Travel to Chongqing



For the whole month of July 2010, I was in Chongqing, China, with a short trip to Chengdu. It was mostly an amateur historian's cultural trip, exploring cultural heritage sites and museums. My hobby in history started not too many years ago. But during the hours I'm a historian, I'm a serious one!

At the end of the Chengdu meeting on 07/08, my family went to the nearby city of Dujiangyan, where the 2000-year-old irrigation system is still in full use. The small area is enclosed in a park to which the entrance costs 90 RMB per person. Once inside, it didn't take us long to find people walking from a road that apparently connects to an outside street, although when asked if they got away with not buying tickets, none admitted it. This added to my disappointment at the greedy and shoddy management of the park and the city. But other than that, I was impressed by the beautiful scene, the ingenious water channeling design, and the laidback lifestyle of the local people who take every spot of the fully covered and decorated Nan Qiao (south bridge) at dinner time basking in cool breeze.

When we returned to Chengdu that night, while the long line was waiting for taxis at the railroad station, a guy cut in line in front of me. I blocked him and he started a fight. He was pulled by others to prevent a further fight, but later he blamed us for loss of his gold necklace, probably dropped during the brawl and snatched away by a bystander. We agreed to call the police. At the police station, the police wanted us to settle between two parties. The guy apologized but asked for compensation for half the worth of his necklace. We refused and he prepared for legal action, and we left at about 2am. We never heard of him ever since, I suppose partly because he doesn't have the guts and intelligence to legally confront foreign citizens with more education than him. Cutting in line is one of the most obnoxious behaviors in China, in fact only mainland China. The government never considered elimination of this and a few other things such as spitting as priority. China is rapidly commercializing in the direction of a developed country, but the general public are slow in catching up with civility and courtesy, I mean among strangers.

07/17/2010 Huguang Huiguan

Huguang Huiguan, literally "assembly hall (also translated as guild hall) for [people from] Hunan, Hubei, Guangdong, and Guangxi provinces", is a little visited museum. It's a big one among all the once popular gathering places of compatriots. When my father first arrived in Chongqing from a nearby county in the 1940's, he was financially helped by one such organization formed by the fellowmen from the same county, and stayed there for free till he entered a vocational school by taking the school exams.

Among other things, Huguang Huiguan chronicles the mass migration over a period of multiple centuries, including the one at the end of the Mongols' rule, and more notably, the one between Ming and Qing dynasties. The latter is particularly interesting because recent research hints at a grossly distorted historical record in the canonical books of Ming and Qing, in which we are told Zhang Xianzhong purged Sichuan with massive genocide and millions were migrated from the neighboring Hubei and Hunan. But people in scholarly positions and grassroot amateur historians began to suspect that the genocide was mostly conducted by the newly-established Qing dynasty who blamed the defeated Zhang for the atrocity, and so they recorded in the state-sanctioned Ming Shi and a few other books.

Also curiously, we're told that after the genocide, Sichuan was so sparsely populated that tigers were one of the major hazards. This fact is not well known and the generally knowledgeable tourist guide at Dazu Rock Carving (which I visited later) probably made a mistake in saying there were no tigers in the Dazu area when she explained why a beast sculpture didn't look like a tiger when it was supposed to.

07/17 Museum of Anti-Japanese War

"Kang Zhan Yizhi Bowuguan" is literally "Museum of Anti-Japanese War Relics Site" in English. Note the phrase relics site. For many years the Chinese government was too occupied with something else to protect the relics. My brother living in Chongqing told me that about ten years ago his former schoolmates were using the now museum buildings as employee dormitories on this beautiful and cool Nanshan (south mountain), a.k.a Huangshan. No wonder we heard that the Japs preserve their Yasukuni Shrine as a holy site while the Chinese farmers and government officials alike convert WWII historical sites into pig pens or money-making residential buildings.

