Category Archives: Culture

Figuring Out Bai Juyi in Suzhou

Leaving a place comes with a complex stew of emotions. This is something I have come to know a lot over a lifetime of travel from one place to another. Even if you have plans set in place, the future is uncertain. Even more, you are leaving behind people and friendships that you have emotionally invested time in. While looking at some verses by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi, I have had to think about this.

百年愁里过,万感醉中来。
惆怅城西别,愁眉两不开。

bǎi nián chóu lǐ guò , wàn gǎn zuì zhōng lái 。
chóu chàng chéng xī bié , chóu méi liǎng bù kāi 。

A lifetime in sadness —

Ten thousand drunken feelings hit me.

I leave the city going west,

And my weeping eyes will not open.

As translations of poetry go, I’m not even going to claim this is particularly good.  Poetry can be impossible to translate correctly, and the best one can ever hope for, sometimes, is a rough approximation. What does one hope for? An exacting, meaningful translation, or something that strenuously remains true to the prosody in which the poet was intending? Bai Juyi is using end rhymes in the original Chinese, and I didn’t even try to attempt that.  In fact, I feel like I have taken a lot of liberties in just trying to understand Bai’s meaning.

What I do know is that the title of 寄别韦苏州 jì bié wéi sū zhōu mentions the city of Suzhou. It may also be a reference to Wei Yingwu — also a Tang Dynasty poet. He, like Bai Juyi, was once a governor of Suzhou; however, my Chinese language net searching skills are sorely lacking.  One of the rules of elementary translation I have told university students goes like this: “If you’re not absolutely sure, leave it in Chinese so that you avoid creating Chinglish.” So, ultimately frustrated, I’m leaving the title in Chinese.

However, the substance of the poem itself intrigues me.  Bai Juyi is clearly writing about the sadness of leaving a place. In poking around the net in trying to learn more about him, I did find a mention of how the people of Suzhou were upset to see him go. Apparently, crowds lined the street and cried as he departed. This is believable in a way that during his lifetime, he had achieved a popularity other Tang Dynasty poets had not.  Also, as governor, he had achieved a significant feat. Under his watch, the Shantangjie Canal was excavated and created in order to connect the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal to Tiger Hill — which to this day is one of Suzhou’s major scenic spots. Even centuries ago, Tiger Hill was a tourist attractions that merited travel by canal boat.

Personally speaking, learning about this is all part of the happenstance, down-the-rabbit-hole approach I take to traveling sometimes. I was in Suzhou with a friend, we were at Shantangjie, and we just walked into a memorial hall without knowing what it or its purpose was. None of the signage was in English. My non-Chinese-very-much-did-university-in-Virginia pal, however, claims his Chinese skills are bad — while reading the signs, telling me the guy’s name, and giving me the gist of some of what I we were looking at. It’s like modesty is his bragging point.  We collectively said “interesting” and then went off to seek out lunch. I had a plate of rice with bits of duck in it. It was most delicious.

However, the more I started to read about Bai Juyi, the more perplexed I got. He was born in Shanxi Province. Much of his life was definitely not spent in Suzhou. Like so many other Chinese poets, he had a penchant for making enemies within the imperial court and was subsequently sent into exile. At a first and very ignorant glance, it seems a bit random that there would be a memorial hall built to him at Shantangjie. However, history is sometimes in the footnotes.

His time in Suzhou was fleeting — about two years based on what I have read. However, playing a major role in the creation of Shantangjie is a “minor” career achievement that would outlive him by more than 1000 years. So much so that a couple of Americans blundering and bumbling through one of Suzhou’s major tourist attractions end up looking at a statue of him. Think about that. It’s staggering. If we take his poem noted above at face value, he very was sad to leave Suzhou. However, he did leave something of consequence in his wake.

 

 

Yixing’s Butterfly Lovers

There are only seven different stories, and everything else is either a blending or a variation on those types. 

If you have ever studied literature, you would have likely heard this idea at some point. For me, it was also kind of hard to nail down the exact origin of this, because I have heard countless professors and teachers spin it. For example:

There are only ten original stories, and they all come from The Bard!

Obviously, that came from one of my Shakespeare professors back in my undergraduate days. Some say that the idea comes from Christopher Booker and his tome The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.  At first glance, that idea doesn’t sit well with me. His book was first published in 2004, and that’s the year I finished my MFA in poetry.  So, obviously this idea has been floating around English departments long before that.

Where the idea originally comes from, or what version of it is being cited, in a sense ultimately doesn’t matter. Part of the idea is essentially true, as one can find stories from different cultures that have similar arcs.  Romeo and Juliet, for example, is essentially a tale of two teenage lovers that are kept apart by their families, and that ends tragically in a double suicide. Any tragic romance is ultimately compared to that story — if you come from a western culture.

taken from https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwii39TN0M3kAhUW_GEKHVrDAAgQjRx6BAgBEAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.britannica.com%2Ftopic%2FRomeo-and-Juliet-film-1968&psig=AOvVaw2keoMclxNcEqKEGXhl4Pmp&ust=1568458249980646

China, on the other hand, has tales that predate Shakespeare and western culture in general by many centuries to a thousand or so years. Take, for instance, The Butterfly Lovers. It’s considered one of the four greatest folktales in Chinese culture. Like Romeo and Juliet, it’s about a girl and a guy who are kept apart by their families.  The story goes like this.

