Category Archives: History

Qingguo Lane Now and Then

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After a couple of years of steady construction and renovation, Qingguo Lane has finally reopened to the public. The city invested a lot of money in this, as the this whole area has been a central part of Changzhou history going back thousands of years. Many wealthy and influential families lived here. The little canal here is likely one reason: it connects to the Grand Beijing-Hangzhou Canal. This tiny artificial waterway was essentially like an on ramp to a mega highway in ancient China. Now, however, this whole area is meant to become one of Changzhou’s signature cultural attractions.

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This idea was not lost on a lot of locals over the Labor Day holidays. The first two days of operation saw massive crowds who came to do a walk through. I was one of those people on a few separate days. The totality of what is actually here, and what is destined to be here years to come, is likely the source of several other blog posts. However, I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate that it’s now open. To do that, I’m going to have to show a few more photos and speak of a famous linguist.

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The above comes from signage that’s located at the west and east entrances of Qingguo.  Note the building with the characters 赵元任故居. The English translation of that would be Zhao Yuanren’s Former Residence. He was a linguistics scholar that eventually became an American citizen. He’s an important figure when you’re studying Chinese, and he’s also important if you are Chinese and studying English. Why? He wrote one of the earliest and most authoritative textbooks on Chinese spoken grammar in English. He’s important for a few other reasons that will make for a separate post at another time. So, recently, I went looking for his house.

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It’s not really there. This is not a complaint; it’s more of an observation. Qingguo Lane has some cool things to look at and some places to shop; however, there are even better things to come. This is just the beginning. The empty spaces will fill in, and more things will be built. However, I also wanted to take a moment to remember what this area used to look like.

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This was not the first time I went looking for Zhao’s Changzhou home.  It looked pretty shabby, abandoned, and crumbling back in 2015.

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Before it closed for renovation, I had often walked through the old Qingguo

It was an easy short cut. However, a lot of the photos I had of the the place were lost when I lost a phone a few years back. Thankfully,I do have one surviving shot. This….

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That was then, and this is now. If you would like to see the current reincarnation of Qingguo, it’s downtown and near Wenhuagong. The east entrance is on Heping Road. The West is on Jinling.

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Funny thing. Map apps still think it’s closed and under reconstruction.

A Lost Town and Forgotten Temple

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Typically, a brown street sign in Changzhou denotes something of cultural value and significance. The above, for example, advertises something called Xucheng Temple and Ruins. It’s next to a narrow little street off shooting from Xiacheng Road in Wujin — this would be on the eastern side of the Science and Education Complex adjacent to College Town. However, sometimes in China signs are not all what they seem. In fact, if you followed this sign, you would end up in a wasteland.

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There is really nothing to see out here. But what about the sign? What about the temple? That would be this….

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Part of the temple is still there, but closed to the public. The front part, however, has been demolished. I know this because I had visited this area four years ago, and it looked different. The front door of the temple was still there. The road here not used to be shattered, and the nearby bridge lead to a rather creepy building where I heard a hoard of pigs screeching and scratching around. That creepy building is now gone, too.

How about the sign’s advertised “Xucheng Ruins?” Yup, that’s actually still there, I think. It has a historical preservation marker.

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So, that means something historical, right?

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Well, maybe — if you’re counting a mound of dirt and pile of stone slabs. In fact, this whole area is something of a seemingly barren and morose landscape. It’s like a memory that is fading away, but still somehow clinging on by its finger nails.

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The above is a marker for Shangdian Ancient Town 上店古镇, and the marker speaks about this. However, if you enter those Chinese characters into Google, nothing comes up, even in Chinese. There was once a Chinese language blog post about the town, but even now that is a broken link. As for Xucheng Temple, there is an entry for that on Baidu’s Chinese language version of Wikipedia, but that seems grossly out of date. The entry ends by mentioning that the area was declared a cultural site worth protecting in 2008. That hardly squares with how the area looks now. There is, however, one thing that has remained intact.

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That would be a grave site. The above is the tomb of Yun Nantian 恽南田, a noted painter from the Qing Dynasty. Yun Nantian has had worldwide fame and has had gallery exhibits held outside of China. He was a native of this particular section of Wujin. His specialties included caligraphy and painting flowers.

