Tag Archives: Tianning

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.

One Less Reason to Avoid Seeing a Dentist

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You know something has gone wrong when a dentist is staring into your mouth with a mixture of shock and bemusement. Keep in mind he wasn’t my primary dentist, either. This was one of his two colleagues he asked his nurse to fetch. Apparently, my mouth was quite a horror story his colleagues had to see to believe.

“Yup,” the guy peering into my mouth said, “This one’s a doozy!” He turned back to the guy actually performing my surgery. “You’re going to write a paper about this later, right?”

Such is the bedside manner of American military health care providers. This was a long time ago, when I was on Christmas vacation from college, and I had gone back to England to visit my parents. On Christmas morning, I woke up and couldn’t move my face. I could barely open my mouth. Long story short, I had a severely abscessed tooth that led to massive swelling. Fixing it required a root canal from hell. Another dentist once read my case file and managed to pause between fits of laughter to apologize. “I’m not laughing at you,” he said. “It’s just I have never seen or read anything like this before!”

Many people develop unique reasons why they put off going to the dentist. The above scenario made me delay getting a wisdom tooth removed for years. Then, the reasons changed. I blamed the poor state of my mouth on being an adjunct college writing instructor, not having dental or medical benefits, and not being able to afford a simple cleaning and check up. Then, I moved to China and cited the language barrier as why I couldn’t go. That excuse is probably one of the more common ones expats use – that and the inability to find a good dentist. In Changzhou, that reasoning doesn’t work anymore.

Modern Dental has capable staff that can speak English, and they have a highly skilled dentist with excellent English. Sometimes, navigating hospitals requires tasking a Chinese friend to come with you to translate. I know of this first hand; back in 2014, I contracted laryngitis and had to make multiple visits to a hospital in Wujin. It’s always good to know, however, that sometimes you don’t have to bother Chinese friends for assistance. Modern Dental offers that exact convenience while maintaining high standards of service.

Currently, they have two offices in Changzhou. The easiest to locate might be the one in the Jiuzhou New World Plaza in Tianning. It’s on the fourth floor, and that mall is easily accessible by several BRT busses like the B1, B16, and B11. The other office may be a little harder to locate. It’s on Yulong Road in Zhonglou. That is walking distance from the downtown Injoy Plaza, but it’s on a back street that runs parallel to Yanling. The Youdian Phone Markets are also nearby. A check up and a cleaning costs 525 RMB.

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Modern Dental, Fourth Floor of Jiuzhou New World Plaza

As for me, up until recently, I have been avoiding the dentist for 10+ years. You could imagine the dread and apprehension I felt while waiting to get into the chair. I had imagined and feared that my mouth was filled with scandals that could become fodder for academic literature. Turns out, nothing was wrong. I just needed a very thorough cleaning. Since this is me we are talking about, I’ll likely just find something new to become intensely neurotic about. Give me time.

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Jiuzhou Plaza. Chinese address is at the bottom.

 

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Photos of Changzhou Station’s Prior Lives

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Changzhou’s central station is not what it once was in bygone eras. I discovered this, recently, through a series of photos on display near the station, but in an easy to miss location if you are not hunting for them specifically.

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This is something I found while doing legwork on a different writing project. I had become intrigued with the city’s network of canals, as it is one of the oldest surviving landmarks still around from the city’s antiquity of more than a thousand years. During this bit of fieldwork, I found a threesome of small memorials dedicated to the train station itself. This is across the street from the south plaza.

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On wooden walkway next to the canal, there are three photos in glass cases. The appear to be laser etchings on sheets of brass-colored metal. These display windows are set into the staircases that lead down to the canal’s walkway. As one can see from the above photo, they do not photograph very well.

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The only way to get discernible details was to get my phone close to the glass to cut out as much glare and reflection as possible. Of course, it’s hard to reproduce the entire photo this way.  The above photo seems to be from circa 1907. Besides the crowds, the station itself seems rather modest and is only a building or two.

 

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The next shot shows the second incarnation from the late 1950’s and 1960’s. I do have to say, it is really hard to fact check these photos online. I had trouble finding the real photos these metal sheets are based off of.

 

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The third and final plaque suggests something more modern and geometric in its architecture. This would be in the 1990’s. However, as most of us who have traveled through Changzhou’s downtown station, it most certainly doesn’t look like this anymore.

Who knows what the train station will look like in the future. The south plaza — where some would get tickets to board the slow trains — is currently under renovation. Parts of the south plaza has been absolutely gutted to make way for something new. Who knows, maybe is 20 to 50 years, there will be a fourth installment into this pictorial history showing our current station as a relic of the past?

Following City River

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Time for Roses in Tianning

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Some places in Changzhou are time sensitive. By that, I mean it’s best to visit them only certain times of the year due to climate and more. This is definitely true of Tianning’s Zijing Park. This is the place with the massive metal Farris wheel that doesn’t work. Yet, that can be seen all year. So, what is the other attraction here?

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It’s June, and we are at the beginning of summer, still. The flowers in Zijing Park are beginning to bloom. While they are spread liberally through the park, the best place for a stroll might be the International Rose Garden. This place goes above and beyond the typical Chinese passion for flowers. Actually, the World Federation of Rose Societies singled out this area of the park with their Award of Garden Excellence in 2012.

