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.
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.
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.
I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.
Historians can argue wither Augustus Caesar was accurate or not with this claim. However, casual history buffs do know he rose to power after a period of war, instability, and political intrigue. Some people know this because they were forced to read Shakespeare in high school and college. Julius Caesar, Augustus’ uncle, had high political ambitions and got stabbed to death for it in the Roman senate. If you put the context of the above quote to one side for the moment, Augustus’ words makes me think Chinese urban planning, sometimes.This isn’t a case of random associations, either. I actually ran into a statue of Augustus in Xinbei.
At first, this seemed a bit random. This is inside a small housing complex very close to Hohai University and on Jinling Road.
Other than maybe the architecture, there is nothing remotely European about the place. Augustus is the only statue here. It seems like a non-sequitur if you zero in on the sculpture itself. If one steps back, however, there is a wider context. Changzhou and China in general seem to build things with non-Chinese themes all the time. Many expensive Chinese residential complexes sport European tropes in an attempt to look wealthy and suggest sophistication. Examples of this can be found all over the city — and also not that far from where I found Augustus.
Sometimes I wonder about Changzhou and the above Augustus Caesar quote. Changzhou, like many other cities across China, is a city of bricks. You see this in poorer neighborhoods here and places that has met the wrecking ball and are now temporary fields of rubble. Literally, piles of bricks waiting to be taken away so the land can be redeveloped into something more “modern” and “contemporary.” That is part of the “Chinese dream” I guess. Knock it all you want as over zealous urban planning, but deep down, this city wants to be one of marble.
Meng Jiao 孟郊 clearly loved and cared for his mother. The above lines — taken from this translation of “A Traveler’s Song” — convey that as do the rest of the poem. For a large part of his life, he refused to take the imperial exams, but he eventually relented once he reached middle age. A civil service job, he reasoned, would allow him to financially support her as she grew older. This eventually led him to a ministerial position in Liyang — a city to the south that is part of Changzhou’s prefecture. There, he dithered around among streams and forests while composing poems.
“A Traveler’s Song” (遊子吟) was one of those poems he wrote while living in Liyang. It’s a short bit of a verse. It speaks of a son about to set off to travel, and his mom is sewing his clothing for him before he leaves. The poem doesn’t mention where the son is going or how long he will be gone. It’s just the departure is impending, and that both the son and the mother will miss each other.
Generality can be a blessing and a curse in poetry. It largely depends on the linguistic skill of the poet in conveying emotion. This poem, in the variety of English language translations I have read, uses generality and vagueness rather well. It gives a reader just enough information while allowing them to read their own life into the lines.
For example, Meng Jiao’s poem remind me of my own mom. While I was in college in West Virginia, my parents still lived overseas — The Netherlands for a year, and then the UK until my father retired from the US Department of Defense. I came to visit for a few weeks every Christmas and New Years. Eventually, I would have to get back on the airplane and fly across the Atlantic. I wouldn’t see them again until summer, when they would come to the US to see my brother, sister, and myself. There was always talk of time and distance every time my Mom and I parted ways. Of course, plenty of other readers around China and the rest of the world have had no problem understanding this poem. It is one of Meng Jiao’s most famous works.
It is always interesting to see how a famous piece of literature transcends written text and takes on a life out in the world. “A Traveler’s Tale” is actually part of the decorative lanterns at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. A large chunk of the colorful art on display have more generalized holiday themes. However, there is a portion close to Hehai Road that recreates Changzhou history.
I found this recently because a friend and I went on a stroll specifically to look at the lanterns and laugh at their gaudy silliness. We both sort of stopped and lingered at the Meng Jiao display, because, well, part of it looked a little creepy.
At the time, we both didn’t know what we were looking at. The reddish marks on her face look a little like bruises. I didn’t quite know what to make about the black smudges around the both eyes. Now that I have had time to think about it, it’s the limitations of the medium when it comes to this sort of public art. Spring Festival lanterns easily look childish. The vibrant, bright colors have something to do with that. However, if you look at Meng Jiao’s mom, and the nearby recreation of Su Dongpo, they have a difficulty in conveying age.
Of course, I am nit picking. The point Spring Festival lantern displays is to do exactly what my friend and I did — walk around and smile at them. There is plenty of time to do just that. While the western holiday season is coming to an end, the run up to Spring Festival is just beginning.
Ancient Chinese history is filled with brutal court intrigues among generals, politicians, heads of state, fox spirits, and more. This is particularly true when you consider that, over the course of time, China has been splintered into several countries. That means, basically, that the Game of Thrones tales of double, triple, and quadruple crossing people, allies, and enemies can become easy to find. More regal courts means more opportunities for people betraying each other. Just look at the history of Chinese poets; the whole “I am in exile, drunk, and miss my home” is a common literary trope. Why? A lot of poets were also government officials that ran afoul of somebody and had to leave. It’s the story of Li Bai, and it’s the story of Su Dongpo, for example.
The more somebody travels through China, the more they can see this if they start paying attention to local lore and legend. I realized this once in Liyang. While this place is not a district of Changzhou as a municipality, it is considered part of Changzhou as a prefecture. In short, it’s its own city, but it’s technically still part of CZ.
Over in Phoenix Park 凤凰公园 near Liyang’s urban center，a statue commemorates something called “The Gauze Washing Virgin.” The stone sculpture stands in the middle of a pond, and four large stone panels — with etched illustrations — serves as a backdrop. The story, according to a bilingual sign, can be paraphrased this way.
A young woman is washing textiles in the river. Eventually, a man wanders into her life. He’s weak, he’s starving, and she saves him. She feeds him and shows him some hospitality. While doing so, she recognizes him as Wu Zixu 伍子胥.
This was a figure from the Chu Kingdom’s court during the Spring and Autumn Period. Chu was a larger country to the west of Liyang and Changzhou. On the run, Wu Zixu fled Chu and ended up in the Wu Kingdom. (To be noted: the Wu family name 伍 and the Wu kingdom 吳 are different WU characters in Pinyin. Also, by the way, unintended rhyming is hard to avoid when you are using Chinese names.) The state of Wu was comprised of areas that are currently associated with Suzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou.
Anyhow, this young woman saves this guy’s life. Yet, she realizes that she now possesses a deadly secret. She knows who he is. More importantly, she likely realizes somebody is after him. According to the sign at Liyang’s Phoenix park, she picks up a big rock, throws herself into the river, and drowns to protect his identity. If she dies, his secret dies with her.
All of this story is just a small detail in a small park — in a town more known for eco tourism around Tianmu Lake and the Nanshan Bamboo Forest. However, it’s lore like this that actually gives town like Liyang true character.
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.
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.
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.