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All in all, something was here. Several years ago, Changzhou was accused of being a “ghost city.” This is a term often leveled at over-building and over zealous urban development. The term really isn’t accurate for most of Changzhou these days, and since that initial accusation five to six years ago, major construction projects have finished and many of the eerily quiet parts of Wujin have filled in. So, a ghost city? Maybe not, but some places still have the vibe of “ghost towns” — places that life once was and that have been quietly forgotten.

Qianlong in Changzhou

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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711 to 1799) has many distinctions in Chinese history. He sat on the throne for sixty or so years, and he had one of the longest reigns. Instead of dying while in power, he gave up the throne out of respect to his grandfather, Kangxi. As a result, Kangxi’s time as Chinese Emperor is longer, but only by one year. Qianlong patronized the arts heavily, and he himself composed a lot of poetry. In world culture, he may actually be the most prolific writer of all time.

Also like his grandfather, Qianlong liked to travel and actually inspect his kingdom first hand. As a result, you end up seeing public references to him all over the Jiangnan region. Changzhou is no different. There are stone markers related to him in Dongpo Park in Tianning. This is basically down the street from Hongmei while on Yanling Road.

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During one visit to the city, Emperor Qianlong actually wrote a few poems mentioning Changzhou. The Emperor greatly admired Su Dongpo as a poet, and Dongpo Park is where the great writer and artist landed after traveling down the Grand Canal. A few hundred years ago, Qianlong actually wanted to visit that very same spot. These verses were carved onto steles — giant stone slabs engraved with calligraphy. That’s where one issue pops up. Chinese calligraphy, even when it’s black ink on white paper, can be hard to read. I showed a couple of pictures to some Chinese friends.

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They had a hard time making out anything. I have tried to see if I could locate these poems online, and I even used Chinese search terms like 乾龙常州市诗, and I still couldn’t locate the poems.Then, I realized my search terms had a Chinese typo. I think “Qianlong” in characters is 乾隆 not 乾龙. I think I might have located them, but it’s going to take a while to see if I can get these poems correctly translated somewhere done the line.

In the meantime, these stele carvings are an interesting little corner in one of Changzhou’s more charming little parks.

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The Home of a Doubting Scholar

The academic world sometimes can feel like a separate universe with a secret jargon that requires a decoder ring dug out of a Cracker Jack box. This is a largely technical language needed to speak to very specific issues within scholarship. For example, in literary theory, there are schools of thought like deconstruction, reader-response, queer theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and more. Each of those camps has it’s own subsets of jargon that has fueled papers, theses, and dissertations and will continue to do so for centuries to come. For example, post-structuralism has some circular gibberish about “signifier” and “signified” that I could never fully wrap my head around. Trust me, I tried very hard. That’s just the study of literature. That’s not even touching the other English fields of teaching, linguistics, grammar, and translation.

In academia, Chinese history also has its diverse groupings of scholars. One of them is something called “Doubting Antiquity.” These were researchers who expressly voiced concerns about the historical accuracy of some stories within classic Chinese texts like Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian.

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It would be a lot like western historians asking and researching critical questions into Herodotus or  Holinshed’s Chronicles — which provided some source material for some of Shakespeare’s plays. Since Qian sometimes wrote about the nearly mythical Shang Dynasty thousands of years ago, it would almost be like historians probing more into the historical accuracy of something the Welsh Mabinogian.

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The Doubting Antiquity School was not all about destroying somebody like Sima Qian. Mostly, it’s about raising questions and the researching possible answers. Those answers led to more questions. That’s how scholarship works.

Changzhou was once home to a one of these scholars. His name was Lu Simian 吕思勉 lǚ sī miǎn.

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He was born in Wujin in 1884, and he went on take a professorship at Kwang Hua University in Shanghai. This institution went on to become East China Normal University. During his academic career, he authored a number of books on antiquity covering subjects like science, ethnicity, literature, and more.

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His former residence is actually located in downtown Changzhou, and it’s open to the public without an admission fee. A visitor does have to sign into a log book, however.  The place is rather small. You can see some of the living quarters.

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And places where he kept a personal library and a possible office.

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Most of the informational displays here are in Chinese, but there is one introductory sign in English. This former residence is downtown, but it’s actually located in an narrow alley a few streets up from Yanling Road, Nandajie, and the Luqiao Commodities Market. So, for some, it may not be easy to find.

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This alley intersects with Jinling Road. And here it is on Baidu Maps.

