Category Archives: Statues and Monuments

Tianning’s Stations of Guanyin

IMG_7505[1]When you are a Catholic, “The Stations of the Cross” are immensely important. It’s not the same for other Christians — especially American Protestant Evangelicals.  For Roman Catholics, it’s part of the decor of every church. It’s either the art of in all of the stained glass windows, or it’s a series of paintings and bass relief sculptures. So, you may ask, what are these “Stations?” It’s a series pictures of Jesus Christ being put to death and being nailed to planks of wood.  The more exact term is “crucifixion.”
Every Easter, Catholics recreate this scene as a religious drama and watchable spectacle, but the artistic depictions are there in Church throughout the year. The idea is to visit every moment of Christ’s
death for a moment of prayer. For the sake of clarity, let me emphatically say I am not a Christian. My reasoning is intensely personal, and I will not offend people by getting into it here. The subject is also actually a little touchy between me and my father. You see, I was raised in Catholicism. I then walked away from that faith very early in my adulthood.

Yet, prior religions follow you the rest of your life, even when you don’t want them to. I am not being cynical, either. For as much as I am not a Catholic, Roman Catholicism has still shaped the some of the ways I think. It’s just who I am.  I thought about this a lot, IMG_7473[1]recently, when confronted with some Buddhist imagery in Changzhou‘s Tianning Temple.

It’s part of Hongmei Park in a district the bares its name.  The chief attraction there is the pagoda.  One day, however, I visited the temple to just as a way to kill time. It was Easter Sunday, and I was meeting a close friend for dinner in Wujin. Only, she had a lot of grading to do before becoming available.  Tianning Temple has two ticket prices, and since I wasn’t interested in going into the Pagoda, I opted for the cheaper 20 RMB fare.

In one corner of the temple grounds, there is a garden filled with Guanyin Sculptures. Guanyin is a often considered a goddess of
mercy. She’s a Bodhisattva in Buddhism, and as is the case with the Chinese variety of that faith, she’s shared with other religions. In
Taoism and folk religion, she is considered a mercy goddess. Some have even drawn parallels with the Virgin Mary.

And so that brings me to the Stations of the Cross analogy. As I walked around, I stopped at each of the dozens of Guanyin sculptures. Most of them feature her reclining or sitting. Some have her with dragons, and other with birds with ornate plumage.  Incense sticks burn at each statue. At many of the sculptures, people have left coins or other mementos.  It wasn’t the statues themselves that reminded me of the Stations of the Cross. It were the people who came here to pray. Many stopped at each and every statue to be mindful in thought. So, the stories are drastically different, but the method of worship is very similar.IMG_7477[1]

Kong Rong and Small Pears

A younger sibling gives a pear to an older sibling.

The Chinese is 孔融让梨, or in Pinyin without the proper tone markers: kong rong rang li. If you translate the characters verbatim, you get “Kong Rong yeild pear.” In the picture, you can barely make out the characters, but I sent the photo to a Chinese friend who is native to Changzhou’s Jintan District.  Turns out, many Chinese people could probably figure this out, due to how famous the expression is.

Kong Rong was both a scholar and a descendant of Confucius. His literary achievements likely outlive his acts as a minor warlord. Once, he spoke ill of Cao Cao, a Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Both Kong Rong and his entire family were executed as a result, and their corpses were left in the street  As ancient Chinese history goes, this was during the Three Kingdoms period.  The killing of the family is strangely a reminder of a different part of Chinese culture.

Family is important in The Middle Kingdom in a way it just isn’t in the west. Honoring your father and following his orders are paramount. That’s filial piety, two English words seldomly used in the USA or UK. But it even gets into sibling hierarchy.  Younger brothers are supposed to respect older brothers — the same with older sisters and younger sisters.

As legend goes, as a boy, Kong Rong would only pick up or pick small pears to eat. This would be from or around the trees near his home. Why? He felt it was his duty to leave the plumper, juicier fruit for his elder brothers. Hence, 孔融让梨, or “Kong Rong yeilds pears.”

As for this sculpture, it’s in Jintan’s Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园. It’s one of three statues dedicated to Chinese idioms.  The park itself is in walking distance from the long-distance bus terminal.

Looking Up Marilyn Monroe’s Skirt

IMG_20160511_132818Certain moments in film are iconic enough to become ingrained into culture. These moments tend to outlive the media that spawned them, and people become aware of them without even knowing where they originated. The shower murder scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” for example.  Adolf Hitler, in the German picture Der Untergang, having a meltdown is another.  That became a viral meme on the Internet; people removed the subtitles, added their own, and then uploaded it to YouTube.  So, you can now see the worst megalomaniac in history become unhinged regarding everything from the iPad to J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Another example would be Marilyn Monroe wearing a white dress.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The scene goes like this: Marilyn Monroe steps on a sewer grate in New York City. A gush of air blows upward, and the iconic diva fights to hold the dress drown.  Originally, the scene came from 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Now, however, it’s gone on to become a cultural reference that pops up everywhere. Most recently, Daniel Defoe crossdressed as Monroe in a Snickers Superbowl ad. He scowled as he held down the white dress. He did not want to be indecently exposed.

