Category Archives: Culture

Hidden Dragons

Imagine you have a crazy hoarder / packrat as your elderly uncle. Every time you go and visit him, he wants to show you the vintage comic book he paid one dollar for at a neighbor’s yard sale. Even more, he can show off all of his Star Wars related sticks of bubble gum from the late 1970’s. Part of you thinks this uncle is absolutely insane, but you love his crazed passion for culture. Actually, you grow to respect his enthusiasm, partly because you realize his home is actually a museum he spent a lifetime curating. To some people, such people sound far fetched — but they do exist.  For example, there were the Vogels in New York City. On working class salaries, they amassed a priceless art collection.

A few months ago, I met somebody like this in Changzhou. He had turned his passion for collecting everything related to dragons into a government-supported folk history museum.  I found it by complete accident while on my eBike. I was on Renmin Road in Wujin, but much farther to the east than Injoy Plaza. You could say I was halfway to the former district of Qishuyan when I spotted a small public park on the my phone’s Baidu Maps app. So, I veered off course. The park itself wasn’t really much to think of — sort of desolate and deteriorating.  The security guard was sleeping while trying to fish in a man-made pond.

As I walked around, I found myself intrigued by a building with the park grounds itself. Different calligraphy  style for 龙 (Dragon) filled out one of the building’s walls. For a while, I walked around the building and puzzled as to what it was. A week later, I returned have looked it up on the internet with Google Translate, and discovered that it was called Hidden Dragon Pavillion 常州藏龙馆. a man was setting in a lawn chair by an open door. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and he pretty much demanded to take me on a guided tour.

Nevermind I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I admired, however, his hospitality, and his passion for his collection was evident in how he whisked me from display to display. The musuem itself is a converted residence, so he led me up star cases and into locked rooms. In the process, I saw scrolls of calligraphy, ceramic dragons — even baijiu bottles shaped like the mythical creatures. They were empty, of course!  The entire time I simply nodded my head while taking a look around. Afterwards, two elderly women came in and looked at me with amused shock. That’s when I realize I may have been the only foreigner to come here — or the first in a very long time.

This musuem may be “hidden,” but it’s really easy to get to in Wujin if you have a car or an eBike capable of handling longer distances. Essentially, you get onto Renmin Road 人民路 and stay there until you take a right onto Fenghuang Road 凤凰路. Once you will see the walls of the park when you get there.  If you do visit, it’s probably best you bring a Chinese friend with you. If you do, you will have a better understanding of what you’re looking at.

Hell By Another Name

hell1You are standing in the Museo de Prado in Madrid, staring at Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It’s a triptych, which means it is three panels depicting three different scenes. You find Bosch’s attention to detail appealing. You find the third panel – a depiction of Christian hell – the most interesting. After all, there you can see a pig in a nun’s habit trying to kiss a naked man. Not far away, a nude woman balances dice on her head. Another man has musical notes tattooed on his buttocks. Those three are only tiny details in a densely populated and gruesome landscape, and the darkly funny brutality goes on and one.
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For the longest time, I didn’t know Buddhism had similar concept. Most Americans know Buddha through Zen, if at all — which is more about intellectual enlightenment than supernatural ghosts and gods. Chinese Buddhism is a blend of things also borrowed from Taoism and traditional folk religion. It even has hell; it’s called Diyu 地狱. Only, Buddhists are not condemned for eternity the way Christians might be. Once they have paid their karmic debt, they can be reincarnated into a friendlier existence. In a way, this makes their “hell” more like Christian purgatory.

I learned about all of this, recently, because I found a depiction of Diyu just as violent as something you would see in a Bosch or a Hans Memling painting. Perhaps even a Slayer song?  It consisted of a series of painted statues depicting torture at Wanfo Temple 万佛禅寺 in northern Xinbei, near an industrial port along the Yangtze River. Wanfo is mostly like other temples in Changzhou. You can see most of the same iconography here that you can in other places.  Only, here, you can also see people getting ground into a bloody pulp. Here, you can see people eviscerated and disemboweled. Here you can see tongues getting ripped out. Here, you can see a flogged sinner being forced to look at himself into a mirror. As the legend goes, sinners must endure these repeated torments again and again and again. Once a fatal amount of damage

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One of the Yamas, or judges, sets behind this very unfortunate guy.

is inflicted, bodies become whole again and the violence starts anew.

