Tag Archives: Poetry

Qianlong in Changzhou

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Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1711 to 1799) has many distinctions in Chinese history. He sat on the throne for sixty or so years, and he had one of the longest reigns. Instead of dying while in power, he gave up the throne out of respect to his grandfather, Kangxi. As a result, Kangxi’s time as Chinese Emperor is longer, but only by one year. Qianlong patronized the arts heavily, and he himself composed a lot of poetry. In world culture, he may actually be the most prolific writer of all time.

Also like his grandfather, Qianlong liked to travel and actually inspect his kingdom first hand. As a result, you end up seeing public references to him all over the Jiangnan region. Changzhou is no different. There are stone markers related to him in Dongpo Park in Tianning. This is basically down the street from Hongmei while on Yanling Road.

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During one visit to the city, Emperor Qianlong actually wrote a few poems mentioning Changzhou. The Emperor greatly admired Su Dongpo as a poet, and Dongpo Park is where the great writer and artist landed after traveling down the Grand Canal. A few hundred years ago, Qianlong actually wanted to visit that very same spot. These verses were carved onto steles — giant stone slabs engraved with calligraphy. That’s where one issue pops up. Chinese calligraphy, even when it’s black ink on white paper, can be hard to read. I showed a couple of pictures to some Chinese friends.

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They had a hard time making out anything. I have tried to see if I could locate these poems online, and I even used Chinese search terms like 乾龙常州市诗, and I still couldn’t locate the poems.Then, I realized my search terms had a Chinese typo. I think “Qianlong” in characters is 乾隆 not 乾龙. I think I might have located them, but it’s going to take a while to see if I can get these poems correctly translated somewhere done the line.

In the meantime, these stele carvings are an interesting little corner in one of Changzhou’s more charming little parks.

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Xu Zhimo Romantically in Tianning

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Image of Mr. Handsome Courtesy of Wikipedia

A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”

This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:

If I were a snowflake

The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if.  That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found

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This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.

During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance.  Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.

 

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Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.

 

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It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.

 

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These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.

 

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Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like

Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…

are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.

In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo  returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west.  In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.

Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.

The 215 Circle

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I learn about Changzhou by riding buses.

I had written this into Baidu Translate, switched it into Chinese, and showed it to a rather bewildered bus station employee. She smiled and nodded, and then started rattling off something in Chinese. I replied with 对不起,我的中文很真不好  Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén hěn zhēn bù hǎo (I am sorry, my Chinese is really bad). She smiled, nodded, and left me alone.

When you wander around like I do, you sometimes get this sense of bewilderment from the locals. Who is this foreigner? And why is he here, of all places? Is he lost? He has to be! There is no reason for him to be here! Typically, this attitude pops up more in far flung places. It never happens in downtown Xinbei or Nandajie, because, well, the locals tend to expect foreigners to be there — not in a place like Huangtu 黄土镇.

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Technically, I was not really even in Changzhou anymore. Huangtu is actually part of Jiangyin. However, I had taken the 215 bus from Hohai University and I rode it to its terminus. It had passed Dinosaur Park, and then it turned and eventually crossed over the city line. Jiangyin / Huangtu is part of Wuxi, so technically, you could say I took the bus to Wuxi today. The idea was to to get off and explore the area.

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Turns out, there wasn’t much to see. The 215’s end of the line is in an really obscure corner of Huangtu. So, I just walked down the road and bought a pack of smokes and returned to the bus station. I did notice one thing.

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There was a guy out here who set up a bee apiary, and the bees were all over the place.

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I don’t know if the guy was selling honey. If he was, he picked a silly location because literally there is no traffic out here.  For some reason and by random association, the following two lines of a Pablo Neruda poem leaped into my imagination:

 

Where can a blind man live

who is pursued by bees?

 

Donde puede vivir un ciego

a quien persiguen las abejas?

–Translation by William O’Daly

 

Neruda never answers that question, either. It comes from his The Book of Questions. The whole poetry collection is just a long list of surreal and unanswerable inquiries. I made a mental note to see if this volume was on Kindle, later. At the moment, however, I was happy to note that, A) I was not blind, and B) I was not being pursued by bees, yet. Nobody wants to be pursued by bees, and that includes me. I also realized I should definitely leave before that happens. So, I got back on the bus once it was ready to go.

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I also noticed that once the bus cruised back into Xinbei proper, the bus didn’t go in a reverse route of what had taken me to Mister Beekeeper’s apiary.  I eventually learned that the 215 is a circular — not linear — route. Because, it eventually passed where I originally boarded, Hohai University.

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I later learned that the Neruda’s weird little tome was not on Kindle, but somebody scanned their copy as a PDF. Kudos to whoever did that!

