The Dragon’s Portal

Exploring the Water Towns of Jiangsu Province
The Celestial Chinese Dragon might be thought of as a symbol of the Chinese race itself. Chinese around the world proclaim themselves “Lung Tik Chuan Ren”, meaning Descendents of the Dragon. Dragons are referred to as the divine, mythical creature that brings with it ultimate abundance, prosperity and good fortune.
—E. Crystal

In 1086 AD, during the first year of the reign of the Emperor Zhezong of the Northern Song Dynasty, a merchant named Zhou Digong converted to Buddhism and donated about 33 acres of land to the Quanfu Buddhist Temple. The local people, showing their gratitude, re-named the area Zhouzhuang, meaning Zhou’s village. (‘Zh’ in pinyin, the romanized Mandarin, is pronounced something like a ‘j’.) Nominated for world heritage status, this town is 46 miles east of Shanghai, and about 18 miles southeast of Suzhou in the province of Jiangsu. Zhouzhuang and some of the other water towns of east China such as Jinxi, Qiandeng and Zhenjiang are arranged like pearls on the lower tributaries of the Yangtze River before it enters the Yellow Sea.

These water towns might be thought of as a dragon’s portal between China’s ancient past and the future, as the descendants of the dragon continue their work as builders. Water flows lazily through canals constructed nearly a thousand years ago and the sound of ma jong tiles being slapped down can be heard above the sounds of lapping waters, but the calm masks a dragon’s wind. Jiangsu is very wealthy among the provinces of China, with the third highest total gross domestic product, after Guangdong and Shandong Province. Everywhere you go, you see new construction projects and sense the renewed pride of the people in their past. You can almost feel the power of China rising.

I had planned to go to Nanjing, another famous river town, to visit the Confucius Temple but time, alas, did not permit a side trip. Nanjing lies on the south bank of the Yangtze River, and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. Known as the capital city of many dynasties in China’s history, it has a rich cultural heritage. Zhouzhuang, to the east of Nanjing, was closer and home to an authentic river culture, which includes the Quanfu Temple. This Temple was destroyed in the 1950s and rebuilt in the 1990s as the Quanfu Preaching Temple. A curious name, I thought, for a country that is essentially the offspring of an atheistic philosophy. Much like the Confucius Temple, known as Fuzimiao in Chinese, the Quanfu Temple had been rebuilt a number of times and the present edifice may or may not have resembled the original. What counted, to my way of thinking however, was that the Chinese government was interested in preserving these iconic temples as reminders of their country’s past greatness—stepping stones, perhaps, to a future of equal stature. This particular effort interested me more than some of the actual restorations that I saw.

As I walked the winding road into town from the bridge, I came to a traditional, pagoda-style town gate with shops running down both sides of the pavement. Not wishing to shop, I took a side street and stepped into a realm of old Yuan, Ming and Qiang Dynasty residences. It was a little bit like stepping into a time machine. Old China lives on, undisturbed, in places like this. Canals run neatly through the town and small boats tied up at residences and shops are the main form of transport. There are 14 historic stone bridges in Zhouzhuang, built from 1206 AD to 1368 AD, to explore as well as nearby lakes and Nanhu Garden, which include such novelties as the Marble Boat and, of course, the Quanfu Preaching Temple.

The locals really seem to relish living in their own towns. I watched a man shaping slats of wood for small barrels on a foot-powered lathe enjoying a cigarette as he deftly worked the wood. As the shavings piled up, the pleasure on his face was evident. He was enjoying the ambience of expert work, people watching him through the opening of the street level shop, the fragrance of the wood and the flavor of his smoke—a rich “togethering” of activities. Much like the wedding boats that ply the canals at top speed to show off future husbands and brides to the whole town, there is an on-going celebration of communal living in China that is still a hallmark of Asia. One of my guides told me that when Chinese come to America to visit that “they feel so lonely” because there are so few people in the streets and if there are, there is little interaction between them.

If you are looking for lively evening entertainment, “The All Season Zhouzhuang” is one of the first stage performances in China to present the life and culture of a water town. Never mind that it is set to Las Vegas style lighting, Cirque Du Soleil acrobatics and a cast of over 100. College students from all over China come to Zhouzhuang to train as budding actors and see themselves in lights. You won’t be bored—guaranteed.

Quiet and restful, water towns such as Zhouzhuang, Qiandeng (a bikers’ paradise) and Jinxi have remained, like the eyes of multiple hurricanes, zones of tranquility while about them an economic storm rages. They are wonderful places to pause, reflect and reconsider the direction life may have taken you. A popular saying has it that “Up in heaven is paradise, down on earth is Suzhou and in-between is Zhouzhuang.” Visitors can sleep by the canals in Zhouzhuang in private rooms for less than twenty dollars (US) a night and take turns dining in their choice of waterside restaurants. Expect to pay a quarter of what you would pay in the US for an excellent meal with wine.