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Why do I post screenshots of Baidu Maps? English and Google Maps will do nothing for you if you show it to Chinese cab driver. Just saying.

 

Liyang’s Game of Thrones Styled Story

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Ancient Chinese history is filled with brutal court intrigues among generals, politicians, heads of state, fox spirits, and more. This is particularly true when you consider that, over the course of time, China has been splintered into several countries. That means, basically, that the Game of Thrones tales of double, triple, and quadruple crossing people, allies, and enemies can become easy to find. More regal courts means more opportunities for people betraying each other. Just look at the history of Chinese poets; the whole “I am in exile, drunk, and miss my home” is a common literary trope. Why? A lot of poets were also government officials that ran afoul of somebody and had to leave. It’s the story of Li Bai, and it’s the story of Su Dongpo, for example. 

The more somebody travels through China, the more they can see this if they start paying attention to local lore and legend. I realized this once in Liyang. While this place is not a district of Changzhou as a municipality, it is considered part of Changzhou as a prefecture. In short, it’s its own city, but it’s technically still part of CZ.

Over in Phoenix Park 凤凰公园 near Liyang’s urban center,a statue commemorates something called “The Gauze Washing Virgin.” The stone sculpture stands in the middle of a pond, and four large stone panels — with etched illustrations — serves as a backdrop. The story, according to a bilingual sign, can be paraphrased this way.

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A young woman is washing textiles in the river. Eventually, a man wanders into her life. He’s weak, he’s starving, and she saves him. She feeds him and shows him some hospitality. While doing so, she recognizes him as Wu Zixu 伍子胥.

This was a figure from the Chu Kingdom’s court during the Spring and Autumn Period. Chu was a larger country to the west of Liyang and Changzhou. On the run, Wu Zixu fled Chu and ended up in the Wu Kingdom. (To be noted: the Wu family name 伍 and the Wu kingdom 吳 are different WU characters in Pinyin. Also, by the way, unintended rhyming is hard to avoid when you are using Chinese names.) The state of Wu was comprised of areas that are currently associated with Suzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou.

Anyhow, this young woman saves this guy’s life. Yet, she realizes that she now possesses a deadly secret. She knows who he is. More importantly, she likely realizes somebody is after him. According to the sign at Liyang’s Phoenix park, she picks up a big rock, throws herself into the river, and drowns to protect his identity.  If she dies, his secret dies with her.

 

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Wu Zixu, now in exile, goes to become an official in the Wu Kingdom’s court. He eventually prophesied the end of the Wu Kingdom due to treachery, but he still lost his life in the same type of Game of Thrones type of intrigue that caused him to flee the Chu kingdom in the first place. According to Wikipedia, he was asked to commit suicide, and before he did so, he told the then-king to gouge out his own eyes.

All of this story is just a small detail in a small park — in a town more known for eco tourism around Tianmu Lake and the Nanshan Bamboo Forest. However, it’s lore like this that actually gives town like Liyang true character.

 

 

Photos of Changzhou Station’s Prior Lives

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Changzhou’s central station is not what it once was in bygone eras. I discovered this, recently, through a series of photos on display near the station, but in an easy to miss location if you are not hunting for them specifically.

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This is something I found while doing legwork on a different writing project. I had become intrigued with the city’s network of canals, as it is one of the oldest surviving landmarks still around from the city’s antiquity of more than a thousand years. During this bit of fieldwork, I found a threesome of small memorials dedicated to the train station itself. This is across the street from the south plaza.

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On wooden walkway next to the canal, there are three photos in glass cases. The appear to be laser etchings on sheets of brass-colored metal. These display windows are set into the staircases that lead down to the canal’s walkway. As one can see from the above photo, they do not photograph very well.

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The only way to get discernible details was to get my phone close to the glass to cut out as much glare and reflection as possible. Of course, it’s hard to reproduce the entire photo this way.  The above photo seems to be from circa 1907. Besides the crowds, the station itself seems rather modest and is only a building or two.

 

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The next shot shows the second incarnation from the late 1950’s and 1960’s. I do have to say, it is really hard to fact check these photos online. I had trouble finding the real photos these metal sheets are based off of.

 

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The third and final plaque suggests something more modern and geometric in its architecture. This would be in the 1990’s. However, as most of us who have traveled through Changzhou’s downtown station, it most certainly doesn’t look like this anymore.