Zhu Yingtai wants an education. However, it’s not common for women of the time period. Regardless, she persuades her father to allow it. However, to do so, she must cross dress as a man. During three years of study, she falls in love with her classmate, Liang Shanbo. He does not catch on at first, so Zhu insists that she play the role of matchmaker so Liang can marry her “sister.” However,  Zhu is the only girl in a family of nine total children.  It’s just a ruse to come out to him. Eventually, when all is revealed, they swear a “till death parts us” oath.  However,  Zhu’s father had already arranged a marriage for her to the son a wealthy businessman. Zhu is basically torn away from Liang, and he withers and dies with a profoundly broken heart. When Zhu visits his grave, she becomes filled with absolute despair. She begs his grave to open up. It does. She flings herself in and also dies. Then, both of their spirits rise in the form of colorful butterflies. They fly off  to spend the rest of eternity together.

The first recorded instance of this dates back to the Tang Dynasty –long before Shakespeare ever put ink and quill to paper. The other thing is this, and this happens anywhere, any country legends exist. Many different locations claim to the original “home” of the story. Liang Shanbo, for example, is said to be from Ningbo, where there is a temple dedicated to him.

taken from https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwj0o7zF083kAhXKc94KHdjjDbkQjRx6BAgBEAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.chinaholiday.com%2Fscenic-of-cixi%2Fcixi-butterfly-temple-cixi%2F&psig=AOvVaw0SCNDVbhi2y9w06BcvuuG-&ust=1568459072884990

The Wuxi county-level city  of Yixing also claims to be part of this story.  Essentially, Yixing clams to be where Zhu once studied. This has been worked into one of the town’s higher-profile tourist attractions, Shanjuan Cave. It should be noted that this legend is not the whole story of the cave — just a part. Once one sees the cavern, a garden / courtyard dubbed Yingtai Academy is next. This is essentially near the exit and a cable car station.

This is just but one reason to see this particular place in Yixing. As of this writing, I have been here twice. I recently went back because all of my photos of Shanjuan were on a cell phone that was eventually stolen. I hadn’t backed them up. During this more recent visit, the cable cars to the top of the mountain were not working. Eventually, I may go to Shanjuan again to do that — so I can finally claim that I have seen everything the place has to offer.

 

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.

Xu Zhimo Romantically in Changzhou

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Image of Mr. Handsome Courtesy of Wikipedia

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

This was crossposted from Real Changzhou. 

The 36 to Hell and Back

Hell, and the doorway to it, can be found in Xinbei. Somebody could accuse me of being facetious, and they would be absolutely, 100% correct! I am not talking about a mythological nether region where the souls of the damned are tormented. Actually, I’m talking about a statuary recreation of an underworld that is part of Chinese Buddhism. The torture meted out in this version of hell can be particularly brutal, but the saving grace is that the damned can pay their karmic debt and eventually be reincarnated. In Buddhism, people are not meant to rot in such a place for eternity.

This display can be found at Wanfo Temple. There was a previous Real Changzhou post about this place more than a year ago, but  that was more of explaining what the place was and what it culturally meant. Back then, I found it while riding my ebike in Northern Xinbei. Recently, I figured out how to get there on the public bus.

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Going north, I boarded the 36 at a stop in front of Xinbei Wanda Plaza. However, there are stops at points south of here. The 36 originates at the downtown train station and terminates in a part of Xinbei that’s just a couple of kilometers from the city line with Yangzhong. For a large section of the journey, this bus travels north on Tongjiang Road before turning.

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Eventually, I found myself in a small town called Weitang 圩塘镇. Instead of giving the street name, I would just say if you see the chimney from the industrial port along the Yangtze River, it’s time to get off the bus.

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Walk in a straight line towards that smoke stack. Sometimes, it will be hidden behind a building, but you can still see evidence of it on a clear day.

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The walkway might become a bit narrow, as you will end up walking through a working class neighborhood of desolate concrete. However, if you keep walking straight, you will not get lost. And trust me, I have been lost in this neighborhood before; it’s labyrinthine and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. So, I can’t stress how you only have to walk a straight line from the previously mentioned bus stop.

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A ticket runs about 10 RMB. Also, there are old ladies nearby that will want to sell you ceremonial incense. I skipped it this time, but a prior time I came here, a packet ran me about 10 additional RMB.

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As soon as you see something that looks like Guanyin dispensing mercy to troubled souls, you have almost found Hell.In the background of the above picture, you can see the entrance to the hall.

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The above picture doesn’t really do justice the gruesome detail on display here. So, consider this as an advisory. Graphic depictions of violence shall follow.