Chongqing was the provisional capital of the Chinese government soon after the Anti-Japanese or Second Sino-Japanese War broke out. The Kuomingtang (Nationalist) government purchased the whole mountain from a wealthy businessman Huang. On top of this mountain Chiang Kai-shek and his officers made numerous strategic decisions in fighting the war. The general tone and wording of all the text in this museum, including the 20-minute-long documentary, is evidently more Kuomingtang-friendly than in many other places of mainland China. For instance, Chiang is consistently called Mr. Chiang. Ever since the debut of the movie "Xue Zhan Taierzhuang" (Bloodshed in Taierzhuang) in 1986, there's been steady increase in media coverage and general public's awareness of the KMT's contribution to fighting the Japanese, and correspondingly relative playdown of the Chinese Communist Party's involvement. In fact, it's become a fashion in the online forums in the mainland to bash the CCP's audacity, although formal publications or new movies haven't caught on, presumably because of censorship. Interestingly, this new fashion seems to be unknown to the other side of the Taiwan Strait, where mainlanders are still perceived as brainwashed. (Generally, the Chinese know the outside world better than the outsiders know China, and this asymmetry even exists between the mainland and Taiwan, partly due to asymmetry of proficiency in the writing systems used on the two sides.) To be fair, the KMT fought most of the major battles against the Japanese and could have been the legitimate owner of the whole mainland. But the corruption and scandals during the years between the Japanese surrender and the KMT's retreat to Taiwan were so devastating that they couldn't have won back the trust of the people.

The museum apparently has insufficient historical documents and artifacts, other than the buildings used by the Chiang families, by the army logistics team, by the American embassy, or the US General George Marshall, who lived on Nanshan attempting to mediate between KMT and CCP while the US was still unilaterally assisting the KMT. To a historian (professional or amateur), a visit to this museum offers a glimpse of the war-time reality and a heartfelt sense of the critical period of this great nation, but not too much value in research. We spent a great deal of time trying to locate the headquarter of the air force, to no avail. We went downhill almost to the street outside of the park by mistake due to the misleading map. At last a museum worker told us the air force headquarter was closed, although there was no sign anywhere indicating so. If you search for "air force chongqing nanshan" on the Internet, you get more hits on an air force cemetery instead, where American pilots fighting Japanese for China were among those buried. This is completely missing in the museum description, or their documentary film. One net surfer sighed that if one of the few living American pilots were to visit this cemetery, he would be deeply disappointed at its disappearance.

07/23 Chongqing Three-Gorges Museum

The Three-Gorges Museum records history of not just the three gorges area, the stretch of the Yangtze River at the border of Sichuan and Hubei. I suppose it's so named that the government of Chongqing can justify building this museum in Chongqing, the city that won jurisdiction directly from the central government in 1997 on the grounds of building the three gorges dam. I spent a whole day alone perusing almost all pieces tainted with human touch, or rather culture. The meseum has many sections covering the entire history of this southwest part of China, from the paleolithic human remains to the recent building of the Three Gorges Dam, the greatest hydrologic engineering endeavor in human history. Some of the historical events or figures are not recorded in zhengshi or canonical history, the twenty-four (or -five) books of Chinese history officially recognized by the state of every dynasty and contemporary historians. One salient example is General Ba Manzi, whose story in English as of now is in Xujun Eberlein's blog. General Ba of the (namesake) Ba State, east of Chongqing, solicited the Chu State's help to suppress domestic rebellions with a pledge of three towns as a gift in return. After the Chu army finished the assigned military operation, General Ba would rather give away his head instead of the Ba towns to Chu, and so he placed his sword on the neck. Greatly moved by his genuine love of his country, not just the state of Ba but Chu as well gave General Ba, or rather, part of his body on each side, a high ranking funeral.

There're great traditional Chinese paintings on display in the museum, naturally including ones of the three gorges and the Yangtze River. The three gorges have been a hot tourist area for a few decades, and a frequent subject in landscape painting. What puzzles me and people I ask everywhere is that these stunningly beautiful mountains and thousand-feet high cliffs never went into ancient painters' vision, even though famous poets in the Tang dynasty wrote about them. This can't be explained in the same way that Jiuzhaigou or Guilin of natural beauty no less than that of the three gorges was also not in ancient paintings, because the latter were either physically inaccessible in ancient times, or rarely stepped on due to occupation of a non-Han civilization.

