If you think about it technically, the Changzhou Railway Station in Tianning has a history that’s longer than the People’s Republic of China. Planning for the Shanghai-Nanjing line actually dates back to the end of the Qing Dynasty. This was a time when China was opening to the west and trying to catch in terms of industrialization. According to the Baidu version of Wikipedia, this planning began in 1898. The relatively small, first iteration of the station was built in 1907, and it had two platforms. Once the Qing fell, Chinese founding father Sun Zhongshan actually did a whistle stop to wave at cheering crowds as he made his way to Nanjing. There’s a memorial hall in Changzhou dedicated to this. I thought it might be interesting to see a pictorial evolution over the years. Some of these are photos of photos I took at the Changzhou Museum, and some of them, I took personally — specifically the last three.
The 63 is a bus route that connects the Changzhou central train station in Tianning to a more remote part of Wujin near the eastern city line with Wuxi. The area around the southern terminus of this line looks deceptively simple.
Arguably, this is a part of southern Changzhou that has a decidedly small town vibe. This part of the city reeks of “nothing to see here.” This is both true and false. First, there really isn’t much to see at the end of the 63 bus route, but there is a personally complicating factor for me. Taking this bus to its final destination resulted in my learning more about Chinese culture.
Yes, this is a relatively small temple with a Guanyin statue out front. The temple doors were shut, and I was not able to enter and look around. I did, however, try research this place a few weeks later. That simply involved learning this place’s Chinese name — Hua Tuo An 华佗庵 and slapping those Chinese characters into net searches. As it turns out, Hua Tuo was a luminary in Chinese medicine.
This doctor lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty; he was born in what would become modern Anhui and died in 208 BCE. In Chinese history, he was the first physician to employ anesthesia during surgery. That likely involved spiking potent alcohol with a couple of herbs and making the patient drink the resulting elixir before cutting them open. Hua Tuo also preformed trepanations — boring holes though a person’s skull to gain access to a person’s brain. His acumen as a doctor and a surgeon was legendary during his life. Cao Cao is perhaps one of Hua’s more famous patients in this regard. This warlord paved the way for the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.
Any old guy who has been near a gaming console over the last twenty years should know the Dynasty Warriors series. It tried to make a player a combatant some of China’s most epic battles. Of course, Cao Cao is a character in those. But, let’s get back to the point.
At one point, Cao Cao started to experience hallucinatory headaches. As concerns over his health mounted, he demanded the best doctor alive tend to him. For reason that I can’t easily find, Hua refused to to treat Cao as ongoing person doctor. While seemingly universal thousands of years later, the Hippocratic Oath just wasn’t a thing in Ancient China — save life whenever you can, and Hua had none of that. Hua continually refused to treat Cao — he made up excuses that involved tending to his allegedly infirm wife. Cao figured out he was lying and ordered his execution. Hua didn’t relent, so he was put to death.
Of course, I’m glossing over this story in the most simplest terms. But for me, it’s a strong reminder of one thing. When you are a foreigner living in a land like the Middle Kingdom with an absurd amount of history, taking a bus like the 63 to the middle of nowhere Wujin will still teach you something, if you look hard enough.
From time to time, I sometimes buy philatelic products — especially if they have a greater Jiangsu or regional Jiangnan theme. This isn’t so much for myself but for my father. He’s a lifelong stamp collector, and his interest in Chinese stamps mostly comes from me giving them to him since I live here.
So, recently, I happened on a collection of Qingguo Lane themed postcards. These actually already have the postage printed on them. In terms of stamp collecting, this is something that father would term “postal stationary,” which is a smaller niche within stamp collecting.Yes, there is something infinitely more nerdy than stamps: the people who collect pre-postage marked envelopes and post cards. But who am I to judge? I collect Magic: The Gathering cards. The nerd gene is strong in my family!
While the English name of the set seems to be Elegant Rhyme of Qingguoxiang, these cards really have nothing to do with poetry. The Chinese title of 唐氏八宅 seems more practical. It can be translated as the Eight Houses of the Tang Family.
The cards themselves are relatively simple — black line drawings on a tan background. However, since Qingguo recently was revamped and reopened to the public, I decided to see if I could actually find the places depicted on these cards.
