Category Archives: Wuxi

A Brutal Horse Hoof Odyssey

Some old Chinese buildings are so ugly, they are unique and should be admired and loved for their unruly character and oddball personality.

I said this to a friend as we strolled the streets of Jiangyin at night. At the time, we had just taken a bus into town from Changzhou, and both of us were hungry. We resolved to try the Munich-styled beer hall Hofbrau Haus on Jingyin’s bar street. On our way there, we stopped for a moment to take in the above building. I also uttered the above italicized quote.

It’s one of the many odd sort of experimental buildings that seemed to have been built decades ago. The lines and angles seem a little off kilter, and the exterior of these structures are always covered with small ceramic tiles that have been mortared together. These buildings also never seem to age well and develop vertical corroded streaks or rusted drip lines.

This is in Changzhou, not Jiangyin. It’s also not the building at the top of this post.

Ultimately, the fate of such architecture is that they will eventually be demolished and replaced with the steel and glass rectangular towers that are growing more and more common in Chinese cities.

I have always wondered how to technically describe such buildings in China. I even asked myself if they would classify as brutalist architecture, but I could only scratch my head. Brutalism grew out of modernism in terms of designing buildings. This style can be described as blocky, spare; geometric patterns can be rigid, and the color schemes tend to be drab, dull, and monochromic. This originated in the UK at first during the 1950s before spreading globally. Over decades, this style has earned a fair share of detractors and discontents. For example, one of Prince Charles’ most famous speeches railed against brutalism without even saying the word. To be blunt, these buildings tend to look like the following. Straight up fugly.

Balfron Tower in East London. Image borrowed from The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/euston-arch-declares-war-brutalist-architecture-john-hayes-a7393846.html

So, I eventually sent the Jiangyin picture to a friend who knows a lot more about architecture than I do. I am only a mere hobbyist when it comes to looking at urban landscapes. My pal is more of a master fanboy (nerd!) when it comes to this stuff, and I will always defer to his judgement. His answer was something to the effect of “Close, but not quite. There are too many curves and rounded parts; plus, there are glass surfaces, which you normally don’t normally see on purely brutal buildings.”

So, I asked, “Brutal-esque?”

“Perhaps,” he said, “but think more like brutalism with Chinese characteristics.

“Dude,” I said. “I’m totally going to quote you on that.”

Instead of acknowledging or refusing, he simply changed the subject to his love of rollercoasters.

This was days later, but let’s get back to the moment I took the above picture. My dining partner discussed it a bit. We compared it to other, similar buildings we have seen all over the southern end of Jiangsu. And then, we simply just moved onto the topic of hunger and actually eating, and so we made our way to the German beerhall for dinner. The building really didn’t reenter our consciousness. That would be much later. After all, we were far more engrossed in what constitutes the proper temperature of an “plausibly” authentic beer at a Chinese Octoberfest. Although this was not part of that yearly occasion, we did agree that the Hofbrau Jiangyin lager — brewed on site –was quite cold and quite good.

Our stay in Jiangyin was for two evenings, about two days. My travel partner wanted to get a look at the Yangtze River for the first time, and the city has at least three parks that offers that. Changzhou has none that I know of. Jiangyin is known for shipbuilding, after all.

I, on the other hand, had a fundamentally different desire. I wanted to find fresh matisu 马蹄酥,and Jiangyin is widely known for this particular snack.

The name matisu 马蹄 roughly translates “horse hoof,” and 酥 would be “shortbread” or “crisp.” I was once told that this pastry used to actually be shaped like a horse hoof, but now, clearly it doesn’t appear that way at all. One can easily guess the shapes have changed as dishes spread through China and are adapted locally. It is made with flower and sesame seeds, but the dark, slightly sweet filling is a mixture of walnuts with red bean paste. To be fair, this snack can easily be found in regional supermarkets.

Fair enough, yes you can. But this is a case of it being packaged with preservatives, and they end up tasting stiff like chalky cardboard. It’s kind of like saying Chips Ahoy! sold at Walmart are the most authentic American chocolate chip cookies when they clearly are not. So, my travel partner and I set out by foot to see if we could find something local and very fresh in Jiangyin.

At first, we followed the recommendation of a local, but that didn’t pan out the way we thought. Somewhere down the above street, we ended up at a bakery. Only, their shelving and display cases were picked over and didn’t have anything really appetizing to sell. When I asked if they had matisu, they simply looked confused, shrugged, and said no. So, that brought an end to what I thought was going to be an easy task. I had asked a local, after all! So, I had to revert to old investigative habits.

Pulling up Baidu Maps on my phone, I typed the characters 马蹄酥 as keywords and looked at the resulting addresses to see if something was close and gotten to on foot. Something did come up, but it required walking through a gated community. The travel partner and I had no problem doing just that. The results were utterly disappointing.

The travel partner and I ended up at a gift bag shop for this type of snack. Giving gifts are a fundamental part of Chinese culture and hospitality. This is especially true during holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival where the mooncake industry likely makes up the bulk of their yearly profit. If you need cultural equivalency, think about how many frozen turkeys are sold in America around Thanksgiving versus the rest of the year. That’s well and nice, but when it comes to mooncakes, matisu, or any other type of Chinese pastry, what has been prepackaged into a giftbag is just as bad as buying something vacuum sealed at a supermarket bin. Both taste like grainy chalk and nothing that is fresh. At any rate, it was time to move on and take a taxi to the next and most nearest dot. That lead to a surprise.