At Wanfo, this hellscape takes up the ground floor of a two-story building. Most of the torture takes place in front of desks, where a judge sits. This man is a Yama – a minor deity who decides who must stay for further torment and who can be spared additional abuse. Diyu has many levels, and so there are many Yama sitting behind desks with their record books. Around them, you usually see four other figures. Two of them are Heibai Wuchang — one wears white and has extremely pale skin. The other wears black and possesses a darker complexion. Absurdly long tongues hang from both their mouths. Essentially, these are Chinese Grim Reapers, and they ferry the damned into the underworld. In English, they are also known as the White and Black Impermanence. You will also see Horse Face and Ox Head. In some legends, they are also reapers. However, they are most commonly the guards at the entrance. Most of the sinner’s punishments, though, are doled out by lesser demons.

I had a hard time processing all of this at first. I found both Wanfo Temple and the recreation of Diyu completely by accident. I snapped a few cell phone pics, texted a friend, and eventually I left. Part of me wanted to stay and stare, create stories for what I was seeing. But, the rational part of me knew I needed to go home, get on the internet, and do some research and learn to appreciate whatever it was this temple wanted to teach me. I gained a little more confidence

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The White Guard. One half of the Heibai Wuchang

with the subject matter, and a few weeks later, I returned with an equally curious friend.

Getting to Wanfo Temple from Xinbei Wanda Plaza is nearly absurdly simple –but only if you are driving or going by eBike. Go north on Tongjiang Road for like 20 kilometers until you are near Changzhou’s industrial port along the Yangtze River.  Then, take a left turn onto a concrete road splitting a small farming plot. From there, you travel through an economically depressed neighborhood before taking a right and parking in front of the temple entrance. You can easily see the stone pagoda from the road.  Taking a bus is more complicated. The 48 is the only one servicing this area.

Zhonglou’s Child Prodigy

Classroom sculpture at Chun Gui Park in Zhonglou District.“I know this poem,” a Chinese friend and colleague told me via Skype. “This is the child prodigy poem Wang Zhu wrote. My father used to read lines of this to me when I was young. He wanted to remind me the value of education.”  She then went on to give me a rough translation. Unfortunately, my clunky old Compaq computer has been on a data-bleeding rampage as of late. It doesn’t work well, and I’ve been losing a lot of information recently – including her translations. As of right now, it’s lucky to still be in one piece; I have been tempted to throw this clunker out the window many times in a frothing rage. (I will be getting a new laptop soon). Yet, back to the issue at hand. Despite my current tech problems, I still I remember the gist of my colleague’s translations.Trust in books….

These weren’t just random lines I plucked off the Internet or out of a Chinese poetry anthology. The lines of verse come straight from a small park in Downtown, Changzhou. A different Chinese friend told me it’s called “Chun Gui Park.”  It’s one BRT stop past the Injoy Mall. Reciting student in Chun Gui Park's classroom sculpture.This would be the stretch of road that both the B1 and the B12 share with each other.  Chun Gui is across the street from another park alongside a canal. The BRT stop itself has a footwalk overpass. It’s the only one of two over-the-bus-footpaths I have seen in Changzhou thus far.

As for the park itself, it’s filled with statues dedicated to scholars, However, there is something more involved than just metal images of learned men in traditional robes.  There is one very green and lush path dedicated to different and well-known scholars that have at one point or another called Changzhou their home. Who those people are is best saved for another time.  Towards the back of this park, there is an intricate set of metal figures commemorating the spirit of Wang Zhu’s poem. You have to pass over a little bridge to get to it.

It looks like a classroom. You have the traditional Chinese laoshi standing in front of his students. The kids are all seated at their desk with three exceptions. At the very back of the sculpture, you have a child peering over a brick wall and into the classroom. It’s as if he is inquisitive and curious, but his parents did not have the means to

Not all the students in Chun Gui's classroom sculpture are invited.pay for his education. This child is standing on the back of a friend who is on all fours. This detail is very hard to spot, and you actually have to walk around to the back of the piece to actually notice this.

One boy stands in the front and off to the side. The sculptor rendered this kid with his mouth open, as if he was talking or addressing his teacher. Perhaps, he is reciting the lines of Wang Zhu’s poem that is etched on a stone slab nearby? Who knows. That’s the value of imagination. He could be cussing out his teacher for all I know, but that is highly and very unlikely. It is contrary to Chinese culture, after all.

