DISEMBODIED BUDDHAS

This was originally published in May of 2016

If you have been to enough Taoist or Buddhist Temples around Changzhou and other cities, you would see a lot of sculptures, carvings, and artwork displaying Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, lohans, Taoist gods, and much more. Temples are particularly ornate in the their decor.  In most cases, no two temples are alike either.

Crafting the works of art must be an industry unto itself. I only just realized this by accident. I was riding my ebike along the S232 highway in western Wujin. This is the part of the district that borders on Jiangyin. Dalin Temple and Qingming Mountain are also nearby. Out of the corner of my vision, I saw something like a Buddha sitting in an alley. So, I backed up and pulled into the alley. There, I saw something I have never, ever seen in Changzhou before. These were half finished, almost cast aside religious statues. For instance, a Buddha without a head. There was a fat Milefo laughing Buddha covered with splintered wood.

The varying degrees of incompleteness was also a bit interesting. Sometimes, when you see a statue in a temple, you may mistakenly think that they were carved or cast in a forge. Not the case with this lot. Much of what I saw consisted of smaller pieces that were numbered and riveted together almost like three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles.

This had me intrigued. It wasn’t the least bit unnerving to look it. Logically, it made sense if these was a religious sculpture workshop nearby. After all, not only is Dalin Temple nearby, but so is the Taoist Bailong Monastery — both seem to have ongoing construction for additions, too. But, quickly scanned the area. I took a picture of one factory’s name, but a Chinese friend quickly informed me, via WeChat, it was a business involving water treatment equipment. Maybe I saw it but didn’t see it. In the end, I gave up and left it what it should be, a bizarre mystery. Sometimes, that’s more fun than actually having a real answer.

ALGAE PARK AND THREE GOATS

This was originally published in July of 2017

You can say about 95% percent of the Changzhou’s public parks have a unique identity. Xianhu Park 仙湖公园 is no different, but this one has a subtly strange and schizophrenic vibe to it.  This place is located in Yaoguan Township 遥观镇 in Wujin, in what used to Changzhou’s eastern Qishuyan district. This is nowhere near Hutang and the parts of Wujin most expats know. Yaoguan is definitely small town China within Changzhou’s city boundaries. I am sometimes out around these parts because of corporate trainings Hohai University organizes with some of the railway companies like CRRC out here. The park itself is split into two by Jianshe Road 建设路.

One half of the park has a lot of brick and stone work, giving the water a canal-like feel without actually feeding into any canals. In this regard, it looks a lot like a man made urban pond.

There are two sets of statues here suggesting industrial themes. Unlike other parks, there are no explanatory plaques or Chinese wisdom idioms attached to give a greater meaning. Perhaps the biggest “this is not urban Changzhou” indicator was this …

There were three goats roaming around and eating everything from the grass and the bushes. Some of these animals had collars and leashes, so it is safe to assume that these are not feral, marauding goats. These were domesticated. Nearby, there was a woman washing something in the “canal-pond” water. I didn’t feel like being nosy about what she was actually washing. So, I didn’t take a picture of her. It is likely safe to assume the goats were hers. If you were to cross Jianshe Road to the park’s other half, you would see this.

There are a lot of walkways, but notice the surface of the oibd. There is a thick, very green algae skin to the water here. By the way, the person with net is not fishing. Typically, a very big algae population like this makes water low in oxygen an not habitable. This person was not fishing out garbage, either.

This person was actually harvesting the algae itself. While that may sound weird to some, algae has a lot of uses like as a farmland fertilizer. There are also chemical compounds that can be extracted and multi-purposed in food production, wastewater treatment, and much more.

Essentially, this is a profoundly local park. Changzhou has places like Qingfeng, Hongmei, and others that are meant for mass public and tourist use, and Xianhu Park is not one of them. I found this place because I was already in Qishuyan on a teaching assignment and just wandering around my ebike.

However, this place is also a positive reminder that what I like to call Real Changzhou; this city is vast and more storied than what some foreigners might think. There is life beyond Xinbei, the city center, and Hutang. I don’t mean that as, “Ooh, this is quaint.” I mean that in this exists, it is here, and it is part of Changzhou.

SILVER THREAD NOODLES 银丝面红汤

When I lived in Wujin, I used to ask my college students for recommendations about what was truly “local” Changzhou food. Most of them didn’t know what to say because 1) their English levels were so low and 2) most of them didn’t come from Changzhou. So, I used to get some silly answers like “Go to the top floor of Injoy.” One day, a friend brought me to Yinsi Noodles. Eventually, I was handed a bowl of noodles, and that became my first exposure to Changzhou’s food.

That was more than a couple of years ago, now. Recently, I returned to Yinsi and tried the same dish. Only, I went to a different location. This cafeteria style restaurant is a prolific chain with locations all over the city. It serves a variety of non-local dishes that can be easily found elsewhere.