Another example of Chinese pride and reinvention is the pagoda of Tianning Temple in Changzhou. This giant pagoda, which is also an active temple, was built on the ruins of one destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Construction began in 2002 and the temple was completed in 2007, as part of an international effort with leaders of 108 Buddhist associations and temples worldwide helping with fund-raising. At a height of 505 ft., this wooden structure is now the tallest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Huge statues of elephants and various Gods dominate the base of the temple and whimsical, cartoonish figures line the grounds. There is something utterly splendid and modern about the place, yet the temple grounds and the pagoda have a history of construction and destruction going back 1,350 years, since the time of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). I rang the mighty bell of this temple by pulling a gong banger that must have weighed about a thousand pounds. The reverberations went on for several minutes, assuring me of excellent karma.

Speaking of karma, the mayor of Changzhou, Wang Weicheng, has apparently linked his city’s economic progress with that of religious development in China. We seldom read about this— even in America—the linking of religion and prosperity, so it is eye-opening to see such frank talk about the potential benefits of spirituality. Following a lessening of religious persecution after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the Party has gradually relaxed its control over religion, especially Chinese Buddhism, which has some 100 million adherents within China. The ideas of peace and harmony associated with Buddhism have come to be accepted as beneficial to Chinese society and clearly, allowing some freedom of worship has done much to invigorate the Chinese people.

Along with a growing acceptance of religion, many other associations with the past have come to be seen as beneficial. Archaeology is all the rage in China and hardly a day goes by without someone discovering something wonderful from China’s rich past and then resurrecting it in a new and improved version for all to observe. Outside of Changzhou, for example, the museum entryway to an ancient village, the Yancheng Remains, dated to 1,000 B.C. and linked to the Western Chou Dynasty has a magnificent, almost theatrical modern gateway and fortress-style ramparts to welcome visitors.

Eager to take it all in, I climbed the stairs for a better view of the surrounding area. High rises and modern buildings rose in columns to the East, and to the West, a glorious blood red sun made its departure. I stood on the ramparts and watched the sun go down as flags flew in the wind. As dusk approached, I walked down the staircase and encountered some Chinese students who gestured excitedly at me to be included in a picture. Foreigners are still enough of a novelty here to be remarked upon.

This ancient town is one of the oldest discovered to date in China. Three walls and three moats (now filled in) surrounded it. The walls were over fifty feet high and roughly sixty feet wide—enough to keep out almost any enemy. The newly constructed ramparts of the entry to the development echo the size and style of this ancient city. If the walls of the old city looked anything like the present interpretation of the gateway, it must have been a magnificent sight.
The next afternoon, I visited Zhenjiang, another tributary, river town by bus. The Chinese highways look remarkably similar to their US counterparts right down to the large green directional signs. Travel by bus is comfortable and the rural landscape is restful on the eye. Zhenjiang is now too large to be merely a simple river town. It was the seat of feudal domains from the 8th century BC onwards and after it was captured by Qin Shi Huang, a Chinese emperor, in 221 BC it became a seat of local government. Zhenjiang was later converted into a modest fortress to guard one of the entrances to the Yangtze River, hence its name, which means “Garrison of the River”. It was an early economic hub of the Yangtze delta region and is still one of China’s busiest ports for domestic commerce, serving as a portal for trade between the Northern provinces, and Shanghai based on its proximity to the Grand Canal. It was here that Pearl S. Buck wrote her beloved, Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Good Earth.

Buck’s first novel, East Wind: West Wind (1930) was a study of the conflict between the old China and the new. Another novel, Dragon Seed described the resistance of the people against the Japanese in World War II. (These are all popular themes in modern China.) She wrote over 100 books and articles during her literary lifetime and her former home in Zhenjiang has been turned into a museum. I had the curious sense as I toured the home that she foresaw, in some way, the rise of the future dragon that would be the new China and sought to understand the old ways before they disappeared forever.

Reflecting on old ways brings to mind some of the history of the Grand Canal of China, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. This is the longest ancient canal in the world. Construction began in earnest in 722 BC but it was not completed until roughly 581–618 AD when the Sui Dynasty linked the various sections together to form a continuous whole. More like an artificial river, it is 1,114 miles in length and is the oldest canal in China. Compare this to the 3019 miles of the Yangtze River; it is one third the length of longest river in Asia.

The far-sighted excellence of the canal builders is appreciated by realizing that the Yangtze flows west from Qinghai Province then east to the Yellow Sea. As a designed counterpoint, the Grand Canal flows north to south—effectively creating waterways that link some of the major provinces of the north, south east and west, albeit loosely. Beginning at Beijing, the canal passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang and ends near the city of Hangzhou. It passes though Zhenjiang and Suzhou and the oldest parts of the canal probably date back to the 5th century BC. The barge traffic on this canal is continuous. Huge barge after huge barge rolls up and down this artificial waterway, many of them so laden that the water laps merely a few feet from the decks.

