This was originally published in 2016. This was a temporary art exhibit at the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei.
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.
This was originally published in 2017. Back then, this was a temporary exhibit at the Wujin Museum.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.
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.
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.
Or a horse.
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.
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.
Dare to pray benevolence, less thanks to mercy. Chen see one side to go to Nanjing since, waiting for the purpose of the DPRK. Do not take the day.
— Definitely Not Su Dongpo
Su Dongpo 苏东坡, often considered one of the greatest poets of the Chinese language, did not write the above quote. It would be beyond absurd to suggest that a noted writer and artist of the Song Dynasty could foretell of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka North Korea. No, this is something that became garbled into English once I copy and pasted the Chinese characters of his article 乞常州居住表Qǐ chángzhōu jūzhù biǎo into Google Translate. Since it was beyond incomprehensible and impossible to Google in English, I showed this short text to a Chinese colleague and asked him for a general summary. Even he, a university professor and native Chinese speaker, had a hard time reading it. Ancient versions of Chinese doesn’t use compound characters the way the modern language does. A lot of Su’s pictograph choices are simply not used anymore. Put it this way: Su Dongpo’s Chinese is very antiquated, much the same way Geofrey Chaucer’s Middle English is impossible to fully comprehend by a modern speaker.
Su’s text, whose title could be loosely translated as “Request to Live in Changzhou,” captured my curiosity recently because of a monument in Xinbei. Specifically, it’s in town of Xuejia 薛家镇. This is a town out west of the greater Wanda area most expats know and associate with the name “Xinbei.” It is a stone wall shaped to look like an old bamboo scroll with vertical lines of text meant to be read from up to down and from right to left.
The wall itself seems to be part of a greater cultural plaza dedicated to the memory of this great writer and artist. But there seems to be another thing, and this seems common to Changzhou, sometimes.
The place doesn’t seem hardly used at all for it’s originally stated purpose, and some if it actually seems empty. Curious, I texted a friend that actually lives in Xuejia and asked her about it. She also give me the gist of the article, but she also noted that it seems to be a weird thing to have, here. Xuejia didn’t even exist when Su Dongpo was alive. She noted that the history of the town, much like that of Xinbei in general, is relatively short when compared to the rest of the city.
So, what was the article actually about? From what friends have told me, it was actually more of a written request sent to the emperor. He was asking for permission to live in Changzhou. I was told that this original request went ignored, and Su had to resort to writing a second request to live in this city. At times in his life, Su was an exiled imperial official — like most Chinese poets of antiquity were — and spent the most of his life traveling. Of course, he did end up living here. He eventually died here, too. So, it would make sense that even relatively new places in the city would erect some sort of cultural recognition that Changzhou people, to this day still, still consider him one of their own, even if he wasn’t born here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was originally published in 2016. It no longer exists. Reposting this because it was just a surreal place.
This popularity can be seen first hand in Changzhou. A Xinbei cafe bares a distinctive theme. Even down to the name: Mr. Bean Coffee. Inside the cafe, one can see pictures of Atkinson in his grey suit, but also weird, and rather surreal, portraits of the character on the wall. Other depictions range from cartoonish to semi-life-sized. There’s even a photo of him by the entrance, ushering a patron in.
Sitting and drinking espresso in Mr. Bean Coffee is just an odd, surreal experience. It’s not unpleasant. It’s just strange. But it raises other questions. Is this a case of copyright infringement? Does Atkinson profit from all these kids sitting around in his cafe while eating cake? It’s easy to lob “violating intellectual property” charge at businesses in China. After all, you don’t have to look for in Changzhou to find unlicensed uses of Micky Mouse. This isn’t one of those cases. Mr. Bean Coffee. The cafe is a chain. And it does have a license with Tiger Aspect. In theory, Atkinson should be seeing profit from this.
In Xinbei, Mr. Bean coffee can be found on a sunken, but open-air basement level of the Changzhou TV Tower complex. It’s the same urban block that’s home to a Lafu supermarket and a Secret Recipe Malaysian fusion restaurant. Mr. Bean is the neighbor to an Internet / computer gaming cafe. Wanda Plaza is in walking distance.
Yet, despite all of these location details, one fundamental question has not been addressed. How is the coffee? Not very good. Usually, I only buy Americanos at cafes. That’s because no business ever makes a simple pot of coffee in China. And I have no interest in drinking lattes or other types of liquid desserts. So, my judgement comes on the watered-down espresso shots alone. Starbucks is a lot better. The only reason to visit Mr. Bean Coffee is gawk awkwardly at its novelty.