So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.

The dish’s name is actually shared with the eatery. Yinsi Noodles in Chinese is 常州银丝面 chángzhōu yín sī miàn. The actual above noodle soup is 银丝面红汤  yín sī miànhóng tāng. The literal translation would be “silver thread noodles red soup.” The characters 银丝 refers to the actual noodles themselves. According to Baidu’s version of Wikipedia, the name comes from how the ingredients in the dough results in very white noodles.  The “red soup” comes from the broth base, which is made with soy sauce. The result is a slightly salty taste that never becomes too much.

You can also add a few things to the soup to customize the flavor a little more. If you look closely at the above, you’ll notice I chopped up a meatball and mixed it in. So, what else can I say?

This dish has been part of Changzhou culture for nearly 100 years. However, one should clarify one thing: only the recipe is that old. The current chain of Yinsi cafeterias doesn’t date back that far. The original shop, from all those decades ago, is also gone and lost to history. It used to be in what would become the Nandajie area of downtown.

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.

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.

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.

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 …

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.

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.

FIRST TIME TO SAN SHENG TEMPLE

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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…

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 …

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.

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?”

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.

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.

ALL YOU CAN EAT AT POMEL

This post was originally published in October of 2018. This restaurant still exists.

“One day, I am going to try eel, but today is just not that day.” 

This is something I used to say while looking at a sushi menu. Essentially, I would be tempted to be adventuresome and try new things, but I would always chicken out in the end. This was seemingly a lifetime ago, back when I lived in North Carolina and New Jersey. Sushi places seemed few and far between, and I quite often had zero disposable cash. So, the fear was partly economic — why pay a lot of money for something I may not exactly like?

Times change, and now I am in Changzhou. Sushi isn’t really a hard to find, exotic item here. That’s especially true now that I live near Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street in Xinbei. While there are plenty of sushi options to pick from, one place has a great deal to consider.

Pomel has an all you can eat deal for 198 RMB. This is not a buffet, either. You basically have full run at the menu, and you can order multiple times. Both beer and sake are included. Upon a recent visit with a friend, we basically got to have our fill of sashimi…

If you think about how much sashimi grade salmon and tuna can cost, the 198 RMB price tag quickly pays for itself, and that’s not even factoring in beer and sake refills.

And, of course, it’s hard to go to a Japanese place and not order sushi. Then, there is another good aspect of an all you can eat deal.

You can try things out without the fear of wasting money. I have long gotten over trepidation surrounding eel. The friend I was dining with had already introduced me its yumminess on a separate occasion. However, this time, I had the opportunity to try my first couple of cups of warm sake. I also got a chance to sample sea urchin as part of a second sashimi platter. I appreciated the sake, yet raw sea urchin just really isn’t my thing. It’s got the appearance and consistency of — not to be gross — snot. However, I now can say been there, done that and move on. Again, that’s the value of this deal at Pomel — or any other Japanese all you can eat places — you can try things you normally wouldn’t if you were doing ala carte.

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 50’S PURPOSE

This post was originally published in April, 2018.

Sometimes, public bus routes are like riddles. They usually exist for a reason. Some are quite easy to understand, and others are not. Bus #50 actually was actually quite easy to figure out once I got off at its Zhonglou District terminus.

This municipal bus depot also acts as an intercity coach station with destinations in places like Jurong and elsewhere. Sure, it’s not like the hub downtown and next to the high speed rail station. In many cases, places like this are also stopping points on coaches heading out of town. In trips to both Liyang and Yixing, the intercity buses have stopped in other city locations to pick up more travelers, for example.

Ok, that’s well and fine. So, what’s the purpose of the 50 municipal bus?

It connects an intercity coach station to Dinosaur Park, which is the other terminus. Dino Park is a major source of tourism revenue for both Changzhou and Xinbei. In theory, people in smaller cities to the west could get off bus here and switch to a public bus that would take them to Dinosaur Park and a potential hotel reservation in the area. That’s well and fine. Why would a Changzhou resident use this bus, besides the convenience of some of the stops in the middle of the route?

honglou’s Decathlon is the second to last stop. Changzhou only has two of these sporting goods stores. During my years in China, this retail chain has actually meant a lot to me. I am a tall guy with big feet. A lot of brick and mortar stores do not carry sizes 46 or 47. Decathlon does. Also, my Taobao situation is a bit screwy, so if I want to try on shoes to see if they actually fit me, this place has always been reliable. I will ride a bus in the name of convenience and not bothering Chinese friends to order, receive, and return footwear for me.

Changzhou’s other Decathlon is in Wujin. Quite honestly, both are pains to get to when you live in Xinbei, but the one in Zhonglou is easier. I boarded this bus actually at Xinbei Wanda Plaza, and that seems to only other major landmark this line services. For the most part, the 50 is not a scenic ride.

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.