I go for a walk around my neighborhood,
That old foreign woman was crying again. She sat on a bench near the clock tower where Lanling Road intersected with Nandajie. Most of the time, she was hunched over with her face in her hands. From time to time, she would peer up and glance around with eyes reddened by tens of thousands of tears. Slowly, a look of terror would creep across her face, and she would sobbing again. For the past week, Zhou Xiaolan had seen her sitting on the same bench every day. It was 12:50, and she was walking back to work after a lunch of Lanzhou shaved beef noodles. The sight of this elderly, disheveled western woman disturbed her.
For five days straight, Xiaolan saw people walk by this lady as if she didn’t exist. Her fellow Chinese didn’t bother to stop and ask her what was wrong and how they could help. In a way, she could almost understand. Maybe they were too afraid of her and their own lack of English skills. No, the foreigners annoyed her more. Quite often, she foreign business men in suits just stroll right by. So did the young interns and exchange students in their backpacks and baggy shorts. Here was an old woman – somebody’s grandmother – terrified and alone on a hot August day. Certainly one of those foreigners could stop and help their fellow expat? Then, Xiaolan felt a twitch of anger. Where was this woman’s son or grandson? How could they leave her alone like this? Why weren’t they taking care of their elders? That anger then turned into guilt. She, herself, had been one of those Chinese people that had ignored somebody who clearly in need – for five days straight. Sure, she had to get back to work. Sure, her boss liked to yell at her even if she was two minutes late coming back from lunch. No, Xiaolan reasoned. Not today. She worked at a language training center and with foreigner English teachers. Surely they would comprehend and at least have empathy?
She turned, walked over, and sat next to the sobbing woman. For a moment, she stared at the woman’s gray, curly hair and the back of her neck. A wide neckline also showed the woman’s gaunt, bony shoulders. Odd, asymmetric purple blotches marred her dried out-skin. Xiaolan averted her gaze not out of disgust, but more out of decency. It didn’t seem polite to stare. Still, she awkwardly reached out and patted the woman on her knee. “What’s wrong?
The old woman sat up and turned to face Xiaolan. Her inflamed, red eyes prompted Xiaolan to reach into her purse for a packet of tissues. She opened it and held it out to her. The old woman took a few began wiping her eyes.
“I’m lost,” she said. “I came to Changzhou with my son, and now I can’t find him.” She took a few more tissues to wipe the tears off her cheek. “I worry about him all the time.”
“What’s his name? Where does he work?” Xiaolan put her hand on the foreign woman’s shoulders and earnestly looked into her eyes. “I will take you to him.”
A few new tears leaked from the corner of her eyes. She took a few more tissues to deal with them. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember.” The old woman stared at her knees. “My memory hasn’t been all that great the last two years.”
For some reason, the small device taped near to the woman’s collar bone grabbed Xiaolan’s attention. It was a small, heart-shaped machine encased in drap, beige plastic; a small tube ran from it and through her skin and into a dark vein Xiaolan could see through pale, translucent skin. Xiaolan tried not to stare; it felt disrespectful. Instead, she looked up and made eye contact. “My English name is Lanny. What’s your name?”
“What’s your family name? Maybe I can help you find your son that way?
The old woman took another tissue and wiped her eyes. “That’s the problem. I can’t remember. My memory left me ever since I was in the hospital.”
“What’s your son like?”
“Depressed.” She took another tissue. She shook her head and blew her nose before taking yet another tissue. No matter how many she took, her eyes still looked darkly enflamed. “Drinks too much beer. I always thought he was an alcoholic, and that was before I ever got sick. Ever since we came to China a year ago, he just likes to sit behind his computer, get drunk, and eat cheese and salami on crackers.” She took another tissue. “He has no friends. He tries not even tried to make friends. It worries me a lot.”
Xiaolan thought for a moment. She wanted a physical description, not an emotional profile. Yet, as much as she wanted to help, she felt a strange, instinctual need to get away from her. She also remembered that every moment she was late would just make her boss angrier. “I have to get to work,” Xiaolan said. She thought about getting her iPhone out of her purse and checking for angry messages from her boss, but she resisted. “Please, come with me. I have western colleagues, and if you describe your son to them, maybe they can help? Maybe they will know him? Or, maybe they will know who can help you.”
