Category Archives: Wujin

Jagerwirt’s Lamb Special

American holiday traditions can change from family to family; that’s just part of living in a multicultural society. After all, each family has a unique set of ancestors hailing from multiple countries. While growing up, Easter dinner for me, for example, was a hodgepodge of Italian-American dishes, and curiously enough, roasted lamb.  It was one of the only times of the year my mom ever prepared it.

I don’t know if I was thinking about this or not while eating at Jagerwirt in Wujin, recently. I was out at that German restuarant with a friend to celebrate Easter. I puzzled over the menu for a moment and than for some reason impulsively went for the daily special: lamb chops with mashed potatoes and a few grilled veggies.

It was easily the best lamb I’ve eaten in Changzhou. When cooked wrong, lamb can be greasy and chewy. This was tender and easy to cut with a knife. The sauce went well with the mashed potatoes, but you can say this dish skimped a little on the vegetables.  However, This just another example that I’ve seldom had a lackluster meal at Jagerwirt.

I wish the could say the same for other people. As for my friend’s dinner, I have to say Jagerwirt is not exactly vegetarian friendly. For the price on the menu, their mixed vegetable salad struck me as a bit small and lacking. I love how Jagerwirt is the one of the only places that you can get an actual baked potato, but once you strip off the sour cream and chives they can some times taste a little dry — as if prepared a little too far in advanced.

Accidental Duck Guts

IMG_20151116_122948Chinese people once laughed at me when I was eating. I was dining by myself at the time, and tears flowed over my reddened cheeks. Sweat beaded across my brow, and the corners of my mouth curled into a severe frown. From time to time, I had to put my chopsticks down, grab a tissue, and blow my running nose, hard. So, what had happened? Why was I weeping? Was I an emotional wreck? Had a beautiful woman just spurned me? Did somebody kidnap my cat and send me a ransom note?

Um, no. I had made a huge menu mistake with Chinese food. While dining at the Jiangnan People’s Commune 江南人民公社 across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, I ordered what I thought was sauteed string beans. They looked that way on the picture menu. Dear god, they weren’t. They were stir-fried green peppers with lots garlic. Eating this dish brought me physical pain. So, why did I insist on trying to finish it?

maoeat
The Mao Zedong themed Jiangnan People’s Commune across from CCIT.

Stubborn, hard-headed pride. I ordered, it was served, and I was going to eat it. I wasn’t going to be that type of foreigner  that would squeal in terror and flee at the sight of culturally challenging dish. So, I sat there and ate half of it. Then, I pretended to be full, and I politely asked for a to-go bag. Once safely out sight of restaurant, I tossed that doggy bag into the garbage.  Why was being so polite? I ate at that eatery quite often, and I didn’t want to insult them. I didn’t want to be an ugly American. Yeah, it was totally a face-saving issue. Especially, if I was going to be going back in the following week for tried-and-true lunch options. One rule of life is this: don’t piss off the people who usually feed you.

Ever since this incident, I have had some delicious lunches and dinners at this particular place. But, I had one other epic ordering blunder. Again, it involved thinking “string beans” and being served something completely else.

In this case, the alleged “string beans” ended up being duck intestines — complemented by tongues and other innards. The name was 干锅鸭四宝, or “Dry Pot Duck Si Bao.” You see, I thought I was ordering something duck meat, because I saw the character 鸭. A Chinese friend later told me that 四宝 (four jewels) means a dish will have four types of organ meat.

I didn’t blanch in horror once I was served this. I have eaten weirder things in the name of respecting Chinese hospitality. Once, I had the rather Satanic sounding “lamb’s blood” in hotpot. I ate about half and found the duck tongues to be very chewy. Then, I left. I had long since stopped the fake “to go” shtick. I had eaten this place enough to know they really didn’t care, so long as I paid my bill.IMG_20151116_125505

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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Working the Map: Tianfu Cemetery

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There are many ways to learn about a foreign country. The most obvious is to pick up a book and read, but it’s not that simple when you live in China. A lot of the broader strokes of Chinese history can be found in English, but if you are trying dig your fingers into something local, the information is just not simply there if you can’t read Chinese. Google Translate, while useful, is great for a general idea regarding a text, but it garbles and distorts nuance out of focus. Plus, smaller cities like Changzhou are more obscure subjects to most travel writers. Places like Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou suck up most coverage. So, what does that leave you? Public monuments, parks, museums, and things like that. Recently, I developed another tactic that’s both helped me learn new Chinese characters and more about the landscape I live in.

