Category Archives: Art

Faces of Abing

In the cultural history of Wuxi, Abing is a heavyweight. In many respects, he is remembered as a folk hero — here was this blind and impoverished Taoist priest roaming around Wuxi while writing and playing music on his erhu or pippa. Some of his songs were topical, and some of them are still transcendent. Not a lot of his creations were written down as sheet music, and only a few have been recorded for posterity. Imagine if somebody in America like Woody Guthrie had their body of work lost to history. Abing’s surviving compositions are now considered Chinese national and cultural treasures.

In Wuxi, his home has been preserved as a museum in his honor. Upon my last visit, I was struck by the sculptural and artistic renditions of him. Some are quite surreal.  Here are some pictures to that end.

 

 

 

Let’s start with a fairly realistic head bust for comparative value. Now, let’s move on to a selection. The following are not all of the sculpture’s at Abing’s former home. It’s just a quick sampling.

 

Most of the sculptures — and their dreamlike qualities — make Abing seem like a larger than life figure. But, then again, most folk heroes are just that: larger than life. And, the legend of a person may or may not gel exactly with who they actually were. Still, here was a Chinese musician who engaged the imaginations of his listeners. It’s only fitting that he have equally imaginative artistic renditions of his likeness.

Sanyang’s Vanished Murals

I suspect graffiti and public art may be more of a American cultural phenomenon, especially in New York City, New Jersey, Philadephia, and other urban settings.  I don’t really see it much in this part of Jiangnan, and so when I do, I always take notice and give it a good, long look. I always take pictures. For example, in Wuxi, there used to be stuff like this on a long wall.

This is just three selections from a bigger personal photo archive I have. This was near Sanyang Plaza in downtown Wuxi — walking distance from the subway station and Chong’an Temple. I always found these murals quirky, whimsical, and fun to look at. Now, the area looks like this.

The graffiti wall is completely gone. It seems something with traditional architecture is taking its place. A similar situation has happened with another long mural wall across the street.

So, what does this look like, now?

If you look closely, the artwork is now covered by advertisements. I am not complaining about this. I am not somebody who thinks every bit of artwork needs to physically preserved either. There are reasons why some American art lovers, like myself, always snap cell pictures of graffiti. It’s a finite experience. A city or real estate company may remove it, eventually — such as what has happened in Wuxi. In America, graffiti pieces are often covered by rival artists who hate each other. As I said, street art can be a finite experience. So, to that, I am glad to enjoy both mural walls while I could.

 

 

Liyang’s Game of Thrones Styled Story

Ancient Chinese history is filled with brutal court intrigues among generals, politicians, heads of state, fox spirits, and more. This is particularly true when you consider that, over the course of time, China has been splintered into several countries. That means, basically, that the Game of Thrones tales of double, triple, and quadruple crossing people, allies, and enemies can become easy to find. More regal courts means more opportunities for people betraying each other. Just look at the history of Chinese poets; the whole “I am in exile, drunk, and miss my home” is a common literary trope. Why? A lot of poets were also government officials that ran afoul of somebody and had to leave. It’s the story of Li Bai, and it’s the story of Su Dongpo, for example.

The more somebody travels through China, the more they can see this if they start paying attention to local lore and legend. I realized this once in Liyang. While this place is not a district of Changzhou as a municipality, it is considered part of Changzhou as a prefecture. In short, it’s its own city, but it’s technically still part of CZ.

Over in Phoenix Park 凤凰公园 near Liyang’s urban center,a statue commemorates something called “The Gauze Washing Virgin.” The stone sculpture stands in the middle of a pond, and four large stone panels — with etched illustrations — serves as a backdrop. The story, according to a bilingual sign, can be paraphrased this way.

A young woman is washing textiles in the river. Eventually, a man wanders into her life. He’s weak, he’s starving, and she saves him. She feeds him and shows him some hospitality. While doing so, she recognizes him as Wu Zixu 伍子胥.

This was a figure from the Chu Kingdom’s court during the Spring and Autumn Period. Chu was a larger country to the west of Liyang and Changzhou. On the run, Wu Zixu fled Chu and ended up in the Wu Kingdom. (To be noted: the Wu family name 伍 and the Wu kingdom 吳 are different WU characters in Pinyin. Also, by the way, unintended rhyming is hard to avoid when you are using Chinese names.) The state of Wu was comprised of areas that are currently associated with Suzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou.