There is one municipal employee in Changzhou that is perhaps the easiest to find — street cleaners. If you think about it, it is probably one of the most thankless jobs in the city. Even in humidity and high heat, these people are out picking up cigarette butts and other errant bits of trash on roads and sidewalks.
There is a statue dedicated to these workers. It’s located at a cheng guan — municipal code enforcers — headquarters in Wujin. There is another statue of the cheng guan nearby. Like that one, the street cleaners are depicted in a strange sort of buttery yellow. The chinese on the statue reads as 奉献, which loosely translates as devotion.
Qingming Mountain, over in the northeastern arm of Wujin, seems to be a spiritual destination in Changzhou. Dalin and Bailong temples are located there, and both are equally large as Buddhist and Taoist religious destinations. Both cost about 10 RMB to get in. But Qingming seems home to other places. A cemetery covers a lot of the hill. There is also a perpetually closed martyr’s graveyard, and then there is also Fushou Temple.
Every time I have visited Dalin or Bailong, the doors were usually closed and locked. Recently, I returned to Qingming Mountain to visit Dalin — as part of ongoing research into who and what louhans are in Buddhism. This time, Fushou’s doors were open, and there was a red and yellow banner over the entrance. Cars were parked there. I parked my bike and I walked in.
Unlike Dalin and Bailong, nobody was at the door to collect an entrance fee. I have seen this in temples around Changzhou when they are attempting to focus more as a place of worship and less as a tourist destination. As I walked around the temple grounds, one other thing just reinforced this. I passed by the main hall and heard chanting and a drum. I stopped to peer in. However, whenever I hear religious activity in progress, I tend to leave it alone. So, I didn’t enter that hall. Half an hour later, as I was leaving, I noticed the door to that big altar hall had been closed.
One of the most intriguing things, however, was not that shut entrance. Fushou Temple is the home to three large golden statues. There is also a room of what looked to be white-jade sculptures — one of which is a reclining Buddha. In this building, I climbed a set of stairs to the second level and found an empty space. Still, I was able to get a good shot of the three gold statues from behind.
The empty space reminded me of something else about Fushou. A lot of it seems to be renovation in progress. This isn’t like what you see at neighboring Dalin Temple, where new additions like an underground parking lot is being added. This looked like Fushou’s main facilities are getting an upgrade. After all, there was a cement mixer laying out in the open, as well as large stacks of concrete tiles. This puts the temple, like so many other places around Changzhou, on my “to watch list.” With a lot of facilities under renovation, this place could look completely different in one year. My guess, though, is that the three statues will remain.
From time to time, I sometimes buy philatelic products — especially if they have a greater Jiangsu or regional Jiangnan theme. This isn’t so much for myself but for my father. He’s a lifelong stamp collector, and his interest in Chinese stamps mostly comes from me giving them to him since I live here.
So, recently, I happened on a collection of Qingguo Lane themed postcards. These actually already have the postage printed on them. In terms of stamp collecting, this is something that father would term “postal stationary,” which is a smaller niche within stamp collecting.Yes, there is something infinitely more nerdy than stamps: the people who collect pre-postage marked envelopes and post cards. But who am I to judge? I collect Magic: The Gathering cards. The nerd gene is strong in my family!
While the English name of the set seems to be Elegant Rhyme of Qingguoxiang, these cards really have nothing to do with poetry. The Chinese title of 唐氏八宅 seems more practical. It can be translated as the Eight Houses of the Tang Family.
The cards themselves are relatively simple — black line drawings on a tan background. However, since Qingguo recently was revamped and reopened to the public, I decided to see if I could actually find the places depicted on these cards.
A majority of them did correspond with actual locations. Interestingly enough, some didn’t. The locations actually don’t look like the pictures, either. How could that be? There’s an easy answer to that: these postcards were issued ten years ago in 2009. So, these cards are commemorating the Qingguo that once was. As for the homes that are no longer there, it’s possible that they will be at some point. What was recently opened was just a first step. There are plans to add to Qingguo over the years.
I took the above photo back in 2014.That was before the area was cordoned off and thoroughly demolished and rebuilt. My guess is the Qingguo of that year also didn’t look like what is on the China Post issued cards. Qingguo of that era was crumbling and nearly derelict. Despite these disparities, the cards themselves can be taken as a celebration of the area in general. Historically influential Changzhou families — like the Tangs — did live here. Still, the disparity of what was and what things are going forward is a typically accurate display of this city’s extremely quick economic development.
