Category Archives: History

Who Was Xu Rong?

The first time I ever visit a city, I like to wander around without a plan. The idea is that the new location will reveal itself to me in its own time and manner. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I decided to go to Zhangjiagang, because, well, I have been meaning to for two years now. I mean, it’s only a little over an hour by bus from Changzhou. Not that far from the city center, I ran into a a statue of what looked like an ancient statesman.

Public sculpture has always intrigued me — especially when it’s not abstract. It usually signifies and represents the history and the stories a city or a town wants to tell. Since the above photoed figure is holding a sword, it probably means he was some sort of heroic figure. Unfortunately for me, the Chinese text on the wall behind the statue didn’t read well on my phone.

All I could really get was “许蓉抗倭…” And that translated as “Xu Rong fights Japanese.” In this case, is an archaic character for “Japanese.” It’s no longer used in everyday Chinese, so the ones he had to be fighting had to be really, really old.  Thankfully, there was a bas relief sculpture on the other side of the wall. It depicted a very chaotic scene. Here are two details.

Further intrigued, a made a few more attempts at translating the explanatory text behind the Xu statue.  All I could glean was another  word: 倭寇.  In English, that would be Wokou — with a spelling variant (from a different Romanization scheme) of “wako.”  These were Japanese pirates. I left the statue and wandered around to see what else downtown Zhangjiagang had to offer. My thought was once I eventually returned to my hotel room, the Internet would help me fill in the rest of the story. Of course, it didn’t. I searched in both English and Chinese and turned up next to nothing on who Xu Rong was.

So, the next day, I went The Zhangjiagang Musuem. Surely, there had to be a mentions of the Xu there.

There was some mention of him, but not a lot. He lived from 1500 to 1570 — basically, during the Ming Dynasty. There were more mentions of Japanese pirates, but that was about it. Apparently, these Wokou attacked the town and sacked it several times.

The above obviously is from Pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s of Chow Yun Fat 周润发. It is also the highest profile representation of the Wokou in western culture. Because, the more I could not find information about Xu Rong and why he’s a hero, I was able to piece together a bigger picture.

The Wokou started off as Japanese pirates raiding and pillaging Korea and coastal China. But, Zhangjiagang is not a coastal town. However, it is near the Yangtze delta and the Wokou had no problem sailing up river and causing chaos inland. That being said, if these pirates were Japanese, why do you have a Chinese actor playing one?  History is a little more complicated. So, let’s back up and talk about this dude.

This is the Jiajing Emperor — born as Zhu Houcong. Pretty much, he was an useless ruler and a terrible human being. He was an ardent Taoist and was into alchemy. He thought if he drank the menstrual blood of virgins, he could prolong his life and attain immortality. He actually kept a harem of young girls for this exact purpose, but he treated them so badly that his phalanx of concubines tried to assassinate him and failed. That was the Renyin Plot, and those concubines were slowly tortured to death for the efforts. Oh, and their family members were also beheaded. It’s pretty gory reading, as far as history goes.

However, that is beside the point. He, like other Ming Emperors, was an isolationist.  Trade with the outside world had been made illegal.  There were coastal communities that were basically not allowed to capitalize on their greatest local asset: proximity to the sea. So, eventually, a some Chinese people started joining the Wokou. There were even Portuguese sailors among their ranks. So, these pirates started off Japanese, but they were largely international during the Ming Dynasty according to some historians. So, having Chow Yun Fat play an Asian pirate may not be that far off from the truth.

However, let me digress back to Zhangjiagang. The years of the Jiajing Emperor were the worst when it came to Wokou incursions into China.  According to Wikipedia, there were 602 pirate raids during Jiajing’s reign.  At the time, China didn’t have much of a navy to defend itself because of Ming rulers thinking the world outside China was irrelevant. Some towns like Zhangjiagang had to turn to local officials like Xu Rong to try and address the issue.

So,  who was Xu Rong? Truthfully, I still don’t have a clue. However, trying to figure that out did teach me some historical lessons I didn’t know before. That’s a good thing. Also, another takeaway from all of this is that some of the Chinese distrust of the of the Japanese goes back A LOT longer than World War 2, the occupation, and the war crimes that came with it.  This is true if were are discussing Japanese pirates — however international their crews may have been — attacking a town like Zhangjiagang during the Ming Dynasty.

 

 

 

Local Antiquity in Lishe

In souterhn Jiangsu, there are plenty of old towns, but many of them are closely associated with canals. Lishe Village 礼社古村 is certainly not that type. China Daily makes the place seem vibrant with a lot of local history. However, I went here on my ebike, since it was right over the city line with Changzhou and the former Qishuyan district.  It largely seemed very quiet. So, what is there to see here? My experience was different than the China Daily article linked above. This wasn’t a guided tour. Just a random, solo westerner showing up. That is neither good nor bad. Here is what I did see.

There are two former residences open to the public. They are of Xue Muqiao 薛暮桥 and Sun Yefang 孙冶方. Both were prominent members of the Chinese communist party, and both were Marxist economists of note.

Other than that, there is a traditional stage / performance space.

With noodles drying in the sun!

