My first year in Changzhou, I never left the city. I really didn’t have the confidence to get up from my computer and just go somewhere. I just drank beer at night and stared at Facebook updates. Trying not to be a shut-in came in steps. First, I just started taking random city buses to places and then turning around and coming back. Six months later, I got my first eBike, but the range wasn’t that far. I could go 30 kilometers, turn around and arrive home with a dead battery. Learning how to take the train came next, and they last thing was intercity coaches. Into my third Changzhou year, I have finally figured out long-distance buses.
It does, however, require a little — but minimal — knowledge of Chinese. For example, you have to know the characters of your destination. Jintan is 金坛. Yangzhou is 扬州. Yangzhong is 扬中，and so on. If you have a translation app on your fine, figuring this out is easy if you have done minimal planning. Departure times in 24-hour format come next destination names. One column lists prices, and the last one is important: how many seats are left. This set up is pretty much at most Changzhou terminals. The sole exception I have seen, so far, is in Jintan. No display board at all — that station is fairly old.
People have different ways to measure pollution and how bad it is. The most obvious is to wake up in the morning, look out the window, and see how thick, thin, or not there smog is for the day. Other people tend to be more scientific and follow the Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers for Changzhou. For the longest time, I had a more arcane and most nonsensical approach, and it involved a statue.
It looks classically European, and I don’t know the story of why it is where its. It depicts a woman holding a basket of flowers, her garments are draped in a way you see in Italian sculpture, and her breasts are exposed — and so is a long bit of leg! However, the implied sexiness is muted by the “I must look askance and away” modesty thing you often see in art.
I used to pass this statue all the time when I lived in the south of the city. It’s on Heping Road 和平路, right after you cross the bridge from Wujin to Tianning. I would zip by it while on my way downtown on my eBike. This all sounds well and nice, but how did I link this weird girl to air quality?
It came down to how dirty this woman would look. At her worst, she would have black streaks across her face, and yellow smears across her breasts. Then, apparently, somebody would come scrub her and wash her. Then, she would be pristine and white again. Six months would pass, and the yellow smears on her legs and bosom would reappear — and somebody would eventually hose her down again.
As an air quality indicator, this is stupid beyond measure. I know that. Plus, I think the people responsible for the sculpture have caught on to how nasty this gal can look. Over the last year, the smudges and smears have never returned. And really, if I actually cared about pollution, I should be looking at AQI numbers and not a statue of a woman with her tits exposed.
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.
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
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.
Bellahaus, by far, is my favorite western restaurant in downtown Changzhou. It’s in the nearly empty mall Parksons built and then abandoned. This is on Beidajie, which is esentially Nandajie once the street crosses Yanling. So, when you are downtown, it is super easy to walk to. Typically, you might find me here on Saturday having lunch.
That being said, I feel the need to point out the worst thing there that I had. And if the owners or the chefs end up reading this, I am not being mean; this is constructive criticism. I once had a
terrible goat cheese salad here. By terrible, it was nearly all goat cheese and nearly no vegetables. There was nearly two slices of tomato, some cashews and walnuts, and a lot of sweet goat cheese slightly drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It felt like I was eating a desert, not a health conscious salad. A good friend of mine had this many months ago and recommended it. My guess was her salad was prepared differently and didn’t have goat cheese scooped onto lettuce as if it were ice cream.
Even though I hated that dish, i still standby my firm recommendation of the restaurant as a whole. For example, the “cordon rouge” is something I eat there all the time. Think of it as a cordon blue dish, but substitute pork for the chicken. Yes, that means you get a breaded pork cutlet stuffed with bacon and cheese. There are usually sliced mushrooms in there too. It’s a simple, filling dish that is worth the money.
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, 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.
Before moving to China, I spent a lot of time rationally thinking about where to look for a job. Eventually, I settled on Nanjing. While my recruiter contacted potential colleges and universities, I decided to do a little research on the culture of the city. And that’s when I discovered duck blood soup 鸭血粉丝汤.
At the time, it sounded absolutely revolting, even though most websites were calling it a delicacy and were heaping emotive adjectives on weird ingredients — “Sumptuous duck intestines,” for example. To the average American, the ingredients really do sound disgusting. The vermicelli noodles are made from from sweet potato flour. There is a form of fried tofu in here to. That’s well and fine, but lets get to the fun parts!
I guess starting with the blood should suffice. Blood in general is a standard part of Chinese cuisine. In my time in the middle kingdom, I’ve eaten duck, pig, sheep, and goose blood. Typically, it’s shaped into cubes and it looks like a brown form of tofu, and it tastes that way too, albeit a bit coppery and metallic. Blood pretty much tastes the same — just some, like duck, have stronger flavors that others, like pig. So, the blood is not the stock that makes up the broth at all; it’s a solid.