Anyhow, this young woman saves this guy’s life. Yet, she realizes that she now possesses a deadly secret. She knows who he is. More importantly, she likely realizes somebody is after him. According to the sign at Liyang’s Phoenix park, she picks up a big rock, throws herself into the river, and drowns to protect his identity. If she dies, his secret dies with her.


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

All of this story is just a small detail in a small park — in a town more known for eco tourism around Tianmu Lake and the Nanshan Bamboo Forest. However, it’s lore like this that actually gives town like Liyang true character.

Cross Posted from Real Changzhou. 

Culture Etched in Stone

The art of calligraphy does not have the heft in the west as it does in China. I always like to point out that Chinese uses pictographs and not an alphabet, and Chinese characters are unique images. Words in western languages are made from a limited bunch of letters put into different orders. So, it’s easy for a foreigner to take Chinese calligraphy for granted. It is also more than just black ink brushed or penned onto paper. There is stone seal cutting, and then there is something called “Steles.” The character for this would be  bēi 碑. 

These are large stone slabs with carved inscriptions. Typically, they commemorate people, events, and sometimes even stories of cultural or historical importance. They started showing up in Chinese culture around the Tang Dynasty. Often, you can find them at Buddhist or Taoist temples, but I have seen them at parks. I really didn’t realize how much they were important artifacts until I happened upon a small exhibition of them in Wuxi.

The Wuxi Stele Musuem 无锡碑刻陈列馆 — which also can be translated as the “Wuxi Hall of Inscriptions.” It’s down the street from Xue Fucheng’s former residence, but it’s tucked behind a middle school. The site itself used to be an historical educational building where people studied Confucianism, but that part of the building seems largely abandoned. Yes, there is a picture of Confucius here.

However, all the glass display cases are empty.

The more interesting thing are the steles themselves. There a plenty of these on display. Some are freestanding, and some are embedded into the wall. There are also actually glass display cases with artifacts in them.

While there are two signs that have English explanations, they tend to be more generally about the location and not the stone slabs and what they are trying to say. Most of the stele have plaques giving summaries, but they are in Chinese only. These, at least, I could translate with my cell phone. But, in a way, that’s not enough. The poetry nerd in me wants to actually read these things. And that means I am not learning Chinese fast enough and am quite lazy at learning the language. One day, I would love to return to this place and actually be able to translate them without using my phone or a hapless Chinese friend.

A Surreal and Ambient Place in Zhonglou

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Imagine you are eating a chicken dinner drinking red wine. Above you, clouds move, but they are not exactly white. They seem more of a soft yellow, and they are swirling in a way that normal sky clouds wouldn’t. Eventually, these whisps fade and change into abstract and gradually shifting gradients of red. You’re not really paying close attention to this at first. After all, you are eating chicken and sipping on a glass of wine. In front of you, there is also a stage. A woman is singing with a band. You are also idly chatting with a friend sitting next to you. The next time you look upwards, the red gradients are gone. They have been replaced by images of rippling water — which eventually morphs into a cityscape.

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All of this is supposed to sound like an otherworldly dream. However, such a surreal place exists in Changzhou. It’s a special events venue in Zhonglou on the grounds of the Dusit Thani Hotel near Qingfeng park. This space is as avant garde as it sounds. The structure consists of interlocking inflatable domes. A network of lighting equipment and video projectors creates a 360 degree multimedia environment. Images and patterns of smoke, fire, clouds, and a lot more are projected onto the curved walls and ceiling. The technology involved is advanced to the point where video with sound can also be played — a commercial for a automotive company, for example.

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All of this is the product Oracle Projects, an international entertainment and special events production company. Before coming to Changzhou, Oracle has helped host events at the Beijing Olympics and other places around the world. Essentially, it is a high-end venue space for hire. While Oracle is working and consulting on this project, it is actually locally owned by the Shanghai Aviation Future Cultural Development Company 上海中航未来文化发展有限公司.

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The event I attended was sponsored by Borgward. This is a German automotive company with a long history dating back nearly a hundred years. For a long time, this car brand was dormant, but Chinese investors helped relaunch the company recently. The evening consisted of a catered dinner, live music, dancers, a fashion show and more. To celebrate their relaunch, Borgward screened a new commercial on the venue’s curved walls. This was not a one-off event, either. Oracle Projects and its local partner have long term plans in Changzhou with other events to come.