I call it “working the map.” It’s rather simple, and I doubt I’m the only one to come up with this. I look at a map of Changzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, et cetera, and pick two to three locations. Then, I go out and actively try to find them in the real world. It works better if you are picking the locations on your computer or your phone and not a real, paper map. This way, I can type in new characters I’ve learned. For instance, 故居 (guju) means “former residence,” and on a map that’s usually attached to a historical figure.  It’s weird how if you change the keywords ever so slightly, you get different results. A word like 墓地 (mudi) will bring you “graveyards,” but a characters like 陵园 (ling yuan) may not. They both are places that involve the dead, but they are not exactly. The first is “graveyard” in a general sense, and the second refers specifically to a walled in compound with graves. The same nuance can be found in English – tomb, grave, mausoleum, and cemetery are not all exactly the same in meaning.

Sometimes, “working the map” leads me to a cultural hidden treasure, and sometimes it doesn’t. On the most basic level, it is what it is: an excuse to get out of my apartment. I did this recently with a place called 天府陵园 (Tianfu Cemetery). Since it’s October and Halloween season, I’ve been making a point to locate and visit as many cemeteries in Changzhou as I can. I can assure you, some Chinese people might find this activity a little bit odd or strange. Chalk that up to cultural differences. Anyhow, I also picked Tianfu Cemetery because it was relatively close. I had an afternoon class, and I didn’t want to venture too far away from my school. Plus, I figured I could stop at RT Mart for dinner provisions on my way back.

Getting to Tianfu didn’t seem as convoluted as some other places I’ve been to in Changzhou, like Yun Nantian’s home. First, I rode my electric moped to Yancheng in Wujin. This is the big historical attraction from the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. There’s also a zoo, an amusement park, and two of Wujin’s foreign restaurants (Monkey King and Chocolate’s). I was on Yanzheng Road, which is on the south end of this popular tourist destination. Once I passed the first intersection, I kept an eye out for Hubin Road. By now, I could smell that I was in one of the more industrial areas of Wujin. You can actually smell the pollution here, and the air feels a bit gritty on your eyeballs.

A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.
A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.

Eventually, I found myself on a Dongbao Road. Here, there are factories, and drab concrete barrier walls. Some of these have crumbling walls, and the locals have used them as incineration points. Basically, people have thrown their garbage through the hole and then set the trash on fire. Only, the job never got completely done. You can say that most places that burn garbage. There’s also something always left over.

This idea also carried over to Tianfu Cemetery. The front of the compound features a semi-enclosed area with a short concrete wall. There, a pile of charred remnants still smoldered and gave off whips of acrid smoke. I wondered how this was different than, say, a Taoist or Buddhist temple, where the air is also thick with smoke. Those sacred sites also have pits and places to burn things, but that’s usually incense. I didn’t smell incense outside Tianfu, but given the Chinese veneration of their ancestors, I also highly doubt people would incinerate garbage there. So, it was probably joss paper. This can be seen as a sort of “spirit money used as a burnt offering to the dead. This paper can be simple, or it can be ornate with gold or silver foil attached. Joss Paper is not fragrant, like incense either. If you believe some sources, this smoke it gives off can be toxic, and prolonged inhalation can harm a person’s health.

The front of the cemetery featured the usual sort of Chinese gate with curved-up edges. Beyond that, I could see

Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?
Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?

black stone tombstones in rows. There were also buildings and other sorts of things. I looked at the metal gate. It had blocked access to cars. There was a door-like entrance, and for a moment, I thought about walking in and looking around. Only, I didn’t. The place was staffed, and I really didn’t know the Chinese attitudes about regarding burial sites and casual visitors. Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was be culturally offensive.

