Chinese culture is filled with wisdom proverbs that refer to specific behaviors deemed socially and personally desirable. One of them (凿壁偷光) stresses the importance of studying hard under tough conditions. The Chinese characters roughly translates into “to cut a hole in the wall to steal light.” Of course, there is a longer story behind that.
Kuang Heng came from the Western Han dynasty. He was born into a poor family, but he had dreams and aspirations beyond poverty. He loved books, wanted to learn, and he wanted to study hard. His family, however, could not afford candles. This meant he couldn’t read at night. So, Kuang Heng cut a hole in his wall. Light from his neighbor’s home streamed in. And with this solitary beam, he was able to study. Many, many nights and texts later, he was able to do very well on the exams aspiring civil servants must take in Imperial China. Eventually, he grew in rank and significance. This story, this proverb, is often used now by Chinese parents when encouraging students to work harder in school and at their students.
When shopping in Jintan, a trip to Dongmendajie is essential. After all, there’s a supermarket beneath the city square, and three floors of shops can be found in two separate commercial centers. Lots of the stores here tend to be higher end chains that you can find across China. As has been said elsewhere, this area is practically the district’s version of Nandajie in Changzhou’s city center.
This isn’t the only shopping to be had. Down the street — and closer to the intercity coach station — stands Wenhua Dasha 文化大厦. This loosely translates into “Culture Mansion” or “Culture Big Building.” And yes, it’s massive. It is one seemingly unending corridor of shops. It’s almost as if you can buy anything here from clothing to gas burners for stoves. The chief difference, however, between this place and Dongmendajie is how “local” it is.
When you shop at a chain store or franchise, money eventually leaves the area. If you shop at a place locally owned, you are giving your money directly to your neighbors. The cash tends to stay in the neighborhood. Things are also much cheaper at local markets, but there are other things to beware of. You have to look at everything a little more carefully when shopping in a place like Wenhua Dasha. The quality of goods may be lesser. For example, you could by a backpack and then have it fall apart after a week. That’s happened to me, but not specifically at this market in Jintan.
There are many places to go shopping in Changzhou. The city has two Injoy Malls and two Wanda Plazas. Downtown, Nandajie awaits with many shops, cafes, and restaurants. Plus there are many other markets and retail locations along Yanling, Jinling, and other roads. If you keep your back turned long enough, new malls seem to spring up out of nowhere. This doesn’t seem as true for Jintan, however.
Shoppers crowd Dongmendajie 东门大街. If you had to compare this to Changzhou proper, this would be the district’s downtown and center. The best analogy would to say this is “Jintan’s Nandajie.” Typically on a Sunday afternoon, this place is busy. There is a huge open square with a supermarket beneath it. Also, this is flanked by two shopping centers with three floors apiece. This is basically if you are looking to do a more fashionable sort of shopping. Jintan also has a huge market, but those tend to be for cheaper items. If you are looking for western food, here, you are mostly out of luck. The area has a large KFC and that’s it.
Jintan is not India, and I am not the Monkey King. Although, some people will think of my rampant ADHD and know I possess the attention span of a monkey. On a hot spring day, I might sweat enough to smell like a monkey, baboon, or a gorilla — but definitely not marmosets. They are too small, and they have white skull mullets. I would look absurd with a skull mullet.
But, I digress. I went to Jintan to look for Zapfler’s, a German restaurant which brews its own beer. I had went looking for it once before, but this time I thought I had a solid lead. I had found its website. However, my blundering around and Chinese map reading errors were epic. (Hence the “Journey to the West” reference. Jintan is Changzhou’s most western district.)
First, I was stupid enough to wear a hoody, and I realized it was a hot spring day. Sweat ran down my face. Eventually, I pulled the hoody off and tied it around my waist, much the same way grunge rockers did in the 1990’s. But they did that with flannel shirts. I cooled down a little, but I continued to sweat. Especially since I ended up walking around for essentially three hours nonstop.
My next error involved not eating breakfast or buying any water. I thought I was going to have a nice, big German lunch with a lager. So, I was incredibly thirsty and sweating, which led to dehydration.
In terms of navigating Jintan, I mistook 金沙园 Jinsha Park for Dongmendajie 东门大街 — which is the shopping center of the district. Think of it as Jintan’s Nandajie. I walked around every floor of every shopping area. Entering the Chinese for “German Restaurant” into Baidu Maps didn’t help. Eventually, I gave up and texted my friend from this area. Given how stubborn I can be in refusing help, that says a lot.
He told me I should have been entering the Chinese characters for “German Beer.” I did the whole facepalm thing, wondering why I didn’t think of that. Within a minute, he sent me a screen shot from his phone’s map. Now, would this be the end of my blundering? No.