Who knows what the train station will look like in the future. The south plaza — where some would get tickets to board the slow trains — is currently under renovation. Parts of the south plaza has been absolutely gutted to make way for something new. Who knows, maybe is 20 to 50 years, there will be a fourth installment into this pictorial history showing our current station as a relic of the past?

Following City River

The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal 京杭大运河 Běi háng dà yùnhé is the longest artificial waterway in the world, and it has retained that title for thousands of years. This canal is rich with history, and it passes through Changzhou. Like natural rivers, it has many off shoots and “tributaries.” One of these passes through the city center. As far as I can tell, this section is called 城河 Chéng hé, but I have seen that name used only once and in Chinese on a sign downtown. It literally means “City River,” so I am going to assume that is its name in English. I thought it might be interesting to follow this narrow canal from where it begins to where it ends.

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We start at Yanling Road on the edge of downtown. There is a point where it looks like the canal forks at Dongpo Park. This is deceiving. This part of the park is actually an island and the canal flows around it.

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The fork happens behind the “mainland” part of Dongpo Park. Truth be told, this part is not as picturesque. To the right in the above photo, you can see the curved roof corner of the gatehouse. This, essentially, blocks off City River from the main canal. So, presently, people cannot get boats onto this narrow waterway.

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For a good bit, City River parallels Yanling Road. It passes under this bridge and pavilion — which features a statue of two guys playing Chinese chess.

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It continues on as it passes in front of Hongmei Park and the entrance to Tianning Temple. Then, right before Wenhuagong — where they are building the downtown subway station — it veers away of Yanling.

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To maintain eye contact with the water, I had to leave Yanling and follow Chungui Road. This is basically a street that runs in front of a residential buildings, so there isn’t much to see here.

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City River eventually flows under Heping Road near a big Agricultural Bank of China branch office. I used to wonder why this bridge was here. Basically, it’s much, much older than Heping itself, and the street had to be built over the canal. This bridge faces Qingguo Lane, but that alley is shut off due to it being renovated into a historical district.

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You can tell Qingguo is undergoing massive restoration because, simply put, the houses on the right do not look as run down and dilapidated as they did years ago. It was from this point on I realized why this tiny waterway was dug in the first place.

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The renovation bit can’t be said for the other part of Qingguo that is more residential, but the thought I had remained unchanged. China has a lot of canals. If you think about it, they were a necessity a thousand years ago. Since these are artificial rivers, there really are no tides or currents when compared to something like the Yangtze. It makes traveling by boat in between cities easier than using horses and traveling over land. This is especially important if you are trying to transport cargo from one city to the next. This is why you still see barges using the canals to this very day. Not only are these canals ancient, but they still have a practical use.

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Okay, that explains the practicality of The Grand Canal, but why does City River exist? Qingguo Lane is where a many, many historical figures in Changzhou once lived. The above photo is the part of the canal that runs past Nandajie, Laimeng, and Bar Street. This canal, and the other small ones like it, allowed the citizens of ancient Changzhou easy access to the main body of water. So, eons ago, if you were wealthy and influential, you likely wanted to live near the canal. You would have had quick and easy access to what was, back then, the mass transit system.

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City River ends at what is called, in English, the West Gate. This is near the city boundary wall dating back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s also near the west entrance to Laimeng — the area where there is a lot of restaurants on the second floor. It’s also not that far from Injoy Plaza. This gatehouse also blocks access to this canal. So, in that way, its preserved, and you will likely never actually see a private boat traveling this waterway.

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If this were a bygone era, this is where you would see vessals from City River getting onto the canal proper. If you head west, you would end up in Zhenjiang. East would take you to Wuxi, which like Changzhou, has it’s own network of small canals branching off the main one in its city center. What I have learned, recently, is that if you want to understand the ancient history of a town — whether it’s Zhenjiang, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, or even Changzhou, you have to understand why the canals were excavated in the first place. I also realized that if you’re going to go aimlessly wandering looking history and culture, one way is to just follow the path of the canal.

Jintan’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetary

I once asked a Chinese friend why many cemeteries were located in out of the way places. “Plenty of reasons. Feng Shui is one. If you are putting somebody into the ground, there should be a mountain behind them and water out in front.” He took a sip of his beer “Also, some of us are a afraid of ghosts and we don’t like going near those places. The only reason to go is to pay homage to a relative or ancestor.” So, as I have said before, cemetery walks — where you take a stroll around a graveyard even when you don’t know anybody there — may be common in America, but they certainly are not in China.

