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.
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.
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.
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.
Some foreigners have at one point in their life said a variation of the following: “China would cease to function without red stamps.” That would be a reference to the red circle and star you would see on any official document, contract, or even bank paperwork and receipts. Here is an example a little close to home for me. Lets say you take a job teaching at a Chinese college. You sign your new contract, but the contract is not actually valid until it gets a red stamp from an very important person — usually a vice president or another type of administrator.
Whether the joke is actually funny or true or not is best left for another time. There is a broader issue to consider. Red stamps on official documents are not entirely a new thing in China. Actually, it is a very old part of the culture dating back thousands of years. Imperial officers used them all the time, and they usually stamped in red ink. The first Qin emperor — the guy buried with the Terracotta Warriors — had one created that became an heirloom passed down through generations.
The craft of carving and creating these stamps is an art often closely related to calligraphy. It survives in Chinese culture to this day. However, seal cutting is much harder than calligraphy. A Chinese friend once told me that “all cutters are good calligraphers, but being a good calligrapher doesn’t guarantee the skills needed for carving.” Engraving the characters requires a strong but delicate hand. Also, all the Chinese characters must be cut in reverse. This is to ensure the character looks right once ink is applied and the stamp is put to paper. This requires the artist to practically know how to write mirror, backward images of hundreds of Chinese characters.
Seal carving extends beyond just making square or rectangular red stamps. Some of it functions a little closer to calligraphy by stringing characters together into a sentence or a proverb. As a rule, red is always used for official business. Stamps in black ink and other colors are for personal use. Examples of this can be seen in the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei. This month, an exhibit opened showcasing the work of Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲. But the stone seals and the red and black stamps themselves are on display in glass cases. Some of Jiang’s regular calligraphy is also being exhibited.
Something else should be noted. Calligraphy is an art that some foreigners may have a hard time appreciating. There really is no cultural equivalent in the West. Seal cutting, on the other hand, might be easier for westerner to comprehend. Printmaking — whether by using woodblocks, zinc plates, or linoleum sheets — does have a long artistic heritage in the west. And seal cutting is a Chinese form of printmaking.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.