Jintan has a lot of parks clustered together. Instead of simply buying water, I thought, “No, you will find this restaurant in five minutes, and you drink water with lunch.” So, I tried cutting through the parks — only to get distracted by a series of states with missing arms. Eventually, I walked around Jinsha park for an hour, and I didn’t find Zapfler’s. I was about to give up and return to the coach station, defeated. And, of course, that’s when I finally found it.
Did I get to have yummy German food, lots of cold water, and beer? No, they were closed. The Chinese waitstaff were sitting outside. So, imagine their facial expressions when a six foot two sweaty American — with a hoody tied around his waist — showed up. I hadn’t shaven in two days. Even though I didn’t look like a marmoset with a skullet, I probably smelled like one — contrary to my earlier position on the matter. They were very, very generous to me. I am extremely grateful for that. They let me drink a couple of glasses of water, and they even called a taxi for me. I was in no mood to walk back to the bus station. Most importantly, I left with a business card.
So, learn from my mistakes. If you are looking for Zapfler’s for the first time, either go somebody who knows or just take a cab there.
On Qingming, I went to Jintan for the day wanting to learn more about the district. As noted elsewhere on this blog, it takes about a hour on an express bus from the city center. While that sounds bad, going from Wujin to Xinbei on the B1 line can be just as long. The main difference is that the BRT costs 1 RMB, whereas the Jintan express will run you about 15.
I spent a few hours with a Chinese friend, ate at KFC, and decided to return home. I walked back to the bus station, and that’s when I realized I made a travel blunder. Since it was a holiday, all the buses were booked. And the express departs frequently. Everybody else was returning from the holiday.
I had to kill an hour and a half. So, I whipped my phone out, summoned my Baidu Maps app, and located a church nearby. Not a complicated walk either. I went north from the coach terminal until I found Beihuan Road 北环路, and then I made a right. Stopped at the first cross I saw. It looked like the plain chapel I saw in Benniu, but only big and square — almost like a shabby, not-aging-well hotel with a red cross on it.
You know spring has arrived not by the blooms of flowers, but the sight of Chinese people standing on the side of the road. They will either be taking extreme close up shots of flowers or selfies with them. Many times, it will be both. To say China has a passion for flowers would be an understatement. Each type and color has special meaning. Peach blossoms, a Chinese friend told me, are culturally — much the same way cherry trees and their blossoms are viewed in Japan. In Taoism, a peach is often the symbol of immortality.
The most curious, however, to me is rapeseed. In spring, this plant seems to be everywhere in Changzhou. If you’re cruising through a rural area, you are bound to see, bright, fragrant expanses of yellow. The importance of this plant seems more economic than cultural. To put it plainly, rapeseed is a cash crop in China. It’s edible, as it can be turned into a cooking oil. The Chinese government even had a strategic reserve of it as oil at one point. It can also be converted into a biodiesel fuel. Sometimes, I don’t think the spread of this plant is entirely natural selection. It’s cultivated.
Something about the plant also seems slightly otherworldly. It certainly seems that way in Jintan’s Nanzhou Park 南洲公园. There, you can find many of the amenities available in a standard, big Chinese city park. Amusements and rides for children, for example. There is also a sea of rapeseed, and the yellowness around you can sometimes be overwhelming. When it comes to flowers, the only time I felt an onslaught of bright color was looking at tulips in Keukenhof, The Netherlands. As for Jintan, this is more towards the western end of Nanzhou Park. Technically, you could walk there from the express coach station, but it’s a very, very long walk. It’s best to just pay for a taxi. And cabs are cheaper in Jintan then they are in other parts of Changzhou.
Coming here also made me think of Jintan itself — once as a city and now as Changzhou’s most western district. The name in Chinese is 金坛, which is literally “gold” and “altar.” If you smooth out the translation to make it sound nice, it could be “Golden Altar.” For sometime, I pondered how this area got its name. I figured it was something religious — maybe there was a temple nearby. And maybe it had a big altar made of gold! And it is ornate! With fat, laughing Buddha’s toting cloth sacks! That’s just silly thinking right there. Of course, when your Chinese reading skills are quite limited, finding an answer on the internet is much harder. So, I took the easy way out. I made up my own answer. Maybe vast fields of rapeseed ARE the golden altar?
If humankind ever receives a signal from an alien species, that signal would likely be in something like prime numbers or an equation of some sort. This is something that scientists often argue, especially the ones at SETI. Math, it has been said, is the only universal language. While true, it’s also one of a many clever ways math nerds can argue the importance of the their academic field. As for me, simple arithmetic can be agonizingly frustrating. I have trouble with numbers when I don’t have a calculator nearby. Even then, I’m still pretty stupid. I realized this because, well, mathematics from a humanities perspective is still fascinating. Recently, I was confronted with this while trying to figure out a prominent figure in Jintan’s history.
