Tag Archives: Museums

Celebrating American Car Culture in Changzhou

“The Changzhou public bus system is more than likely better than any bus system in America.”

When I say this, my Chinese university students usually gasp in shock. They become even more flabbergasted when I say the US is pretty bad at public transportation. If they counter by bringing up the New York City subway system, I remind them that New York City is always the exception and not the norm, and a lot of the subway stations often smell like a public bathroom — and I am saying that as a New Jersey guy that has always had a very large soft spot for The Big Apple.

Owning a car is not a sign of wealth or status, because even poor or broke people have to drive to get to work.  It’s just that they own a jalopy, wreck, hooptie, rattletrap, clunker, bucket of bolts, lemon, junker, or any other colorful noun that can mean “old car that breaks down often.” America, I always tell my students, has a very car-centered culture. Instead of opting for an intricate rail system, President Eisenhower initiated the construction of a network of super highways in 1956 that has defined America up to the current day.

So, it’s interesting that the Changzhou Museum has a temporary photography exhibit celebrating this aspect of Americana.

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It’s located on the ground floor of the museum.

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There are some old black and white photos as well as some vintage illustrated posters.

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Plus, there are some contemporary shots on display. Not to mention this…

 

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This shot is particularly grainy. That’s because I took this picture with my cell phone (of course), and it’s basically of a TV screen playing a documentary. Some of the guys featured are true whackjobs.  Lastly, I sort of had to take a photo of the place I now love to hate….

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There is a wall of license plates from all 50 states. Not represented, it seemed, were Washington DC and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and The Virgin Islands. Anyhow, it seemed like a quirky temporary exhibit. It runs until November 18th.

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Map location for the Changzhou Museum

The Home of a Doubting Scholar

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And places where he kept a personal library and a possible office.

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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.

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This alley intersects with Jinling Road. And here it is on Baidu Maps.

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Why do I post screenshots of Baidu Maps? English and Google Maps will do nothing for you if you show it to Chinese cab driver. Just saying.

 

A Hall of Changzhou Antiques

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When something is thrown out, recycled, or demolished, it is lost to history. This is why collectors are important people; a type cultural memory survives through them. Eventually, their passion for things can become museums that preserve history and cultural traditions. Changzhou has such people.

Out near the former Qishuyan district, there is the Hidden Dragon Musuem. This took a man’s decades long obsession with dragons into turned it into a folk display of everything from calligraphy to ceramics and empty baijiu bottles. There is something similar near Hongmei Park with a small exhibit of old snuff boxes, pipes, tobacco ads, and empty packs of cigarettes.  These places do not exist as for profit businesses. They do not charge entrance fees, and even if they did, the amount of foot traffic they generate would not pay their bills. This places exist because of a few powerful people recognize their cultural value and help protect them.

However, not all collectors enjoy support in that way. Sometimes, providing a cultural space for relics of older days can be challenging. Yi Mu is an old industrial space that currently is home to a variety of antiques. It’s also a space used to host tea and zen dancing events, and this is how I learned of the place, recently.

I enjoyed the event — it taught me, finally, how to correctly hold a caligraphy brush.

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However, I found the ambiance of the place even more intriguing. Here, you can see everything from old fire arms…

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… old chamber pots …

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… sewing machines …

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…. and there is much, much more. All of this works together to create a special ambiance that can’t be found elsewhere in Changzhou.

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However, unlike other cultural spaces in this city, the future of Yi Mu is uncertain. The owner’s lease is coming to an end, and there is the posibility that the property’s owner may not renew. Yi Mu’s owner has also had trouble locating adequate space should he be forced to relocate his large antique collection.  Hopefully, a way can be found to preserve this space. In the mean time, it can be found off of Qingtan Road in Zhonglou — just around the corner from the Jingchuan Park’s West Gate.

 

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.

Elegant Nanjing Embroidery

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Silk has long since been intertwined into Chinese culture. There is the functional use of it in high end couture and fashion, and then there is the use of it to produce cultural objects and art. Such is the case with embroidery — which like many other things in China, has a rich history going back more than a thousand years.

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Like any art or craft, Chinese embroidery can be separated into different categories. One of which is native to Nanjing. It is often refered to as Nanjing Yunjin, with the Chinese characters and pinyin being 南京云锦 Nánjīng yúnjǐn. The characters 云锦 refers to clouds. As they are a common motif on this style of brocade, but the style can be used to dragons, religious imagery, and much more. These designs are stitched by hand and can take many years to complete. The attention to detail is that exquisite. Also, since gold and silver lining is involved, the resulting brocades become extremely expensive and highly valuable.

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The Wujin Museum in the Yancheng complex has a temporary exhibit of such brocades that runs to the end of March. There, a visitor can see first hand such fine attention to detail.

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Zhang Quanhai and Microscopic Masterpieces

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Could the Mona Lisa have been painted on a single kernel of rice? Yes, it sounds like a fundamentally absurd question, but then again, the Changzhou Museum currently has a mind blowing temporary exhibit that led me to ask myself the question in the first place. Zhang Quanhai specializes in making colorful art so small, you need a magnifying glass just to look at it. He uses tiny, polished stones. While many are bigger than a rice kernel, the amount of precision and skill it takes create such small pictures is a bit breath taking. The exhibit is divided into two sections. One has the stones in ornate display boxes, and the other has Zhang’s work with magnifying glasses positioned over them. Out of the two options, the magnifying glasses were a better viewing experience. It allowed me, at least, to fully appreciate talent it takes to produce such tiny works of art. Time is running out on this exhibit, however. I cannot read Chinese, but the sign said it was supposed to end a few days ago. If it is still there, it’s on the third floor.

