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.
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.
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)
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.
Art does not exist solely to make people happy. It’s there to evoke emotion, and by doing that, make people think. This is definitely the case with the statues outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum. There, a series of sculptures help set a somber and sobering tone before a visitor even steps onto the premises. This is especially effective if a visitor comes on a busy national travel day. The line can be long to get in, and a visitor is forced to stare at these metal figures and the bilingual captions that came with them. That said, even though it does the proper mood, nothing can actually prepares you for the horror of historical relics and displays of the Japanese slaughtering 300,000 people.