The woman took Xiaolan’s now nearly empty packet of tissues and slipped them into her small black purse. “Okay.”
Both stood. Xiaolan led the way, and Elma followed. They took an escalator down into an underpass beneath Lanling Road. Small boutique shops surrounded them. The few times Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder, she noticed Elma never turned to look at the mannequins displaying local fashions. The shop selling cheap versions of traditional Changzhou combs didn’t interest her. The old woman kept her stare locked straight forward. She also never blinked. Her eyes were still somewhere between dark pink and red, but at least she no longer cried. Once they climbed a set of stairs, they walked north on Beidajie Road. Xiaolan crossed the road and cut through an almost empty shopping center where Parksons used to be. They left that, navigated though a few more side streets until they reached a decrepit building of dirty-white bricks. A door-frosted lettering read Eastern-Western Global International English Worldwide.
As soon as both of them walked through the door, a short man – with a feeble attempt at a moustache — sneered and turned on Xiaolan. He pointed a stubby little finger up into Xiaolan’s face. He shouted in Chinese: Where have you been? You have a corporate training, and the factory’s driver has been waiting. I let the foreigners get away with this because they are foreigners. You? You should know better and be on time. Xiaolan glanced over her shoulder at the elderly woman behind her. Xiaolan tried to speak, but when it came to her boss, she knew she would always be drowned out. This time, she knew something more important was at stake. But before she could interject, Elma merely whispered, “There he is.”
Elma walked further into the center. Xiaolan tuned out her boss and watched the old woman navigate the language center. All the walls were made out of glass, so anybody could see into every classroom and office. This made leading potential new students around on a tour much easier. Elma navigated these glass corridors as if she worked there. While Xiaolan’s boss continued on in elaborate detail about her “unprofessional conduct,” she watched Elma wander into Brian Brozek’s classroom and take a seat. Elma’s frown softened. She even put two elbows onto a desk and rested her chin into her hands. Her frown melted into something more friendly and loving as Brian taught. Xiaolan wanted to follow Elma into the classroom, but by now, her boss was now forcefully pushing her out of the building shouting Go! Teach! in Chinese.
Soon enough, Xiaolan found herself in a factory’s company car being whisked away from Changzhou’s downtown and towards southern Changzhou’s industrial parks. Xiaolan didn’t know what to think. She stared at her mobile phone and waited for QQ and Wechat complaints about a sick, elderly woman sitting in on English lessons. Those complaints never came. The factory training came and went. Both Elma and Brian were gone once Xiaolan returned. Throughout the day, nobody even mentioned the woman at all. Brian worked at the center part time, and Xiaolan didn’t have him on Wechat. So, she couldn’t follow up with him even if she wanted. Sure, she could have asked around for his phone number, but if nobody was talking about Elma barging into a classroom, then she wasn’t going to raise the issue. Xiaolan eventually forgot about Elma. Her own grandmother’s eightieth birthday was quickly approaching, and she had agreed to help her mother and father plan a party in her elder’s honor.
The next day, at 12:50, Xiaolan walked by the clock tower area again, and the bench was empty. It was also empty the day after that, too. She did see her again, but it was only in passing. Xiaolan had gone to the Xinbei Wanda on her day off. She wanted to buy a new pair of heels, but she found herself unimpressed by the selection available. She decided to go home empty handed, and as she walked to the BRT Bus station, dark clouds grayed out the sky. Xiaolan could smell rain.
That’s when Brian walked by. Elma followed him, and the entire time neither of them talked. A few fat rain drops began splattering against the concrete, and that coincided with a gust of wind. It was so strong it blew off Elma’s short, gray, curly hair. It was actually a wig. The head it previously hid had only patches of thin hair – some longer than others. For the most part, though, Elma was bald. The rain began to pick up, and so Xiaolan had to run to the BRT station in a futile attempt to keep dry. Slightly damp, Xiaolan sat on the B1 both going south. She really wished she had Brian’s phone number or Wechat contact. But before she could text somebody about it, her mother called regarding Xiaolan’s grandmother’s eightieth birthday party. From there, Xiaolan got caught up in event planning.
