, there is a hall of colorful luohan. The statues look cartoonish with flashy and brightly colored paint jobs. One particular luohan wears a blue robe and standing on a giant crab. His eyebrows are so long, he has two others standing next to him, holding his excess ropes of hair for him. Last time I was at Dalin, I laughed at this the same way I laughed at all those ass kicking Shoalin monks in old Chinese action films.

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Much later, I actually made a real cultural connection between luohan statues and all those cinematic eyebrows blowing in the wind. In Buddhism, luohan — or arhat as they are called in Sanskrit — are religious people who have reached perfection. Often, I like to call them the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. There are 18 original luohan in Chinese Buddhism. These were the original followers of Buddha. If you want another Christian parallel, you could liken them to the 12 apostles that originally followed Jesus.

One of those 18 luohan was a man named Changmei 长眉羅漢. His name in Sanskrit was Asita. He was also the person who initially predicted the rise of Gautama Buddha, and that was no small feat. If I am forced to draw another Christian parallel, than maybe Changmei / Asita is a figure like John the Baptist — the final Christian prophet that actually blessed Jesus.

I could be wrong, but what about all those extremely long eyebrows those movie martial arts monks have? Maybe it’s a way of honoring this important figure within Buddhism?