Memories of Zhenjiang Linger

2020-04-23 17:16:00 Source:China Today Author:
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WHEN it comes to tourist destinations, some can be crossed from the wish list after one visit, while others will remain on it as they tantalize people to explore more of them. To me, Zhenjiang is one of those beautiful places. Many years later after my first visit, I returned to the city for a short and quiet holiday to overlook the buildings on the Xijindu ancient street, to reach a state of Zen through meditation inspired by the Jinshan Temple, and to taste the unique flavor of pot cover noodles. Everything is just as I remembered.

A Rich History

Zhenjiang is located in the south of Jiangsu Province and encircled by Yangzhou in the north, Nanjing in the west, and Changzhou in the south. To its east is Shanghai. With two high-speed railway stations, Zhenjiang is easily accessible from all over the country. Compared with other bustling cities in the Yangtze River Delta region, Zhenjiang is quite a quaint and quiet place. The Yangtze River and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal meet here, making it the birthplace of many ancient cultural traditions.

Zhenjiang boasts a long history and many beautiful tales. There are also many precious relics and legends about its enchanting past. Many of the big names in Chinese literature history during the Tang and Song periods (618-1279) including Li Bai, Meng Haoran, Wang Anshi, Su Shi, Mi Fu, and Lu You found inspiration from this place and left paeans featuring the city to later generations.

According to historical evidence, its history goes back more than 3,000 years to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). During the following Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), Zhenjiang was the central city of the Wu State. During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), Sun Quan, founder of the Wu kingdom, built a military fortress in Beigu Mountain in Zhenjiang and enhanced the military influence of the city. During the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, with the opening of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, Zhenjiang became a prosperous shipping and commercial center. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with the rise of railway transportation, the ferry function of Zhenjiang gradually declined, but the Xijindu Ancient Street was completely preserved. The second Opium War (1856-1860) opened the gate of Zhenjiang to the world and became a key event in its history.

In addition to having a long history, Zhenjiang is also a city full of talents. Three emperors of the Southern Dynasties (420-589) were born in Zhenjiang.

The city was also home to many great writers and literary critics, calligraphers, and novelists.

Notably, Pearl S. Buck, winner of the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China,” grew up in Zhenjiang. She lived in China for nearly 40 years, 18 of which she spent in Zhenjiang. She said Chinese was her “first language” and Zhenjiang her “hometown in China.” Pearl S. Buck’s former residence in Zhenjiang was a two-storey house located at No. 6 Runzhou Mountain Road, covering an area of about 400 square meters. 


Xijindu: An Ancient Ferry Terminal

Located at the foot of Yuntai Mountains in the west of Zhenjiang, Xijindu has developed into its current state after nearly 2,000 years of progress through a period that expanded five dynasties from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The stone pavement from Tang and Song dynasties, the stone pagoda from Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Daidu Pavilion from the Six Dynasties period (222-589), the inscriptions by famous people in previous dynasties are a testament to the vibrant history of the city. Walking on the old streets is like wandering through an outdoor museum. The hustle and bustle of past generations no longer exists, only the historical traces that can be seen everywhere record the tales for future generations.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, Xijindu was named “Suanshandu,” as the mountains where it is located were also known as Suanshan Mountains. It did not adopt its current name until the Song Dynasty. At the east end of Xijindu are 53 stone steps flanking a slope, which makes it easy to quickly drain water in rainy days and facilitate the passage of vehicles loading and uploading goods on boats. For thousands of years, the place saw countless wheelbarrows go back and forth, leaving deep ruts on the slope to tell the history.

Ascending the stone steps to the top, you will find the Zhaoguan Stone Pagoda. Built in the late Yuan Dynasty and early Ming Dynasty, it is among the oldest extant stone pagodas in China which stretch across the street. The pagoda measures 4.69 meters high and was made of bluestone. According to the Buddhist interpretation, the pagoda represents Buddha. So every time people pass the pagoda, they would worship it for blessings. On the north side of the stone pagoda is the former site of Zhenjiang lifesaving association, which was a rescue charity founded by local people for the purpose of saving drowning people in the river. Because of Zhenjiang’s special transport and military status, it is particularly important for it to strengthen security management. In the Song Dynasty, the rulers regarded it as a conduit for water transportation, and after that the governor of Zhenjiang Cai Guang initiated the lifesaving association at Xijindu.

The former site of the British consulate stands not far from the pagoda. It covers an area of more than 1.13 hectare, and now belongs to the Zhenjiang Museum. In 1858, China and Britain signed the Treaties of Tianjin, and Zhenjiang was turned into a treaty port. A few years later, the British began to build a consulate on the Yuntai Mountains, and the Xijindu ancient street area was made part of the British concession. In early 1888, some Chinese were beaten to death by British constables in Zhenjiang, and the infuriated locals burned down the consulate and police station. The following year, the Qing government ignominiously offered compensation and rebuilt the building as it appears today.

