Category Archives: Wuxi

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?

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.

 

img_20161217_220037

 

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.