Huo Luogeng hailed from Changzhou’s Jintan district. He made significant contributions to number theory, but trying to figure out what “number theory” actually is made my head spin. Eventually, I gave up and just started doing Google searches on SETI’s hunt for aliens, instead. Once I regained courage to look at math theories again, I found myself distracted more by Huo Luogeng’s biography. Again, this would be looking at academic field from a humanities perspective.
Huo was born in Jintan in 1910. Like most prodigies, he excelled early and was nurtured by a teacher. He then went on to teach himself math and the corresponding advanced theories. The word for this type of person is “autodidact.” Huo was an autodidact. Most of these people, in my reading and studies, have been writers. The famous American playwright Arthur Miller, for example, had no formal training or college education. Same with Huo. He never got a PHD in mathematics, but he went on to make significant contributions.
Think about that. He never got a doctorate. And he ended teaching at Tsinghua University in Bejing. That’s China’s Ivy League. Speaking of that, he also taught at Princeton in the USA. And Cambridge in the UK. Over his career, he was lauded with many honorary degrees, but he never really earned a real one. Eventually, he died from a heart attack after finishing a lecture in Japan.
Jintan remembers this man well. There is a park named after him in the district’s center. There, you can find a statue of him sitting and holding a mug of some hot beverage. This is Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园, and it’s not that far from the district’s intercity coach station. And, by the way, it takes an hour to get there from Changzhou’s downtown station on an express bus.
Much farther away, you can find a memorial hall in his honor. Its in a different place altogether — Yuchi Park愚池公园. In theory, you can walk there from the bus station, but its a long distance and a taxi would be much easier.
The Chinese is 孔融让梨, or in Pinyin without the proper tone markers: kong rong rang li. If you translate the characters verbatim, you get “Kong Rong yeild pear.” In the picture, you can barely make out the characters, but I sent the photo to a Chinese friend who is native to Changzhou’s Jintan District. Turns out, many Chinese people could probably figure this out, due to how famous the expression is.
Kong Rong was both a scholar and a descendant of Confucius. His literary achievements likely outlive his acts as a minor warlord. Once, he spoke ill of Cao Cao, a Chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Both Kong Rong and his entire family were executed as a result, and their corpses were left in the street As ancient Chinese history goes, this was during the Three Kingdoms period. The killing of the family is strangely a reminder of a different part of Chinese culture.
Family is important in The Middle Kingdom in a way it just isn’t in the west. Honoring your father and following his orders are paramount. That’s filial piety, two English words seldomly used in the USA or UK. But it even gets into sibling hierarchy. Younger brothers are supposed to respect older brothers — the same with older sisters and younger sisters.
As legend goes, as a boy, Kong Rong would only pick up or pick small pears to eat. This would be from or around the trees near his home. Why? He felt it was his duty to leave the plumper, juicier fruit for his elder brothers. Hence, 孔融让梨, or “Kong Rong yeilds pears.”
As for this sculpture, it’s in Jintan’s Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园. It’s one of three statues dedicated to Chinese idioms. The park itself is in walking distance from the long-distance bus terminal.
“A lot of people died here,” a Chinese friend once told me. “Tai Ping rebels killed them and dumped them into this canal.” He peered over the railing and at the murky water. ” There may even still be bodies at the bottom.” He said this with a matter-of-factness that I just believed outright. I didn’t see any historical markers to this effect, but Jintan is his hometown — something he takes pride in. And, when talking about Tai Ping Rebels, he’s referring to The Heavenly Kingdom (太平天国); as civil conflicts goes, this was not only the bloodiest in Chinese history, but global history in general. It happened around the same time America had its own civil war.
But let me back up a bit. My friend and I were standing on a bridge, There was a remnant of an historic wall gate behind us. Old skeletons might or might have been in the water beneath us, and Hua Luogeng Park 华罗庚公园 surrounded us. So did Jintan. Two years ago, it was an independent satellite city under Changzhou’s jurisdiction. Last year, it lost its independence and became
Changzhou’s newest district. The same thing happened to the once-city of Wujin many, many years ago. Such things happen when
Chinese urban centers rapidly expand.
As I result, I found myself intrigued by this new, remote section of the Dragon City. Hua Luogeng Park, I found, is the most ideal place to start when venturing into Jintan for the first time. Why? It’s the closest to the district’s long-distance bus terminal. And by the way, it costs 15 RMB for an express bus to this part of Changzhou. The trip from and to the downtown station takes a little over one hour. The park is also part of the city center. A visitor could easily take a
walk here before and/or after doing other things. But convenience is not the only reason to come here.
The park is named after Jintan’s most famous son, Hua Lougeng. He was a world-renowned mathematician. Amazingly enough, he had no formal training. All of his contributions to number theory and more resulted from years of dedicated study and self-teaching. He was never actually a university student; he was just a man with a passion for numbers. There is a prominent statue of him here seated and holding a cup. The American in me assumes the beverage is coffee, but this is China. It’s more than likely tea.