She only saw Elma one more time. It was a day that she finally convinced Hua Aiguo, her boyfriend, to relent and take her out for an expensive German dinner. They were at Jagerwirt in the southern end of Changzhou. While her boyfriend dithered over the menu and scratched his head, he looked up from time to time with pleading expressions of What is this weird food you want to eat? Xiaolan just ignored him – like she had grown used to doing. This time, the sight a few tables away captured her attention.
Brian sat opposite a slender European woman with dark blonde hair. They both were eating salads, but Brian seemed to pick at his food. It looked like he was more interested in talking than eating. Xiaolan wondered about this: Brian never socialized with her or anybody at her language center. Most of the times, he just seemed devoid of anything. He came in, did his classes and left. Xiaolan never imagined him remotely capable of even having female friends. And that’s when she spotted Elma.
She had never retrieved her wig, and her head was still a patchwork of thin clumps and thatches of hair. Brian didn’t seem to notice. He and his friend had plates in front of them. Elma did not. The two never stopped to look at Elma or even acknowledge her existence. Elma just enjoyed the smile on her son’s face. Light radiated around her the more her smile warmly grew. The light nearly became blinding. Xiaolan shielded her eyes.
“What’s wrong,” said her boyfriend.
Xiaolan pointed at Elma. “That.”
“That.” She stabbed her finger in Elma’s direction.
“You mean,” Hua Aiguo said, “The foreign couple eating salad?”
“Not them, the old woman sitting with them.”
“What are you talking about? There is no old woman. It’s just two laowai eating salad.”
For Xiaolan, the light was now blinding, but she lowered her hand to look into it. Elma was there at the center. The texture of the light fluctuated and swirled around her. It reminded Xiaolan of a whirlpool of water – but only in cloudy gradients of yellow. At the center of this vortex, Elma looked at Brian and his date. Then, she looked at Xiaolan. She closed her eyes and gave only a slight smile suggesting peace and contentment. That’s when Elma vanished.
“It’s so old, it’s new again.”
Jim Cornette once said this about the new NWA Internet wrestling show Powerrr. Yes, you read that correctly; the name is spelled with three Rs. I blame the Internet phenomenon of purposefully misspelling things in the name of copyrights: Flickr, Fiverr, and so on. As professional wrestling organizations go, the NWA is one of the oldest there is in America. Then, Vince McMahon ran everybody out of business and had a defacto monopoly on sports entertainment for 20 years.
That has changed with the rising popularity of independent, alternative wrestling. A big part of that was the recent launch of Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan’s AEW on the cable channel TNT. That was to directly confront WWE. There have been other smaller promotions grinding niches for themselves. A few years ago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan bought the NWA with the idea of doing something new and different: studio wrestling. He likely paid a minuscule fraction of what it may have been worth 60 years ago — if you adjust for inflation. Only, studio wrestling is not all that new.
In the annals of pro wrestling, “studio wrestling” used to be a staple on TV. This was partly due to how cheap it was to produce. Basically, a ring was set up in a television studio, a small audience would be brought in, and matches happened. It was a more intimate setting than the arena shows WWE would later profit off of. There was a long, rich history of this type of TV program, but in the course of the 1980’s the concept ceased to be. As stated earlier, McMahon killed the territory system and ushered in a new, micro-managed, corporate era. As much as I love professional wrestling, there is something else about Cornette’s words that interests me.
“It’s so old it’s new again.” The 1980’s is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. You see it with TV shows like GLOW, Stranger Things, and the current season of American Horror Story. Now, it’s popping up again with an Internet wrestling show made to look like it came from the 80’s. Nostalgia cycles are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Here’s a frightening thought: 40 years from now, somebody will wistfully look back at 2019 and will make an entertainment product about it. While I am currently in my mid 40s, that scares the crap out of me.
This is well and fine, but why am I pontificating on this on a blog about Changzhou? Seriously? I highly doubt Jim Cornette even knows the city of Changzhou exists. Most Americans probably don’t. Well, the connection in my brain is because of this guy.