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As of this writing, the roses are just starting to bloom, so this garden my be more beautiful in a few weeks. It should also be noted that this area is dubbed as “international”  as based on where the species of each rose comes from. Walking through here affords a visitor to see a variety of shapes and colors.

Oh, and this goes without saying. Don’t be a D-bag or an A-hole while walking around here.

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Zijing Park is in the part of Tianning that is close to Xinbei. Actually, it’s just a few kilometers south of Dinosaur Park.

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Between Nothing and Something

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Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

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This is basically a poor neighborhood, so the sight of a tall white dude on an ebike garnered weird looks. “Why is he here?” I have grown immune to it. In fact, I just smile, wave, and say 你好!That usually generates enough good will that people smile back. That especially helps when I had to get off my bike and do some searching on foot. A genuine smile, I have learned, can go miles while you do not have adequate Chinese skills. I still have no doubt some of the locals are still thinking, “What the hell is this weirdo doing in this obscure part of Changzhou?”

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If you have roamed around Changzhou long enough, you will find that people will actively seek out every bit of space possible to garden and grow vegetables. It doesn’t matter how tiny the plot. Eventually, I found the historical site that had alluded me for a month or two.

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Yeah, it was a little bit overgrown. The historical marker was still intact.

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So, I mentioned the word “quixotic” earlier. So, what is was useless and silly about this search? What was the windmill I was tilting at? Remember the sign says “protected” for “historical and cultural value at the provincial level.” Yeah, right. This is what the place looks like behind the wall.

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Believe me, stuff like this is so normal in Changzhou. It’s the one of the many signs of a city rapidly changing. Like or not, Changzhou is undergoing a rapid transformation and metamorphosis. Right now, that means a lot of rubble, everywhere. But sometimes, idle wanderings lead to things you don’t expect.

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Apparently, in the back alleys next to a canal, I found a grave site. The two huge stone boxes are caskets. Lots of people were buried in them. The signage did not say if they were local, or if these things were simply moved here because there was open space and it was convenient. Honestly, in China, you can never tell, especially if you are a foreigner trying to figure out a local culture that is not in your native language. From the signage, I eventually that two important people were among the interred.  They were 白埈 Bái jùn and 样淑 Yàng shū. I was told these two guys were important in Changzhou. Funny, thing, Baidu searches go nowhere. I can’t find anything on who they are. So, these stone caskets will linger in my mind until I can understand the story behind them. In short, the search to understand China continues. I always will.

 

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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An Elegy for a Building

Memory, with the hand of a giantess
You lead life like a horse by the reins,
You will tell me about those who lived
In this body before it was mine.

–Nikolay Gumilyov

Downtown Changzhou has one less building now. Currently, subway construction has long been underway where Wenhuagong / Culture Square used to be. The demolished place was a huge, unsightly yellow building that housed a few shops, a Pujing Hotel, a Spa Massage Place, Global Kids International English, and a few other things. There was a massive food court behind the building. All of it is gone now. While it is always poignant to lose a place you had a personal connection to, stuff like this is normal when a city is growing. So, this is not criticism, per se. It’s just an opportunity to remember the past. Plus, instead of explicating the poetic lines from Gumilyov and extrapolating it onto Changzhou, I thought it just be best to let those four lines and a few pictures do all the talking right now. All of these images are mine, with the exception of three screen captures I took from videos that went viral on Wechat.

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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.

Pictures as Addresses

Petersburg! I still have the addresses
Where I can call on the speech of the dead.

–Osip Mandelstam

The above lines come from a poem entitled Leningrad, and it can be taken as an elegy. The dark imagery is suggesting that Mandelstam is critical of the Soviet legacy he finds in a city he deeply loved. It’s also evident, that as somebody else has pointed out, that the yearning voice is crying out for St. Petersburg, the older name, and the one that was restored in the 1990s. It’s certainly not pining away for Leningrad.

Yet, Mandelstam’s words here actually reminds me of Changzhou for a very specific reason. Generally, the older you get, the more you can summon the voices of the dead. By that, I don’t mean by holding a seance or doing hocus pocus black magic. Ghosts are memories of things, people, and places that have gone away for good. Simply having memories can be ways of summoning the dead. I was reminded of Mendelstam recently while going through my photo archive. I found these three pictures…

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This was a largely abandoned food street near Wenhaugong in downtown Changzhou. It was behind a large yellow building that had a hotel and was home to a number of businesses — an English language training center for kids being one of them. While these pictures certainly look bleak, this area was once a busy food court called 大排档 Dà páidàng. This area is where I tried duck blood soup and few other “new to me” Chinese dishes that were delicious. That building / food court now looks like this…

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You can usually tell when a building is slated for demolition. I used to go inside this building all the time. A friend of mine runs the earlier mentioned language training center that used to be on the sixth floor. Three years ago, the insides of the place used to be almost fancy. Then, it’s like people stopped caring. Lights would not be replaced. Renovations stopped.  Peeling wall paper wouldn’t be replaced. TV equipment would be stripped out, and so on and so on. They likely knew this place was slated for demolition.

In a sense, it makes sense that this building would be torn down. After all, across the street is where a new, modern subway station is being constructed. This hub will be the central station as it’s going to be the interchange of the future two lines. It seems logical that there would be new, and modern buildings around what will become a new city center with the focus shifting away from Nandajie. Yet, it’s not the decrepit building that reminded me of Mandelstam’s lines. It’s the very concept of old photos. In a way, they can be a sort of example of the “addresses” he writes of.