A Brief Introduction to Changshu

Page 20-24

A Brief Introduction to Changshu

In 1911 Yu Mengying settled down in her new home. Changshu is an ancient
Yangts delta town nestled at the foothill of the Yushan in a land of lakes and
canals. It has a long history. To start with, I will take you on a tour to Beimen
Dajie to see two pieces of antique – tomb passageways, but first, a few lines on
the story of Zhongyong who was buried there.

The historians have now identified the year of 1046 BCE as the date when the
Martial King of Zhou led a rebellion against his overlord, the last King of Shang,
and marched from the Zhou territory near today’s Xi’an to Shang’s capital in
today’s Henan province. At the decisive battle, the slave soldiers in the Shang
army turned their bronze dagger-axes against their own commanders, and the
King fled back to his palace. He got himself drunk, set a great fire, and perished in
it.

The tradition has it that the Martial King ’s father had two elder brothers named
Taibo and Zhongyong. They knew that their father favored his younger son for
succession. To please their father, the two brothers decided to leave the Zhou
homeland. The youngest brother became King. He was repressed by the Shang
and was imprisoned for many years. His son the Martial King finally rebelled and
overthrew the Shang and started the glorious Zhou Dynasty.

Taibo and Zhongyong headed east and then south ,eventually settled in the
Yangtse River delta region, then still a wild and backward land of forests , lakes ,
and swamps. They and their descendents established the Kingdom of Wu. When
Zhongyong died, he was buried on Yushan Hill. His tomb is still there, at Beimen
Dajie, now the bustling center of the Changshu town.

Five hundred years later, in 504BCE, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Wu
decided to build a new capital city for his warrior king at a location which
corresponds to the present day Old City of Suzhou. The dramatic stories of wars
and intrigues, of King Fuchai and his beautiful consort Xisi, and of King Goujian of

Yue, and his humiliation and revenge, were all played out on a stage which is a
mere short march south of Yushan Hill.

Shortly after the great new capital city was built, a young man left his home
at Yushan Hill for his studies in the north. He was Yan Yan, the only southerner
among the disciples of Confucius. In the old quarter of Changshu today, there is
still a “Master Yan Ally”, and his direct descendents of an unbroken lineage still
live in the city.

The passageway to Master Yan ’s tomb is side-by-side with that of Zhongyong. It
is a solemn and imposing structure. On the memorial gateway are inscribed the
words “Dao Qi Dong Nan” , honoring Yan Yan as the one who first spread the
Sage’s teachings in this part of China.

The old folks climb up the long passageways for their morning exercises. Young
children run up and down the open lawns of the fenceless public park to fly their
kites. Zhongyong and Yan Yan are like two old much-loved members of the family,
and an inseparable part of the residents’ daily life. In the evenings, people may be
watching TV series based on stories of the legendary beauty Xisi, in their high-rise
apartments in the new suburbs.

For a few hundred years after the fall of the Han Dynasty, incessant wars forced
waves of migrants to the Yangtse delta. Forests and swamps around the Yushan
Hill receded as cultivated area rolled out. By the year 540 CE, this territory finally
acquired a name of its own—Changshu, Always Good Harvest, the wish of every
agricultural community.

Here, in the land between the Lake Taihu and the broad Yangtse , conditions
favor agriculture. Over the centuries, the local governments had been dredging
canals and reinforcing embankments. The canal Yuanhetang between Suzhou and
Changshu was dredged in the Tang Dynasty times, and has seen busy boat traffic
ever since.

The famous minister and writer Fan Zhongyan of the Northen Sung Dynasty 900
hunred years ago was responsible for dredging another canal which runs from

Changshu town to the Yangtse. Even today this waterway channels flood water
from Lake Taihu to the Yangtse and the sea. By 1272, the nine-level Square
Pagoda rose high in the town center. But by then the pace of change had slowed
down , as the whole of China matured as an agricultural society. For some
reasons which are still debated endlessly by scholars, the advances in agriculture,
in education, in commerce and in overseas trade, did not lift the country over the
threshold to move along the tracks towards a different kind of society, as what
happened in Europe.

The educated elite in Changshu devoted themselves to the study of Confucian
classics in order to pass the imperial examinations. From Tang to Qing, Changshu,
a mere county, produced 438 Jinshi (Advanced Schollars), including 8 Zuangyuan
(first ranking advanced scholar), 3 Bangyan (second ranking) and 4 Tanhua
(third ranking). This class of people had focused on entering the civil service
after passing different levels of exams. Their other interests were the traditional
scholarship, literature, calligraphy, and other arts. For six hundred years, from
Yuan to Qing, a huge pool of successful gentry-scholars emerged in Changshu,
including many ministers and high officials, scholars of classics, painters,
calligraphers, book publishers and editors, and families who built up great private
libraries over generations. Absent were great explorers, scientists, great traders,
and others who could propel the society over to a new level.

In 753ce , the Buddhist monk Jianzhen made his sixth attempt to sail to Japan.
He was 65, and had completely lost his eye sight. He boarded a boat at a port in
Changshu and made the sea crossing successfully. He spread Buddhism to Japan,
together with the high culture of the great Tang. This kind of spirit of adventure
had become remote and a distant memory for the Changshu elite one thousand
years later.

In 1840-42, China, the closed pre-modern society, lost the Opium War to Great
Britain, an industrial power. But what really woke up the Chinese elite from their
long slumber was China’s disastrous defeat fifty years later in her war against
Japan of 1894-95. What happened in the county-seat town of Changshu in those
years and after? How did the Zhang Family react to these events and how the life

of Yu Mengying was impacted by the changes. In the next chapter, we will look
at the chronicle of great events (1856-1936) and try to discern some clues to the
answers.

Memorial Gate to the Tomb of Zhongyong

The nine-leve Square Pagoda, as photographed in1919

Passageway to Master Yan’s tomb

A commercial street in Changshu, circa 1938

 

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