There are many ways to learn about a foreign country. The most obvious is to pick up a book and read, but it’s not that simple when you live in China. A lot of the broader strokes of Chinese history can be found in English, but if you are trying dig your fingers into something local, the information is just not simply there if you can’t read Chinese. Google Translate, while useful, is great for a general idea regarding a text, but it garbles and distorts nuance out of focus. Plus, smaller cities like Changzhou are more obscure subjects to most travel writers. Places like Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou suck up most coverage. So, what does that leave you? Public monuments, parks, museums, and things like that. Recently, I developed another tactic that’s both helped me learn new Chinese characters and more about the landscape I live in.
I call it “working the map.” It’s rather simple, and I doubt I’m the only one to come up with this. I look at a map of Changzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, et cetera, and pick two to three locations. Then, I go out and actively try to find them in the real world. It works better if you are picking the locations on your computer or your phone and not a real, paper map. This way, I can type in new characters I’ve learned. For instance, 故居 (guju) means “former residence,” and on a map that’s usually attached to a historical figure. It’s weird how if you change the keywords ever so slightly, you get different results. A word like 墓地 (mudi) will bring you “graveyards,” but a characters like 陵园 (ling yuan) may not. They both are places that involve the dead, but they are not exactly. The first is “graveyard” in a general sense, and the second refers specifically to a walled in compound with graves. The same nuance can be found in English – tomb, grave, mausoleum, and cemetery are not all exactly the same in meaning.
Sometimes, “working the map” leads me to a cultural hidden treasure, and sometimes it doesn’t. On the most basic level, it is what it is: an excuse to get out of my apartment. I did this recently with a place called 天府陵园 (Tianfu Cemetery). Since it’s October and Halloween season, I’ve been making a point to locate and visit as many cemeteries in Changzhou as I can. I can assure you, some Chinese people might find this activity a little bit odd or strange. Chalk that up to cultural differences. Anyhow, I also picked Tianfu Cemetery because it was relatively close. I had an afternoon class, and I didn’t want to venture too far away from my school. Plus, I figured I could stop at RT Mart for dinner provisions on my way back.
Getting to Tianfu didn’t seem as convoluted as some other places I’ve been to in Changzhou, like Yun Nantian’s home. First, I rode my electric moped to Yancheng in Wujin. This is the big historical attraction from the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. There’s also a zoo, an amusement park, and two of Wujin’s foreign restaurants (Monkey King and Chocolate’s). I was on Yanzheng Road, which is on the south end of this popular tourist destination. Once I passed the first intersection, I kept an eye out for Hubin Road. By now, I could smell that I was in one of the more industrial areas of Wujin. You can actually smell the pollution here, and the air feels a bit gritty on your eyeballs.
Eventually, I found myself on a Dongbao Road. Here, there are factories, and drab concrete barrier walls. Some of these have crumbling walls, and the locals have used them as incineration points. Basically, people have thrown their garbage through the hole and then set the trash on fire. Only, the job never got completely done. You can say that most places that burn garbage. There’s also something always left over.
This idea also carried over to Tianfu Cemetery. The front of the compound features a semi-enclosed area with a short concrete wall. There, a pile of charred remnants still smoldered and gave off whips of acrid smoke. I wondered how this was different than, say, a Taoist or Buddhist temple, where the air is also thick with smoke. Those sacred sites also have pits and places to burn things, but that’s usually incense. I didn’t smell incense outside Tianfu, but given the Chinese veneration of their ancestors, I also highly doubt people would incinerate garbage there. So, it was probably joss paper. This can be seen as a sort of “spirit money used as a burnt offering to the dead. This paper can be simple, or it can be ornate with gold or silver foil attached. Joss Paper is not fragrant, like incense either. If you believe some sources, this smoke it gives off can be toxic, and prolonged inhalation can harm a person’s health.
The front of the cemetery featured the usual sort of Chinese gate with curved-up edges. Beyond that, I could see
black stone tombstones in rows. There were also buildings and other sorts of things. I looked at the metal gate. It had blocked access to cars. There was a door-like entrance, and for a moment, I thought about walking in and looking around. Only, I didn’t. The place was staffed, and I really didn’t know the Chinese attitudes about regarding burial sites and casual visitors. Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was be culturally offensive.
So, I just jumped on my eBike and moved on down the road. Visiting the entrance of Tianfu Cemetery came with no cultural or personal epiphanies or revelations. My personal knowledge of Chinese or Changzhou history wasn’t particularly advanced by the visit. Going there had just been a case of “working the map.” At the least, another small part of the city is not unfamiliar to me, now.