Changsu – a Surprising Repository of Suzhou’s History

by Steve Koss

Quickly now, name the four cities east and north of Suzhou City that make up the rest of Suzhou Prefecture. Mmmm… Kunshan…Taicang,…er…, uhh…???

Did you think of Zhangjiagang? And what about Changshu? Perhaps these last two are so easily overlooked because they are outside the Suzhou-to-Shanghai travel line. Regardless, Changshu is not only a city with a history worth remembering, it is equally a city worth visiting. Only about 30 miles from Suzhou City, Changshu has been the birthplace or home to a remarkable number of famous figures in the prefectural area’s history, including such notables as:

  • Yanzi (言子 , 506 – 443 BCE), also known as Yan Yan, one of Confucius’ original ten great disciples and the only one from the southern reaches of the Chinese empire.
  • Zhongyong (仲雍), widely regarded along with his brother Taibo as progenitors of the early Wu State some 500 years before King Helu and the founding of Suzhou City. Although not an area native, Zhongyong’s tomb has long been celebrated on Yushan.
  • Huang Gongwang (黄公望, 1269 – 1354), one of the Four Great Masters of Yuan Dynasty painting, was born into the Lu family in Changshu and adopted at an early age. His most renowned painting, a 22.5-foot scroll entitled Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, took four years to complete; he was 81 years old when he finished it!
  • Qu Rukui (瞿汝䕫, 1549 – 1611), an early convert to Christianity, was a close friend and associate of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, known in Chinese as Li Madou.
  • Wu Li (吴历, 1632 – 1718), a highly accomplished poet and painter and another early convert to Christianity by the Jesuit missionaries. In 1688, he entered into the Catholic priesthood and worked in Jiangnan as a missionary until his death in 1718.
  • Qian Qianyi (钱谦益, 1582 – 1664), a consummate poet and literary critic of his time. During the transition from the Ming to Qing dynasties, he chose to serve both dynasties but later came to regret his decision.
  • Liu Rushi (柳如是, 1618 – 1664), Qian Qianyi’s free-wheeling and fiercely independent consort and an accomplished poetess and calligrapher who became Qian’s intellectual partner in his work. Her unconventional interests in military strategy, adoption of male styles in painting and calligraphy, and frequent donning of men’s garments made her a likely model for Qiu Jin in the early 1900s.
  • Wang Hui (汪翚, 1632 – 1717), one of the Four Wang masters of Qing painting and best remembered as chief artist of the monumental, twelve scroll work, The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour.
  • Weng Tonghe (翁同龢, 1830 – 1904), tutor to two emperors in the last years of the Qing Dynasty, fighter for much-needed constitutional reform and modernization, and generally credited with popularizing the distinctive, mud-encased culinary dish known as “beggar’s chicken”.

A visit to Changshu’s impressively extensive Yushan (Yu Mountain), located along the center city’s northwestern border, can put you in touch with burial sites and memorials for at least six of the individuals listed above – all except Qu Rukui, Wu Li, and Wang Hui. For the history enthusiast, however, the best prizes are the sites dedicated to Weng Tonghe.

Weng Tonghe’s statue greets visitors to the museum in his honor.

Born in Changshu and son of a Grand Secretary, Weng Tonghe began his official career by being chosen zhuangyuan (top scholar) in the imperial exams of 1856. Successively promoted over the next dozen years, he was given charge over tutoring first the seven-year-old and eventual Tongzhi Emperor (r. 1861 – 1875, son of Empress Dowager Cixi), and then the imperial heir-apparent, the four-year old who became the Guangxu Emperor (r. 1875 – 1908).  Along the way, Weng held important government posts, especially a ten-year reign over the Board of Revenue. Initially opposed to reform, he revised his views after China’s 1895 defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and became a strong promoter of reform to the Guangxu Emperor. His counsel helped prompt Guangxu’s initiation of the short-lived Hundred Days’ Reform, but swift factional opposition within the court cost Weng his position, titles, and rank. He ended his days in Changshu, banished from Beijing and kept under close observation.

Layout of the Weng Tonghe Residence/Museum.

Start in downtown Changshu with the Weng family residence, now known as the Weng Tonghe Museum, at No. 2, Wengjia Lane (20RMB admission price). Inside, you will discover a remarkable residential complex some seven layers deep, each layer marked by a classical Chinese residence hall. Of particular interest is the third level building, Caiyi (Colorful Clothes) Hall, in which the painted woodwork and carvings across the ceiling have been preserved from the Ming Dynasty era. The Museum not only documents Weng Tonghe’s life and illustrates his love for his two wives (the first died at a too-young age), it also traces his family genealogy from his father down to the present day—including one of Weng’s descendants still alive at age 100 and living today in New Hampshire in the United States! Also to be seen are samples of Weng’s calligraphy, including his inscription on “dragon scroll” paper that was reserved only for zhuangyuan winners.

Painted ancient woodwork on the ceiling of Caiyi Hall, Weng Tonghe Museum.

Weng’s zhuangyuan script on dragon paper scroll.

Weng Tonghe’s inscribed stone memorials to his two wives. He is said never to have lost his deep love for his first wife, who died at a young age.

Next, head out to Yushan along Yushan South Road. You will see a sign indicating a walkway to Weng Tonghe’s tomb, but first turn onto a small driveway almost directly across the street. A short walk will take you to another residence from Weng’s life, the one to which he retired for peace and quiet after his strained years of official life at the imperial court. At this solitary hideaway, you can almost feel Weng’s world-weariness and understand his decision to seek solitude for his remaining years. These buildings contain photographs, an oil painting of Weng, and a remarkably life-like, seated figure of him as an elderly retired man. Outside in a quiet rural setting, a small pond and garden include a sculpture of him beside a flying-eave pavilion, leaning for support on a cane.

Weng Tonghe statue at his retirement residence at the foot of Yushan.

Finally, cross back over the road and follow the paved walk to Weng’s tombsite where you will encounter three separate tombs: one on the right for his elder brothers, one in the center for his family members, and finally one on the left for himself and his two wives.  Cruise along the base of Yushan and you can find the tombs of Yanzi and Zhonglong, Huang Gongwang, Qian Qianyi and his partner in work and love, Liu Rushi.

Weng Tonghe’s tomb, buried together with both of his wives.

First memorial arch at entrance walkway to tombs of Yanzi and Zhongyong.

Memorial hall and statue dedicated to Huang Gongwang.

Tombs of Qian family, with Qian Qianyi at center.

Tomb of Liu Rushi, nearby to Qian Qianyi’s tomb. His family resolutely refused to allow the consort Liu to be buried alongside or amid their family tombs.

While there are many things to see in the Suzhou City area, a trip through the canal-crossed and lake-filled countryside north to Changshu and Yushan is well worth the time. And while you’re there, make sure to add to your taste of the city’s history with a lunch of Changshu’s own special version of wild mushroom noodle soup, xun you mian, at the base of Yushan below Xingfu Temple!

Steve Koss is the author of “Beautiful Su: A Social and Cultural History of Suzhou”.

Changshu

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