Tianning’s Hidden Waste Land

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What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock …

                     — T.S. Eliot, from The Waste Land

To quote a part of a poem is to usually take it out of the context of it’s greater meaning.  A quote usually works to build the aim of a larger text. But, in the history of literature, people have been taking quotes out of context all the time. It’s the way people try to understand the world; take somebody else’s beautiful language for which you have ascribed a different meaning. Shakespeare has often been abused this way. I’m pointing this out because I know full well the phenomenon, yet I do it all the time myself. The above words from Eliot ring in my mind a different meaning about Changzhou and other economic developments in China.

 

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Wastelands are not that hard to find here. It’s a fundamental part of urban development. Each new residential high rise cluster or shopping center used to be older buildings. Those structures where then knocked down into piles of bricks that were then carted away so that the foundations of new construction projects can be dug. So, that blasted pile bricks is just a normal step in an ongoing process.

I guess I find myself attracted to these places because I come from New Jersey — in specific, I lived in Asbury Park. New Jersey is a place in America where things get knocked down in the name of development, and then the funding dries up and you left with a ruin for many, many years. Take some of these pictures, and then imagine the Atlantic Ocean and a dirty, trash strewn beach nearby. That was Asbury Park for a long time.

As for China, what these wastelands look like depends on where in Changzhou your are standing. As I have mentioned before, the former Qishuyan district is currently the worst. It looks like a bomb hit many parts of it. What I found more interesting, lately, are some of the ones in city center part of Tianning. Some of these look like post apocalyptic settings, but they are mostly hidden away and sometimes hard to notice.

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Think about this: the busiest part of Changzhou’s city center, and Tianning District in particular, is the railway station. Hundreds of thousands of people pass through there everyday. The scenes of devastation in this post is merely one to two city blocks away. It’s mostly hidden behind buildings. I accidentally found this place because I was at the huge antique, furniture, and other goods market near the  downtown train station.

When it comes to historical preservation, I am hardly a fanatic. I believe it’s best to pick and choose some of these battles when they come up. The sad fact is not all old places can be saved. I choose a pragmatic view. Structural integrity is one issue, but historical value is another. Just because something is “old” doesn’t necessarily make it “antique.” I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a charlatan. This is why those lines from T.S. Eliot ring out in my brain.

There is shadow under this red rock …

From time to time, I have let the poetry nerd in me out. So bare with the quick explication. There are no “shadows” under rocks. If they are laying on the ground, the rock is touching dirt, and you need space for shadow to be cast. So, we can take “shadow” as having a little more of metaphorical meaning. In this case, I am choosing “ghosts.” Sometimes, when I talk about ghosts, I don’t mean that in a supernatural sense. Ghosts can be forlorn or forgotten memories, or memories that follow you around. These wastelands, whether they are in China or New Jersey, are where people once lived and worked. There are countless untold stories buried under these red rocks and shattered plaster.  Yes, some old neighborhoods cannot be saved; that is a pragmatic way of looking at it. The more idealistic perspective is that, under these red rocks, are the shadows of lives lived and times that have passed. These are ghosts that will be forgotten. That’s the sad part of looking at these places; they are more than discarded heaps of garbage.

 

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Grinding Needles in Jintan

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Wisdom proverbs are a big part of a Chinese culture. So are poets and their writings. Sometimes, the two converge and overlap. For example, there is this idiom: 磨杵成针, or Mó chǔ chéng zhēn in Pinyin. If you translate it almost literally its “Grind pestle into needle.” More commonly, it means “To grind an iron bar into a needle.” This saying is often used to say persevering at a hard task is worthwhile.

This proverb is often attributed to Li Bai, who is often considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. The story goes like this. Li Bai, at a young age, came upon on an old woman who literally was trying to grind a thick iron bar into a thin needle. The poet-to-be took the iron bar and tried to do it for the old lady, but he eventually gave up quickly. Li told the woman she was being foolish — that it would take forever to do such a thing.  The old woman chided the young Li and reminded him that hard work can lead to good results. The young boy took that to heart and grew up to be one of China’s greatest poets. Eventually, “grinding an iron bar” also became a metaphor for succeeding at something hard.

As for the statue pictured above, it can be found in Jintan — Changzhou’s most westward district. It’s one of three idiom statues that can be found at Jintan’s Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园. The district’s central shopping area, Dongmendajie 东门大街is nearby. The bus terminal, and the express bus back to downtown Changzhou, is also in walking distance.

Who Was Su Dongpo?

Like dreams pass world affairs untold,

How many autumns in our life are cold?

 

— Su Dongpo, aka Su Shi

These translated lines come from one of China’s most renowned, most revered poets. Every culture has at least one figure like this — an age old linguistic master that not only helped shape the direction of a culture, but a language itself. For English speakers, this figure would be Shakespeare. Germans have Goethe, and Spaniards have Cervantes.

