China can easily be divided between what is “developed” and what is “developing.” Let me put it this way. Changzhou is “developed, but still developing” and a plase like Yancheng is “developing.” Sometimes, that economic growth can be measured in what is being built: super malls. These places can be gargantuan — three to five floors. Quite often, you can find towers dedicated to office space or residential apartments. The highest-end mall tends to be Wanda. Some Chinese people I know gauge the growth of their cities by counting Starbucks. Some simply count how many Wanda Plazas there are in their city. After all, the Wanda Group is one the biggest real estate companies in China.
Changzhou has two. One is in Wujin, and the other is in Xinbei. The Xinbei one is the older one. Both have IMAX theaters on the top most floors. (Case in point: I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Wujin Wanda’s big goddamned screen.) Wanda, even as a corporate group, has bought into American entertainment companies like AMC Theaters. The stores inside a Wanda are usually the same sort of chains. Think about it. Most American malls have JC Penny and Sears.
Xinbei Wanda has a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a KFC, and much more. There are the regular mall floors, but there is also a pedestrian walking street with plenty of boutiques and eateries. The Wanda in Xinbei also functions as the defacto dowtown for that district. It’s the commercial / retail hub for northern Changzhou. If the swanky restaurants are not located here, they are in relative walking distance.
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.
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.
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 also 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.
Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean, seems popular in China, and especially with Chinese children. It’s not hard to guess why, either. Out of the types of cultural imports, physical comedy and bodily humor is the most easy to relate to. Think about it: there is no language to translate, no idioms to misunderstand. It’s one of the reasons why, for example, Jackie Chan has been able to find success outside of China. His English accent is terrible, but no American really watches Chan for a witty punchlines or verbal nimbleness. Profound silliness is inherent in his actions. It’s the same with Atkinson as Mr. Bean.
This popularity can be seen first hand in Changzhou. A Xinbei cafe bares a distinctive theme. Even down to the name: Mr. Bean Coffee. Inside the cafe, one can see pictures of Atkinson in his grey suit, but also weird, and rather surreal, portraits of the character on the wall. Other depictions range from cartoonish to semi-life-sized. There’s even a photo of him by the entrance, ushering a patron in.
Sitting and drinking espresso in Mr. Bean Coffee is just an odd, surreal experience. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just strange. But it raises other questions. Is this a case of copyright infringement? Does Atkinson profit from all these kids sitting around in his cafe while eating cake? It’s easy to lob “violating intellectual property” charge at businesses in China. After all, you don’t have to look for in Changzhou to find unlicensed uses of Micky Mouse. This isn’t one of those cases. Mr. Bean Coffee. The cafe is a chain. And it does have a license with Tiger Aspect. In theory, Atkinson should be seeing profit from this.
In Xinbei, Mr. Bean coffee can be found on a sunken, but open-air basement level of the Changzhou TV Tower complex. It’s the same urban block that’s home to a Lafu supermarket and a Secret Recipe Malaysian fusion restaurant. Mr. Bean is the neighbor to an Internet / computer gaming cafe. Wanda Plaza is in walking distance.
Yet, despite all of these location details, one fundamental question has not been addressed. How is the coffee? Not very good. Usually, I only buy Americanos at cafes. That’s because no business ever makes a simple pot of coffee in China. And I have no interest in drinking lattes or other types of liquid desserts. So, my judgement comes on the watered-down espresso shots alone. Starbucks is a lot better. The only reason to visit Mr. Bean Coffee is gawk awkwardly at its novelty.
It’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?
It’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.
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?
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.
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.
This one is one of three within the Nandajie area proper. Each of them are extremely close to each other in proximity. This one, however, is located at the North Entrance of the Landmark Shopping Center along Yanling Road. The burning question most people have is… does it have a western sit-down toilet? Answer: Yes it does.
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.
This seems to be the appropriate place to start: a cell phone shot from my apartment. I live on the seventh floor of the Hohai University Guest Center. In the foreground, you see some of the rooftops on Hohai’s campus. The school is the Changzhou branch campus of the more prestigious, and older, Nanjing campus. It’s a 211 school, which gives it a lot of prestige and funding from the Chinese government. In the background, you the Changzhou TV Tower. I often call it the “Xinbei TV Tower,” because — um, well — Wujin also has a TV Tower.
Wujin is the southern district within Changzhou City. Xinbei is the northern one near the Yangtze River. Xinbei basically has more foriegners and expats than most other parts of the city.
Speaking of Wujin, I lived there for two years before moving up here. What is likely to be echoed in the About This Blog page, Real Changzhou will focus on exploring the whole city and the surrounding Changzhou “prefecture lands.” All too often, expats living in Xinbei tend to think they live in the only part of the city that matters. Simply not true.