While I was visiting the fortress in Zhenjiang, I couldn’t resist donning a recreation of the resplendent robes of the Yellow Emperor, Huang-di, available from entrepreneurs in one of the towers who provide visitors with royal garb and the opportunity to be photographed. Huang-di was a fabled ruler who is considered by Chinese folklore to be the ancestor of all Han Chinese. One of the legendary Five Emperors, Huang-di reigned from 2,497 BC to 2,398 BC. Nearly 4,000 years later could Huang-di have imagined the preposterous barbarian from across the seas admiring himself in bright yellow robes—fancying himself ruler of the known world? Some have even claimed that Huang-di was an alien from the star Regulus and that his fiery dragons were spacecraft but that is another story.

Speaking of aliens, one must visit the Hanshan Temple in Suzhou (pronounced soojoe). The 500 Arhats or Golden Disciples of the Buddha are unlike any display of holy men I have ever seen. The Arhats all seem to be engaged in secret inner dialogues amongst themselves. There are fat disciples and skinny disciples, laughing disciples and scowling disciples—all seemingly engaged in their own vision of the universe. The emotional range displayed is completely captivating and is a photographer’s dream. Destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, these statues have been duplicated with painstaking care and the results can now be enjoyed by visitors young and old.

If there were such a thing as a celestial dragon, he would surely make his home in Suzhou. The Hanshan Temple resonates with a sense of renewal and purpose. Monks may lounge around the Temple courtyards between prayers, reading newspapers and exchanging jokes but they take their spirituality seriously. The chanting and musical harmonies of the monks, as they perform their religious tasks, might be thought of as opening the kingdom of the dragon onto the well-being and benevolence of heaven.

The Hanshan Temple was made famous throughout East Asia because of the poem “A Night Mooring by the Maple Bridge” by Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ji. The poem describes the melancholy scene of a tired and lonely traveler, moored at night at near the area of Fengqiao, hearing the bells of Hanshan Temple:

While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost,
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch; 
and I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain, 
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.

—Zhang Ji

As I hear the midnight bell—if only figuratively—I am reminded that another must see place in Suzhou is the Humble Administrator’s Garden. This garden (there is nothing humble about it) which covers about 12 acres is one of the best representatives of Chinese classical gardens. Constructed during the Ming dynasty (1368 AD-1644 AD) it focuses on a central pond with pavilions, terraces, chambers, and towers carefully placed for maximum aesthetic advantage. The garden is divided into three parts (the eastern, middle and western) and is wonderfully peaceful to walk through. As I strolled through the pavilions, I began to have a sense of how leisure was perceived in ancient China. As in many other cultures, the notion of retiring from the workday world to a ranch, farm or in this case, a pavilion with gardens, seems to spring from the same impulse: to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world and observe the lessons of nature.

Taking leave of lovely Suzhou, I return to the last of the dragon’s portals—Shanghai itself—the mother-lode of modern day eastern China and its main engine of development. Once known as the wickedest town of the Orient, it featured Russian prostitutes in the 1920s and a lively drug trade in opium. What can we say about the new, cleaned-up Shanghai now that it is the beating heart of the region?

James Clavell, in his novel Noble House released nearly 30 years ago, presciently observed that Shanghai would eclipse Hong Kong—a thought that then would have been quite off-the-charts to most observers. I still laugh when I think of all the wonderful Cantonese insults that Clavell managed to pack into his books about the orient. The Chinese love to pun and their sense of humor is excellent. Tour guides throughout the Peoples’ Republic will amuse you with their whacky antics and gentle self-mockery.

As I read my own words, I feel how dull economic and business facts can be compared to the living reality and excitement of exploring China. The other side of cold calculation and the convergence of business and science are the benefits that this dragon’s confluence of trade and development gives rise to. Trading has always been linked to great adventures and hopeful visions of cities and places unseen. You get a taste of this in Shanghai’s City Museum where, in addition to viewing Shanghai’s history, you can see a scaled-down mockup of what Shanghai will look like in 2020. This is a city that could be from another planet but it is most definitely in our collective near future. As I took a virtual reality tour of Shanghai in the museum, I had the feeling that this is most definitely not your father’s China. The reality tour takes you an aerial tour of the city that is as real as any virtual reality tour that you can take in the USA. You swoop up and down, through the canyons of the cityscape; parks and gardens are seen in glimpses and the newness of the city pulses within and without. Think of it as a ride on the back of a dragon.

Contemplating what all this development may mean for the future of the planet, the words of J.E. Flecker are apropos in reference to another fabled city, Samarkand, on the Old Silk Road and one of the oldest living trade links between China and the West. They ring in my head like the great bell of the Tianning Temple in Changzhou.

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvelous tales…

Just before I left China, I took a relaxing but short cruise at dusk on Shanghai House Boat # 7 down the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai. As the lights of skyscrapers came on, slowly in colors that you would never see in America, I could feel the breath of the dragon, a bellows of energy, creativity and invention powering the flight of not just a mythical beast but a very real and dynamic people.

2017-04-24T02:32:07-07:00