Category Archives: Culture

BRICKS AND MARBLE

This was originally published in 2016.

I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.

–Augustus Caesar

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.

BRIGHTLY COLORED MOTHER’S LOVE

This was originally published in 2017.

Who says my heart of a grass seedling

Can ever repay her warm spring sun?

–Meng Jiao, from Traveler’s Song

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.

LIYANG’S GAME OF THRONES STYLED STORY

This was originally Published 2017

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.

Wu Zixu, now in exile, goes to become an official in the Wu Kingdom’s court. He eventually prophesied the end of the Wu Kingdom due to treachery, but he still lost his life in the same type of Game of Thrones type of intrigue that caused him to flee the Chu kingdom in the first place. According to Wikipedia, he was asked to commit suicide, and before he did so, he told the then-king to gouge out his own eyes.

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.

QIANLONG IN CHANGZHOU

This was originally published in November, 2018

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.

THE HOME OF A DOUBTING SCHOLAR

The academic world sometimes can feel like a separate universe with a secret jargon that requires a decoder ring dug out of a Cracker Jack box. This is a largely technical language needed to speak to very specific issues within scholarship. For example, in literary theory, there are schools of thought like deconstruction, reader-response, queer theory, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and more. Each of those camps has it’s own subsets of jargon that has fueled papers, theses, and dissertations and will continue to do so for centuries to come. For example, post-structuralism has some circular gibberish about “signifier” and “signified” that I could never fully wrap my head around. Trust me, I tried very hard. That’s just the study of literature. That’s not even touching the other English fields of teaching, linguistics, grammar, and translation.

In academia, Chinese history also has its diverse groupings of scholars. One of them is something called “Doubting Antiquity.” These were researchers who expressly voiced concerns about the historical accuracy of some stories within classic Chinese texts like Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian.

It would be a lot like western historians asking and researching critical questions into Herodotus or  Holinshed’s Chronicles — which provided some source material for some of Shakespeare’s plays. Since Qian sometimes wrote about the nearly mythical Shang Dynasty thousands of years ago, it would almost be like historians probing more into the historical accuracy of something the Welsh Mabinogian.

The Doubting Antiquity School was not all about destroying somebody like Sima Qian. Mostly, it’s about raising questions and the researching possible answers. Those answers led to more questions. That’s how scholarship works.

Changzhou was once home to a one of these scholars. His name was Lu Simian 吕思勉 lǚ sī miǎn.

He was born in Wujin in 1884, and he went on take a professorship at Kwang Hua University in Shanghai. This institution went on to become East China Normal University. During his academic career, he authored a number of books on antiquity covering subjects like science, ethnicity, literature, and more.

His former residence is actually located in downtown Changzhou, and it’s open to the public without an admission fee. A visitor does have to sign into a log book, however.  The place is rather small. You can see some of the living quarters.

And places where he kept a personal library and a possible office.

Most of the informational displays here are in Chinese, but there is one introductory sign in English. This former residence is downtown, but it’s actually located in an narrow alley a few streets up from Yanling Road, Nandajie, and the Luqiao Commodities Market. So, for some, it may not be easy to find.

This alley intersects with Jinling Road. And here it is on Baidu Maps.

UNFINISHED, OTHER WORLDLY IN XINBEI

This post was originally published in July, 2018

“Once you’ve seen one temple, you have pretty much seen all of them.”

This is a comment that I have heard on and off from several people over the years. While I disagree, I will concede one point. The style of both Buddhist and Taoist temples in this area share a lot of the same stylistic points. A lot of the statuary can either be vibrant or colorful, or they can be based on different shades of gold. So, when you find something that deviates from that pattern, it really stands out. Recently, I did. In fact, it looks like no other temple I have ever seen in Changzhou or elsewhere in Southern Jiangsu.

Xiushan Temple 修缮寺 has the standard paint job and architecture of other temples. So, the strangeness of the place is on the interior, not the exterior. And it hits you immediately when you step through the front door.

The religious statuary is all unfinished. For example, some of them have been sculpted in what looks to be clay. However, something seemed to happen to halt the installation process. Then, over the course of time — and due to heat — the statuary began to form wide cracks. This has lead to a seemingly unearthly, somewhat otherworldly look.

This has lead to some wear-and-tear issues that leads to somewhat creepy-looking damage — like a jawless demon.

These are just but a few of the statues. A majority of what can be seen has been crafted from wood. These are the statues that normally wouldn’t be painted. Rather, they would be plated in gold or otherwise gold-colored.

However, some of them also have their own issues that has caused damage. Like the clay statues, cracks have developed.

These are not simple fissures, but cracks wide enough you can see through.

Some of these “cracks” are necessary. Not all of the pieces were carved from a singular piece of wood. Some parts were made sparately and then jigsaw-puzzled together. Take a close look at the above photo, and you will see that. Even if the statues were not damaged, the natural, unfinished look of the wood adds other elements I have not seen at other temples.