Three of the seated students are paying full attention. They have their books open, and they seem attentive to their classmate and their instructor. That isn’t the really fun part of this scene, though. The two students and the kid peering over the wall suggest that the children all are bright and eager to learn. That Not only is the uninvited guest curious, but he's creatively using a boost from his friend.isn’t the case. Towards the back of the class, there is a kid taking a nap. The kid thinks he’s being sneaky about it. He has his book set up in front of his face, but the side of his cheek is against the desk – as in he is out and snoozing hard. In a sense, this is a more realistic detail when rendering a classroom. No matter if a teacher is in China, Great Britain, Australia, or America, there will always be some reluctant learners.  Only, in this day and age, it is easier to hide between a computer monitor in a language lab then to just merely pretend to read and nap.

There is one other thing this interpretative set of statues reminds me of. Even when I wasn’t having computer and VPN problems, I had real trouble locating any information on Wang Zhu and his child prodigy poem. Finding good information about China in English can be a challenge.  Despite a handful of websites, there really isn’t a lot about Changzhou to found. There is one thing, though, that you can easily find.  Many people in Changzhou are proud of their historical heritage; they are particularly proud of that heritage where education is concerned. This interpretative set of figures in Chun Gui Park is just a reminder of that.

Not every student can be the child prodigy suggested in Wang Zhu's poem, apparently.

Note: This was first published on now gone Tguide.org. It was reposted on my personal blog before being reposting it here. 

My Apology to the Nobel Laureates

IMG_20151225_173156Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.

Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

— Wislawa Szymborska

This is, by far, my most favorite lines from the late 1996 Nobel Prize winning Polish poet. It’s also from my favorite Szymborska poem, “Under One Small Star.”I first encountered it roughly like 14 years ago, when I was studying for my masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had this phase where I read nothing but Slavic verse translated into English. The poem itself is a lengthy list of apologies; some of them sounded a bit silly, and others were quite profound. I didn’t know at the time that these set of lines would follow me through life.

This poem served me well the first time I angrily walked away American higher education and piecing together part-time teaching jobs. It was for a retail job at Walmart; the pay was about the same – only you could get health care insurance at Walmart. You couldn’t while part timing for American colleges. (This was before the age of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) Of course, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I spent years at a superstore in Freehold, New Jersey filled with petty scheming and constant moaning. Practically everybody else’s negativity was around me, and Szymborska’s poem hung in the back of my mind. I had a distinct pattern to my sarcastic retorts to people’s more sillier complaints. It went like this, “On behalf of the Walton Family, I do apologize for your hundreds of price changes and faulty telxon printer.” Some of my coworkers found this quite irritating.

heaneyOf course over the years, I angrily walked away from Walmart, twice. In the end, I went back to teaching freshman college writing. I got extremely frustrated with that, again, and I left for China and Changzhou. Since then, I must say my life has gone to a much happier place. I’m extremely grateful for that. Over the two years I lived here, Szymborska’s list of apologies receded a little in my memory and almost disappeared altogether. Something kept it from vanishing, however.

It’s funny how circumstances can change your appreciation of something, no matter if it’s a movie, a poem, or a memory. I found Szymborska again in Changzhou, as I did poets like Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and T.S Eliot. Not mention gloriously awesome novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it wasn’t through an expat book club. It wasn’t through witty banter with fellow foreigners. Let’s face it: I have been quite antisocial for a long time. It was through a specific place, and passing it always made me smile.

The downtown Injoy Mall used to have a whole wall dedicated to Nobel winning writers. It was a timeline depicting the history of the award. Some of the entries had black and white headshots, and others didn’t. Except for the writer’s names, all of it was in Chinese. A few times, I used to get coffee at the nearby Starbucks and visit this display on Injoy’s second floor. Only, I didn’t do it enough.

It’s gone now, and now I know I took this small intellectual comfort for granted. The wallpaper with the Nobel Laureates has been peeled off. It’s been replaced with a bookstore. That should sound appropriate, but the books are in Chinese. While I am trying to learn the language, I am still functionally illiterate. Those books bring no comfort to me, and they essentially mean nothing so long as I can’t read them.

A truth: you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s unavailable and gone. I now sorely miss this one celebration of international culture. So, in that regard, let me summon and channel the ghost of Wislawa Szymborska and her great, great poem. Let me apologize:

Pardon me, Nobel Laureates; I should have spent more time absorbing your words.

