Category Archives: Tianning

PHOTOS OF CHANGZHOU STATION’S PRIOR LIVES

This was originally published in 2017.

Changzhou’s central station is not what it once was in bygone eras. I discovered this, recently, through a series of photos on display near the station, but in an easy to miss location if you are not hunting for them specifically.

This is something I found while doing legwork on a different writing project. I had become intrigued with the city’s network of canals, as it is one of the oldest surviving landmarks still around from the city’s antiquity of more than a thousand years. During this bit of fieldwork, I found a threesome of small memorials dedicated to the train station itself. This is across the street from the south plaza.

On wooden walkway next to the canal, there are three photos in glass cases. The appear to be laser etchings on sheets of brass-colored metal. These display windows are set into the staircases that lead down to the canal’s walkway. As one can see from the above photo, they do not photograph very well.

The only way to get discernible details was to get my phone close to the glass to cut out as much glare and reflection as possible. Of course, it’s hard to reproduce the entire photo this way.  The above photo seems to be from circa 1907. Besides the crowds, the station itself seems rather modest and is only a building or two.

The next shot shows the second incarnation from the late 1950’s and 1960’s. I do have to say, it is really hard to fact check these photos online. I had trouble finding the real photos these metal sheets are based off of.

The third and final plaque suggests something more modern and geometric in its architecture. This would be in the 1990’s. However, as most of us who have traveled through Changzhou’s downtown station, it most certainly doesn’t look like this anymore.

Who knows what the train station will look like in the future. The south plaza — where some would get tickets to board the slow trains — is currently under renovation. Parts of the south plaza has been absolutely gutted to make way for something new. Who knows, maybe is 20 to 50 years, there will be a fourth installment into this pictorial history showing our current station as a relic of the past?

DACHENG #3 FACTORY, THEN AND NOW

This was originally published back in October of 2018.

Back in 2017, I visited a canal-side historical marker. It was for an old factory.  I knew of it’s existence, but I had trouble actually finding it. So, getting there, at the time, involved randomly riding my ebike down narrow alleys in Tianning, but across the grand canal, in a very diagonal and distant sort of way, from Dongpo Park.

It claimed that the area was being preserved, but in actual fact, the whole area was in the process of getting gutted and demolished.

The actual English language historical marker was next to a rather derelict looking door.

These photos not only come from 2017, but also the year before. Recently, I returned to the area out of curiosity. Vast changes are underway. The above door now looks like this.

The walkway in front of this door, about a year ago, looked like this.

People were basically cultivating the land into tiny vegetable plots. Now, the area looks like this.

So, what is going on here? Whatever is being built here is not actually not finished, yet. However, it seems to be a development project with the English moniker Legends of Canal. My guess says real estate, and not a historical district. I say this, because I walked through the gate and wandered around. I was not the only person wandering, either.

At first, with all of the old industrial machines encased in glass, as well as the public sculptures, my mind went immediately to Canal 5, which has a similar sort of vibe. However, as I was walking around, somebody stopped me and asked me why I was there. It wasn’t the security guys by the gate, either. It seemed to be a salesman asking if I was wanted to possibly invest into real estate. So, my guess is that this area is now the grounds of a business office for a future development project. I could still be totally wrong, of course; the guy’s English was terrible, and my Chinese only exists in survival mode. Given that there are still huge barricades around the rest of the area, there really will not be much else to see here for at least a year or two.

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.

FOR WOULD BE PHILATELLATORS

This post was originally published in July. 2018

“I am into philately,” my father once said. “I like to philatellate.”

I squinted my eyes at him, sternly. ”You like to whip people?”

“No.” He rolled his eyes. “Rich, that’s flagellate.

“Oh, got you,” I said. “So, you are a philatellator!”

He sighed. “What is wrong with you? The right word is philatelist.” He pointed at me. “And furthermore…”

“Oh, who cares?” My mom interjected. She looked at my dad. “A grown man obsessed with stickers! Besides, I’ve had to listen to you two invent new gibberish words all dinner.”

“They’re postage stamps, not …”

“Paul, you are talking about little pieces of paper with glue on the back.” She took a sip of her Diet Coke. “I pass out stuff like that to my students when they do well on tests or behave themselves.”

“Jeez, I can’t win for trying.” My father stood from the dinner table. “You know, I am going to go to my office right now and philatellate some.”

