Category Archives: Culture

Timeless and from Changzhou

Does this sound familiar? Somebody gets sick from a highly contagious disease, and the patient is told to go into isolation for their greater good of their community. Everybody around the infected person is told to quarantine, because they too might be infected. Only, the patient’s newlywed husband refuses to follow the advice of doctors. He demands that he must stay to tend her and nurse her back to health. She does recover, but because newlywed refused to follow the doctor’s instructions, he contracts the illness from his betrothed and dies.

This sounds like a COVID-19 tragedy — especially if you are American where the disease is still out of control. But, it is not. Actually, it’s a Chinese story, and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. It is a plot of a play written originally in English by a Changzhou native, Hong Shen, more than a hundred years ago. It was originally performed at Ohio State University. In 2013, the university revived the play with a multicultural casting. The disease in question was the plague. The story goes like follows.

This play, “The Wedded Husband,” was about much more than just dealing with an epidemic. It was also about the conflicts of traditional Chinese values confronting a modernizing world. It tells the tale of an arranged marriage. The perspective husband is a bumbling idiot, as he is both childish and a simpleton.

Here, you see him more engaged with sexy fan dancers than the adults in the room.

And his future wife? She wants none of that noise.

These screen captures come YouTube, by the way.

She knows she has been promised her father’s close friend. Even though she loves somebody else, she’s willing to accept her duty and do as her father commands. It’s a basic case of Chinese filial piety.

Yet, she faints during the wedding ceremony. She’s whisked away, and the diagnosis is not a broken heart, it’s the plague that’s hit China. Throughout the script, plague has always been in “The City” and not the small town where they are at. I know this is wild extrapolation, but I never saw a Changzhou-Shanghai conflict if I actually hadn’t before. Changzhou, and every thing else that isn’t Shanghai, are just mere provinces. They are The City. We who don’t live there are the The Wilderness. It’s not a big part of a this play, but is a part of living in China and near Shanghai is to be constantly told that you are always inferior to Shanghai. Anyhow moving on.

The play ends with a reversal. The widow now has a chance at a wedding she wanted from the get go: to a man she actually loved. Only, now, she refuses that as well, citing Chinese tradition and a sense of duty to a man she never liked. She now feels the need to honor a guy who nursed her back to health and gave his own life doing so.

The psychological entanglements here are epic. Hong Shen, as a modernizing dramatist wanting to pull the Chinese stage away from traditional opera, once professed a desire to become his native country’s Henrik Ibsen. Besides possibly “Pyr Gynt,” most of this Norwegian’s plays were gritty and real and tackled issues facing everyday people. A play like “The Wedded Husband” definitely shows that influence — gritty and real — goes a long way in doing exactly that.

There is a very tiny memorial hall dedicated Hong’s family. It’s in an alley next to Hongmei Park. It’s in this hall that I learned of “The Wedded Husband” and the Changzhou native that sought to revolutionize Chinese drama.

COVID-19 is a generational issue. It has affected so many lives across the world that one blogger could never totally assess its impact. It’s an issue that historians for generations to come will be examining. Living through it has been hell. A lot of expats have experienced this pain both in China and then in our native countries. Finding this play gave me some comfort that outbreaks have happened before, and people do find a way through them. And, most importantly, dealing with the corona virus is not new. Fighting disease is a story as old as being human.

See the source image

The Physician at the End of the 63

The 63 is a bus route that connects the Changzhou central train station in Tianning to a more remote part of Wujin near the eastern city line with Wuxi. The area around the southern terminus of this line looks deceptively simple.

Arguably, this is a part of southern Changzhou that has a decidedly small town vibe. This part of the city reeks of “nothing to see here.” This is both true and false. First, there really isn’t much to see at the end of the 63 bus route, but there is a personally complicating factor for me. Taking this bus to its final destination resulted in my learning more about Chinese culture.

Yes, this is a relatively small temple with a Guanyin statue out front. The temple doors were shut, and I was not able to enter and look around. I did, however, try research this place a few weeks later. That simply involved learning this place’s Chinese name — Hua Tuo An 华佗庵 and slapping those Chinese characters into net searches. As it turns out, Hua Tuo was a luminary in Chinese medicine.