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Hutang’s Historical Musuem

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Changzhou is made up of districts, and those districts are made up of separate towns and districts.  Xuejia, for example, is a part of Xinbei separate from where you might find Wanda Plaza, expat bars, and foreign restaurants. People often say you see a lot of foreign faces in Xinbei, but that’s only in a small part of the district as a whole. Foreign faces in Xuejia is much more rare.

In Wujin, much the same can be said. In reality, Wujin is Changzhou’s largest district.  Hutang Township is the central part — the downtown.  The district governmental buildings are there, as are the colleges and much of the swanky places to shop. While important, there is much more to Wujin than just Hutang.

Still, the township has it’s own, unique history, and it has been preserved. The Hutang Musuem is a small, privately operated, not for profit historical attraction in Changzhou’s Wujin District. It takes it’s name directly from the township it can be found in. The museum displays mostly cultural relics in lit glass cases. This includes both carvings and pieces of jade. Relatively small in size, the facility is divided into two levels. The museum is located within the New Town development that can be found between Wuyi Road and Huayuan Street. The museum as on the second floor of a strip mall development and can be found after climbing an outdoor set of stairs. A nearby BRT station services the north-to-south running B1 and B16 lines.

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The West Taihu Church that Wasn’t

West Taihu Wedding Complex

NOTE: This is an old cross post from my personal blog. 

“What do you mean it’s not a church? It has a big cross! It looks Christian to me!” My Chinese friend looked befuddled.

“No,” I said. I pointed out the window at the steeple of one of Changzhou’s very, very, very few Christian worship centers. We were on the sixth floor of a building, and you could see it across Yanling Road, right behind Culture Palace Square. “That is a church. The place in West Taihu is not.”

“Oh,” a second Chinese friend entered the room. “What are you two talking about?”

“Have you seen my Gehu Lake photos on WeChat?”

“Yes. Such still water. Are you going to write about exploring Gehu?”

multi-faceted hall

“Yes … but no, also.” I bit my lip and thought she must have seen the picture of the actual lake I had taken. “No, not that photo. Here—” I dug my cellphone out of my pant pocket and summoned a photo of the building in question. “I mean this.” I found the right picture and tilted my mobile towards her. She leaned over and squinted.

The photo depicted an oddly faceted building with slanted angles. The base of the building, for example, was narrower than the top. Opaque and reflective glass made up the entirety of the exterior. The odd and intersecting lines might remind one of a gem stone you might find set in an engagement or wedding ring. This weird-looking building stood next to a tall, narrow, white arch. Toward the top, there was a simple cross. So, yes, to the casual observer, it did indeed look like a church.

Christian themed gate

The interior, as far as I could tell when I was there, just reinforced that. The entrance was open, but access was closed off by a huge metal gate. Here, too, a golden-yellow cross would remind one of Christianity. If a person were to look towards the roof, they would also see another strong bit of spiritual linkage. The words “Ave Maris Stella” had been carved in white. It’s subtle, but you could see it. The white on white shading, however, made it hard to effectively photograph. In Latin, those words roughly mean “Hail Star of the Sea.” It’s fitting, in a way, since there was a vast body of water right behind the building. It was, however, Gehu Lake and not an actual sea or ocean. Ave Maris Stella was also a hymn or a chant sung in medieval European monasteries and abbeys. The lyrics speak of devotion to the Virgin Mary. So, yes, it’s another misleading detail that screams Christianity.

Although I could peer inside, a slightly rusted cable lock blocked access and entry. One might conclude that the rust meant this place hadn’t been used in a long time. However, if there is one thing I have learned in China, manufactured metal objects here corrode a lot quicker than in other countries. Rust is not a good predictor of age, here. Also, inside: a staircase led upward to a spot that looked like it might be a vessel for holy water. There were spaces on both sides of this staircase, and an elevator door stood on the right. Toward the roof, you could see a chandelier, but it still had a protective covering on it. Besides the Latin inscription, there wasn’t really much else to look at. What appeared to be a stained glass window was over an open doorway into the congregational hall.

Stone slabs around wedding chapel

When I had visited there a few times, this place really piqued my curiosity. I walked around the building several times to see if I could find a window to peer into. I had no such luck. Shiny black stone slabs encircled the structure. There, you could see a series of nozzles, and some of them had been arranged in a pattern. This was likely a water fountain, but its use is also questionable. A few of these dark squares were broken or overturned.