And by that, he went to go play with his stamps. It’s hobby that has engrossed my dad for his entire lifetime. Given the international scope of his career with the US federal government, his extremely large collection spans the entire globe. The above conversation happened when I was a senior in high school. On and off, I have always talked about stamps with him, and it seems I am the only of his three kids that was remotely interested in doing so. Ever since I moved to China, I thought it was only fitting that I help round out his collection.

Recently, I sought out some new Chinese stamps for him, but not because I am a dutiful son. Actually, I can be quite a moron, and recently, that was most definitely the case. Because of a recently planned trip to Buffalo, my father took me to JFK International in New York City in a rental car. After he dropped me off and left, I realized that I still had his regular car keys. Basically, I accidentally stole his regular house keys and had no way to get them back to him — other than mailing them express from Changzhou once I returned. Essentially, I screwed up royally, and there is no way to really say “I’m sorry” to someone than to give them something that genuinely excites them. For my dad, that’s stamps.

So, that brings up a question. If you are a stamp collector and you live in Changzhou, how do you go about adding to your collection? China does not have stamp stores the same way America and Europe does. The first option is to go to an antique market.

There are a few scattered across the city. One of the biggest ones — across from Hongmei Park — recently got bulldozed. So, the defacto go-to place is now behind the Christian church downtown.  However, there are challenges when shopping at places like this.

There is the issue of the language barrier, but that can be fixed by having a Chinese friend tag along. Antique markets are usually better for experienced collectors, and this is a place where you can find old themed albums or issues from years ago. In short, not only do you need to be able to communicate, but you also need to know what you are looking for. There is another option for those who are wading into Chinese philately for the first time. It’s the actual Postal Bank of China.

This is a place where you can not only buy stamps, mail letters, and ship packages, but you can also open a savings or checking account. It’s both a post office and a bank. However, the branch offices scattered throughout the city are not really suited for stamp collectors. There is only one place that actually geared toward philatelists. Its English name says it all.

China Philately. This place has all the services of a China Post branch, but they also have display cases of all the recently published collectible sets. As it turns out, stamp collecting has some aspects unique to China. I say this not as a collector myself, but one who has known one my entire life. Micro collections, published as brochures, seem to be more of a thing here than it is in the west. Take this, for example.

This is a two-fold brochure celebrating Xuan Zang. He’s the Chinese monk who traveled to India to find Buddhist scripture and bring it back to the Middle Kingdom. Famously, this story is told in Journey to the West, a classic that also stars the Monkey King.

Once you open the brochure, you see two sheets of four protected by plastic holders. Since these micro collections act like brocures, there is usually some explanatory text and biographies of the artists involved. As a collectible, it’s not just the stamps themsleves that make this important. The packaging itself is also collectible. So, this isn’t really something where you’d pull the stamps out and put them into a separate album. It’s best to just leave it alone is one complete philatelic item. And that gets into another thing my father has told me, after looking at the stamps I have provided to him in the past.

Chinese stamps are colorful, artistic, and look like a lot of care and attention have been put into their look and design. After all, roughly about one third of global stamp market is made up of Chinese investors. To put it another way, one third of all stamp collectors are Chinese. It’s a big thing in the Middle Kingdom.

To be honest, I am tempted to start collecting myself. My dad would joke that it would have taken him 44 years to convince me that this wasn’t a foolish hobby. Sure, because I have spent much of my adult life talking to my father about postage stamps (I have the collector bug, but it usually was comic books and punk rock vinyl records), I might know more than the average newb. However, for the time being, I think I will just stick with China Philately. I can walk in and point at stuff I want to look at without having to ask complicated questions.

Changzhou has only one of these stores. It’s located dowtown and across the street from the Jiuzhou Shopping Mall.

RECENT SNOWMEN

This post was originally published in Feb. of 2018

In a thoroughly unscientific poll of one German guy, it hasn’t snowed this badly in Changzhou in at least ten years. For those of us who have lived in this city for awhile, it goes without saying. Some years, we don’t get any snow at all, and if we do, it’s just a dusting. In this regard, I liken Changzhou to a place like North Carolina. It’s so rare, that when it does happen, people freak out a little — unlike people in Maine, Michigan, or New Jersey, where blizzards of a least one meter of accumulation do occur. One of the more interesting things I found this snowstorm is this: people took to the streets and expressed their creativity in crafting snowmen. One could argue they rarely had the chance to do so over the past couple of years. Here are some snowmen I have run across over the past few days. Oh, and the creepiest one is at the end.