However, a Chinese friend once debated with me on this. Su Dongpo actually did more than just write poems, he penned travel essays, produced calligraphy, was a bit of a statesman, and much more. This was during the Song Dynasty nearly two thousand years ago. His verse quite often has similar themes of the poetry that followed — drinking wine, nature, and the depressing sense of exile and homesickness.

And, that’s where Changzhou comes in. Su Dongpo traveled extensively. Consider the distance in one lifetime. This writer was born in Meishan, Sichuan Province, and he traveled all over China. At the age of 64, He died in Changzhou, a city far, far away from his place of birth.

You can see reminders of this all over the city. Most notably, these are downtown.  Not only is there a park named in his honor, but a a small museum dedicated downtown, near Wenhuagang 文化宫. Nearby, there is also a calligraphy exhibit also baring his name, but these, I think, are more contemporary artists.

Sometimes, you can find references to him in places where you would not expect. For example, in Xuejia, there is a stone statue of him on the street corner.  The township sits between the greater Wanda area of Xinbei and Changzhou’s airport. At a glance, nothing suggests this is a historical site. Just a statue of a great writer.

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Sylvia Plath and The Daddy Statue

Marble heavy, a bag full of God,

Ghastly statue with one gray toe

big as a Frisco seal

 

and a head in the freakish Atlantic

— Sylvia Plath

Plath’s work as a poet has always struck me. There is usually a knack for a surreal turn of a phrase. The above lines come from “Daddy,” where a the language — the rhymes and the melody of the words — sounds childish. The content, however, is more a grown woman’s voice contemplating killing her father. Or, in some aspects, wanting to kill the memory of her father.  Brutal themes like this carry mostly all the way through her collection Ariel.

I used to think of this poem, not because I have daddy issues like Plath’s, but more because of a sculpture that used to be in Downtown Changzhou. It used to be the Future City shopping center next door to the Injoy Mall. A year and a half ago, Future City used to be empty, desolate. None of the shops were leased. There were just statues of a fat dude playing golf. Turns out, the area wasn’t a ghostly bit of real estate. The area was still being developed. The shops there have been slowly filling in. As shopkeepers moved in, the statue I used to like to look at vanished.

It was of a nude woman playing a flute.  On her pedestal, she sat semi-cross legged. However, one leg dangled over the side of the pedestal. Surrealistically, the leg became longer and fatter. Her foot always sparked the memories of reading “Daddy.”  Sure, the foot had more than one toe, but it always reminded me of the “Ghastly statue” line.  Overtime, I used to imagine that this was the speaker, the woman in poem. She was playing beautiful sounding music, but she was still deformed. And that’s how I would describe most of Plath’s work. Beautiful, but deformed.

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Zhonglou’s Child Prodigy

Classroom sculpture at Chun Gui Park in Zhonglou District.“I know this poem,” a Chinese friend and colleague told me via Skype. “This is the child prodigy poem Wang Zhu wrote. My father used to read lines of this to me when I was young. He wanted to remind me the value of education.”  She then went on to give me a rough translation. Unfortunately, my clunky old Compaq computer has been on a data-bleeding rampage as of late. It doesn’t work well, and I’ve been losing a lot of information recently – including her translations. As of right now, it’s lucky to still be in one piece; I have been tempted to throw this clunker out the window many times in a frothing rage. (I will be getting a new laptop soon). Yet, back to the issue at hand. Despite my current tech problems, I still I remember the gist of my colleague’s translations.Trust in books….

These weren’t just random lines I plucked off the Internet or out of a Chinese poetry anthology. The lines of verse come straight from a small park in Downtown, Changzhou. A different Chinese friend told me it’s called “Chun Gui Park.”  It’s one BRT stop past the Injoy Mall. Reciting student in Chun Gui Park's classroom sculpture.This would be the stretch of road that both the B1 and the B12 share with each other.  Chun Gui is across the street from another park alongside a canal. The BRT stop itself has a footwalk overpass. It’s the only one of two over-the-bus-footpaths I have seen in Changzhou thus far.

As for the park itself, it’s filled with statues dedicated to scholars, However, there is something more involved than just metal images of learned men in traditional robes.  There is one very green and lush path dedicated to different and well-known scholars that have at one point or another called Changzhou their home. Who those people are is best saved for another time.  Towards the back of this park, there is an intricate set of metal figures commemorating the spirit of Wang Zhu’s poem. You have to pass over a little bridge to get to it.

It looks like a classroom. You have the traditional Chinese laoshi standing in front of his students. The kids are all seated at their desk with three exceptions. At the very back of the sculpture, you have a child peering over a brick wall and into the classroom. It’s as if he is inquisitive and curious, but his parents did not have the means to

Not all the students in Chun Gui's classroom sculpture are invited.pay for his education. This child is standing on the back of a friend who is on all fours. This detail is very hard to spot, and you actually have to walk around to the back of the piece to actually notice this.

