Changshu is known as a textile town, and part of the city is a series of non-stop clothing markets. Each of these massive plazas can be dedicated to different types of clothes — leather city, woman’s apparel city, etc. Clothing markets are prime places where, if one went looking for it, you could easily find Chinglish. The last time I was in Changshu, I did exactly that in the menswear plaza. Here are some shots.
August is the season of Qixi. Every year, this day is the traditional Chinese Valentines — whereas the day in February is a cultural import. Then, there are others; a friend of mine likes to complain there are many “Valentines” that were created by Chinese women conspiring to get more chocolate, flowers, and attention every year. I don’t know about that. He is married to a Chinese woman, and I am not. And instead of actually having a date on Qixi, I decided to take a bus to Jintan and walk to a small lake. What can I say? I’m sort of an emo dude sometimes. Besides, a nice bit of a water is always nice to look at when you want to contemplate things and stuff.
Yeah, but I didn’t get to contemplate things and stuff. Most of my trips to Changzhou’s westernmost district have been to wander around the downtown area and the parks next to it. This time, I decided to go south of the bus station and the district’s Wuyue Plaza. This whole area is either under construction, or the land is open and awaiting development. When I finally got to Qianzi Ecological Park, I noticed a smaller, sillier park within it.
Themed parks or sections of a park is not anything really new in this end of China. However, this one was gaudy in an aged-and-weathered looking way.
Then, I perhaps saw what has got to be the silliest thing in Jintan. A public bathroom with loved inspired architecture. The theme did not carry into the bathroom. I know. because I personally inspected and used said restroom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the years, I have weirdly romanticized the idea of the Yangtze River.. I blame an adulthood filled with kung fu movies for that. There have been times I have sought out the river with the hopes of enjoying a scenic view, but those attempts were usually dashed by large, hulking industrial ports. I did get down to the river bank once in Jiangyin. What I saw that time was far from picturesque; it was more of a display of the strength of China’s manufacturing and shipping prowess. The river was bustling with cargo ships likely headed to the west with goods to be sold in places like Walmart, Target, and other big box retailers. It was the real Yangtze and not the one I often have in my head. I was reminded of this recently because I took a bus to Taixing. Along the way, I got to spend some quality time with the river again.
To get from Changzhou to Taixing, crossing is a necessity. Part of me was afraid that the journey to this small county-level city in Taizhou would involve going via Zhenjiang and Yangzhou — you know, the long way round. The thought there involved bridges. However, both Changzhou and Taixing have ferry ports. In this case, buses, cars, and even eBikes can get from one side of the river to the other. As a coach passenger, you can either stay on the bus or get off during the ferry ride. I chose to get off.
The back and forth ferry traffic is fairly brisk. So, the actual wait time for a boat is fairly low. On the way across the river, you are likely going to see more than one boat heading in the opposite direction.
Of course, there is more than enough reminders that this a very industrial body of water and not a scenic one. This is view of some of Changzhou’s port facilities.
So, yeah, it wasn’t as scenic as I dreamed. Especially when the phrase “I live near the Yangtze” sounds super sexy to friends and family back in America. But then again, you you’re supposed to love something for what it is and not what the fantasy in your brain wants it to be. As for my journey to Taixing, the ferry ride is actually a nice break in what is usually a two hour journey.
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.
Of Zhenjiang’s local specialties, perhaps pot covered noodles 镇江锅盖面 Zhènjiāng guō gài miàn and vinegar are two of the most well known. There is, however, a third: cured pork 肴肉 Yáo ròu. On a recent trip to the city, I had the opportunity to try both. On a menu board, the dish goes by Yao Rou Mian 肴肉面.
The soup itself has a brown soy-based broth that is quite similar to local noodles in other cities. The main difference is in the preparation. As the above cited English name suggests, the noodles are cooked in a covered pot, and that has an effect on both the noodles’ texture and taste. So how about the meat?
it’s basically cured pork held together with what I gathered was either a gelatin or an aspic. In many respects, it can be taken as a Chinese version of head cheese — although the two evolved independent of each other.