Actually, this question unexpectedly elicits a secret shame I have lived with my adult entire life. Because of mixed genetics I have inherited from my-multi-ethnic-but-still-European-descended family, I lack the rather manly ability to grow a full, bushy beard. Viking, I am not. Nor will I ever be.
My dad suffers the same. An inside joke between us is: don’t shave for a month or more, and either of us may end up looking like the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat. All that means is that there always ends up being empty, barren, and smooth patches on my neck and cheeks. In other areas, singular rogue hairs protrude and then spiral out of control. If you selectively pluck them with tweezers, they grow even more serpentine and longer. The most logical response is to just nuke your face and shave it all off with a mutli-bladed razor and an aloe-based foam. Dull-and-cheap single blades may hack up your face, produce scabs, and prompt your friends to ask if you’ve been hard drinking again and fell off your bike — when you haven’t in a very long time.
Every time I have actually tried to grow a beard, the results have been disastrous. The most recent was during the initial onset of COVID-19 and its resulting lockdown in Changzhou back in 2020. I had the really dumb idea of “I shall not shave until there is a COVID vaccine!” Months went on and on. The more I gazed upon my reflection, I was just constantly reminded that I could not even grow a competent moustache, goatee, or soul patch.
Think about that; the bushy hipster triangle of follicles beneath a man’s lower lip that enrages most – I can’t even have that. I can’t even troll people with that. Maybe I should be grateful? Growing hair just because you can is a confirmed case of insecure and aging masculinity. Yet, in a man’s more desperate and impotent moments he might be willing to accept any sort of facial hair. Just because. I would equate the beard-deprived desire for just-a-soul patch as the same as bald men who does greasy comb-overs over a sunburnt scalp. The same goes for heavy metal gods experiencing male-pattern hair loss and compensate by growing out absurdly long beards. If they can no longer flair hair while head banging, at least they have reversed-compensated with a swishable beard, responsive to all head movements.
Just the term Beardtown elicits imagery of a desolate like Appalachian mountainside hamlet where all the men have crazy beards with a slight look of murder in their eyes look in their eyes. During my time in West Virginia back in the 1990s, it felt like that whenever my older brother and I got lost in the mountains once we left the interstate highways between Huntington and Morgantown — thinking we had found a solid back road shortcut.
At this point, it would be fair if somebody reading this might ask: what is even the point of this other than some loser blogger’s beardless pathos?
So, let me just rush to my point. Beardtown is not a product of my weird imagination. It’s a place that exists in the county-level of Jiangyin (Wuxi), and this would be the Huangtu part where you can actually see Xinbei landmarks like the media tower off in the distance. I have known of its existence for years, but I could never actually find it. I could only find signs pointing its direction.
So, I have spent years of wandering around this part of Huangtu obsessed with Beardtown and what could actually be there. Instead, I just saw a lot of stuff like this.
After all those years, I finally found Beardtown. It was easier than I thought. I actually paid attention to the Chinese characters of 胡子小镇 and not the English name. One quick map search later, and I realized that I had by walking past the place for years and not noticing.
Admittedly, the place was not what I expected. There were no scraggly facial hair anywhere! That being said, the place is still pretty surreal.
As it turns out, Beardtown is a tiny art campus affiliated with at least a Shanghai company and a Nanjing university. The surreality around this area is almost like a non-sequitur. For example, there is a golden-colored NFL statue between playpens for kids.
While Beardtown doesn’t actually feature anything with facial hair, there is one slogan that is painted all over the space.
It’s an intriguing slogan for a place called Beardtown. However….
There still not an actual follicle in sight. Just crazy art. I am not complaining. This small place is actually much more interesting than West Virginian hamlet with a bunch of dudes with stringy beards down to their knees.
There is a café here, though. This place is just so weird, but it’s also an interesting place to just sit and drink some coffee and soak in some ambiance.
Or tea and fruit.
It’s important to remember that Beardtown is just one tiny dot in a part of Huangtu that’s been zoned and urban planned for “rural tourism.” As far as I know, no busses actually come here. But, it’s an easy ride from Changzhou on an e-bike, car, or a DiDi — especially if a traveler is starting from Xinbei.
I just know, that over the years, this whole area, despite my “No Sleep Till Beardtown” obsession, has some weird things to look at. This, after coffee and cake, was spotted on the back to the car. At least this building has a moustache.