The misleading religious theme continued across the street. A staircase stretched up a small hill to a stone and metal gazebo. At the foot of those steps, a bas relief carving depicted angels. These would not be the winged warriors with flaming swords one might find in The Old Testament or the Torah. These were childlike and nude cherubs – you know, the sort of heavenly creatures that don’t actually smite anything. That’s where the Christian references stop, actually. If you climbed to the top, you would get a good vista point to see the surrounding ecological park land.

As a whole, this place largely confounded me and confused me. This so-called “church” stands in the West Taihu Bay area situated at the north of Gehu Lake. The Galaxy Moon Bay resort is being built on one side, and more construction projects sit on the other side and elsewhere. If you follow the road for a few kilometers, you will end up near the grounds for the Eighth China Flower Expo, which happened in 2013. In short, nobody really lives in the West Taihu park area besides Chinese construction workers. There are not many Christians in China or Changzhou, so the mere existence of this place made me scratch my head. Who would actually attend religious services far out this way? Especially in a building this big?

I later found out, via Baidu, that this place is not a church at all. I first discovered this when I tried locating its name on Baidu Maps. Google’s maps left the whole area blank. Baidu, however, had some text that, when translated, meant “West Taihu Wedding Hall.” After cutting and pasting those characters into Baidu’s search engine, I found a few references that confirmed this. It was, indeed, a wedding hall. This actually made a lot of sense. Every time I visited this part of Gehu Lake, I had seen a lot of couples wandering around with photographers. Not only were the women wearing wedding gowns, but the couples were making the sort of smoochy and lust-filled eyes at each other that only the soon-to-be-married can make.

Notting House

The weirdness of this didn’t stop there. This wedding hall has a financial and business connection with Notting House. This is a gaudy showroom and restaurant in downtown Changzhou, and a highly reliable source told me the German food there was quite terrible. Avoid the schnitzel, I was instructed. As for the showroom, it depicts real estate projects underway. This includes the Notting Town complex. It’s patterned to have a “European” style, but it looks more like a kitschy and cartoony version of medieval architecture. Strangely enough, one website lists 2013 as “opening hours,” and 2014 as “Check in.” The several times I have been out there, the construction site seemed abandoned and derelict. An empty showroom sits in front of the promotional barricade advertising the development. Sometimes, the place seemed haunted and oddly silent with the exception of the sole clank of a metal against something. I have since seen construction workers there, and a news item on the Changzhou government’s website suggests the whole area will be linked to the wedding industry. That post also notes construction of the wedding hall actually concluded in 2013. So, maybe 2014 remains the anticipated completion of this project’s other half? I don’t know; finding information in Chinese can be difficult when you don’t know the language and you’re only equipped with Google Translate. So, this gets me back to the earlier mentioned conversation with two of my good Chinese friends.

“I don’t understand,” my friend said. “It looks like a Christian church.”

“It’s only a for-profit wedding hall.”

She glanced up at me. “But aren’t weddings a religious activity?”

“Yes, but that,” I pointed out the window towards the nearby steeple, “is a real church. People go there for religious services every week. You are not going to attend a Sunday mass at that wedding hall, and that means it’s not a Christian church.”

She smiled. “Oh, I see, now.”

West Taihu Wedding Hall and Notting Town from Above

This was originally published on tguide.org and has been reposted from there. 

Who is Who in Wujin History

Changzhou founding father Ji Zha at Wujin Who's Who Museum
Changzhou founding father Ji Zha at Wujin Who’s Who Museum. Also the guy in Real Changzhou’s Header image!

Sometimes, museums can lack personality. Yes, you can get a sense of history from them, but sometimes it can feel that you’re just looking at a bunch of old stuff that doesn’t have a lot humanity connected to it. If you walk into the Wujin Museum or the Hutang Museum, you certainly get this. Essentially, you’re just looking at old ceramics and bits of sharpened metal. Do not misunderstand me; all historical relics deserve to be not only be protected, but put on public display. This teaches and celebrates history, but as stated earlier, museums can just feel like impersonal spaces filled with lit glass cases.

IMG_20151021_142740The Wujin Who’s Who Museum (武进名人馆) lacks this impersonal atmosphere. Then again, you really can’t call it a museum, either. It’s more of a history-inspired art installation or exhibit. A visitor will not find a lot of relics here. They will, however, see a lot of statues surrounded by colorful displays depicting the nature of an individual life. These displays also feature explanatory text in both Chinese and English. This makes the Wujin Who’s Who Museum extremely foreigner friendly. It mirrors the intent and mission of the place: to convey Wujin’s unique cultural heritage to both visitors and locals. To this end, there is no admission fee.