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.

Between Something and Nothing

This was originally posted in May of 2017.

Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal in Tianning. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

Searching for history in Changzhou can lead to amazing finds like a tiny museum dedicated dragons and another dedicated to cigarettes, and sometimes it’s downright quixotic. Searching for the Dacheng #3 Factory historical site was one of those quixotic searches. I first noticed this place from across the canal. I saw a historical marker and some traditional-looking roof lines, and curiosity ensnared me. I actually spent a month or two looking how to get to this place. Finding it actually meant riding my bike down random narrow alleys.

Yeah, it was a little bit overgrown. The historical marker was still intact.

So, I mentioned the word “quixotic” earlier. So, what is was useless and silly about this search? What was the windmill I was tilting at? Remember the sign says “protected” for “historical and cultural value at the provincial level.” Yeah, right. This is what the place looks like behind the wall.

Apparently, in the back alleys next to a canal, I found a grave site. The two huge stone boxes are caskets. Lots of people were buried in them. The signage did not say if they were local, or if these things were simply moved here because there was open space and it was convenient. Honestly, in China, you can never tell, especially if you are a foreigner trying to figure out a local culture that is not in your native language. From the signage, I eventually that two important people were among the interred.  They were 白埈 Bái jùn and 样淑 Yàng shū. I was told these two guys were important in Changzhou. Funny, thing, Baidu searches go nowhere. I can’t find anything on who they are. So, these stone caskets will linger in my mind until I can understand the story behind them. In short, the search to understand China continues. I always will.

No Logic at Computer CIty

A rather bloody moment from the opening of Argento’s art house masterpiece.

If one tried to follow the plot of the original version of Suspiria, one would be likely driven insane. An American girl goes to a German dance academy that’s secretly run by a cabal of witches. However, the plot twists and turns and contorts into so many absurd directions that it would laughable if it wasn’t for the uniquely terrifying ambiance Dario Argento brought to his art-house horror masterpiece. The interior layout of the Tanz Dance Academy makes even less sense — multiple secret passages, hidden doors, and so on. There is one room that exists only to be filled with razor wire, and one of the students meets an untimely fate there. I reflected upon this movie multiple times over the years while in Changzhou. Specifically, while in the Computer City mall near the city center.

By no means am I accusing Computer City of being a hotbed of the occult or home to a secret hive of evil witches posing as ballet instructors. That would be silly. The bloody gore factor is also nonexistent. But there are a lot of things that have not made sense over the years in terms of Computer City’s layout. It should be noted that Changzhou of 2014 is not the Dragon City of the 2020s. A lot has changed both here and across the Southern Jiangsu region. Computer City had its heyday, but online shopping has both crippled it and other commodity markets. What now remains is an illogical and half-shuttered mess. For example, consider the elevator that nobody uses, is closed to the public, and has absolutely no practical value.

And take a good look at that track and field painted on the floor. It used to not be there several years ago. By the way, the gate to this playground has a D-lock on it, and every time I’ve gone technology window shopping in this half-deserted mall, I have never seen people actually use it. Then, there’s this.

The basement level used to be substantially larger. You can actually see it here. This was from the pre-painted-track-and-field years of this particular location. Recently, I returned to take a similarly angled photo. Keep in mind the above was taken from the third floor, and the below was taken from the fourth.

Floor space was created when there was none before. Anyhow, the weirdness persists. Some of the Chinglish in the elevators is epic.

Floor space was created when there was none before. Anyhow, the weirdness persists. Some of the Chinglish in the elevators is epic.

But amateur doors are okay? And by which international credentialing committee will you be using? I know the Olympics has been tarred by doping scandals for decades now. You can’t trust them. However, last I checked, doors do not compete in either the winter or summer games. Believe it or not, this is not the worst when it comes to Chinese-to-English translation errors. The basement of Computer City used to be home to one of the most outrageous bits of Chinglish of all time. Consider this photo.

But amateur doors are okay? And by which international credentialing committee will you be using? I know the Olympics has been tarred by doping scandals for decades now. You can’t trust them. However, last I checked, doors do not compete in either the winter or summer games. Believe it or not, this is not the worst when it comes to Chinese-to-English translation errors. The basement of Computer City used to be home to one of the most outrageous bits of Chinglish of all time. Consider this photo.

Yeah, nothing to see here. I know. However, keep in mind of what used to be here years ago. And I’ll leave this as a final word about how strange Computer City can be.