Recently, I visited the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetary in Jintan. Much like many burial spaces in Eastern Changzhou, it seemed in a more remote location. This one was located far away from Dongmendajie, the commercial center of this western-most district of the Dragon City.

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There is a wall with the names of all the Jintan people who died fighting the nationalist KMT during the Civil War / Revolution.

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The people here are in ground plots. This is unlike the Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning, where long hallways have urns stored on shelves.

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There is a museum dedicated to the local history of the war. When I went, it was closed. It was also Spring Festival, so I don’t know if it is always closed, or if it was closed for the holidays.

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And, then you have the standard monument pillar. That’s pretty much all to see here. However, there are a few other things in the vicinity. There is Baota Temple and Gulongshan Park nearby. Getting here actually takes a lot of effort. Since Jintan, as a district, is so far away from the rest of Changzhou, you have to take a one hour intercity bus to just get to their coach station. A visitor could either take a taxi here, or they can walk. I walked. And my feet hated me for that.

The 68 to Qianhuang

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Not all public buses in Changzhou have 1 RMB fares. The 68 costs 3 RMB. This bus originates at the Changzhou Railway Station and ends in a small town near Taihu Lake. Qianhuang is another small town on this bus route.

Once a person gets off, there doesn’t seem to be much to see here. There is a vast shopping center made up of intersecting walking streets, but there didn’t really seem to be much else there. So, I consulted Baidu Maps to see if there was something cultural or historical I could walk to.

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The area did seem a bit bleak, but to be honest I went there on a rainy day. I also went there without an umbrella. At the time, I thought a heavy coat and a hooded sweatshirt would be enough. I got soaked. What can I say, sometimes I can be stupid. I think I caught a cold because of this trip.

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Of course, even on sunny days, industrialized areas can still seem a bit bleak. Yet, in Qianhuang it seems to be on a smaller scale than other parts of Wujin where sprawling industrial parks and factories are seemingly endless at times. Yet, amidst all of this, I did find something in this town. It was in a small pocket between factories.

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It was a martyr’s memorial. Many towns have these to commemorate locals who died in the service to their country. This one, however, is dedicated to those who had fallen not only in Communist Revolution, but also in the War of Liberation against Japan. Their names are at the base of this pillar, along with which nearby village they came from. This memorial also functions as a tiny graveyard as well.

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After paying some respects, I started to walk back to where I got off the bus. The map app suggested something else, but it appeared to be several kilometers away and outside of Qianhuang. It was raining, and I was soaked. So, another day for whatever that was. I paid my 3 RMB rode back to Wujin and got off at the college town area.

Who was Qu Qiubai and Where Did He Live?

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There were other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party before Mao Zedong. Saying that does not diminish his monumental role in Chinese history, either. One of those leaders came from Changzhou, and his name was Qu Qiubai. His remembrance hall and preserved home is open to the public.

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Qu had a rough early life. His father was addicted to opium, and his mother committed suicide. He lived off the support of his relatives. Eventually, he left Changzhou to study and showed a skill with language that allowed him to learn Russian and French. His ability to speak Russian helped him get a job at a Beijing newspaper, and he moved to Russia as a foreign correspondent. There, he had an eye witness to life after the Russian Revolution. Once he returned to China, he started to climb the party ranks. After Chen Duxiu was expelled from the party, Qu became acting chairman of the Politburo, making him a de facto leader for a time. He never survived the fight with the Nationalist Kuomintang government. In 1934 he was arrested, and he was executed in 1935.

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Walking through a preserved former residence is essentially like walking through an old, empty home. Qu’s old house is similar in that way. Yet, it’s the things inside them that make a difference. Besides his role in Chinese revolutionary politics, Qu was also a man who enjoyed art and was skilled at calligraphy. In addition to his journalism, he also wrote poetry and a memoir. Legendary Chinese author Lu Xun considered him a close friend.

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Most foreigners likely walk by this historical spot without even knowing what the place is. It’s in a heavily trafficked part of town. It’s on Lanling Road in Changzhou’s city center and is between Zhonglou’s Injoy Plaza and Nandajie. World English has their downtown training center nearby, and the Future City shopping complex is across the street.