Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Zhanghuashan, China: Week 10, Part 1 (We Are What Has Been Built)

Old buildings, in China, fall before the new. Outside of Hunchun, mud walls crumbled before concrete ones. On the outskirts of Ningbo, it is also happening. A horizon that used to stretch straight with farmland now adds circumference with the rise of apartment buildings and office towers.

Like all cities that back against cropland, Ningbo and its surroundings are dusted with perpetual grit. Ningbo, though, is also crowned with neon lights and rampant commercialism. It has its pockets of sanity along the river by the Old Bund, and some might say, in the villages that it threatens to subsume.

One such village, Zhanghuashan, is narrowly ringed on all sides by other small villages. They are expanding like bacteria colonies on a shared petri dish. Soon they will all be one, and who knows what they will call themselves then. But in the late 1200s, my maternal grandfather's ancestors - two brothers from the Zhang family, Zhang Shi Jie and Zhang Shi Ying - married the sisters of a local family (named Yu), settled the rich land and named the town.

The old entrance gate to Zhanghuashan

My great-great-grandfather built the area's first school there, and from 1911-1960, every man and woman in the village had at least a middle school education. He told my great-grandfather, "when you go abroad, save your money and bring it back to do good in the village." My great-grandfather was the first in the village to have a graduate degree, and he also averted a cholera outbreak by showing those in his village how to relocate outhouses away from the creek where they washed their food.

 The creek still "runs" through the town

Because of who my great-grandfather was, and who my great-great-grandfather was, the village head and his entire office staff accompanied my mother, brother and I on our visit. They drove us around the narrow streets in a big black car, and treated us to a lavish lunch.  I wondered what the locals must think of us, but I could not ask. They all speak the deep local dialect, a variant of Shanghainese. The elder members never learned Mandarin Chinese, and when most village residents speak it, it is strongly accented and near impossible for me to understand.

Churchhill said once, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."  Today's schools are mostly undecorated, choosing to emphasize the learning and technology within. But then, the building itself was a point of pride. I awkwardly paid my respects to the village's spirits at the shrine, and then rambled around the courtyard. The people who'd taken up house in the old classrooms crowded outside their doors and their eyes followed me.  I felt deep in my ancestor's mind. He had birds painted under the eaves all along the perimeter, hundreds of species. Two dragons curled like seahorses atop the roof,  from each corner sprang forth a coiled phoenix, a billowing cloud, and under the eaves drifted lotus flower ponds. Symbols all - of prosperity and longevity, of peace, of enlightenment, and of harmony. I imagined the spaces with its students, and books brought by my great-grandfather from Shanghai. One time they were not faded by the smoke of wood fires and cigarettes, the paintings were once warm and lifelike.

What buildings become

My great-grandfather's old house was there too, and the young woman told us, "next time you come back, this will probably be gone." I snapped photos, but I didn't really know why. I felt it was the school building that really mattered. But my family and I are the only ones who feel that way. This is the way of the immigrant. When we return, generations later, we have no power to claim this physical representation of family history for our own. We have only money. In China, this might buy us influence, but it cannot buy a building. I won't be long - in my lifetime, surely - when someone realizes the land is worth more as a grocery store than as a historical building-turned-housing complex. And then, like mud walls tumbling, this little insight into a long-ago man's mind, will join the rest of the dust that settles over Ningbo.

Robert and I under our great-grandfather's name
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