This is Zhao Yi, and he was from Changzhou. He was a poet, historian, and literary critic during the Qing Dynasty. His former residence is downtown in the Qianbeihou historic area near the Wenhuagong subway station.
I had always been curious as to who Zhao Yi was, because I have been walking by this place for years. Just because there is a historical preservation marker doesn’t mean that it’s actually open to the public as a museum. The one time I did poke my head through an open door, it looked like people actually live here, still.
But let me be clear about something. I am not comparing the delightfully foul mouthed, tennis racket wielding, legendary wrestling manager from Kentucky with a Chinese poet of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As a juxtaposition, that’s just too far of a stretch — even though Zhao was considered unconventional by some of his contemporaries. Or am I just doing that?
None of Zhao’s verses has been translated into English. Given that I have an MFA in poetry — and a deep desire to learn Chinese — translating Chinese poetry into English seemed like something I would eventually try my hand at. Only, I was too afraid to take that leap. I did so anyway. Recently, I realized that I was being too ambitious with disastrous results. Maybe I should start by focusing on really short verses, I thought? So, I settled on this as my first real attempt:
Mǎnyǎn shēngjī zhuǎnhuà jūn, tiān gōngrén qiǎo rì zhēng xīn. Yùzhī wǔbǎi nián xīnyì, dàole qiānnián yòu jué chén.
This comes from a sequence called 论诗. That translates as “On Poetry.” The sequence itself can be classed as “meta poetry“ — poetry about poetry. Or so to speak, using the art of language sound to comment on that exact art. So, my first crack at translating just those two sentences led to this:
One’s life and vitality abounds and changes you;
Heaven’s workers daily vie for something new.
Advance 500 years into a future of new meanings;
In the end, a thousand years can still feel stale.
Before I get back to Jim Cornette, let me reinforce something. This is my first attempt at trying to translate anything into English. I’m hyper aware that I’m missing something or there is a nuance going over my head.
In know this because of three particular characters in the original Chinese: 天工人. If you stuff Zhao Yi’s words into Baidu Translate, you get “workers of the sky.” That’s just fantastical. It’s almost like something you would expect from Tsui Hark’s special effects bonanza “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.”
Google Translate stated that 天工人 meant “day workers.” That’s actually funny because of the proletarian bent of how that just sounds.
And thus, my first real conundrum of trying to translate from Chinese to English happens. The character 天 is problematic because it can mean so many different things. There is no true equivalent in English. That character can mean anything from day to heaven and god and more. Recently, to some of my students, I compared it to how 宅男 and 宅女 are not adequate translations of nerd.The Chinese implies somebody who spends most of their time at home ala “house man” or “house woman.” In English, both nerd and geek have taken on positive, non-derogatory meanings. Both are words for socially awkward people, but those words also now imply expert. As in: poetry nerd, drama nerd, technology geek, and so on. As far as I can tell in my discussions with my students, the Chinese translation doesn’t have that “specialist” meaning attached to it.
So, allow me to get back to Jim Cornette. Both he and Zhoa Yi are talking about cycles of time. Cornette, whether he realizes it or not, is touching the nature of nostalgia and people who age. Things do get so old that they feel brand new again — and this is after two decades of being force fed Vince McMahon’s vision of what American professional wrestling should be. You also see this with music and how it falls in and out of fashion. At one moment, disco is vogue and at another, it’s abhorrent and kitsch. Zhao Yi is more devastating than Cornette. That nostalgia curve goes away, eventually, and it’s gone for good.
Everything is destined to become antiquated. Things not only age, but they become stale in their age. What was once innovative becomes passe and boring. Don’t believe me? Ask most of the high school students that are forced to perform Romeo and Juliet in front of their peers during their English classes — or the Chinese students who are required to memorize the poems of Li Bai.
There are exceptions, of course. There are people like me who actually enjoy dissecting Shakespeare’s metaphors. Or, who think it’s fun to conjure up a silly line connecting American pro wrestling to Chinese poetry. Either way, I found the challenge of translating Zhao Yi somewhat gratifying and stimulating, even if my version of his verses may not be the best. I look forward to trying it many more times with many more poets.