This doctor lived during the Eastern Han Dynasty; he was born in what would become modern Anhui and died in 208 BCE. In Chinese history, he was the first physician to employ anesthesia during surgery. That likely involved spiking potent alcohol with a couple of herbs and making the patient drink the resulting elixir before cutting them open. Hua Tuo also preformed trepanations — boring holes though a person’s skull to gain access to a person’s brain. His acumen as a doctor and a surgeon was legendary during his life. Cao Cao is perhaps one of Hua’s more famous patients in this regard. This warlord paved the way for the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history.

Any old guy who has been near a gaming console over the last twenty years should know the Dynasty Warriors series. It tried to make a player a combatant some of China’s most epic battles. Of course, Cao Cao is a character in those. But, let’s get back to the point.

At one point, Cao Cao started to experience hallucinatory headaches. As concerns over his health mounted, he demanded the best doctor alive tend to him. For reason that I can’t easily find, Hua refused to to treat Cao as ongoing person doctor. While seemingly universal thousands of years later, the Hippocratic Oath just wasn’t a thing in Ancient China — save life whenever you can, and Hua had none of that. Hua continually refused to treat Cao — he made up excuses that involved tending to his allegedly infirm wife. Cao figured out he was lying and ordered his execution. Hua didn’t relent, so he was put to death.

Of course, I’m glossing over this story in the most simplest terms. But for me, it’s a strong reminder of one thing. When you are a foreigner living in a land like the Middle Kingdom with an absurd amount of history, taking a bus like the 63 to the middle of nowhere Wujin will still teach you something, if you look hard enough.

Magic in Changzhou

ady1

With the possible exceptions of Warhammer 40,000 and Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering is perhaps one of the west’s nerdiest cultural exports to China. It’s a collectible trading card game where people build highly personalized decks to play against their friends. The more extensive your collection of cards, the more exotic your decks may become. As hobbies go, it’s a highly costly one. I would know. I am absolutely addicted to Magic: The Gathering.  Do not ask me how much money I spend on this game. It’s embarrassing! Maybe not so much that I’m willing to admit this publicly?

Anyhow, the spread of a game like this is also an uncommon indicator of how rapidly this end of China and Jiangsu province is economically developing. Previously, those who liked playing Magic had to go to Nanjing or Shanghai if they wanted to visit a card shop. On a first glance, this game is that niche. To somebody like Ady Zou, the story is actually a bit longer. Magic the Gathering has actually been in Changzhou for quite awhile. Many years ago, there used to be a shop out by Canal 5. Eventually, it closed and Changzhou entered what Zou terms as a “Magic Ice Age.” The Chinese playing community was relegated to cafes and each other’s homes. Card purchases involved Taobao orders or going to the aforementioned cities of Nanjing or Shanghai. Over the last year, that is something that Ady Zou has personally sought to change.

ady2

After studying at Changzhou University, he decided to forego his major and invest in a game shop of his own. For a business to be successful, one must have a passion for what they are doing. For example, if you think you can make money importing Polish widgets into China, you  should probably actually like Polish widgets and think about them all of the time. Otherwise, the work will be tedious and soul crushing. As the saying goes, you don’t own a business; a business actually owns you and consumes all of your free time. That’s if you want to be successful. And to anybody who knows Ady Zou, he has a definite passion for not just Magic: The Gathering, but games in general.

ady3

Yes, his shop — which is across the street from Changzhou University’s north gate — is a place where one can pop in for a hand or two at cards. However, Zou knows that this alone cannot pay the rent and operational cost of actually having a store. He has organized events around board games and things not related to Magic. He has found ways to appeal to the wider gaming community in Changzhou. These would also be largely Chinese customers.

The known foreign community revolving around Magic or D&D or Warhammer is decidedly tiny in this city. It usually meets up at OK Koala in Xinbei Wednesdays or Sunday nights. Of course, that doesn’t involve people who played before coming to China and just don’t know there are like minded expats in Changzhou. Those games may be western cultural imports, but people like Ady Zou can’t grow a business by explicitly focusing on foreign clientele. This is just another instance of Changzhou clearly not being in the same sentence as Shanghai or Nanjing. Although, shop owners in both those cities would argue the same thing. You have to grow gaming communities among other Chinese people. Foreign customers, while nice to have, are not suitable paths to sustainability. Both English teachers and engineers come and go year to year. Most foreigners here have not dropped an anchor and have decided to stay put — Changzhou and China as a whole are just a temporary stops in a greater life’s journey. And that’s well and fine.

ady4
Across the street from Changzhou University’s North Gate. Nearest subway stop is Kejiaocheng Bei.