One boy stands in the front and off to the side. The sculptor rendered this kid with his mouth open, as if he was talking or addressing his teacher. Perhaps, he is reciting the lines of Wang Zhu’s poem that is etched on a stone slab nearby? Who knows. That’s the value of imagination. He could be cussing out his teacher for all I know, but that is highly and very unlikely. It is contrary to Chinese culture, after all.

Three of the seated students are paying full attention. They have their books open, and they seem attentive to their classmate and their instructor. That isn’t the really fun part of this scene, though. The two students and the kid peering over the wall suggest that the children all are bright and eager to learn. That Not only is the uninvited guest curious, but he's creatively using a boost from his friend.isn’t the case. Towards the back of the class, there is a kid taking a nap. The kid thinks he’s being sneaky about it. He has his book set up in front of his face, but the side of his cheek is against the desk – as in he is out and snoozing hard. In a sense, this is a more realistic detail when rendering a classroom. No matter if a teacher is in China, Great Britain, Australia, or America, there will always be some reluctant learners.  Only, in this day and age, it is easier to hide between a computer monitor in a language lab then to just merely pretend to read and nap.

There is one other thing this interpretative set of statues reminds me of. Even when I wasn’t having computer and VPN problems, I had real trouble locating any information on Wang Zhu and his child prodigy poem. Finding good information about China in English can be a challenge.  Despite a handful of websites, there really isn’t a lot about Changzhou to found. There is one thing, though, that you can easily find.  Many people in Changzhou are proud of their historical heritage; they are particularly proud of that heritage where education is concerned. This interpretative set of figures in Chun Gui Park is just a reminder of that.

Not every student can be the child prodigy suggested in Wang Zhu's poem, apparently.

Note: This was first published on now gone Tguide.org. It was reposted on my personal blog before being reposting it here. 

My Apology to the Nobel Laureates

IMG_20151225_173156Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.

Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.

— Wislawa Szymborska

This is, by far, my most favorite lines from the late 1996 Nobel Prize winning Polish poet. It’s also from my favorite Szymborska poem, “Under One Small Star.”I first encountered it roughly like 14 years ago, when I was studying for my masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had this phase where I read nothing but Slavic verse translated into English. The poem itself is a lengthy list of apologies; some of them sounded a bit silly, and others were quite profound. I didn’t know at the time that these set of lines would follow me through life.

This poem served me well the first time I angrily walked away American higher education and piecing together part-time teaching jobs. It was for a retail job at Walmart; the pay was about the same – only you could get health care insurance at Walmart. You couldn’t while part timing for American colleges. (This was before the age of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) Of course, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I spent years at a superstore in Freehold, New Jersey filled with petty scheming and constant moaning. Practically everybody else’s negativity was around me, and Szymborska’s poem hung in the back of my mind. I had a distinct pattern to my sarcastic retorts to people’s more sillier complaints. It went like this, “On behalf of the Walton Family, I do apologize for your hundreds of price changes and faulty telxon printer.” Some of my coworkers found this quite irritating.

heaneyOf course over the years, I angrily walked away from Walmart, twice. In the end, I went back to teaching freshman college writing. I got extremely frustrated with that, again, and I left for China and Changzhou. Since then, I must say my life has gone to a much happier place. I’m extremely grateful for that. Over the two years I lived here, Szymborska’s list of apologies receded a little in my memory and almost disappeared altogether. Something kept it from vanishing, however.

It’s funny how circumstances can change your appreciation of something, no matter if it’s a movie, a poem, or a memory. I found Szymborska again in Changzhou, as I did poets like Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and T.S Eliot. Not mention gloriously awesome novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it wasn’t through an expat book club. It wasn’t through witty banter with fellow foreigners. Let’s face it: I have been quite antisocial for a long time. It was through a specific place, and passing it always made me smile.

The downtown Injoy Mall used to have a whole wall dedicated to Nobel winning writers. It was a timeline depicting the history of the award. Some of the entries had black and white headshots, and others didn’t. Except for the writer’s names, all of it was in Chinese. A few times, I used to get coffee at the nearby Starbucks and visit this display on Injoy’s second floor. Only, I didn’t do it enough.

It’s gone now, and now I know I took this small intellectual comfort for granted. The wallpaper with the Nobel Laureates has been peeled off. It’s been replaced with a bookstore. That should sound appropriate, but the books are in Chinese. While I am trying to learn the language, I am still functionally illiterate. Those books bring no comfort to me, and they essentially mean nothing so long as I can’t read them.

A truth: you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s unavailable and gone. I now sorely miss this one celebration of international culture. So, in that regard, let me summon and channel the ghost of Wislawa Szymborska and her great, great poem. Let me apologize:

Pardon me, Nobel Laureates; I should have spent more time absorbing your words.

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