Three Mountains

The urban area of Zhenjiang is not large, and the scenic spots are concentrated into an arrangement that can be summarized as “three mountains and one ferry terminal.” The three mountains refer to the Jinshan Mountain, Jiaoshan Mountain, and Beigu Mountain, while the one ferry terminal is Xijindu. The three mountains each boast different scenery, attracting people of note including poets and writers since ancient times. Xin Qiji, a poet from Song Dynasty, expressed particular love for the grandeur of the Beigu Mountain. Zheng Banqiao, a famous painter and writer of the Qing Dynasty, was a devotee to the pristine environment of Jiaoshan Mountain. Zhang Hu, a famous poet of Tang Dynasty, was enamored by the transcendence of the Jinshan Mountain the most.   

Jinshan Mountain used to be an island in the Yangtze River. Later, due to the change of river course, it was connected to the south bank of the Yangtze River during the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty. It is about 44 meters high and 520 meters in circumference, and famous for the Jinshan Temple that is located there. The temple, also known as Jiangtian Zen Temple, was first built during the reign of Emperor Mingdi of the Eastern Jin Dynasty and has a history of more than 1,600 years. The temple was built along the side of the mountain, making it possible for the halls and pavilions to be well integrated into the geographical surroundings.

Jinshan is a place full of romantic legends. China’s Tea Saint Lu Yu of the Tang Dynasty assessed the spring water outside the Jinshan Temple in order to make good tea. In the Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, after the protagonist Xuanzang’s father was killed, his mother, in the hope of saving his life, put infant Xuanzang into a box floating down along a river. Fortunately, Monk Faming from the Jinshan Temple found the baby and saved him. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty also came to the Jinshan Temple several times, looking for his father. The great poet Su Shi failed to answer some questions posed by a senior monk from the Jinshan Temple and presented a royal jade belt to the monk as promised. In the Chinese folklore The Legend of the White Snake, the protagonist Bai Suzhen flooded the Jinshan Temple with her magic power to rescue her husband.


Today, a ferry ride is required to reach the Jiaoshan scenic spot, a scenic island in the Yangtze River. The mountain is about 70 meters high and has a circumference of 2,000 meters. Legend has it that in the late years of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the highly virtuous Jiao Guang, unwilling to go along with the corrupt court, rejected three imperial edicts, and chose to live in seclusion in the mountain. Later generations named the mountain in his honor. Jiaoshan has numerous cultural relics and historical sites, and its magnificent cliff carvings and stele carvings make it a veritable treasure trove of calligraphy. The Jiaoshan forest of stone tablets is the largest of its kind south of the Yangtze River, matching the famous Steles Forest in Xi’an.

The Beigu Mountain is located between the Jinshan Mountain and the Jiaoshan Mountain, with an elevation of more than 50 meters. Most of its attractions are related to the stories in the novel The Three Kingdoms. The Ganlu Temple is the most famous of the attractions. The Beigu Pavilion behind the temple is a perfect place to enjoy the scenery. On the top of the mountain, one can see the Jinshan Mountain in the west, the Jiaoshan Mountain in the east, and the roaring Yangtze River down the mountain.

Three Oddities of Zhenjiang

Famous cities are often renowned for their food, and Zhenjiang is no exception. Among the local specialties, there are also three famous oddities, namely vinegar, stewed pig’s trotters, and pot cover noodles. Each of the specialties has a beautiful story.

Five years ago when I was traveling in Zhenjiang on a budget, I almost ate pot cover noodles for all three meals every day. The strange thing is I did not get bored of eating it, instead, the taste lingers in my memory to this day. The pot cover noodles were originally called huo noodles. It is said that Emperor Qianlong went to eat at a huo noodle shop during an inspection tour, and the shop owner was so nervous that she threw a small pot cover into a big pot, and unexpectedly the noodles cooked in this manner turned out to be exceptionally delicious. The emperor was satisfied with the dish and specifically asked about the name of it. The shop owner did not dare tell the truth. Instead, she made up the name “pot cover noodle” for it.

Vinegar is a special delicacy unique to Zhenjiang, which is said to have been invented by Hei Ta, son of China’s liquor sage Du Kang. After Du Kang perfected his technique of making liquor, he and his whole family moved to Zhenjiang and opened a small brewery. One day his son Hei Ta added buckets of water into a tank of wine lees, and then began to drink rice wine until he was very drunk. In his dream, an old man told him that the contents of the tank would turn into nectar in 21 days. After waking up, Hei Ta tasted the liquid in the tank, and found that it was somewhat sweet and sour. He told this to his father, and they together used the method the old man taught, and named the new liquid vinegar. Later, people in Zhenjiang found that the vinegar did not deteriorate even after lengthy storage time. Instead, it became more and more tasty. Compared with the thick sour taste of Shanxi vinegar, Zhenjiang vinegar is characterized by a slightly sweet taste.

The meat of stewed pig’s trotters is crystal. It usually goes with Zhenjiang vinegar. It is said that long ago a husband and wife opened an eatery. One day, while the husband was salting pig trotters, he mistakenly put nitre instead of salt. He did not find out the mistake until after the pig trotters were boiled. The next day, the smell of pig trotters attracted a celestial being passing by. The shop owner said there was no food but only tea to serve. However, the celestial being insisted on eating the pig trotters. Fearing that his special guest might get sick, the shop owner gave him a small dish of ginger dipped in vinegar to go with the trotters. The old man dipped the pig trotters in the sauce and found it to be delicious. Thus, the dish was invented by accident.

The memories and taste of Zhenjiang not only linger on after one leaves the place, but also beckon one to return to savor it all again.  

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