So, who will a visitor learn about, should they visit? The first display is devoted to Ji Zha, who is the cultural founding father of Changzhou in general. Both a scholar and a warrior, Ji Zha lived during the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. That’s roughly 2500 or so years ago. The nation of China had not totally coalesced yet, and the greater Changzhou area was once part of the Wu Kingdom. Ji Zha’s humility is a well remembered part of his legacy. He shunned power rather seeking it out. This exhibit is hardly the only place a visitor will find Ji Zha in Changzhou. He’s mentioned in the Changzhou Museum. There is a statue of him in Renmin Park downtown, as well a commemorative arch in Hongmei Park – also downtown.

Zhao Yuanren aka Yuen Ren Chao at Wujin's Who's Who Musuem
Zhao Yuanren aka Yuen Ren Chao at Wujin’s Who’s Who Musuem

He is not the only historical figure to cross districts in Changzhou. The Wujin’s Who’s Who Museum also celebrates Qu Quibai, an important figure in the early history of the Chinese Communist Party. His former residence is preserved and open to visitors, but that’s in the Zhonglou part of downtown. Another part of the museum showcases a bust of Zhao Yuanren (English name Yuen Ren Chao). He was a famous linguist who immigrated to the America, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and taught at Harvard University.  Zhao was one of the first Chinese scholars who helped shape an English-reading audience’s understanding of Chinese language, dialects, and culture. He, for example, coined “stir fry” to explain what happens to both meat and vegetable once it enters a hot wok. The museum notes that he was born in Wujin, but his former residence can actually be found in Tianning. Other examples could be cited, but why explain everything?

Though, one interesting thing remains. The late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter Yun Nantian (aka Yun Shouping) has space devoted to him. Unlike the other cultural figures on display, he does not have a statue dedicated to him. A visitor instead sees examples of his art and calligraphy behind protective glass. This is one of the rare exceptions to the “this is not about relics” rule stated earlier. It’s particularly interesting, to this writer at least, because the two other Wujin sites associated with Yun Nantian are seemingly closed to the public. His former residence is relatively hard to find and delapidated, as is his well-maintained grave – which is actually in the middle of Wujin farmland and can only be traveled to over rough, narrow concrete pathways. As stated, a laundry list of culturally important people could be described here, but that defeats the purpose. Go visit this place and connect the dots for yourself!

The Wujin Who’s Who Museum is located in Yancheng. This is the area also home to the Wujin Museum, a zoo, an amusement park, and much more. Specifically, it’s inside a recreation of on old Chinese barrier wall with a gate.  Once passing through the central arch, a visitor will find the exhibit’s entrance with signage in both English and Chinese. The B1, B15, and B16 share a mid-road stations near  the Yancheng historical sight / amusement park, and there is also a bus hub for several non-BRT lines.

NOTE: This is an older post cross posted from my personal blog. 

The Tianning Grave of a Jinshi

Chen Qia Grave
The entrance to the grave of Chen Qia 陈洽

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.

Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle
Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle

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.

The park / garden part of the Chen Qia memorial
The park / garden part of the Chen Qia memorial

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 IMG_20151010_132416also 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.

The Inaccessible Yun Nantian

yunnantianIt’s a sad irony. Yun Nantian – a late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter also internationally known as Yun Shouping – painted nature. He liked to focus on a single plant in isolation, which was usually a flower. This may sound like simple subject matter; however, he chose to render each petal, each leaf in precise detail. His work is also filled with smooth gradients of color. Think of it this way: he could paint reddest part of a flower and then effortlessly transition into a softer shade of pink. His gracefulness with a brush can also been seen with his calligraphy.  Vertical lines of poetry accompany most of his work. Even there, his Chinese characters flow with lines and curves that look absolutely effortless. His attention to craft went on to influence many others, leading to a style sometimes referred to as the “Changzhou School of Painting,” So, Yun Nantian painted lovely pictures and wrote lines of memorable poetry. How is any of that sad or ironic?

yunshoupingIt’s not the work that’s depressing; it more part of his legacy generations later. In 1633, Yun Nantian was born in what eventually became the current Wujin district of Changzhou. One might think such an influential artist would be celebrated as a hometown hero, right? Not exactly. Changzhou has had history of producing intellectuals that goes back thousands of years. Somehow, Yun Nantian’s legacy seems to have been glossed over.

