Tag Archives: Hongmei Park

Art and Cigarettes

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During my first year in Changzhou, I used to collect empty packs of cigarettes. It was a silly hobby that came as an extension of a highly self destructive habit. However, the culture around tobacco and smoking in China is extremely different. In the west, packs of cigarettes are simple and focused on branding and logos.In China, some packs of cigarettes can havd gold and silver embossed packaging — not to mention holograms of things like pandas and cats. The weird thing is that I was beginning to treat collecting empty cigarette packs the way I used to collect comic books and trading cards: Ooh, look! It has a shiny foil stamp!

This is a marked difference from other countries. Thailand, for example, has graphic pictures of diseased lungs on their cigarette packaging. Of course, in America, it’s gotten to the point where smoking has gotten so taboo, I once got yelled at for smoking in Central Park, New York City. That’s right. I was outside, far from people, and was ashing into an empty water bottle while sitting on a bench. In short, I was trying to hide and not litter. Somebody still felt the need to go out of their way to shout at me and inform me that I was slowly killing myself. Like I didn’t know that already. Like most smokers do not know that already.

Of course, smoking doesn’t have the same social stigma in China. At weddings, gift packs of smokes await guests on restaurant tables. It’s seen as a sign of respect for one guy to give a cigarette to another — especially while conducting a business meeting lunch that also requires drinking baijiu. As mentioned earlier, there is the strange ornate artistry of some on the packs themselves. While I eventually threw my collection out, apparently this is not an uncommon hobby in China. In fact, Changzhou has a small museum dedicated just to tobacco packaging and related paraphernalia.

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The Ge Xiaoxing Sino-Foreign Cigarette Packs and Appliance musuem has AA rating from the from the China National Tourism Administration. Sure, this is the second to lowest rating, but it still means that it receives government support and funding. AA just means it’s not as important as something classified as AAAAA. It’s a very tiny place, and inside you can see old and rare packs of cigarettes wall mounted as if they are priceless art.

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There are other things too, while I found the old packs interesting to look at, I found the older advertisement wall hangings even more intriguing to look at as art. In a sense, it gives a sense of how old popular culture in China differs, slightly, from the west. Yet, part of me wondered how different these are from the Guinness For Strength! pub ads you used to see in the UK decades ago.

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Besides these and the packs themselves, there are also tins, vintage ashtrays, snuff bottles, old pipes, and more behind protective glass.

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As mentioned earlier, this place is tiny.  It’s also near the smaller pagoda in Hongmei, but it’s not actually in the park itself. It’s easy to spend roughly 15 minutes to half an hour in here and see everything. In a way, it’s best to pair visiting this place with visiting the park itself and the other small museums there, like the Tu Yidao Stump Carving Museum.

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Chinese address at the bottom of the screenshot.

In many respects, this place celebrates a form of folk art. In that way, it’s not that different than the Hidden Dragon Museum over in the former Qishuyan district to the east of Changzhou. It’s the same concept. A man spends his life passionately collecting something, and that collection becomes a public exhibit documenting a certain aspect of culture. That makes me wonder about something else — something more related to habitual failing attempts to quit smoking altogether. In 100 years, will there be museums dedicated to vaping and antique vaporizers? Time will tell.

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Beautifully Grotesque

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It’s not everyday that you look at a work of traditional Chinese art and become reminded of Millia Jovovich and sub-par horror movies, but that did happen to me, and it did happen in Changzhou. How is this possible? I was looking at the above sculpture. Specifically, I was looking at the pits, nooks and crannies in the dog’s torso, and I had a vague feeling I saw something similar once. It had something to do with tendons and ligaments stretched over bare, exposed bone. And then it hit me all at once: Resident Evil. The above sculpture was reminding me of the zombie canines featured in that movie adaptation of a video game.

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Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.

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Tu Yidao 屠一道, a native to Changzhou, was born in 1913, and he went on to attract fame across China for a very particular form of Chinese art: root carving.

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The tradition of carving roots extends back thousands of years to the Warring States period. In art, form is often an extension of the medium. Some of resulting sculptures take on a slightly grotesque appearance because the wood being used is oddly shaped in its natural state. It takes a skilled eye to actually look at a stump and network of roots and see a peacock. It takes even more skill to then fashion that tree root into something resembling an actual peacock or any other type of bird.

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Or a horse.

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The Changzhou municipal government began funding a small museum in Tu Yidao’s honor in the 1980’s, according to the Chinese language Baidu version of Wikipedia. So, this place has been around for a long time. I have been there a few times since I moved here in 2014. Sometimes I have gone there, and the doors were locked. Other times, it has been open. It sometimes felt like a gamble on whether the place remained open to the public or not.

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It’s relatively tiny, and it’s in a northern corner of Hongmei Park — not to far from the RT Mart near the downtown train station. It costs five RMB to get in, and each time I visited, the worker behind the front desk had to turn the lights on. Each time I have visited, though, I have always left thinking about more than just zombie movies and reanimated canines. Chinese culture is more inventive than what some foreigners give it credit for.

Cao Zhongzhi and Charitable Wheelchairs

The story of Cao Zhongzhi engraved in stone. You also can see my new conversation buddy’s reflection.

When you are a foriegner in Changzhou, you sometimes get stopped by curious Chinese people who want to practice their English.  Usually, I will oblige for a short and polite conversation.  Depending on what I am doing, I might try to turn this into a “win-win” situation. If I am out looking for things to blog about, I will rather craftily ask them to translate something for me. This was the case a few weeks ago.

I was at Tianning Temple in Hongmei Park. At the time, I was looking at Guanyin “goddess of mercy” statues. A middle schooler stopped me, and after the standard “Do you like Chinese food” questions, I pointed at a nearby gazebo. Inside, a figure of a man pushing a wheelchair “Can you tell me who that is?” He struggled a bit.

“Famous man with big heart,” was all my new friend could manage. “I don’t how else to say in English.”

“Can you write his name for me?” I handed him my phone.  He typed out 曹仲植 Cao Zhongzhi into my dictionary. I saved it for later research.

Turns out, Cao was a famous philanthropist. While originally hailing from Changzhou, he moved to Taiwan. Once, while returning to visit family in 1969, he saw a disabled man and became moved by his situation. So, he set up a charity that donated wheelchairs to the needy.

Once I read the story — badly machine translated from Chinese by Google, of course — the location of the his marker made a lot of sense. In both Buddhism and Taoism, Guanyin is considered a figure of mercy and compassion. To a lot of disabled people in China, Cao Zhongzhi was a humanitarian who embodied those qualities.  It is fitting to to draw this juxtaposition by placing him in a garden dedicated in Guanyin’s honor.

Tianning’s Stations of Guanyin

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

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

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

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

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