Lishe Village is quite small. It takes roughly about an hour — two at the most — to see everything there is to see here. You can easily walk out of historic part and end up in a working class neighborhood next to a canal.

It was here that I saw a Chinese guy just wandering in tighty-whitey underpants with nothing else. In his defense, it was a hot day. He was also chain smoking cigarettes. The course correction back to the historical area wasn’t hard.

All in all, you get a fundamentally different vibe here than you would in, say, Wuxi’s Nanchan area. There, there is a bustle of tourists and people catering to tourists. Here, it’s almost serene. Then again, Nanchan is centrally located in Wuxi. This is in an extreme corner to the Huishan District. As stated earlier, it’s just over the city line with Changzhou.

China’s First Steamship in Wuxi

Steam technology came to China during the Qing Dynasty, and there is an interesting dynamic to think about there. In Ancient history, the Chinese were essentially global leaders of innovation. Gun powder, for example, came into being during the 9th century, and the Chinese followed that up with the “fire lance” a hundred or so years later. This was basically a tube at the end of a spear the could belch out fire and sometimes, if one had some really nasty intent, flaming hot shrapnel. The fire lance was the precursor to all firearms and guns to follow.

Fire lances don’t allegedly kill people; people allegedly kill alleged people!

Ask yourself how something like that didn’t change the world? Then, somehow, China lost its edge. During the Ming and early Qing Dynasties, The Middle Kingdom shut itself off from the rest of the world. In isolation, the culture slowed its technological growth and the west caught up and surpassed China.  Once the later Qing reopened to western trade, China had a lot of catching up to do.  What good is a ancient Chinese fire lance in battle when Americans invented the first rapid-fire machine gun? (The Gatlin Gun)

Gatlin Guns don’t kill people, people kill …. um, wait, who am I kidding? This things mowed down a lot of soldiers during the American Civil War.

Guns or otherwise, the Chinese had fallen behind. So, back to my original point. The British first demonstrated a steam powered locomotive to imperial court in 1864, and the trend from there indicates that most of the innovations like this came from foreign sources at high cost. Most people and nation states dream and aspire towards self reliance. So, you can imagine how some Chinese people would actively want to make their own steam engines and not have to pay top sums of money for a foreigner to manufacture one for them.

Here is where an interesting — but almost forgettable — little display in present day Wuxi comes into play. It’s along the Liangxi Touring Recreational Greenway. This is a part of the greater Grand Canal network of artificial waterways that can be found in cities from Hangzhou to Beijing. This particular stretch of water is walking distance from Wuxi’s central train station and is near a thick cluster of dance clubs.

So, what exactly am I talking about? There is a replica of a steamship permanently moored to the side of the canal here. Next to this boat, three statues of Chinese men stand. In all likelihood, they are Xu Shou with his son, Xu Jiangyan, and a family friend, Hua Hengfang. These three conceived, designed, built, and test drove the first steam-powered boat ever locally produced in China. This endeavor was funded by Zeng Guofan. He is perhaps more well known for his efforts in helping to put down the the extremely bloody and destructive Taiping Rebellion. So, this little boat thing in Wuxi is more of a minor footnote on his career as an imperial official.

In some respects, China is still playing “catch up” with the west when it comes to technology. In other areas, like the building  infrastructure like roads, rail systems, subway networks, and much more, China is already leading and has left the USA far, far behind. But, in history, a lot of things are interconnected in subtle ways. So, Wuxi’s claim to have been the home of the first domestically created steamship engine may not sound like a big deal. It may still sound like a footnote in history, but even footnotes have context and greater meanings.

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. 

Yixing’s Dragon Slayer

It takes a true hero to admit when he or she is wrong. This not only shows a level of self awareness, but a fundamental sense of humanity. We are not always as great as we secretly — or not so secretly!! — think we are. If we were talking professional wrestling, this would be termed as a “face turn“ — when bad man (called a “heel”) ditches his dastardly ways and becomes beloved for it. In the art of telling stories, it’s much more basic than that; it’s straight up character development. And characters who grow as people are always much more interesting than the ones that don’t.

There is an example of this to be found in Yixing’s local lore. Yixing is one of Wuxi’s two satellite cities. The other, Jiangyin, can be found to the north of Wuxi and along the banks of the Yangtze River. Yixing is to the south and is situated near Lake Tai. At one point, this city actually used to be part of Changzhou, eons ago. It was even referenced by Su Dongpo in an request filed with the emperor. The poet landed in Yixing, and was asking permission to live in Changzhou. There is a monument to this written request in the Xuejia part of Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district.

That’s all well and interesting, but what does that have to do with slaying dragons? After all, the title of this post promises that a dragon gets killed, at some point, right? Yixing was once home to a man named Zhou Chu  周處. In his youth, he was considered a hothead who liked to push other people around — a bully, if you will. He was a man so full of himself, his fellow villagers named him one of the three local scourges.  The other two were a tiger and an evil water dragon. Zhou decided to kill the tiger, and for three days, he battled the dragon on Lake Tai.

