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Tracing Time Across Zhenjiang

by Joe O'Neill   - Jun 12, 2015

 

Pearl S. Buck wrote The Good Earth, but now her house stands among piles of rubble. The American author moved to China with missionary parents, who hoped to plant seeds of Christianity on Chinese soil. She was four months old.

 

While her father built churches, Pearl grew up. The impressions and experiences of life in China later contributed to her writing; many of her books are strongly influenced by China and her life there.

 

Churches still stand in Zhenjiang (镇江) today, and Pearl’s books are in libraries and bookshops worldwide. None of this information, though, could help the taxi driver find her former residence, which opened to the public in 1992.

 

‘Do you have a phone number?’ he asked.

 

‘No,’ I said, peering through the windscreen. The taxi had stopped halfway down a narrow yellow road. On one side, a crane ploughed a field of rubble. Opposite the crane, faded phone numbers, possibly advertisements for construction or demolition services, were written on a crumbling wall.

 

Eventually we found someone, walking along the empty road.

 

‘You’re lost,’ the middle-aged lady said. ‘It’s back there.’

 

Pearl S. Buck’s former residence is on top of Dengyun Hill (登云山), and I completed the journey on foot. On both sides, the ground was piles of rubble. Skeletons of old houses stood above the destruction, stubbornly refusing to fall. An old house sign, with the characters for Runzhoushan Road (润州山 路 )still visible, hung from a window, entangled with a forgotten net curtain. 
 
Abandoned house on Ruzhoushan Road   

With its neatly manicured garden, Pearl. S Buck’s former residence is a distinct anomaly in a bulldozed neighborhood. But when I entered, there were no more signs of human life than there were outside. Under dusty light that streamed in through paned windows, floorboards creaked slowly. 

 
 
The best kept house in the neighborhood: Pearl S. Buck’s former residence
 
Eventually the lights flicked on.
 
‘What’s going on?’ I asked the woman who walked out from the back of the house, wearing a black dress with a red top. ‘What happened to all these houses?’
 
‘They’re building a new square. It will be completed in about three years.’
 
Pearl S. Buck moved to Zhenjiang when she was three years old, having arrived in China four months after she was born. She later came to see Zhenjiang as her hometown in China. The house where I stood, was where she lived with her parents and nanny.
 
Walking through the reconstructed personal living spaces of Pearl S. Buck and her family can be disquieting. In her parents’ room, a bible stands on the bedside while a priest’s frock hangs on the wall. In Pearl’s room, there is a doll by the bed and childhood pictures on the dresser. Pearl S. Buck’s most famous novels fill the shelves of her study. 

Pear S. Buck’s former study

‘A year or two ago this road wasn’t here,’ the owner of a noodle shop on Zhongshan West Road ( 中山西路)told me. The establishment’s stools and tables were set below street level, and we looked up at cars and scooters as change sped by. We were just a couple of rubble blocks from Pearl S. Buck’s former home.
 
Change might be bulldozing its way across parts of Zhenjiang, but in some districts, architecturally at least, the future is taking longer to arrive.
 
Tree-lined Boxian Road  
 
‘That used to be the British Consulate during the time of Chiang Kai Shek,’ the taxi driver pointed through the window as he we drove on Boxian Road (伯先路), where the Zhenjiang Museum stands. ‘ At the time of the Nationalists, this was the number one road in Zhenjiang. This whole street is crammed with history.’
 
Next to the museum, builders were not knocking down the past, but refining it; they were re-paving the entrance to the Zhenjiang Chamber of Commerce (镇江商会), first built in 1929. Opposite the museum is a disused public building dating back to the Qing Dynasty. On nearby Baogai Road, a church, constructed in 1931, stands back from the road. 
 
A church stands back from Baogai Road 
But no matter what stands and falls above ground, the past can be preserved even longer once it becomes a part of the earth, as a trip inside Zhenjiang Museum (镇江博物馆)shows.

On the museum’s ground floor, the room closest to the entrance displays a range of bronzeworks from the State of Wu (11th Century BC to 473 BC). A sign in the museum tells us that Zhenjiang was a ‘political, economic and cultural center’ in the early Wu period, with the Wu capital, Yi,  based in what is now Dantu (丹徒区), a district of modern day Zhenjiang.
 
Much of the bronze metalwork on display is musical, martial, or culinary; everything from percussion instruments to spearheads has been unearthed in the region in recent years (excavation dates ranged from 1975 AD to 1985 AD).
 

 

Calligraphy inside Jinshan Temple

A monk in Jinshan Temple told me that the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and rebuilt seven or eight years ago. It was hard to verify the monk’s words; the clear information I could find online was that the temple had been ‘destroyed and rebuilt’ many times since it

was first constructed in the Eastern Jin dynasty, (317 AD to 420 AD)

 
No matter the precise date of the temple’s reconstruction, it has certainly been repainted in recent years, and as scaffolding on one wing of Jinshan proved, the upkeep of this temple is ongoing.
 
View of Jinshan Temple from ground level
 
As impressive as the view of the temple from the ground, is the view of the ground from the temple. One of the best viewpoints at the top of the temple is called ‘The Sky is Old as the Earth (天地同庚)’ .
 
‘What’s the significance of those characters?’ a girl of around twenty asked a man who was probably her father, pointing to the characters reading ‘the sky is old as the earth ( 天地同庚)’. The father had just finished telling his wife and daughter how he cycled from one of Zhenjiang’s scenic points to another.
 
‘Think of the story of Pangu,’ the man said [In the legend of Pangu, Pangu creates the earth and the sky by pushing them apart], ‘... or look at a very simple Chinese character, the character for three (三). Just three strokes, the middle stroke is the shortest. Why? The top stroke represents the sky, the bottom stroke the earth. The middle stroke is people, they are the most...’
 
‘Insignificant,’ his wife and daughter finished for him.
 
At the uppermost level, you could hear the bells of the pagoda tinkling in the wind. Cleaning ladies in blue jackets swept leaves and chatted. Each group that came up rested, talked, took the obligatory picture with the pagoda as a backdrop, and then, having come as close to the sky as Jinshan Temple would allow, began the descent back down to earth.


The characters beneath the pagoda read ‘the sky is old as the earth’  

About Writer

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Joe O'Neill grew up in Salisbury, England (often confused with Salisbury, Maryland, USA). He lived in Taipei and Seoul before moving to Shanghai, where he worked as a web editor for two years. When he's not writing, he can be found running, swimming, or downloading ebooks in the hope of getting a chance to read them. He holds a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Glamorgan (now called the University of South Wales).
 
 

 

 

 

 
 

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