-by Ernie Diaz
It’s much easier to judge things by the way they look, but you pay a price. Especially with the old and care worn. That crusty old guy mumbling to himself on a park bench may well have gone through millions, seen fire and rain, skipped the light fandango. No one spares a second look. His obituary will never mention the giddy highs or stygian lows, but strive to make his life seem a serviceable one, like everyone else’s.
No what if the old gent died and was reborn, over and over again, but keeping the same crusty exterior? You’d have Yangzhou. A lot of Chinese cities have nine lives or more, but few cling as neatly to the image of a withered man of consequence, recognized and appreciated only by a few fellow musty old souls.
Man, if Yangzhou could talk, and it does, it does, all manner of lives, loves, stories, lies and true paintings there record the glory days, when Yangzhou had a Little Italy, and Marco Polo was posing as the city’s governor, when he was really just honorary salt tax official. This is a city that knew explosions and massacres next to which even modern atrocities pale. It also grew strange artists who thrived in the soil of frequently-turned fortune and disaster. You don’t get to know a crusty old raconteur by his doings, but by the stories he tells. Similarly, you won’t know Yangzhou without hearing of the lives that were lived there.
Many names fit the Yangdi Emperor – whoremaster, back-stabber, coward. But he finished off the Grand Canal, or rather he ordered the final labors of some five million who gave blood sweat and tears building a canal, an ancient wonder more accurately, stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou. Branch-shaped, tributary canals he ordered as well, stretching west, then made his seat at Yangzhou. Traders Asia-wide made the city their home. Yangzhou’s coffers swelled, Korean merchants of the Silla Dynasty, Arab traders who left inscriptions, all to the glory of the Tang.
A century and a half later, disaster in Yangzhou. The An Shi Rebellion, a pustule from a larger plague of uprisings Turkish in nature had symptoms like the Yangzhou massacre – Tian Shengong and his rebels did glad retaliation, taking thousands of Arab and Persian lives. Long, long ago, perhaps beyond the statute of limitations for mandatory expressions of regret. The arsenal explosion, then, in 1280, no sense in wasting compassion on a tragedy so old .
Better to take pleasure in Yangzhou’s Ming Dynasty restoration, the part in the biopic when our hero struggled back from adversity to new heights of success. Another commercial fortune, which trickle down so much deeper than fortunes of plunder. A time for the obligatory scholars in gardens, but not yet the artist. The general begets the great artist, or at least great works of art. Think General Franco and Guernica.
Or think General Dodo. Aside from the whimsical name, Dodo had no flaws in his military prowess. A first knight, sorry – bannerman of the Manchu, Dodo cleared Northern China of rivals like a farmer chopping down kudzu. Respect and woe to the Ming loyalist government in Nanjing, which wasn’t going to kowtow like so many quislings up North. Shi Kefa put up an Alamo defense of Yangzhou, with Chinese characteristics: exquisitely polite letters declining surrender, portentous speeches, and, when things got desperate, recklessly clever fighting of the sort Jackie Chan used to do before he became Asia’s answer to Buster Keaton. Infuriated by the cost of his victory, Dodo launched a ten-day massacre that decimated Yangzhou, no exaggeration to estimate at least half a million lives.
The art, yes. And prosperity again, indeed. No fools, those horse-defiling Tartars left the city to swell in luxurious corpulence on all that the grand canals fed it. Under strict supervision, of course. By mid 17th century, Dutch envoy Johan Nieuhof felt compelled to report of Yangzhou, “This Trade alone has so very much enrich’d the Inhabitants of this Town, that they have re-built their City since the last destruction by the Tartars, erecting it in as great splendor as it was at first.”
Thus came Shi Tao, the greatest of Qing individualist artists. Easy to take individualism in art for granted in an age when few care. The artist’s role was codified during the Qing, and Shi Tao rebelled with the spirit rather than the sword. A gander at the Pollock-worthy 10,000 Ugly Inkblots reveals a hand that would comfortably hold a curacao while talking shop with Warhol at Studio 51.
In the Three Kingdoms you had bands of renegade warriors. Yangzhou’s early Qing gave us the Eight Eccentrics. Almost all from troubled families with meager resources, they had little to hold them to Chinese art’s conventions. Interesting though, that their work, while revolutionary in principle, never rivaled the moon-age daydreams of Shi Tao.
Innovation, this time, plunged Yangzhou into a slump from which it is only now truly starting to rise again. Damned foreigners, and their damned railroads, and their Holy Jesus. One killed off the canals, the other profaned their tradition. While Yangzhou’s fortunes sped away on a distant track, the rise of the foreigner curdled in Chinese guts. From James Hudson Taylor’s perspective, he was doing world-class work in the land of the heathen: 125 schools, 18,000 conversions, sermons delivered not just in Mandarin but the regional Chaozhou and Wu dialects. One can imagine his consternation, or perhaps feeling that this had been long in coming, when thousands swarmed the gates of his British China Inland Mission. No one was killed, but imperial occupation must suffer no insult. Another Brit, Sir Medhurst, sent in the Royal Marines, almost provoking war but in the end winning an apology and restitution for injured missionaries from the Viceroy.
Whitey’s antics were only the first in a series of strokes that kept Yangzhou paralyzed– Taiping Rebellion, Warlords, Liberation – unable to stir and rise again to new health and wealth. It’s going to, though, because in the end, the old city’s story arc crests and plunges with the predictability of a soap opera. And like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of Yangzhou’s lives.