Upon returning to what would become Yixing with a severed dragon’s head, he learned that his own character flaws were the third and final monster his neighbor’s feared. So, he mended his ways. He went on to become a valiant general who died in battle. Actually, he was sent into battle without enough troops. When asked if he wanted to retreat and flee after his archers ran out of arrows, he responded with something to the effect of, and to paraphrase, “I would rather die serving my country.”

Sure, this is a folk tale that is more the 1000 years old, but it’s still remembered in Yixing. The city’s downtown area has a network of parks built up around a body of water called Tuanjiu 团氿. It is here where a visitor can find a stone statue commemorating this story. It depicts Zhou Chu wielding a story while wrestling and subduing a dragon.

Wuxi’s President Clinton Monument

 

Yes, you read that correctly. Wuxi has a monument to American President William Jefferson Clinton. This is not the first time that American Presidents have shown up in local Chinese culture. Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson can be found in Changzhou. Lincoln is at the Changzhou Revolutionary Martyr’s Memorial in Tianning; his face is on a plaque with an inspirational quote translated into Chinese.

 

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He’s also surrounded by other plaques for people like Shakespeare,  Gandhi,  Mark Twain and others. Jefferson is over in Zhonglou’s Wuxing Park. He’s near Socrates and a few Chinese intellectuals. The park has a law theme. Both Lincoln and Jefferson are included among others, and the focus is not particularly on them. That’s where Wuxi’s Clinton thing is markedly different. It really is about him, directly.

 

 

Before I explain what this about, I really need to explain where it is. It’s part of the reason why this stone honors America’s 42nd commander in chief.  This rock sits at the entrance of a huge park dedicated to Wu culture. Basically, Wu is the part of China that Wuxi, Changzhou, and Suzhou once belonged to. Several kingdoms over thousands of years used Wu as it’s name. Plus, it’s also the variant of the Chinese language that forms the basis of a number of local dialects in the southern Jiangsu region. This park essentially celebrates a local culture that is rich, full of tradition, and stretches back a long, long way into history.

 

 

In this picture, Clinton can be found under the roof on the right side of this picture. The Wu Cultural Park is located in Wuxi’s northern Huishan District. It’s a rather lengthy walk from The Yanqiao subway station, which is also the northern terminus for Wuxi’s Line 1. Huishan’s Wanda Plaza is also not that far away.  Okay, so I am dragging this out. Why is Bill Clinton at a place dedicated to local Jiangnan culture? Let’s zoom in on the memorial stone itself.

 

 

This whole display commemorates a postcard Clinton sent somebody via airmail. “Thank you so much for your kind gift.  I appreciate your thoughtfulness and generosity.” Okay, so it’s a thank you card. Why was Clinton sending one to somebody in Wuxi? I had to enlist one my trusted Chinese friends, because my ability with reading Chinese still sucks. And the translator on my phone can’t read engraved text all that well. What I was told was this: the Wu Cultural Park sent Clinton two art books. One was on traditional Wu architecture, the other was  about idols. President Clinton acknowledged the gift with a signed thank you card. That’s the whole story.  Nothing more to say.

Before anybody sarcastically screams “big deal,” think about this. Parts of America are filled “Washington slept here!” historical attractions.   Locals love it when global luminaries give their homes and neighborhoods extra meaning. For instance, Changzhou has a memorial hall for when Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen) did a whistle stop and waved at people. This was on his way to Nanjing to create a new government after the Qing Dynasty fell.  That’s a memorial for five to twenty minutes (I am guessing here) of face time with a huge, adoring crowd.

Also, take my home state of New Jersey. Long Branch has “Seven Presidents Parks.” It’s a beachfront location on the Atlantic Ocean. Long Branch also has a cool skatepark here. But why does it has the name “Seven Presidents?” That’s simple. Over the course of American history, seven commanders in chief stayed or vacationed in Long Branch. People will embrace anything that gives their home extra meaning. That’s not a bad thing, either — especially when it crosses oceans and national borders, as is the case with Clinton and Huishan, Wuxi.

Searching for Wuxi’s City God

Other than Taoism or Buddhism, there was one other faith indigenous to China: Chinese folk religion. This is what predates even Taoism and it has shaped and influenced the Chinese variety of Buddhism as well. The pantheon of deities here is tremendous, and it even stretches down onto the local level. Each town and city is said to have their own god who safeguards the land and the people. Finding out further information on these local legends has not been an easy task. Not all city god temples survived the Cultural Revolution.

Part’s of Wuxi’s local god shrine still stands, and it can be easily found downtown and not that far from the Sanyang Plaza subway station. It’s behind the Center 66 恒隆广场 shopping center. In a way, there really isn’t much to see here. There is no statue or image of who Wuxi’s city god was. There are three separate structures, and they are empty and almost devoid almost anything cultural. One of the buildings has a second floor, but the twin staircases to that level are blocked off. There are some things historical, here, however, and if you don’t look carefully, they are easy to miss. Six stone tablets are embedded in the wall, and they are filled with Chinese characters. These can be sometimes hard to read, even if a visitor is fluent in Chinese. The engraved writing is so worn and faded in some spots, it’s hard to make anything out.  So, in terms of trying to figure out the story behind Wuxi’s local god, this seems like a place to start looking, but it certainly isn’t the end of the search.