“In response to Wu Lanchai when [he] passed by Changshan” by Zhou Gongxian 
Taihang  goes down eastwards, overlooking the boundless darkness;
The city wall of Zhengding stands tall, pressing Jingjing.
A thousand miles of landscape returns [to the eyes] in a glance;
A hundred years of beacon fire is silent in the outskirts.
A remote sail and the light of sunset on the water of Hutuo;
A lone horse and the autumn wind at the pavilion of cooked wheat. 
[I] would like to visit the locals and quest for the past -
Where the banner of the wineshop hangs is [just] the verdant willow.  It might be tempting to interpret “Changshan” as Mt. Chang (AKA Mt. Heng, in Shanxi), but it’s impossible to arrive in Zhengding after passing by Mt. Chang. Changshan here refers to the ancient Changshan county, of which Zhengding was the capital for quite some years in history.  Red characters rhyme.  Taihang refers to the mountain range running down the eastern edge of the Loess Plateau in Shanxi, Henan and Hebei provinces.  Jingjing is in the east of present-day Shijiazhuang. The Jingjing Pass was one of the few ways to pass through the Taihang mountains. In the poet’s days, the first city after passing the Jingjing Pass from the west of the mountains was Zhengding.
 My earlier blog on Su Shi's "Bean Congee" also alludes to the same incident: https://www.rachelleslab.com/post/bean-congee-by-su-shi (esp. note 4).
When I tried to find a nice ancient town to visit for my first trip to Hebei, I read some complaints about the locals in Zhengding having little commitment to tourism. With so many concerns about over-exploitation of tourist destinations in recent years, not much interest in developing tourism sounds very much like a merit. Zhengding used to be one of three major cities in the north, the other two being Beijing and Baoding. Because of its historical and geographical significance, Zhengding offers an impressive collection of ancient architecture. Besides, it’s located near the city of Shijiazhuang, the first stop of my journey, so it was the perfect option for me.
It might not be a good idea to read Zhou Gongxian’s 周恭先 (fl. 18th century) poem translated above against a real map, for there’s quite a distance between Zhengding and the place Liu Xiu was said to receive cooked wheat. But if we take it as a specimen of Zhengding in the mind of an educated man, the poem nicely encapsulates a selection of images and events that a history lover may typically associate with Zhengding.
Zhou Gongxian’s poem ends with his curiosity unresolved. I’m not sure whether he found no locals to field his enquiries or he decided not to ask them in the end, but I believe many will agree that the complex feelings arising from a visit to a time-honoured place can easily go beyond the power of words.
Yet here I am, trying to blog about my experience of visiting Zhengding. Thankfully I can rely on the aid of photos. When I crossed the Hutuo River by bus, I found myself in a rather surprising place. The photos I saw on the internet were mostly taken in those famous tourist attractions, not of the town itself, so I think I can make a small contribution to that aspect.
The first thing I did was to go up to the city wall. Like many other ancient city walls in China, the current city wall of Zhengding was first constructed during the Ming. Above all I was impressed by the widths of the roads across the town and the huge public space. Surveyed from the top of the city wall, the town looked new, wide, and modern - so much so that the ancient pagodas that had stood there for hundreds of years looked completely out of place. Probably because I visited the town after the long National Day holidays, there was not much traffic, making those main roads look even wider than they already are. However, from the infrastructure one can easily see that the town is designed to take more traffic and visitors.
Interestingly, the alleys I walked through still showed some characteristics of a town and its struggles between modernity and tradition. For instance, many attempts to look traditional have started to peel off.
The tradition of generosity of northern people was fully illustrated by the portion of my lunch. A basket of 18 shaomai-dumplings with beef stuffing, and a big bowl of millet congee.
I spent the whole afternoon in the Longxing Monastery. Although I’ve spent five years studying eleventh-century Chinese literati, this was the first time I had visited an eleventh-century building. The Mani Hall was singularly splendid. Photos are not allowed in the hall, and it makes sense not to take them. First of all, the central part of the hall is only lit by natural light that gets in through the very small windows. Even with such dim light, the colours of the murals near the four doors have faded a lot. Besides, photos can’t really express the vertical spaciousness one can feel when standing in the hall.
But what really astonished me was the wall sculpture of Guanyin. One can easily find photos of it online, but again, seeing it in front of my eyes was a totally different experience. In the photos I had seen, it looked like many things crammed into a small, two-dimensional surface, and I wasn’t particularly impressed. I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing it and didn’t even know I should expect to see it in the Mani Hall.
So, I turned around the corner in the hall without knowing what was waiting for me. The next moment I suddenly saw rocks, waves, dragons, Buddhist figures, one after another, surging forward from the wall! There Guanyin sat leisurely and elegantly in the centre of everything, looking at me with his lively, black eyes, and a smile. Unlike in the photos, there was nothing too crammed or disorderly. It is simply a masterpiece. I couldn’t help but go back to see the sculpture twice before finally leaving the Longxing Monastery. I’m afraid no photo does it justice, so none will be provided here…
Now this seems to have become a travelogue, or perhaps a demonstration of how wrong things can go if one visits a place after reading a poem about it. Anyway, I had an overall very nice experience in Zhengding, and would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested to visit ancient Chinese architecture with Buddhist art or to see an ancient town in its transitional period.
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