A snowflake falls from a winter cloud, but it seems intent. It’s consumed with desire. As it flutters its way to earth; it works hard to avoid forests, mountains, and valleys. It does not want to land on something or somebody meaningless. It knows what it wants its destiny to be: it has to seek out a garden and fall onto a beautiful woman so that it could melt and “dissolve into the cordial waves of her heart.”
This is the gist of 徐志摩 Xu Zhimo’s famous poem, “A Snowflake’s Happiness” — 雪花的快樂. My summation is a bit crude, because there is more at work here. The whole poem is a complicated metaphor about love, and that gets into the mechanics of how it was written. The first line goes like this:
If I were a snowflake
The voice of the poem is not declaring, “I am a snow flake.“ The operative word here, if we are trusting the translator, is if. That means its a metaphor and not a description of real life or something following a more narrative context. Much like other effective poems, the middle is there to build tension and led to the emotional payoff of the end. Of course, I’m not basing this off the Chinese original, but a translation I found on a blog. This version reads like a few of the others that I have found.
This is well and fine, one might say. But what does this have to do with Changzhou? Xu, after all, was born in Zhejiang and spent a lot of time studying in the US and the UK. Living in England is the subject his most anthologized poem, “Taking Leave of Cambridge Again.” As it turns out, Xu had a few links to Changzhou. The first comes by way of his romantic relationship with Lu Xiaoman.陆小曼. She spent sometime growing up in the Dragon City and had a definite connection to it. By default, that gave Xu an connection, too.
During his writing career, Xu also wrote a poem about Tianning Temple. The temple’s website even acknowledges this. This has been translated into English, but its only available in print. It isn’t online, and the collection of verse does not have an eBook version. I would have bought a copy if it had. One can shove the Chinese version into an online translator, but that really does a bunch of indignities to poetry. Verse is a medium where the choice of language is mostly exact and precise. It’s all about the subtleties of nuance. Translating something like this with Google is like taking a beautiful, delicate, and exquisite piece of porcelain and dropping it into a blender.
Despite these literary and historical connections to Changzhou, there is something real that somebody can go see. It’s in Tianning, near a northern exit of Hongmei Park and just down the street from the downtown train station. There is a statue depicting a romantic couple, and the are standing next carved metal baring the title of Xu’s snowflake poem.
It would be easy to pass this by and think it’s the only thing referencing Xu Zhimo in the area. However, if a person were to descend a nearby staircase and stand along the canal, they would see this.
These are inscribed tablets reproducing pages from Xu Zhimo’s diaries. This, in particular comes from 爱眉小札日记. This diary has been published in Chinese as a book, but like a lot of Xu’s prose, it has not been translated into English. If one were to look at some of what has been reproduced on this wall, it’s a emblematic of Xu and the writer he was.
Of course, Xu was a hopeless romantic. He not only had a relationship with Lu Xiaoman, but he had conducted affairs with lots of other women. If you take the content and context of his writing and put that to one side, there is something more stylistic. The passages on display near Hongmei are bilingual. English sentences like
Oh May! Love me; give me all your love. Let us become one…
are interspersed into Chinese. This is no accident. Xu also worked as a translator, and he was proficient enough in English to study both in the UK and the USA. This also gets into the type of writer he was.
In some ways, Xu Zhimo can be compared to Ezra Pound in America. Pound looked at traditional forms in English language prosody and wanted to throw them out, start over, and bring in something new. He had translated Chinese poets like Li Bai and felt their influence. Pound also translated Japanese verse, and his famous “In The Station of the Metro” poem reads like a haiku. On the other hand, Xu Zhimo returned from study abroad. and did the same thing. Only, he loved western poets like Keats and Shelley. He wanted to throw out traditional Chinese poetic standards and write something more influenced by the west. In short: Xu was not immune to experimenting and playing around with language.
Whether it is by way of his Tianning Temple poem or his relationship with Lu Xiaoman, Xu had some connection with Changzhou. This city has had a long reputation for helping cultivate scholars and and people of intellect. Xu Zhimo definitely didn’t come from here, but as evidenced by sculpture and canal-side engraved passages, Changzhou will still celebrate its link to him.
This was crossposted from Real Changzhou.