Just seeing the brown road signs was enough to give you comfort.
I had been to the smelly industrial zone, I had seen the heavily guarded factories, where the strikes had been handed, and a bunch of complacent investors, and money-losing businessmen, and crowds in the labour market, with their blurry eyes, and their abnormal thirst and hunger, surrounding any stranger coming, including myself, as if they were a factory manager.
Like many Chinese cities, Wenzhou has grown too quickly, and all its memories have been hastily levelled. The same ugly and noisy towers, the same stifling administrative structure, and the same messy roads – but the place has become wealthier than it was, more pretentious, and more random.
The first time I saw a Rolls Royce parked at the entrance of a KTV next to a row of BMWs and Land Rovers, I thought that their order was determined strictly by the price of the car. People walk fast, talk fast and eat fast; their thoughts, anxieties and conversations are all about business. They work hard, and they’re astute. Conspicuous consumption is a way to prove their success – but it it also reveals how unrefined their tastes are. This city has a Roman Forum, an Arc de triomphe, an “Hotel Florence”, a Louvre – like a cottage version of Europe. Apart from the pawn shops of all descriptions, the streets are lined with Apple stores and wine bars. If you drive a car there for half a day, you will understand that their success has much to do with recklessness, drivers have no problem suddenly retrograding, changing lanes or doing a U-turn, and they will treat even a busy single-lane street as a parking space.
I very quickly felt tired. I can’t sustain constant excitement from just hearing people talk about investment and bankruptcies, while dealing with the dust on the strees. And then, I saw the signs: Zhu Ziqing’s old home.
Blue bricks, wooden windows, grey tiles, two renovated courtyards, alone and humble, surrounded everywhere by high-rises. From spring to autumn 1923, Zhu Ziqing was a Chinese teacher at Zhejiang Middle school n.10 in Wenzhou, and lived in that laneway. He was also a new star of Chinese literature, while China’s literary scene was undergoing radical changes – the challenge of his generation being to devise a popular yet elegant new style of writing.
Zhu ziqing’s old home is now a small museum, and he never actually lived there. The original site is about a hundred meters away, the museum is a reconstruction. For local officials, it’s a symbol of their determination to make sacrifices in order to protect culture. A local newspaper wrote in elogious tones: “the initial plan was to build residential towers and commercial centres, but the space was used to build Zhu Ziqing’s old home instead. At least 20 million yuans of economic benefits were lost, but it raised Wenzhou’s cultural landscape to a higher level, and social benefits are invaluable.” When you listen closely to the tone of the praise, you can hear the sound of money – our vocabulary is so poor that everything comes down to “benefits”.
The old home is also a product of modern technology, with over 300 cubic meters of wood, 150,000 blue bricks and 140,000 grey tiles to be first dismantled, then reassembled. Some of the materials had already decayed, and therefore had to be copied.
The moment you step into the courtyard, you feel that this is not the “old home”, but a brand new one. The clear windows, the bright paint, the general cleanliness, all make it feel unreal. The Museum has displays about Zhi Ziqing’s life, part of which are about his origins and his relationship with Wenzhou. I only realised then that the famous texts I had read in my Middle school manual, “Green”, “Hazy moon”, “dark bird” and ” red crabapple flower shadow on curtain” had originally been written in Wenzhou. Re-reading the passages that were hanging on the wall, I found that there were too many adjectives, that the style was really syrupy. After more than ten years of revolutions and reconstructions, I could no longer relate to these simple emotions.
It’s a cold afternoon, and I’m the only visitor. Nearby, I can hear the whispers of a few middle-aged women, the idle museum coordinator and her friends. I can’t understand a word of the Wenzhou dialect they’re using. The locals like to say that the Wenzhou dialect was the secret language used during the Vietnam War: its pronunciation is strange, and it’s hard to interpret. I don’t know if their conversation is also about the high interest rate. People say that this obsession with money has already infiltrated every household. By the riverside, an old man looking after his grand-child says quietly, pointing at a high-rise in the distance: “that’s where he jumped from”. He’s talking about a man whose debtors went bankrupt. Money makes all people equal: origin, class or education don’t matter, your hundred yuan and his hundred yuan are the same, money levels history, it simplifies and flattens complex social and cultural logics. Thin banknotes can buy everything, but that does not make them any thicker.
No matter how unsubstantial the old home is, it still exudes a particular charm. It is at least quietly trying to develop a relationships with the past. On the exhibition boards, I also see the poem that Zhu Ziqing composed for the school: “ Goose fly over the mountain and cloud shadow stay around， sea-gull circle around the beach with the ocean wave gentle beat the sand. Let’s see the marvelous mountain and water, the pretty and talent young people,and the flourished peach and plum trees. Rhythmly give speech and chant in Huai Liu pavilion,sitting in ZhongShan Confucian school and enjoy the gentle spring wind.Became pillars to save the country, became virtuous people and educate the next generation.there are so many similarity between history and nowadays, either do the West and East.ven as State and society were going through troubles, there was still beauty and heroism.
Getting out of the old home, I reach the piers of the Oujiang river. In that part of town, the old houses have all been destroyed; in old photographs, you can see them stretching endlessly, and the residents entering the laneway, cooking, lighting a fire, washing vegetables in the river, quarrelling or joking together. All that remains today is the large Riverside avenue, with its line of high-rise buildings, a tall screen of concrete. I take a ferry named “Gilda”, and in five minutes, I’m on the island. The ferry is full of noisy tourists and loving couples; the old lady standing next to me wants to go to the Buddhist temple in the middle of the river.
On the narrow river island stand the yellow walls of the Buddhist Temple and the red roof of the former British Consulate. There are also two towers – the East and the West tower, both built in the Song dynasty. The West tower is in Chinese style, with white walls and layered cornices; the East tower is bare, like a lighthouse, and at the top grows a crooked tree. When the British occupied the island, they destroyed all its cornices. During the 1884 incident, the people of Wenzhou set fire to the church, and the frightened foreigners escaped to the island with their Chinese followers. I had almost forgotten that Wenzhou was China’s first open seaport.
The consulate is surrounded by couples having their wedding photographs taken. “Head more towards the groom”, “kiss again”, “hold the pose”, the photographers are shouting. Before taking the next shot, the bride paces and forth, while the groom waits in his tail-suit, obedient and tired.
The rain comes and chases them away, the day is getting dimmer, the river is always muddy, but the flow is getting faster, the tide is coming in, and occasionally, a flat cargo ship blows a sharp whistle. The doors of the temple are closed, the lights turn up inside the old consulate, which is now a fancy restaurant called “International Residence”. Minimum bill is 500 yuan per person, the doorman coldly tells me.
The visitors get back on the ferry, the diners arrive; they throw down a few glasses at “International Residence”, they sing Karaoke.
How should I describe the night on the river island? Li Bai, Du Fu, Xie Lingyun and even Wen Tianxiang have all come here as visitors. Up untill the generation of Zhu Ziqing, Chinese scholars have enjoyed the landscape and the moonlight, and stopped in the temple after the rain to talk about Buddhism. But we’ve completely forgotten this attitude, and lost this ability. Old trees, flowing water, poetry, moonlight, temples, all of these have disappeared, replaced by high-rise buildings, neon lights, cars, glass, metal, concrete, interest rates and mortgages; and I still don’t know how in this world I could find any poetry?