So, I just jumped on my eBike and moved on down the road. Visiting the entrance of Tianfu Cemetery came with no cultural or personal epiphanies or revelations. My personal knowledge of Chinese or Changzhou history wasn’t particularly advanced by the visit. Going there had just been a case of “working the map.” At the least, another small part of the city is not unfamiliar to me, now.

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. 

Indian Vegetarian Fare at Kaffe

Three vegetarian dishes with the obligatory rice to soak up the sauce!

Recently, I took a very dear and very close friend to Kaffe. It’s an Indian Cafe near the Wujin TV Tower and Xintiandi Park. It’s easy to get to on the B11 BRT bus. The Indian guys that run the place are super friendly, and they have no problem reducing the spiciness level to your preference. Let’s just say that, once, I ate lamb vindaloo there had both sweat dripping from my face and tears pouring from my eyes. And I couldn’t stop eating! I never knew both intense, agonizing, and excruciating pain and deliciousness could coexist! Point: I have never had a bad meal there. And good restaurants are meant to be shared.

More importantly, my friend is a vegetarian and new to Wujin, and I wanted to show her an eatery potentially friendly to her lifestyle choices. So, what did we eat? This is the point where I curse the flash on my Huawei phone’s camera. It renders food in a most unappetizing light — especially when it comes to saucy dishes. You can clearly see that in the above photo.

Anyhow, back to the point. What did we eat? I chose to defer to my friend’s vegetarianism. While I currently eat meat, I once was a vegetarian for a large part of my life.  Meat can always be foregone for the sake of pleasant company. And besides, part of me misses being moral certainty of being vegetarian. Besides, I enjoy vegetarian food anyway. So, onto the food….

There is one dish I can’t remember the Indian name for. It’s listed under “Snacks” and it’s chick peas, potatoes, and other vegetables with a drizzle of plain yogurt.  In my mind, I have always called it “Indian Potato Salad.”  Because, well, that’s what it is … a type of potato salad. There was also  mixed vegetable curry, but if your inclinations slant towards “vegan” this dish might not be for you. It has paneer in it; that is, dense, slightly sweet, cubes of Indian cheese.  I didn’t know that when we ordered. The last thing we shared was chana masala — a delicious chickpea dish easily found in most Indian restaurants back in America..

You could say we ordered two thirds of all the vegetarian options available. Kaffe’s menu is not that vast, and that’s not a complaint. I’d rather a restaurant do a limited number of things well than dozens of things poorly.

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. 

Freshman on the March

Recently, I found this picture while surfing through my Changzhou photo folder on Facebook.

Before taking a job at Hohai University, I taught for two years at the Changzhou College of Information Technology (CCIT) in Changzhou’s southern Wujin district. Essentially, it’s a vocational school — similar in spirit to the many community colleges I have taught English at in North Carolina and in New Jersey. Vocational students are not university students. It would be silly to equate the two. For example, you would not put Coastal Carolina Community College on the same level with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Many students have gone to CCCC because their grades were not good enough for UNCW or other institutions within the University of North Carolina system..

However, there are still a number of drastic differences between American colleges and what you might find in Chinese higher education. At this point, I’m just going to point to the biggest one: mandatory military training. It is something high school seniors and incoming college freshman must do.

At the beginning of every school year, new freshman must don military uniforms. Classes are assigned drill sergeants, and the students learn to march in formation, chant patriotic slogans. Sometimes they hold fake, dummy rifles, and sometimes they do not. During this time, these students do not attend any classes. Their job is basically march, march, march. Afterwards? March around some more!

In the College Town / 大学城 part of Wujin, there are six  institutions clustered together. Each college has its own, distinctive uniform. Some have different colors of camouflage, and some students look more like officers. It’s done this way, I guess, to tell students apart. Pretty much, they walk around all day wearing these uniforms.

I am neither applauding nor criticizing the practice. I’m pointing out what is, essentially, a reality on Chinese college campuses at the start of fall semester. I have seen it twice now, and it never stops being a slightly surreal spectacle to behold.