His former residence has been preserved, but it is closed to the public. The white exterior walls look dingy, and the parts of the roof look severely weathered. That’s the least of the problem, though. Yun Nantian’s home is located in one of the more destitute, remote neighborhoods of western Wujin. For a man that spent so much time and effort painting plants, the neighborhood around his home is devoid of any lush, beautiful natural scenes, and this is not the sort of place you “accidentally” find. You have to go looking for it. For me, that involved using Baidu maps on my phone. Getting there, I rode my eBike through an industrial shopping district. Think of a gigantic strip mall specializing in plywood, drywall, and concrete blocks. By gigantic, I mean it took up several city streets that run parallel to each other.

The former residence Yun Nantian (Yun Shouping) in a far flung corner of Wujin.
The former residence Yun Nantian (Yun Shouping) in a far flung corner of Wujin.

Even after that, I steered my bike onto a rough road of concrete slabs. After a turn and over a drab looking bridge, I found myself in the sort of colorless stone maze. As usual, my white face drew looks of from the locals. This is easily a place where westerners in Changzhou seldom, if ever, tread. There was brown “cultural” traffic sign in the direct vicinity pointing to Yun Nantian’s home. But that, like the residence itself, looked weathered and aged. Somebody had parallel parked a huge truck next to the front entrance. Yet, the most disturbing thing turned out to be a notice plastered to the door. Since my Chinese skills are not what I like them to be, I snapped a cell phone pic and sent them to my most trusted Chinese friends. Essentially, I asked what does this say?

Legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government on the door of Yun Nantian's Former home.
Legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government on the door of Yun Nantian’s Former home.

It was a legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government. A few individuals were mentioned, and shamed, by name. Judging by their family names, the alleged culprits had Yun Nantian as their ancestor. They had claimed the historical site as their inheritance – their birthright. Only, things don’t work that way in Mainland China. Even in age of economic liberalization and “Communism with Chinese Characteristics,” there is no such thing as the private ownership of land. The government owns everything and makes a killing by selling decades-long leases. When it comes to this ruthless aspect of Chinese real estate, Wade Shepard offers a more compelling, more in-depth explanation in his book Ghost Cities of China. As for Yun Nantian’s descendents, the promised retribution was clear. They had been accused of illegally occupying city property. They had apparently “damaged” the property. They were to pay a very hefty fine, and they were to turn over any profit they had made from using the premises. This was also just the opening salvo. They city government promised an even worse penalty if the alleged offenders did not comply. This notice was also written on January 23, 2015 – seven months before I went looking for any vestiges of Yun Nantian in Wujin.

The grave of Yun Shouping aka Yun Nantian in the middle of Wujin Farmland.
The grave of Yun Shouping aka Yun Nantian in the middle of Wujin Farmland.

There is another notable location to consider. The renowned painter’s grave is also located in Wujin. However, like his old home, it’s in an out of the way, nearly obscure place. Wujin is a huge district. The college town is the last major, built-up, urban area the further south you go. The Science and Education complex stands next door. However, if you go east by one more city map grid, you will end up in farmland. Yun Nantian’s grave is located there. Getting there requires first going to the middle section of Xiacheng Road – the area that has an intersection with Mingxin Road in the south and Gehu in the north. The road into the farming area starts wide at first, but that gives way to rough, crumbling concrete. This stone path forks, and once you veer north, the grave site is easy to spot. It’s a small walled-in compound.

Like his former residence, his resting place seems closed to the public. Each time I have visited, there big brown entrance doors were padlocked. If Google Translate can be trusted, the site had revamped and refurbished a couple of years ago. You can tell, too. The surrounding walls have a fresh, unweathered coat of white paint. While the doors were locked, I was able to peer through two glassless windows. I wasn’t able to see much, but I did see enough to know the place was being routinely cared for. The grass had been cut, and the plants were not overgrown into a jumbled thicket. Somebody had left a hose and bucket out. I tried sticking my arm through the window to take a couple of pictures, but I didn’t get much – the curved outline of a small gazebo. Reviewing my digital snapshots later, I did find one thing apropos to Yun Nantian’s spirit. When I stuck my arm and camera through the window, I ended up with some useless pics. One, however, depicted a few green leaves crisp against a blurred background.

Note: This has been crossposted from my personal blog, where it was originally published.