However, if you are into nerdy things, it’s always good to know that there are places to go while you are passing through.There is a community of like minded locals that are willing to embrace you if you show up. Gaming shops are as much about community as they are about making money.This is also why it’s cool to know somebody like Ady Zou and that he has shop. This is also another reason why it’s also good to forego Taobao and to shop locally.

(Mis)translating Zhao Yi

cornette-galli
Jim Cornette is on the left… probably comparing somebody’s physique to that of a “baked potato.”

“It’s so old, it’s new again.”

Jim Cornette once said this about the new NWA Internet wrestling show Powerrr. Yes, you read that correctly; the name is spelled with three Rs. I blame the Internet phenomenon of purposefully misspelling things in the name of copyrights: Flickr, Fiverr, and so on. As professional wrestling organizations go, the NWA is one of the oldest there is in America. Then, Vince McMahon ran everybody out of business and had a defacto monopoly on sports entertainment for 20 years.

That has changed with the rising popularity of independent, alternative wrestling. A big part of that was the recent launch of Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan’s AEW on the cable channel TNT. That was to directly confront WWE. There have been other smaller promotions grinding niches for themselves. A few years ago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan bought the NWA with the idea of doing something new and different: studio wrestling. He likely paid a minuscule fraction of what it may have been worth 60 years ago — if you adjust for inflation. Only, studio wrestling is not all that new.

nwa
Now.

gcw
GCW, many decades ago.

In the annals of pro wrestling, “studio wrestling” used to be a staple on TV. This was partly due to how cheap it was to produce. Basically, a ring was set up in a television studio, a small audience would be brought in, and matches happened. It was a more intimate setting than the arena shows WWE would later profit off of. There was a long, rich history of this type of TV program, but in  the course of the 1980’s the concept ceased to be. As stated earlier, McMahon killed the territory system and ushered in a new, micro-managed, corporate era. As much as I love professional wrestling, there is something else about Cornette’s words that interests me.

“It’s so old it’s new again.” The 1980’s is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. You see it with TV shows like GLOW, Stranger Things, and the current season of American Horror Story. Now, it’s popping up again with an Internet wrestling show made to look like it came from the 80’s. Nostalgia cycles are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Here’s a frightening thought: 40 years from now, somebody will wistfully look back at 2019 and will make an entertainment product about it. While I am currently in my mid 40s, that scares the crap out of me.

This is well and fine, but why am I pontificating on this on a blog about Changzhou? Seriously? I highly doubt Jim Cornette even knows the city of Changzhou exists. Most Americans probably don’t. Well, the connection in my brain is because of this guy.

zhao

This is Zhao Yi, and he was from Changzhou. He was a poet, historian, and literary critic during the Qing Dynasty. His former residence is downtown in the Qianbeihou historic area near the Wenhuagong subway station

zhao11

I had always been curious as to who Zhao Yi was, because I have been walking by this place for years. Just because there is a historical preservation marker doesn’t mean that it’s actually open to the public as a museum. The one time I did poke my head through an open door, it looked like people actually live here, still.

zhao2

But let me be clear about something. I am not comparing the delightfully foul mouthed, tennis racket wielding, legendary wrestling manager from Kentucky with a Chinese poet of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As a juxtaposition, that’s just too far of a stretch — even though Zhao was considered unconventional by some of his contemporaries. Or am I just doing that?

None of Zhao’s verses has been translated into English. Given that I have an MFA in poetry — and a deep desire to learn Chinese — translating Chinese poetry into English  seemed like something I would eventually try my hand at. Only, I was too afraid to take that leap. I did so anyway. Recently, I realized that I was being too ambitious with disastrous results. Maybe I should start by focusing on really short verses, I thought? So, I settled on this as my first real attempt:

满眼生机转化钧,天工人巧日争新。

预支五百年新意,到了千年又觉陈。

Mǎnyǎn shēngjī zhuǎnhuà jūn, tiān gōngrén qiǎo rì zhēng xīn. Yùzhī wǔbǎi nián xīnyì, dàole qiānnián yòu jué chén.

This comes from a sequence called 论诗. That translates as “On Poetry.” The sequence itself can be classed as “meta poetry“  — poetry about poetry. Or so to speak, using the art of language sound to comment on that exact art. So, my first crack at translating just those two sentences led to this:

One’s life and vitality abounds and changes you;

Heaven’s workers daily vie for something new.

Advance 500 years into a future of new meanings;

In the end, a thousand years can still feel stale.