As for the other ingredients, there is no rest for the squeamish. This soup literally has most of a duck’s organs floating in it. That includes livers, lungs, intestines, gizzards, and more. There may be some variations, but rest assured that there will always be organ meat in this soup. And before somebody screams Barbaric! Keep this in mind: many Americans in the south enjoy eating chicken gizzards and hearts. Liver and onions is a pretty standard dish. Pork rinds are deep fried pig skin, and so on and so forth.
I once told my father I would never eat something this repulsive. The funny thing is this: the list of foods I said I would never eat in China keeps getting shorter and shorter. I have a rule: never insult Chinese hospitality. If I am having dinner with a Chinese friend, and they are paying the bill, I will at least try what they order. After all, dishes are communal when dining out. And that’s how a mischievous friend tricked me into trying this.
We were at some food street near Cultural Square 文化宫 in downtown Changzhou. He set the bowl down and simply said, “Try this. If you like it, then I will tell you what it is.” I already knew what it was, just by seeing the brown slabs floating in it. So, I gave it a try. Once I could see beyond my own cultural and culinary prejudices, I realized something. It wasn’t that bad at all.
These little statues are somewhat common in Downtown Changzhou. Usually, I have seen them near Nandajie or near Culture Square / 文化宫 — where they are building the large downtown subway station.
My guess is that these are characteristic of French or Italian chefs. According to stereotypes, they both tend to be fat, and they both tend to have silly little mustaches. That’s odd, because because these statues are never near European or Western or Anything foreign. Usually, they are near your average Chinese fare.
As for this odd fellow, he’s near a semi deserted dining area of little shops. It’s across the street from the subway construction. Looks like he had his head ripped off, and then somebody put the head upside down back into the hollow opening. You know, for safe keeping. Wouldn’t want to lose a head, wouldn’t you? These statues always looked a bit bug-eyed and creepy to begin with. Now, this one is just downright surreal.
Changzhou is not particularly well known for private gardens. Bigger cities like Suzhou and Shanghai usually get more attention for that, and well they should. This doesn’t mean th
at Changzhou is a wasteland, either. There are some great public parks like Hongmei, Dongpo, and Jingchuan, but they are more recent creations. Many private gardens in Suzhou are also historical sites that have been around for at least two generations or more. I found such a place in downtown Changzhou, recently that dates from the Qing Dynasty. In fact, I have often passed by it since 2014 without even really knowing it was there.
Yueyuan Garden (约园) is practically right on Jinling Road, and the north-bound 302 bus passes it before crossing over Yanling Road. It’s also easy to walk to from Nandajie. If you walk south on Jinling, pass Tartine Bakery, it’s actually one of the immediate turn offs.
The garden itself is encircled by a circular road and some parking spaces and buildings belonging to Changzhou #2 People’s Hospital. The Garden has two pavilions. One sits atop gray and weathered rocks. The other is on an island in the middle of the pond. A concrete walkway with railings provides access. Besides sit – and possibly eat a takeout lunch – in peace and quiet there is not much else to do here. It is a realatively calm space where you hear the burbling of water more than Changzhou traffic.
I am thinking of a young, impoverished son of a farmer with secret dreams of becoming a poet and a faithful, humble servant of his emperor. This is during the Ming Dynasty – roughly around the year 1406. His name is Gu Xiaofeng (古小风)，and he’s walking along a narrow dirt road flanked by farms. Around him, he sees garlic sprouts, types of lettuce, and bulbs of cabbage. He can also smell the pungent stink of manure fertilizing the fields. He’s used to it; after all, he grew up on small farms not unlike the ones he is passing. While he is not homesick, he is thinking of his brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles he has left behind. He remembers his mother’s hopeful expression the last time he saw her face. Ever defiant, she refused to cry during his farewell. Despite all her efforts, a few rogue tears did slip down her cheeks. He also remembers his father’s stern, but non-judgmental eyes. Behind that stoic face, Xiaofeng knows there is a profound sense of hope his father doesn’t want him to see. To Xiaofeng, it’s a burden. He may walk this farmland path alone, but it feels like his large, peasant family is with him, weighing his shoulders down. This is in Jiangnan, nearly fifty or so kilometers from the banks of the Yangtze. Centuries later, this whole area would be known as greater Changzhou. Gu Xiaofeng is walking to the triennial imperial exams. If he does very well, he can get an important job, a very good income, and he raise his entire family out of its meager economic existence. If he fails, the exam will not be offered again for three more years. For Xiaofeng, these stakes are extremely high.
