Tag Archives: Suzhou

Figuring Out Bai Juyi in Suzhou

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.

百年愁里过,万感醉中来。
惆怅城西别,愁眉两不开。

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Walking Circles in the Great Guanqian Road Area

Nearly most Chinese cities have a pedestrian commercial street filled with shops, eateries, and more, and Suzhou is no different in that regard. Guanqian Road, however, is huge, and the network of streets, alleys and walkways here is truly labyrinthine.

Like most places in China, there is a vast history here, but the most notable thing here is Xuan Miao Temple. It’s one of the largest Taoist places of worship in the Jiangnan region.

Truthfully, this area is so huge, it’s easy to get lost if you are a newcomer or casual visitor to Suzhou. I actually spent two hours here and ended up walking in circles. Essentially, I was trying to get back to the Leqiao subway stop — to get back to the central station to hop onto a train to Changzhou. Only, I didn’t know one important thing. Suzhou now has more than two subway lines, now. This area is so big, it has it’s old stop at Leqiao, but there is a separate one for Line 4, and that goes directly to the rail station with no need to interchange. None the less, I still walked in circles. I didn’t mind, at the time, because I got the feeling that this part of the city is large, and so crammed, that I could visit here several times and still see something I hadn’t on a prior visit.

Suzhou Has a Train to Hogwarts?

Can you take a train from Suzhou to Hogwarts? Of course you cannot. Hogwarts and the Hogwarts Express exists only in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. However, there is “Platform Nine and Three Quarters”  at Guangjinan Station in Suzhou. This would be on Line 2 as part of Suzhou’s subway system.

Nine and Three Quarters is not the most magical or inspiring place in the Potterverse. After all, you have to pass through a solid concrete pillar to get to it. Not much happens there either. Parents put their kids on a train to wizarding school there. Even in magical world of J.K. Rowling’s fiction, train stations fail to be truly inspiring. However, think of how important the place is in Harry Potter’s life. It is here he departs for Hogwarts and a new life for the first time, and here is where the seven-novel series ends after he defeats Voldamort and the Death Eaters. He sends his youngest son off for magical training for the first time. Incidentally, this is where the new Harry Potter Broadway play also begins. So, while not inspiring, it is still an important place.

“Nine and Three Quarters Platform” in Suzhou can just be chalked up as another bit of seemingly random Chinese weirdness. Here, you can find two wall displays related to Potter’s world. Everything else looked shuttered and shut down. This could be because Spring Festival holidays are gearing up in Suzhou and around China. But, in the end, it’s just a strange and tiny underground shopping area.