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Weidun Museum Always Closed

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When it comes to China, there is always a lack of information in English. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this blog — that at least somebody is explaining something in English. But, there are challenges that come with that. Take prehistoric Changzhou, for example. People have been living in this part of Jiangsu since the stone age. This is over 6000 years ago. However, if you google “Weidun” or “Weidun People” or “Weidun China,” the results are less than meager.

I’ve been trying this because there is the Weidun Relics Park over in the former district of Qishuyan. The park has a museum dedicated to the Weidun civilization, but the problem is this. It’s closed. It’s been closed every time I went there. This is even back in 2014 — the time before having an eBike and I randomly found it by jumping onto a bus and taking it to its terminal point. I had no clue where was going at the time. As for this musuem, It doesn’t matter the time of day or the day of the week. It’s always closed. And that’s a shame. The internet can’t tell me much about the Weidun people, and the only thing that can seems to be a few displays in the Changzhou Museum.

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Zhang Tailei and the Guangzhou Uprising

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Detail from a painting inside the Zhang Tailei Memorial Hall

In France, radical socialists and working class activists took over the Parisian government for a few months. They refused to cede the city back to the French government. Brutal suppress followed, and what is often considered the first attempt at a communist government failed. This was The Paris Commune, and it happened back in 1871, These events greatly shaped the direction of Communism as an ideology. Karl Marx even wrote a book about it.

Sometimes there is a parallel drawn between this and event in Chinese history.  In 1927, the Red Guard seized control of the Guangzhou government. Back then, it bore the English moniker

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A bust of Zhang Tailei

Canton.  At the time, both Guangzhou and Hong Kong also had an international presence. The coup didn’t last long. Days after Communists took power on December 11, the Red Guard got militarily routed. The leader, Zhang Tailei, was ambushed and killed. This event went on to spur other uprisings across China. Some have called the events in Guangzhou “The Paris Commune of the East.” In a way, that has a patronizing western-centrist ring to it. Still, one can’t deny the similarities.

That’s well and fine, some might think — but what does any of this have to do with Changzhou? Zhang came from Changzhou. His former home, The Zhang Tailei Memorial Hall 张太雷故居 is now a preserved as a small museum in Tianning. There, you can a few modest rooms that are preserved to look as they would have nearly a 100 years ago. A small display space is next to the modest dwelling. Most of it is in Chinese, but there is a long introductory paragraph in English explaining the Guangzhou uprising and who Zhang was.

This preserved historical space is relatively easy to find.  The Number 2 bus passes it. It is also right across the street from Qingliang Temple. Computer City and Wandu Plaza are also nearby.

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Hidden Dragons

Imagine you have a crazy hoarder / packrat as your elderly uncle. Every time you go and visit him, he wants to show you the vintage comic book he paid one dollar for at a neighbor’s yard sale. Even more, he can show off all of his Star Wars related sticks of bubble gum from the late 1970’s. Part of you thinks this uncle is absolutely insane, but you love his crazed passion for culture. Actually, you grow to respect his enthusiasm, partly because you realize his home is actually a museum he spent a lifetime curating. To some people, such people sound far fetched — but they do exist.  For example, there were the Vogels in New York City. On working class salaries, they amassed a priceless art collection.

A few months ago, I met somebody like this in Changzhou. He had turned his passion for collecting everything related to dragons into a government-supported folk history museum.  I found it by complete accident while on my eBike. I was on Renmin Road in Wujin, but much farther to the east than Injoy Plaza. You could say I was halfway to the former district of Qishuyan when I spotted a small public park on the my phone’s Baidu Maps app. So, I veered off course. The park itself wasn’t really much to think of — sort of desolate and deteriorating.  The security guard was sleeping while trying to fish in a man-made pond.

As I walked around, I found myself intrigued by a building with the park grounds itself. Different calligraphy  style for 龙 (Dragon) filled out one of the building’s walls. For a while, I walked around the building and puzzled as to what it was. A week later, I returned have looked it up on the internet with Google Translate, and discovered that it was called Hidden Dragon Pavillion 常州藏龙馆. a man was setting in a lawn chair by an open door. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and he pretty much demanded to take me on a guided tour.

Nevermind I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. I admired, however, his hospitality, and his passion for his collection was evident in how he whisked me from display to display. The musuem itself is a converted residence, so he led me up star cases and into locked rooms. In the process, I saw scrolls of calligraphy, ceramic dragons — even baijiu bottles shaped like the mythical creatures. They were empty, of course!  The entire time I simply nodded my head while taking a look around. Afterwards, two elderly women came in and looked at me with amused shock. That’s when I realize I may have been the only foreigner to come here — or the first in a very long time.

This musuem may be “hidden,” but it’s really easy to get to in Wujin if you have a car or an eBike capable of handling longer distances. Essentially, you get onto Renmin Road 人民路 and stay there until you take a right onto Fenghuang Road 凤凰路. Once you will see the walls of the park when you get there.  If you do visit, it’s probably best you bring a Chinese friend with you. If you do, you will have a better understanding of what you’re looking at.