I think I found some incorrect descriptions of a few items in the museum, to my private complacency (but I couldn't find anybody to show to). A math textbook in Russian, for instance, apparently a translation from French originally by Henri Poincar? was attributed to a Chinese math teacher in the Anti-Japanese War. There were incorrect English translations in various places, or perhaps intentionally misleading translations such as one for a small Han dynasty picture brick depicting a married couple, marked as "mi xi" in Chinese (secret or private play) but "secret opera" in English. I bet few if any visitors saw this brick. Anyway, it's a quite improbable picture considering the dominance of Confucianism in the later Han dynasty.

One big photograph hung high at a prominent position at the exhibition of the multi-year Japanese bombing of Chongqing disturbed me. Sometimes it's hard to imagine the taste and sensibility of some modern day mainland Chinese; blame reverse culture shock on me. But this picture of a former Japanese soldier's son "apologizing" for his father's atrocity, in front of a Chinese somewhere in China is nothing to be excited about, much less to appreciate as if their rare "apology" could win gratitude. Well, their apology is rare, so it's precious, isn't it? But imagine a Nazi's or his descendant's apologizing act being photographed and cherished by Jews, even take into account that Germans are more sincere than Japanese. Not all feuds are created equal. Forty years after the Korean war, Chinese and American then pilots could meet and chat about their air fights as if they had been playing a game. During the 1979 China-Vietnam war, soldiers reportedly exchanged canned food during the intermission of a battle or perhaps lunch time. But the two belligerents of the Sino-Japanese war would never come to terms in this life or the next, as if a threshold of human indignation was surpassed.

(These and a few other comments of mine are posted here.)

07/24 Dazu Rock Carvings

Generally I'm not interested in scenery of purely natural beauty, Jiuzhaigou, Guilin, etc. If ancient intellectuals never made a trip there, I would hesitate too. Where there's culture, there's a way, for me. I joined a group organized by a local tourist company to visit Dazu Rock Carvings, about 160 km away from Chongqing. On the bus, I realized I paid about 40 RMB or one-fifth more than another person sitting beside me. Dazu, or big foot literally in Chinese, is allegedly named according to the myth that a buddha once left a footprint in this area. Our visit was only to the Baoding (treasure top literally) where rock carvings are the most densely placed.

Dazu rock carvings are as well-known as those in Yungang and Longmen in northern provinces and just slightly less glamorous than Dunhuang, where thousands of buddhist scriptures and paintings dated 1000 years ago (Tang dynasty) were well preserved, thanks to the dry climate in the western desert. Although all are listed as the United Nations world heritage sites, Dazu's rock carvings are unique in that they were made later than the other three, mostly in Song dynasty (11th and 12th centuries). This allows buddhism more time to assimilate into Chinese culture, Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism), picking up elements such as the Chinese families' filial piety (children's obedience to, and obligation to care for, their parents). These features are missing in the other rock carvings and obviously in India. But the syncretism or resolution of religious conflicts is not quite well accomplished. One story of the carvings says a young monk is accused of not following filial piety because he stays in the mountains, away from his parents. He asks his shifu or teacher, who doesn't really give an answer, saying that in your last incarnation you did many good deeds including caring your parents so in this life you can be a monk.

These rock carvings are also unique in that the sculptures mix three major religions in China at the time, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. (I list them in this order not only because the number of carvings of the said nature is in that descending order, but they're decreasingly less religious as well, perhaps not accidentally.) It's rare to find a site where buddhas are worshipped in the same place as Laozi (Lao-tzu) or Jade Emperor, much less Confucius. You could find them near each other only in a modern Chinese museum. And that's unique too, in that unlike Christianity or Islam, Buddhism does not exclude other religions, and the Chinese religions or doctrines care even less whether you worship another god or God privately or publicly. We could start an interesting discussion of religious tolerance here.