Before I get back to Jim Cornette, let me reinforce something. This is my first attempt at trying to translate anything into English. I’m hyper aware that I’m missing something or there is a nuance going over my head.

In know this because of three particular characters in the original Chinese: 天工人. If you stuff Zhao Yi’s words into Baidu Translate, you get “workers of the sky.” That’s just fantastical. It’s almost like something you would expect from Tsui Hark’s special effects bonanza “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.”

zu

Google Translate stated that 天工人 meant “day workers.” That’s actually funny because of the proletarian bent of how that just sounds.

chineseprop

And thus, my first real conundrum of trying to translate from Chinese to English happens. The character  is problematic because it can mean so many different things. There is no true equivalent in English. That character can mean anything from day to heaven and god and more.  Recently, to some of my students, I compared it to how 宅男 and 宅女 are not adequate translations of nerd.The Chinese implies somebody who spends most of their time at home ala “house man” or “house woman.”  In English, both nerd and geek have taken on positive, non-derogatory meanings. Both are words for socially awkward people, but those words also now imply expert. As in: poetry nerd, drama nerd, technology geek, and so on. As far as I can tell in my discussions with my students, the Chinese translation doesn’t have that “specialist” meaning attached to it.

So, allow me to get back to Jim Cornette. Both he and Zhoa Yi are talking about cycles of time. Cornette, whether he realizes it or not, is touching the nature of nostalgia and people who age. Things do get so old that they feel brand new again — and this is after two decades of being force fed Vince McMahon’s vision of what American professional wrestling should be. You also see this with music and how it falls in and out of fashion. At one moment, disco is vogue and at another, it’s abhorrent and kitsch. Zhao Yi is more devastating than Cornette. That nostalgia curve goes away, eventually, and it’s gone for good.

Everything is destined to become antiquated. Things not only age, but they become stale in their age. What was once innovative becomes passe and boring. Don’t believe me? Ask most of the high school students that are forced to perform Romeo and Juliet in front of their peers during their English classes — or the Chinese students who are required to memorize the poems of Li Bai.

There are exceptions, of course. There are people like me who actually enjoy dissecting Shakespeare’s metaphors. Or, who think it’s fun to conjure up a silly line connecting American pro wrestling to Chinese poetry. Either way, I found the challenge of translating Zhao Yi somewhat gratifying and stimulating, even if my version of his verses may not be the best. I look forward to trying it many more times with many more poets.

Old Qingguo Postcards

post4

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!

post6

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.

post5

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.

post1

post3

post2

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.

qingou1

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.

 

 

First Time to San Sheng Temple

IMG_20181017_204851

Sometimes I think I have seen all that Changzhou has to offer, and then something comes out of left field and really surprises me. And, that’s what I can easily say about San Sheng Temple 三圣禅寺 — it really surprised me. With the exception of Maoshan  out in Jintan, I thought I had seen all of Changzhou’s major temples: Tianning, Bailong, Dalin, Baolin, Wanfo, and so on. Well, I was wrong, but then again me being wrong is nothing new. Still, I was awestruck by this place.

IMG_20181017_205052

Comparatively speaking, it felt roughly the same size as Tianning — albeit with a smaller pagoda. The pagoda is also not open, so you cannot climb to the top for a view of the surrounding area.

IMG_20181017_205301

There is so much to see here, it would be hard to fit it all into one post. So, here are just some of the more unique things.

IMG_20181017_205133

There is a huge lighted display dedicated to Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.  The lights change from red to blue and green. However, this wall is massive.

IMG_20181017_211721

The textured background is made up of thousands of hands. We also see longer arms sticking out of this wall as well.

IMG_20181017_211632

This has spiritual significance; Guanyin is often dipicted with multiple arms, hands, and heads so that she can maximize her reach in hearing prayers and dispensing with mercy. She looks this way because it assists her in helping as many people as possible. There is a downside…

IMG_20181017_211604

It’s kind of weird to see disembodied arms in bubble wrap. This is emblematic of what is also currently going on here. The place is undergoing renovations. It seems like they may be adding more arms to the wall. Speaking of walls …

IMG_20181017_212938

There is an epic sculpture wall on one side of a staircase. Luckily for me, I had a very kind monk who offered to show me around.

IMG_20181017_213214

There is just so much here; it’s hard to digest it all in one visit. I am definitely going to return. However, some people who know me personally might ask, “You have lived in Changzhou for years. How is it you missed a place this large?”