These references can even show up in places like China. Two years ago, when I first moved to Wujin, I once saw a Chinese college student wearing a jean jacket; Monroe was airbrushed on the back throwing up gang signs. The word gangsta! was written out below. Sadly, I never took a picture.  Yet, I saw something even more absurd than that, recently.

It was at the RiseSun Manhattan plaza. It’s a relatively new shopping center in Xinbei. It’s not exactly filled with shops, and the last two times I went there, construction workers were still at work. Plus, new and different things were erected. One of them was a large statue of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white dress.
This scene from the seven year itch has lived on because it’s tantalizing. It teases men with prospect a more private aspect of

Monroe, but the original film clip denies this at the same time. That makes the imagery all the more erotic — after all, it leaves men to their lewd imaginations. Only, this version of the white dress gets a little more raunchy. It leaves little to the imagination.  Yes, you can see Marilyn Monroe’s white panties.

I can imagine some potential critics right now, screaming, “Pervert! Why were you intentionally trying to look up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt?” That’s the thing, I wasn’t. This statue is makes the undergarments extremely visible. If you are standing behind this statue, you have no choice but to see them.IMG_20160511_132851

My Life, Illustrated by a Dinosaur Park Parking Lot

“You know, most Americans would think that…”

“I am not a typical American.” I say this to cut a person off. I always do. Only, I do it politely.
My biography is way to long rehash completely, but it’s true. I will never fit the stereotype of “American” that some Europeans or Asians would love to quickly characterize. Plus, I do not say this out of vanity or rampaging self esteem. It’s simply just factually true. I am not your average American, and I was reminded of this upon a recent visit to Dinosaur Park in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district.

Yes, Dinosaur Park — with its multitude of roller coasters,its rides and its prehistorically themed shopping plaza right outside its entrance. Here, you can find goofy sculptures of extinct reptiles wearing top hots or crowns.   The architecture of the buildings incorporates this dino so heavily it seems to drip from every wall, every store front. So, one could easily ask this: why did such a gaudy place give you such existential feelings about your nationality?

Well, it wasn’t Dinosaur Park — rather the strange, semi-abandoned empty parking lot next to it. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even have an advertised name.  It’s just there. It’s filled with short concrete pillars, and each has a country’s flag and a short geographical blurb in Chinese and English.  As themes go, it’s a stark incongruity to the Dinosaur themed kitsch it’s next to.

I found myself there wandering among the pillars retracing every period in my life.  I looked for and mostly found the flags of countries I had been to.  That would start with Germany, where I was born on an American Air Force Base. Only, that was The Cold War, when East and West Germany were two separate countries. Since then, reunification happened after the Berlin wall got sledgehammered. The presence of the American military in Europe and Germany has been drastically reduced since then.

After that, I wandered until I found the United Kingdom. But that wasn’t enough. The strangest part of these pillars is in who was included and who wasn’t. I couldn’t find a flag for Pakistan to send to a friend via Wechat, but Bermuda was there, instead. I lived on that island chain for three years after my family left the UK. They USA once had a naval base there. I lived there for three years. Bermuda is a self-governing territory within the United Kingdom. It’s practically an independent country except for British Colonial legalese. Strangely enough, other territories were there when other major, globally impactful nations were absent. More on that later.

Only, I didn’t think about that as yet. I was too busy tracking down Belgium. All the while, I could think of nothing but excellent chocolate, salty potatoes, beer like Chimay, and the awkwardness of my eighth and ninth grade years in high school near NATO’s military headquarters.  Once, I snapped the photo, I quickly moved on.

I dearly wanted to find The Netherlands. Those were special, if yet frustrating three years. Holland remains my most nostalgic, fondly remembered years while living in Europe. Here, the people were extremely friendly, and here, I turned 18 and left for college in America. The Netherlands was the last European country I lived in, and for a long time, I missed the place desperately.

Imagine the culture shock I might feel. I was an American who never really ever lived in America. And I ended up in West Virginia, a land of mountains, shuttered coal mines, and fundamentally strange people. None of them could truly understand or comprehend me. They grew up in small towns and never travelled; they had roots and extended families. I was a drifter, but that was how I was raised by my parents. Literally. Living in America left me fundamentally unimpressed. There was no spiritual awakening. There was no profound feeling of “coming home.” America felt to me as alien — as foreign — as Germany, the UK, Belgium, Bermuda, and the Netherlands did.  Only, I was supposed to feel proud, and I felt nothing but shame instead. How else can you feel when you share a culture and a language with the people around you, and you still feel like an outsider? I quickly took a picture of the American flag and moved on. I didn’t want to dwell on my many personal ghosts.

China, as one might expect, was super easy to find in this strangely international parking lot. Multiple concrete posts feature this nearly solid red flag with yellow stars. I took multiple shots of this from different angles. Some had dinosaur park in the background, and some had your typical Chinese residential group of skyscrapers. That’s also where my story currently ends. I work in China now, and I live in Changzhou. Life, right now is rather nice. Sure, it’s not what I imagined for myself years ago, but life never turns out exactly as you planned.

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 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 It was reposted on my personal blog before being reposting it here.