However, I also highly doubt the meat in the Chinese version comes from a pig’s head. The origin story I read involved accidentally using nitrites instead of salt while preparing a pig’s foot. In my noodles, though, I made the mistake eating one of the slices of yao rou immediately. It was cold. However, I quickly discovered that if you submerged it into the warm soup, the gelatin / aspic dissolved.
This allowed me evenly distribute the remaining bits throughout my noodles. Once I had done this, I enjoyed my soup a little bit more. The meat had the same tough texture as corned beef, but since it was pork, you could easily say the taste was not the same. A friend likened it to ham, but the yao rou I had didn’t have the saltiness I often associate with ham. All in all, this was a satisfying dish, and I imagine I would have it again the next time I am in Zhenjiang.
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.
“Why do Americans eat potatoes with nearly everything? It’s not right!” A Chinese teaching colleague blinked at me a few times. “I mean, when I lived in the US, I grew to hate potatoes at first and never wanted to look at them again. Eventually, I realized I had no choice and just learned to like them.”
I smiled. “First, I don’t know why. Second, a question. Why do lots of Chinese people always eat rice with their meals?”
This colleague then laughed. “OK. Fair point.”
This conversation happened many years ago. I lived in Wujin at the time. There is, however, a reason why I still remember this exchange. When a person is actively trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, two of the most immediate challenges are language and food. My colleague essentially was saying “I had to learn to like potatoes if I ever was to appreciate American food.” There is something similar that occurs to some westerners when they move to China. Some might find a few Chinese dishes culturally offensive due to organ meat and animal parts they are not used to. To appreciate Chinese food, sometimes, one has to turn these cultural sensitivities off.
I recently did this when some Chinese friends invited me out to lunch. They had a “free” coupon for a place called 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo. It’s relatively new and on one of the upper levels of Injoy / Wuyue Plaza downtown. Actually, it may be occupying the space that used to be home to Summer and then a Vietnamese pho noodle shop. Alright then, so it’s new. What’s the culturally challenging part? It specializes 毛血旺 máo xuè wàng. Also, I quickly learned that when you feed those three characters in Baidu Translate, you get some hilarious Chinglish.
No, mao xue wang is not hairy blood. No strand, root, or follicle of hair is involved! This is one of those instances where it’s best to write the name in Pinyin without tone markers and call that the dish’s English name. Okay, so what is it?
It’s a soup originally from Chongqing. Oh, and by the way, it’s extremely spicy. The above photo was taken from a soup that had been intentionally toned down at my request. So, instead of “extremely spicy,” it was just “very, very spicy.” I can’t imagine how mao xue wang in it’s natural, highly nuclear state would make me weep and sob with each bite. Spicy red peppers are not culturally challenging. What is? The two signature ingredients.
Tripe! This is hardly the first time I have eaten animal stomach. That is just merely the cost of living in China for years and trying to make friends with the locals. However, I have always struggled on how to describe tripe’s flavor. So, I consulted a fellow foodie — who is a rather intrepid and fearless gastronaut (inside joke). He said, “I don’t know. Tripe has always been more about its chewy texture than it’s flavor.” Right, he is. So, what’s the other challenging ingredient in mao xue wang?
Blood! Congealed blood shows up in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Once you get past the very American icky ick ick gross! factor, it basically tastes like a slightly metalic tofu. One of the greater things about mao xue wang is the other ingredients. This soup can be customized, but it typically also has seafood in it.
You can find shrimp, squid, fish, vegetables floating or submerged in this soup. So, if you are out to lunch with Chinese friends, and you don’t want to eat blood and guts, simply pick out the stuff you do like. This restaurant offers a variety of side dishes. One of those was very welcome to my inner American.
Cheesy potatoes! Oh, what a comfort food and an emotional crutch while eating adventuresome! At any rate, did I enjoy the totality of my lunch at 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo? Yes. Would I eat there again? Also yes, but with one caveat. This is the sort of place that you share with other people. It’s not meant for solo dining. It’s more of a communal experience, and the restaurant itself caps tables at four people and no more than that.
While the place is relatively new, it has seemed to drawn a crowd. This might mean, depending on when you visit, there could be a bit of a wait to be seated.
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.