The carved sculptures are a means to convert ordinary people to Buddhists, just as opium lures smokers to addiction. But some teachings are grossly abominable. Legend has it that Liu Benzun, a deeply religious buddhist at the end of Tang dynasty, maimed his body to cure patients, much like the Indian gods did in their myth, and he ultimately became a buddha. It was legend, and so untrue. But a group of carvings tell the exact stories, and I wonder how these horror stories add persuasive power.

At one point, the tourist group of us were led to a small room beside the main temple (Da Xiong Bao Dian). Let's call it a side-chapel. The lead monk or fangzhang (abbot) gave us a 30 or so minute preach. An eloquent yet soft-spoken man, he taught the lesson as would a wise old buddhist. I wish he had consciously brought up a few thorny questions in the modern day human life and tackled them one by one, much like Dalai Lama would do. In any case, we were kind of forced to sit on the bench for that long and were advised to only do good deeds, respect parents, and do no evil, so we would have a happy life in the next incarnation or transmigration. At the end, the fangzhang gave each of us personalized advice. I was picked and asked to go to another room to worship goddess of Guanyin (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva), for no reason. In that room, I was asked by another monk to pray three times, and to donate. I took a little money out of pocket and dropped it to a box and left. Mmm, why me, only?

Before the end of the tour, the tour guide led us to a small local knife-manufacturing company. It's not uncommon that Chinese tourist groups are carried to a place where the tour guide can get some kickbacks. The knife cutting demo was indeed impressive, and some customers, or tourists rather, bought multiple sets. Needless to say, the knives they sell are not in any way related to the omni-benevolent gods up there in the mountains since a thousand years ago.

07/xx Chongqing Library

Chongqing Library used to be in a different district perhaps twenty years ago when I was young. It moved to Shapingba District since this is where most universities and the two top high schools are. One major difference of it from a city library in an American city is that a Chinese city library has no branch, and therefore has all resources allocated to it alone. This makes low-level education difficult to reach more people, particularly if mass transportation is an issue. On the other hand, research work at the single big library is as easy as in a university library, because most books you need are available, including priceless historical records. I spent a whole afternoon at the library studying Wu Xingyong's book "Huangjin Midang [Secret Archives of Gold]: a detailed chronicle of the 1949 transport of the mainland gold to Taiwan", and Tang Degang's "Memoir of Li Zongren" as a follow-up of my earlier research. In contrast, a number of books I need for research on a few WWII issues are not available at Houston Public Library, the county library and the small town library, although I can read tiny passages on and find the book titles on American public libraries are for the masses, duplicating the same titles in different branches spread throughout the city. Chinese libraries are for the masses and researchers, with no duplicate copies, and have a special guan-cang or library-holding department where books are closed-shelved and can only be read inside the library, guaranteeing availability by sacrificing ease of it.

Chongqing Library has microfilms of decades of old newspapers and magazines with a very reasonable price to view or print. I tried to find North China Standard of Peking, an English newspaper published in China by the Japanese during the minguo period. But they don't have it. I wanted to find the article "Uncivilized United States" by Ku Hung-Ming to further support my conclusion that Ku's article is not related to a short note titled "Mad Monk of Russia".

By the way, my daughter Crystal volunteered as a book reshelver at the library for a few days.

Other places visited

* Hongya Cave: a small cave on the side of the Yangtze River made into a Hongkong restaurant and multi-floored gift shops

* Tongyuan Gate at Qixinggang: one of the nine fortified gates of Chongqing city in ancient times, spared of Mongol's break-in by the 1259 mysterious death of Mongke Khan at Diaoyu (Fishing) City, Hechuan, north of Chongqing, but broken by Kublai Khan 18 years later, and again by Zhang Xianzhong's mob at the next change of dynasty around 1644.

Other work

* Keyed in my father's History of Chongqing Paper Mill into computer, with as much cross-reference to other historical documents as possible. Written in 1987 on request, the article documented history of the plant from its establishment in 1905 till 1987 when my father retired. It was mostly technical records, numbers, and changes in paper making technology. But the tedious details may be of some value to one doing research in Chinese history of paper making or printing.

See also
Travel to Europe
Travel to Korea
Travel to Washington D.C. and New York
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