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The above three photos are just a minuscule sampling of what is here. A potential visitor should know that this a real religious site and not a wax museum like Madame Tussaud’s in London. The amount of carnage and brutality on display here may seem outlandish, but this is a place where I have always heard monks chanting in the background — every time I have been here. Christian cathedrals in Europe have been treated like tourist attractions, but visitors are still expected to treat the place with some sense of solemnity. The same could be said for Buddhist temples in Changzhou, China, and elsewhere in Asia.

This post originally appeared on Real Changzhou.

Behind Zhouzhuang’s Fame

Image Courtesy of China Daily

 

Imagine a famous painter is cruising through an ancient water town. He takes in the picturesque village around him, and then, all of a sudden, he is swept up in memory and is daydreaming about his hometown — it looks similar. However, the imagery of the rural town and it’s artificial waterways lingers in his memory, and he feels inspired to paint. It’s nostalgia, and it happens all the time with artists. The taste and smell, for example, of a madeleine cookie begins Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which is the longest novel in history.

The above situation happened, though, to Chen Yifei 陈逸飞 in Zhouzhuang. He went on to recreate oil paint renditions of the watery hamlet, and these works went on to become internationally famous. They hung in New York City, and a very famous collector and arts patron, Armand Hammer, paid a very large sum of money to buy the painting Memory of my Hometown and give it as a friendly gift to Deng Xiaoping. The image of that painting even went on to become a first day cover for United Nations postage stamps. All of a sudden, Zhouzhuang went from a sleepy set of traditional homes and canals to being famous worldwide. It’s also a very famous tourist destination in China.

Much of the town consists of tight corridors. There are two large, sprawling homes preserved to look how the would have centuries ago, but some of the old shop fronts have been tasked for more modern purposes. For example, Zhouzhuang’s Starbucks is such a building in one of the narrow streets. McDonalds, on the other hand, is outside the attraction. There are picturesque boat tours that could be had, here. And the boats are recreations of what one might have seen in ancient China.

These boat trips cost extra, and entry into the water town proper goes for 100 RMB. As a destination, this is not a convenient trip for a solo traveler outside Kunshan. Essentially, a visitor must take the high speed rail to Kunshan South Station. That’s between Suzhou and Shanghai.  From the South Station, one has to take Kunshan’s public 133 bus to its terminal station. One added convenience, though, is that this route passes Jinxi Ancient Watertown. So, it is possible that a visitor to Kunshan can easily see both attractions in one day. The other option would be to get on a chartered tour.

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.

Nanjing’s Confucian Temple

Sometimes, visiting a big city like Nanjing or Shanghai can be a bad idea, especially if it’s during a national holiday like Spring Festival. Literally, tens of thousands of Chinese people have the same idea, and places like Fuzimiao 夫子 — the Confucian Temple — become so crowded it becomes hard to navigate or even walk sometimes.  For example, this is a recent picture of the temple’s entrance. You can see the doorway into the place, as well as Confucius himself, right above the Chinese guy’s head.  This place was that crowded.

The temple itself is thousands of years old. It has been destroyed and rebuilt. At one point, it was so disregarded that the Kuomintang (KMT) once used the place as a barracks during the civil war / revolution that they lost to the communists.  The place didn’t start undergoing renovation and historical preservation until 1985. Although it’s a tourist trap now, historically the area had been dedicated to studying Confucian thought. Some of the other musuems in this greater area are also dedicated to higher learning and taking the imperial exams. After all, Nanjing used to be the capital of China.

The following are some pictures I found recently on an old phone. This is when I could get in two years back. At the time, I visited the place with my father when he had flown out from Monmouth County, New Jersey, for a visit. I had other photos of the place, but that was on a camera that I eventually lost in Beijing at the Great Wall.

The thing I always find interesting about Confucian temples in China is that it’s not really a “religion,” but you still see altars and places to burn incense and light candles. Confucius never claimed to be a mystical figure, and his book, The Analects, reads more like sagely advice on governing and living — not something about the supernatural regarding god or a pantheon of deities. But, sometimes in Chinese Culture, the line between “religion” and respecting one’s elders and ancestors can be thin.

Greater Fuzimiao

Foreigners misjudge the size of Chinese cities all the time. It can still happen to those of us who have lived in the Middle Kingdom for a couple of years. It can especially happen if your “China experience” is mostly in a smaller city like Changzhou. That’s what happened to me in Nanjing. I went back to Fuzimiao, aka The Confucian Temple, thinking I can spend a few hours and take everything in. There’s a problem with that: it’s too big, and seeing everything would entail more than three hours. There’s not just the temple itself, but other museums.

Plus, once you stray away from the Temple area, you end up in other attractions.  For example, White Egret Park is just down the road, and not by far. It’s walking distance.

There are easily a few things here besides the White Pagoda to occupy a person’s time. The park itself is large with several bridges to a few islands.  Also nearby is this…

In trying to get out of White Egret Park, I accidentally ended up in Dongshuiguan Relics Park. This entails part of an old city wall, but there is more to it than just that. Nanjing has a history stretching back thousands of years. Parts of Nanjing, like the Qinhuai River area has a history stretching back to the Stone Age. So, lesson learned. This is no going to part of Nanjing to “see everything  in a few hours.” In Changzhou, yes, but apparently not in Nanjing.