A majority of them did correspond with actual locations. Interestingly enough, some didn’t. The locations actually don’t look like the pictures, either. How could that be? There’s an easy answer to that: these postcards were issued ten years ago in 2009. So, these cards are commemorating the Qingguo that once was. As for the homes that are no longer there, it’s possible that they will be at some point. What was recently opened was just a first step. There are plans to add to Qingguo over the years.
I took the above photo back in 2014.That was before the area was cordoned off and thoroughly demolished and rebuilt. My guess is the Qingguo of that year also didn’t look like what is on the China Post issued cards. Qingguo of that era was crumbling and nearly derelict. Despite these disparities, the cards themselves can be taken as a celebration of the area in general. Historically influential Changzhou families — like the Tangs — did live here. Still, the disparity of what was and what things are going forward is a typically accurate display of this city’s extremely quick economic development.
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.
There is really nothing to see out here. But what about the sign? What about the temple? That would be this….
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.
So, that means something historical, right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And places where he kept a personal library and a possible office.
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.
This alley intersects with Jinling Road. And here it is on Baidu Maps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is nobler and much less trouble.” Mark Twain
America and China usually have had some misconceptions going between them, and as an American living in China, I am usually surprised when I run across some nugget of American intellectual culture in China. Sometimes, they turn up in odd places. For instance, there is bust of President Jefferson over in Wuxing Park in Zhonglou. It’s near a statue of a rather fierce looking unicorn. However, I recently ran into another bit in a place I thought i would never see an American face. Turns out, I found two of them at Changzhou’s Revolutionary Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning. This place is down the road from Jiuzhou New World mall, and it is dedicated to all of the Changzhou people who died during the Communist Revolution / Chinese Civil War. I went there for a walk and sort of got flabbergasted by two minor details.
If a foreigner visits this place, they should show some respect. It’s open to the public, but it’s not a public park. It’s actually a cemetery. Human remains are housed here. But first, the other facilities.
The museum and other facilities are locked and shuttered. However, you do see some people milling around, and most of them are in the mausoleums respecting family members who are at their final resting place.
You also can find the typical sort of Communist party imagery that you might expect at a revolutionary memorial.
The first picture above depicts Yun Daiying, Qu Quibei, and Zhang Tailai. All three were important members within the Communist Party. All three came from Changzhou. Qu was actually a party leader before Mao Zedong. The second picture is from the sculpture wall behind the statue. However, here is what surprised me.
Yes, that is Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain in a communist cemetery. But then again, my surprise belies a sort of nationalism I didn’t think I had. There are no such thing as exclusively American ideas and exclusively Chinese ideas. There are just ideas, and they do not know borders or nationalities. This part of the cemetery demonstrates that perfectly. Twain and Lincoln are on a wall that has other quotes from Chinese thinkers, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and many others from countries far away from the Changzhou and China in general.
As been noted often both here and elsewhere, Changzhou is more of a modern Chinese city. There is not to say that there isn’t a rich history here, it’s just hard to find relics of it still standing around after thousands of years. You can in Nanjing and other places, but sadly in Changzhou most of those attractions just do not exist anymore. There is, however, a move to recreate more places that have an antiquated feel. Qianbeian is one of those places.
It’s not that far from Wenhuagong — where Changzhou’s downtown subway station is being excavated and built. A Starbucks is also nearby, and one of Changzhou’s antique markets sits behind it. When I first came to Changzhou in 2014, the place was empty. Weeds were growing through cracks in the walkway, and the windows were dirty and unwashed. Walking through here, back then, felt like walking trough a forlorn, white-washed labyrinth.
It’s a classic trope in this city. Parts of it looked like a ghost town, but over the years, things have slowly filled in. Qianbeian is a like Qingguo Alley — which can also be found in the city center. Even though it’s either reconstructed or currently under reconstruction, real Changzhou history did happen there. For instance, the great Chinese poet Su Dongpo, once had an academy here, and recently it has been turned into a small gallery for calligraphers and brush-and-ink artists. There is also a tiny display place dedicated to him. There is also a small museum dedicated to local history, and a lot more.