If walls could talk

May 12th, 2007

Thinking about how to write that post about ghosts had me thinking I’d have to include some horribly cliched phrase along the lines of “If walls could talk….” then what? They’d have some bloody interesting stories to tell? They’d have some just plain bloody stories to tell? Anyway, the post was bad enough as it was, but at least I managed to avoid “If walls could talk….”

Moving on: One thing about China that always fascinated me was all those little glimpses of history, ancient and modern, that litter the place. Sometimes it seems you can’t move without bumping into some story just aching to be told. These are stories big and small, about revolutions and societal upheavals and movements and about ordinary local people in their ordinary local lives. Sometimes it’s not so much a glimpse of history as a bloody great big pink neon sign screaming at you: Look at me! The”cultural revolution buildings” just up the road should perhaps be placed in the bloody great big pink neon sign category. I still can’t, and won’t attempt to, explain what I experienced there last night, but my first reaction was that we’d stumbled onto the anniversary of something significant. A particularly horrific struggle session? Who knows. If walls could talk, in this case I think the story would be terrifyingly brutal.

But even in China’s most torn down, rebuilt and thoroughly covered over places, there is still some tantalising little hint at what was. Sometimes it survives only in place names. Sometimes the place names are blindingly obvious: Changsha’s Nanmenkou (South Gate), Taiyuan’s Dananmen (Big South Gate), Yanqing’s Dong Guan (East Gate/Pass) or all of the many xxmen that scattered throughout Beijing are a few examples. Some of the place names offer less obvious, and therefore more tantalising clues: In Beijing there are Gongzhufen (Princess’ Tomb) and Bawangfen (Eight Kings’ Tombs), for example. I’m not so familiar with Gongzhufen, but I have spent a lot of time around Bawangfen, and yet I’ve seen no hint of the tombs the name refers to. A big coal-fired power station, some old, run-down apartment blocks, and the fancy, modern tower blocks of Soho, Sunshine 100, Blue Castle, Huamao Zhongxin (China Central Place?) and so on, yes. Tombs, no. Just north of there is Hong Miao (Red Temple). I haven’t spent so much time around Hong Miao, but I’ve passed through there on many occasions, and although the Red Temple referred to may be there, I’ve seen no sign of it. The same goes for the temple to Guanyin which I assume once stood at Guanyin Miao, a tiny little enclave of rundown apartment blocks tucked in between the northeastern side of BeiGongDa and the Fourth Ring Road which seems to have been erased from my map (the ultimate indignity!).

And then there’s Jiulongshan (Nine Dragon Hill), about one kilometre south of Bawangfen, which has neither dragons nor hills, so far as I’ve seen. And I used to pass through there very, very often. I once asked my boss about Jiulongshan. He explained that Beijing was on an alluvial plain built up by silt washed down from the mountains to the north and west and that quite possibly there was once a hill at Jiulongshan, but it was eroded away until it merged with the plain. Whether it ever had any dragons is a whole other question.

I always used to compare Jiulongshan with Hong Kong’s Kowloon (note: Kowloon is ä¹?é¾™ in Chinese, meaning Nine Dragons, the same Nine Dragons as in Jiulongshan/ä¹?龙山). Kowloon does at least manage a few hills, and yet doesn’t bother to advertise them in its place name. Jiulongshan may once have had a hill or two, but all trace of said hill has long since been washed away, and yet Jiulongshan still boasts of its hill in its place name.

Changsha’s Tianxin Gongyuan (天心公园/”Heavenly Heart Park”) always fascinated me with its last remaining slice of the old city wall and views over the town, the Xiang River and Orange Island/橘å­?æ´², Yuelu Shan sitting in the distance looking back at the city. I once asked my Waiban to explain the name of the park, but it seems he couldn’t understand the question no matter how clearly I tried to formulate it. Either that or he just plain had no idea how to answer or why I’d even ask such a question. I do remember him telling how the corner which the road took around Tianxin Gongyuan was called “Red Corner” because some rebellious and defeated general was strapped to the front of a cannon, which was then fired, scattering the general over a wide area. That’s all of that story I can remember, though, and I don’t know what, if any, connection it may have with Tianxin Gongyuan.

Another one I always wondered about was Xiaoxitian (å°?西天/ “Little Western Sky”), between Xinjiekou Huokou and Tieshizifen here in Beijing. Is this some reference to Heaven? And how did this area get its name?

Or Tieshizifen: é“?石å­?å?Ÿ/Iron Lion Tomb. Bob Marley’s resting place? No, something tells me he’s buried somewhere else. Still, once again, I’ve seen plenty of iron, but no iron lions or tombs on the numerous occasions I’ve passed through there.

Of course, me being me, none of this fascination with China’s place names got me motivated enoughto actually do any research or study into the history of these areas. But still, this fascination remains, and it’s one of the things that keeps me constantly intrigued with this place.

And of course, one could say exactly the same kinds of things about any other country in the world. The place names of Southland and Otago betray those two province’s Scottish heritage. Dunedin was built to be the Edinburgh of the South, indeed, it’s layout closely matches Edinburgh’s (and it should be noted Dunedin is the Gaelic name for Edinburgh), and the street and place names hark back to Edinburgh in particular. And New Zealand’s Maori place names are just as fascinating as China’s place names: take Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara/The Great Harbour of Tara (Wellington Harbour), Te Wai Pounamu/The Greenstone Waters (South Island) or Te Ika a Maui/The Fish of Maui (North Island) as examples. But still, there’s something about China’s place names that has me hooked.

[note: Any corrections of my translations are most welcome]

5 Responses to “If walls could talk”

  1. zhwj Says:

    I remember last year when there was some discussion of renaming all of the å?Ÿ neighborhoods to something more attractive, newspapers explained some of the history surrounding those names. I don’t remember the specifics, though – I think that é“?ç‹®å­?å?Ÿ actually used to have a gate with iron lion statues that were melted down during the Great Leap.

    (and here’s confirmation from the BNU bbs: http://silver.shop.bnulife.com/viewthread.php?tid=60485&page=1#pid317920 )

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for that.

    Haven’t more than a few neighbourhoods already had their names changed to something more attractive? I half remember hearing or reading stories about places like Zhushikou that explained that the original place names sounded the same, but meant something quite different, or about Pigu (as in arse) Hutong being changed to Piku Hutong. I don’t know how accurate any of these stories are, but they add to the fascination with place names.

  3. Image Says:

    R U a reporter- -?

  4. John Says:

    The names of the lanes around here definitely have a story to tell. There’s one near the retirement home which is something like Buddhist Convent Street, although all that’s left of that might be the ruins you can see as you go down the steps. Some of the names seem to be original; others, such as 爱国路 are probably of more recent date.

    I’ve often wondered whether 马厂路 is meant to mean something or not. Was there a knacker’s yard there once? Or is this another matter of orthography? Is 对湖路 named after a famous place? There’s no sign that there was ever a lake there, and the old name of that street seems to be 楼å?Žè¡—, which no one knows (it’s on my map of Fuzhou), although it’s on some shop signs for some reason.

    Several streets have 亭 in their names. Were there shops there once, perhaps?

  5. wangbo Says:

    @image: No, I’m not a reporter. I’m an English teacher.

    @John: 马厂路 is interesting. I believe Tianjin’s 马场é?“ hosted a race track back when it was in the English part of the foreign concession. I was about to suggest that’s how your machang lu got it’s name, but then I realised the chang in question was quite different. Does Fuzhou have a history of eating horses?