Jun 29, 2012

Replace your passport: The nature of Chengdu

A walk in the park

☆ Side Quest: Wangjianglou Park, aka, The River Viewing Pavilion Park

Objective: Commune with nature

A Qing dynasty-era building

Chengdu has a reputation for being an ugly city. The architecture tends toward large, looming and concrete, and the atmosphere is hardly helped by the southern Sichuan weather that envelopes everything in gray for most of the year.

The city’s parks, however, are lovely. We had a free sunny afternoon, so we made our way down to Wanjianglou Park, which sits along the Jinjiang River (hence the “River Viewing”) in the southeast of the city.

Much like Renmin Park, which we visited in January, Wanjianglou is a hive of social activity. Scattered over the grounds you can find tea houses, restaurants, mahjong tables, etc. But the main attraction of the park is its Historic Preservation Area - home to luscious groves of bamboo and some beautiful Qing-era architecture.

The garden area of the park was gorgeous. It actually reminded me a lot of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The landscaping was meticulous, with little sculptures and fountains tucked into cozy little groves. Each species of bamboo was labelled in English, Chinese and Latin - a surprising amount of the bamboos’ namesakes were westerners.

Nestled in and among the bamboo was a small compound of Qing Dynasy-era buildings, dating from the late 1800s. This may not seem terribly historic, especially in the context of the thousands of years of history China has, but until recently, preservation hadn’t really been something that the Chinese were very interested in. There are some pretty complex reasons for why that’s so, but to sum it up as I understand it (with a huge debt to Peter Hessler’s “Oracle Bones”, among other sources), Chinese re-creation of the past is more tied up with language and narrative-building rather than structures and artifacts. Written Mandarin is pretty much exactly the same today — barring Simplification — as it was from the beginning, meaning that ancient texts are still perfectly legible. Meaning that the past didn’t need to be divined from ancient shards of pottery, etc. It wasn’t really until the last century that Chinese scholars started pursuing archaeology in any academic way.

I'm taking notes

Add to that the fact that structures were often built from degradable materials that weren’t intended to last — fun fact: most of the original Great Wall has crumbled into nonexistence; what you can visit now is a modern reconstruction — and that China as a concept is essentially a 4,000-year series of extreme political upheavals all in the same place … well, permanence is just not a expected or valued quality. This means that buildings from the 1800s qualify as old.

Tang dynasty poet Xue Tao
Calligraphy

So in the park, the buildings are very nicely preserved. During our visit, we saw maintenance crews all over the grounds. At the entrance to the Chanting Pavilion, a kid with a clicker sat making sure visitors heeded the warning: “National Cultural Relic: Wooden architecture of Qing Dynasty, Only 50 people are allowed on pavilion at one time in order to avoid resonance.”

These buildings were not intended as a monument to themselves, however. They were built to honor Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao (ca.768-832). (See, it’s all about words!)

Xue Tao served 11 Sichuan governors in her day. (I’m not sure what exactly that means, but I’d like a world where more government had artists-in-residence.) The buildings are miniature museums devoted to her work, displaying huge stone inscriptions of her poetry, as well as murals and small statues depicting the poet herself.

Out in the courtyard, old men practiced their calligraphy on the slate. They used long-handled brushes that looked homemade and cans of water, to write out poems that would exist only for a moment before evaporating away. This is a pretty common sight anywhere there is a nice, clean expanse of tiled ground, but it felt especially resonant to see the living practice of such an old art. They took the writing work seriously, there seemed to be a real camaraderie between the old guys, with plenty of laughing and joking going on between them.

Outside the preservation area, as I said, it was your basic urban park. But we did stumble upon what appeared to be a shrine to garlic. It was a small, bamboo hut, decorated with large, wood-carved bulbs of garlic on the outside, and garlands of real garlic inside. We were pleased to see garlic getting its due.

The other striking sight we found on our way out of the park. There were stalls selling drinks, souvenirs, toys, etc, all over, but sandwiched in between two little shops was a fully functional art studio. We saw two artists inside, working on paintings that seemed to incorporate western and Chinese influences. It was a perfect symbol of what appeals to us so much about Chengdu.


Wanjianglou Park in Chengdu

Click on the photo above for a slideshow of pictures from the park.

We’re on a roll now …