By sheer happenstance, we ended up at the brutal-looking building from two nights before. This provided interesting bookending to an extent, as this hunt for matisu was to be the last thing we did before returning to Changzhou. In daylight, I made out the characters 商城– fashion city or shopping mall. This huge, hulking eyesore of a building is, essentially, an old commodities market. Baidu maps didn’t provide a picture, just a name Tian Xiang Matisu 天香马蹄酥. However, I figured that if there was no external storefront, there likely an internal kiosk. Multi-floor commodities markets usually have meat, vegetables, and prepared food on the ground level. So, I set to looking.

At first, the interior of the building looked as desolate as the exterior. It would be very easy to misjudge here. I entered from the rear of the building, not the main entrance. This is because I tried to find a bakery by circling and looking for the characters 天香马蹄酥 on outside marquees. Since I didn’t find anything there, I had to probe the interior.

Eventually, my travel partner and I found ourselves at a small market at the center of the ground floor. What we were looking for turned out to be a small stall behind us.

They had exactly what we were looking for. While it wasn’t hot out of the oven, it was apparent that they were freshly made that day. The bigger ones cost 6 RMB each and smaller ones went for 3 RMB. The Chinese shopkeeper seemed absolutely flabbergasted that two foreigners would go out of their way to find and try something this local. She gave us one extra, and I think we ended up on her TikTok feed or some other type of social media. Though, we didn’t stick around much longer. A cab returned us to downtown, and we went to Starbucks for coffee. Sitting on a bench near the pedestrian street, we tried our new snack. The red bean paste made things slightly sweet, and that fit nicely with walnuts that had been mixed in. It was as yummy as I was expecting it to be.

As for the building, I stick by my initial reaction to it. The Wending Shopping Mall 文定商城 is certainly ugly to look at, but it does have a lot of personality. Last I checked, providing a sense of hospitality and feeding somebody is a good character quality.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Cheese Enchiladas at Peter’s

In one of his many videos, professional skateboarder and all around legend Tony Hawk once pointed out how Mexican food lowers in quality as distance from the Mexican boarder increases.However, I noticed that same could be said for the state of Tex Mex cuisine and finding it outside North America in general. It seems like a gamble in if you are traveling through China. I thought about this recently while in Wuxi.  Currently, I know of only two restaurants in that city offering anything that remotely looks like it comes from Mexico or Texas. I have only been to one of those two.

Peter’s Tex-Mex Grill can be found in Wuxi’s southern Binhu District. It’s in a shopping mall overlooking Linhu Lake and the large Wuxi Grand Theater stands right next door. This is on the southern end of the city’s subway’s Line 1, and is in the greater vicinity of Jiangnan University 江南大学. Actually, it’s a bit of a hike from the nearest metro station, Cultural Palace 文化宫.  I found the restaurant by sheer accident. I had come to this part of Wuxi because I had never been here before and was up for a bit of aimless wandering.

So, how was the food? Since I hadn’t really had anything vegetarian in a while, I opted for the rather simple cheese enchiladas.  Honestly, it was a bit of a gloopy mess. To be fair, this dish can be a bit of a gloopy mess in America, too.  It’s basically just queso cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla smothered in a mild sauce. Small ramekins of refried  beans, rice, and sour cream came with the dish. All in all, just average, and that can be just okay in China, sometimes. It actually tasted like enchiladas!  It’s certainly better than anything in Changzhou that is currently calling itself “Mexican.” There was a chain called Tacos that was just, well, not very good.  It was Mexican in name only.

I would return to Peter’s, but it’s just not in a good location for an out of town guy like me. Wuxi, however, looks to be building a subway line out here, and with the Grand Theater as a cultural attraction, that is probably a very good idea.

 

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.

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.

This is Huangtu

 

There is an intersection in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district sharing a map line with Jiangyin. The B1 bus turns here to pass the Trina International School  and end its route at the Changzhou’s northern rail station.  Make a wrong turn at this stop light, and you end up in Wuxi. Jiangyin, while an independent city, is actually part of Wuxi.  There are a few times I have crossed this red light border intentionally to see what was there.  One time, it was to see the town of Huangtu.

 

This is a very small town between Changzhou’s Xinbei district and Jiangyin’s dowtown “proper.” The intercity bus from Changzhou North Station makes local stops here. The bus from the downtown / Tianning station does not. That’s more of an express, and frankly, if you are going to downtown Jiangyin, it’s always better to take the express and not a local. It’s a faster ride. So what does Huangtu have to offer?

Not much, actually. However, that is more of a “city” point of view. And, it’s not meant to be condescending. It’s more of a statement that you can’t find a lot to be a “foreign tourist”  about here.

The local temples are actually places of worship — not places that charge admission and give you commemorative ticket. But, again, that’s the point in a way.  “Real” is a relative term. What applies to cities doesn’t apply to towns. “Real” also means “people live here” and “local.”  It’s also an interesting contrast. Appreciating and understanding urban China means also appreciating and understanding “small town” China. Maybe that’s just the key to understanding China in general? Maybe that’s the key to understanding the complicated dynamics of any country?