In each of these statues, you can see the striped grains in the wood. You can also see the some of the circular knots. It’s just two more things that adds intricacy of something that already has intricate detail and weather damage.

So, what exactly happened here?

This place is open to the public. It looks like it is being used as a local place of worship. I am just assuming, but I am basing the deduction off of the places to kneel, the sound system, and a few other things. There is a poster by the door of the main hall. From what I can piece together using Baidu Translate on my phone, the funding for Xiushan Temple seemed to have fallen short. Some of the signage seems to solicit donations.

Either way, visiting this place is a profoundly unique experience. It’s in northern Xinbei — on the way to the industrial ports alongside Changzhou’s portion of the Yangtze River. One can take a bus out this area; the 27 and 40 come to mind, but it also involves getting off and traveling down a narrow, but paved, country road. While it is open, there still seems to be active construction with workers. In that regard, it will be interesting to return here in the future to see what eventually changes. While I do hope the people running these temples can find a way to keep their statues from crumbling, part of me hopes they find a way to keep this the one-of-a-kind place that it currently is.

WAITING FOR RABBITS IN WUJIN

This was originally posted back in Febuary of 2018.

Wisdom proverbs and idioms are huge part of Chinese culture. Parents often quote them to children as a way of motivation, and sometimes people say these expressions under their breath to reassure themselves before taking action. Inevitably, when a person is trying to learn to understand and appreciate Chinese culture, coming to know these expressions is also important. These idioms don’t just show up in conversation or in books, but they are often the subject matter of public art — especially sculpture in public parks.

A person can easily find this in Wujin. The Yancheng area is not only home to an amusement park, a zoo, and a bunch of buildings made to look like the China of old, but there is also a very big parking lot there.  Near that part of Yancheng, there are a few statues depicting some famous Chinese expressions. So, here is one of them.

守株待兔

shǒuzhūdàitù

This means to “wait by a stump for rabbits.” Basically, a lazy farmer one day watches a blind bunny run into a tree stump and break its neck. The farmer considers himself lucky, and he takes the dead animal home turns it to a very filling dinner. Instead of going back to work the next day and plowing his field, he decides to wait for another rabbit to come by and run into the stump. For some reason, he think that just sitting and waiting will bring him free and easy dietary protein. In the meantime, his field is not plowed, and it eventually does not grow any crops. This idiom can be taken as a chide against think people can get by without doing any hard work.

This particular idiom is thousands of years old and goes back to the Warring States period of Chinese history. Han Fei 韓非 wrote an essay entitled “The Five Vermin.”

Han Fei 韓非 

In this polemic, he spoke out against the things that he thought led to bad governance.  Han Fei’s writing belongs to a “legalist” tradition. His work has been said to influence Qin Shihuang as the first emperor of a unified China as well as several more rulers throughout Chinese history.

THE GOOD PERSON WALK OF FAME

This post was originally posted back in September of 2017

Governments often like to showcase people they deem as exemplary citizens. In China, there has been the tradition of the “model worker” that stretches back to at least 1951 with Hao Jianxiu. This is a commendation that has been given out at both the national and provincial levels. Municipalities, it seems, have been doing something similar with “Good People” streets. In Chinese, it’s 好人街. I have seen this is Danyang and Liyang, and Changzhou has one, too.

Of course, it wouldn’t be right to talk about the good people of Changzhou without mentioning Ji Zha 季札,Changzhou’s founding father. The rest of the entrants are more contemporary than historical.

Basically, “good people streets” normally consist of a series of signs that have pictures next biographies.

Each sign has a QR code that will take you to a webpage that will give you more information on that person. The story, so to speak, that lead them to being featured.

Of course, the webpages are completely in Chinese. However, Baidu Translate’s camera translation has been getting more and more sophisticated over the years. The other thing to remember, though, is that this is not a “famous person” display. So, besides Ji Zha, you will not find other historical figures like Qu Qiubei, Zhang Tailai, or Yun Daiying here. These are everyday citizens.

These signs can be found along the Grand Canal downtown. It’s in the park that has the Ming Dynasty Wall — which is next to both Comb Alley and the backside of Injoy Plaza.

XU ZHIMO ROMANTICALLY IN TIANNING

Image curtesy of Wikipedia

This post was originally posted in October of 2017.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

THE 36 TO HELL AND BACK

This post was originally published in October of 2017.

Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.

This display can be found at Wanfo Temple. There was a previous Real Changzhou post about this place more than a year ago, but  that was more of explaining what the place was and what it culturally meant. Back then, I found it while riding my ebike in Northern Xinbei. Recently, I figured out how to get there on the public bus.

Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.

Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.

Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.

The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.

A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.

As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.

The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.

The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.