Let’s stop here, for a moment. Gu Xiaofeng is not a real, historical figure. Before anybody rushes to Google or Baidu to research him, I’ll confess I just made him up while typing this. In a way, I wanted to dramatize something common in Chinese history: the extreme importance of the imperial and civil service exams. The test was grueling and could span days while in isolation. For the poor, it was one way to achieve upward social mobility. In China’s long history, one can easily assume there were many people in Xiaofeng’s circumstances. My choice of this fictional character’s location is no accident, either. Changzhou has been well known for producing intellectuals over its long history. One of the metrics, historically, for measuring this has been how many people from the area have done well on the imperial exams.
One high achiever was Chen Qia (陈洽), who was quite real and not a figment of my imagination. He ranked jinshi (進士). People scoring this high are the best of the best, and are often seen as the people most qualified for top imperial jobs. Chen Qia apparently excelled at poetry and history. His upward mobility landed him the position of as minister of war under Emperor Yongle. This was at a time when China was not a reclusive society. They Ming Dynasty sought an expansive and intrusive foreign policy, especially when it came to Southeast Asia. During Yongle’s reign, rebellion broke out in a region that would later become Vietnam. Chen Qia went personally to oversee the military campaign. That didn’t go so well, with his army scattered and defeated, Chen chose to take his own life rather than personally concede to humiliation of defeat. Apparently, his corpse was brought back from Vietnam, and the imperial government honored him in death by called him a patriotic hero. All these centuries later, you can still visit where he is buried in Changzhou. It’s a protected cultural site.
It’s located on the lower edge of Tianning District. If one were to take a B1, B16, or B11 bus north on Wuyi Road, one would pass the Wujin Injoy shopping mall. Once those buses go a little more north, they come to a large bridge passing over a canal or a river. (Sometimes, in Changzhou, it’s hard to tell which is which). This water body acts as a boundary between Wujin and Tianning districts. Once over the bridge, the bus will pass an Auchan supermarket. This is where one would hop off. Then, one would have to walk south, back towards the bridge. Once you pass Auchan and keep walking, a potential visitor will come to a very large residential complex. Chen Qia’s grave is located on the other side.
It can be divided into two parts. One is the grave itself. There is no headstone. There is, however, an inscribed stone tablet with a summation about Chen Qia’s life. Two of my good Chinese friends helped by reading it for me. The grave itself is a circular mound with a tree and a lot of overgrown grass and weeds. This area is partially walled off, but the gate is open with old Chinese characters chiseled and colored gold. The other area takes the form of a small garden with a pond, walkways, a little bridge, a gazebo, and what looks to be recently built traditional Chinese architecture.
In the times I have visited this place, I have only seen locals – a father walking around with his daughter, some dude taking a mid-afternoon nap in the gazebo. One woman decided to bring a drying rack here to air out her laundry.
There seems to be a shop of some sort with traditional handicrafts, but I didn’t bother to look in. The guy inside was also curled up on the floor and taking a nap. As I walked around taking cell phone pictures, one middle aged man did take an interest in my presence. With a huge grin, he tried to tell me more about Chen Qia, but we both were slightly frustrated. My Chinese sucks, and we couldn’t convey meanings accurately enough through our phone’s translator apps.
The language barrier frustrated me even more once I actually tried looking Chen Qia up. Even on Baidu and in Chinese, he’s obscure. What I could find, Google Translate rendered unreadable. Again, this is where I benefited from the kind, enabling generosity of my Chinese friends and the stone tablet at the grave itself. Oddly enough, Chen Qia is listed as being born in Wujin. Yet, I couldn’t find any mention of him at the Wujin Who’s Who Museum. You think somebody ranking jinshi on the imperial exam would have had some sort of blurb there. Then again, having your grave preserved centuries after the fact – and not bulldozed to make way for more urban development – is no small consolation prize. Not everybody gets their own culturally protected monument after their death.
That includes Chinese people I totally fabricated out of literary convenience and research laziness. So, what ever happened to Gu Xiaofeng? Nothing, of course. He never existed. But if I were to continue writing his story, here is the ending I would give him. He did very well on his exams. No, he didn’t score high enough to rank as jinshi. He never worked directly for Emperor Yongle. He stayed around Changzhou and had more of a provincial, local governmental job. Still, his mother and father became very proud of him. His wife doted on him every day, and he returned such warm affection in kind. Xiaofeng continued to write poetry and practice his calligraphy in his spare time, but his profound sense of humility kept these verses quiet and unpublished – until he reached old age. Then, he recited them only to his legion of rambunctious and energetic grandchildren. How energetic? They all wanted to wrestle and play with him – all the time.