Screenshot_2018-10-17-21-42-21-43

It’s in a very remote part of Changzhou. This is out in the former Qishuyan District, which is now currently part of Wujin. As a one way bike ride, this was 20 kilometers away from Xinbei. Basically, it’s eastern Changzhou, near the hills where there are a lot of public cemeteries. The 316 bus from the downtown train station comes out this way, but there are only a few buses a day, as the below sign illustrates.

IMG_20181017_214142

Cruising Around Lijia

I sometimes forget how large Wujin actually is. Most people know the area typically as Hutang and the College Town, but there is more to it than just that. Recently, I took an bike ride to Lijia 礼嘉镇 which is roughly about 12 kilometers from Changzhou University if you are going south and east. The 320 bus swings out this way. So, what is out here? Keep in mind this was an unplanned trip. This was the “point my bike in that direction and see what’s there“ sort of thing.

IMG_20180915_190937

This can be easily described as small town China. Still, the central shopping area was quite busy. While stopping here, I checked Baidu Maps if there was anything historical nearby. That lead me here.

IMG_20180915_191029

I got chased by a dog, twice. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, and I survived without getting bitten. What I was looking for was behind the above buildings.

IMG_20180915_191007

This is 王氏宗祠,or The Wang Family Ancestral Hall. Most time, when I find these places, they are closed to the public. I ran into another up the road a few kilometers …

IMG_20180915_190849

This one was 何氏大宗祠,or The He Family Great Ancestral Hall. Like it’s counterpart, seemed closed to the public. However, this building had large tomb nearby.

IMG_20180915_190910

Because I wasn’t careful in conserving battery power, my bike clunked out when I hit downtown, on my way back to Xinbei. In trying to figure a few things out, I ended up consulting the town’s Baike encyclopedia page once I finally got home. Turns out, I might have missed something. That just means instead of going there on a whim next time, I should do something new and different and actually make more of a concrete plan.

Screenshot_2018-09-15-20-23-27-17[1]

 

 

Unfinished, Other Worldly in Xinbei

“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.

IMG_20180724_165742

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.

IMG_20180724_165809

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.

IMG_20180724_171711
IMG_20180724_165833

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

IMG_20180724_165905

 

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.

 

IMG_20180724_171057

 

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

 

IMG_20180724_171011

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

IMG_20180724_171033

 

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.

 

IMG_20180724_171510

IMG_20180724_171122

 

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?

 

IMG_20180725_202059

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.

Screenshot_2018-07-25-20-37-53-86

 

Brightly Colored Mother’s Love

IMG_20171231_161037

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.

IMG_20171231_160947

“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.

IMG_20171229_210137

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.

IMG_20171231_161013

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.

 

Wujin’s Hell Razed

hellwujin2

I have made an effort to track down many of Changzhou’s Taoist and Buddhist places of worship. This comes not only from a point of curiosity, but also a genuine interest to understand Chinese culture. I have been wowed by some of the intricate iconography. I have also on occasion found myself transfixed by truly gruesome and brutal depictions of the Chinese underworld. They are very similar in both Taoism and Buddhism.

hellwujin1

I have seen the Buddhist version of hell at Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei — up by the Yangtze and one of the huge industrial ports. The Taoist version was in western Wujin, out where the former Qishuyan district used to be. Of the two, the Taoist one at Bailong Temple felt more creepy. The above picture is of a dimly lit narrow corridor.  Grotesque statues depicting demons torturing the damned were behind very dusty glass.

wh4

 

However, if anybody ever wants to see this, they are currently out of luck.

 

wujinhell3

 

This desolate hallway used to be built into the Western-facing wall of Bailong Temple. However, I recently returned there with a friend. We were collaborating on a magazine article. I noticed a profound difference in my surroundings while I was there.

 

IMG_20171108_214226[1]

 

Sections of Bailong Temple have been demolished. The above picture is related to the picture of the statue in the pool. In that picture, you see a white wall. This is actually where that white wall used to be, now. That desolate hall showcasing a Taoist gallery of horrors is now gone, too.

 

IMG_20171108_214900[1]

 

In many respects, this is actually not surprising. Nearly all temples I have been to in Changzhou have had some sort of renovation and construction in progress. It’s just that a huge part of Bailong has been razed, and parts of the temple have been blocked off. The same could be said for the nearby Dalin temple and the area in general. There is likely a very long term development plan in place to build this area as tourist destination. I can’t cite any proof. I can just say that I have seen, with my own eyes, A LOT of construction and going on here over the past year or so.