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.
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.
Other than Taoism or Buddhism, there was one other faith indigenous to China: Chinese folk religion. This is what predates even Taoism and it has shaped and influenced the Chinese variety of Buddhism as well. The pantheon of deities here is tremendous, and it even stretches down onto the local level. Each town and city is said to have their own god who safeguards the land and the people. Finding out further information on these local legends has not been an easy task. Not all city god temples survived the Cultural Revolution.
Part’s of Wuxi’s local god shrine still stands, and it can be easily found downtown and not that far from the Sanyang Plaza subway station. It’s behind the Center 66 恒隆广场 shopping center. In a way, there really isn’t much to see here. There is no statue or image of who Wuxi’s city god was. There are three separate structures, and they are empty and almost devoid almost anything cultural. One of the buildings has a second floor, but the twin staircases to that level are blocked off. There are some things historical, here, however, and if you don’t look carefully, they are easy to miss. Six stone tablets are embedded in the wall, and they are filled with Chinese characters. These can be sometimes hard to read, even if a visitor is fluent in Chinese. The engraved writing is so worn and faded in some spots, it’s hard to make anything out. So, in terms of trying to figure out the story behind Wuxi’s local god, this seems like a place to start looking, but it certainly isn’t the end of the search.