Worshipping Buddha: Quiet Beauty
Tianning Temple of Changzhou City is located outside its East Gate. Before it dozes the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, and behind it sits the Hongmei (Red Plum) Park, the largest in the city. Throngs of worshippers converge on the temple daily.
Tianning Temple is a persistent figure in the cityscape. Built in the mid-7th century, it has been destroyed and rebuilt five times since then. The main buildings we see now were built in the late 19th century, a construction job spanning 40 years. Tianning Temple is famous for its scale, boasting large halls, a large Buddha, large bell, large drum and large ding. The Heavenly King Hall remains on the country's best-known list.
On the side of the Heavenly King Hall are four 7.8-meter-tall sculptures of its namesakes, also the tallest of their kind in the country. The Hall of Great Hero, the largest, was built in the Guangxu Reign (1874-1908) of the Qing Dynasty, and modeled after 10th-century architecture. The side walls of the hall are inlaid with 518 sculptures of arhats. Each sculpture stands a diminutive meter tall, but is wrapped in gold foil that reflects light to each unique facial expression. The Changzhou people have a custom of "touching arhat" during the Spring Festival at Tianning Temple. They choose an arhat at random as the starting point, and from there count to the number of their age. Their luck in the new year is predicted by the emotion the face of the final arhat seems to convey.
The pagoda at Tianning Temple was rebuilt in recent years in the style popular in the 10th century. It is 153.79 meters high, making it the tallest Buddhist pagoda in all China.
Hanshan Temple of Suzhou was built in the early sixth century, embodying 1,400 years of history. The grounds are shaded by stately trees, and pines and cypresses grow along winding paths to secluded spots. Besides those honoring Buddha, the most attractive are stone engravings in the handwriting of famous calligraphers. In the temple collection there is a portrait of Monk Hanshan and his friend Shide by famous Qing artist Luo Pin. In the composition Monk Hanshan points to the ground with his right hand, talking and laughing cheerfully, and Shide strains to listen to his friend. In the act of leaning close he exposes his neck and shoulders. Both are rendered in a moment of innocent pleasure.
On Chinese New Year Eves, Suzhou people gather in this temple to listen to the ritual 108 strikings of the bell. According to Buddhist doctrine, a person is alloted 108 worries a year, and striking the bell 108 times will remove all these worries.
Kunqu Opera: Hearing Beauty
The Jiangsu dialect (Wu dialect), especially the Suzhou subdialect, is soft and gentle.
The Wu dialect is one of seven forms of spoken Chinese. It has preserved large quantities of ancient speech. Unlike putonghua, it retains the sonant initials of a syllable, and it uses eight tones rather than the national tongue's four. Listening to Jiangsu natives speak is like listening to an acappella choir. There is a saying that even a quarrel between two Suzhou people is conducted with scholarly decorum. Of course, the Jiangsu dialect is also the most difficult to understand. Even Chinese people from other parts of the country cannot pick up on the Suzhou dialect easily.
Kunqu Opera is a fine way to showcase the beauty of the Jiangsu dialect. Kunqu is the most ancient and elegant theatrical performance in China, born in the 14th century in the Kunshan area; thus its name. In the 17th and 18th centuries Kunqu was the most popular entertainment among upper-class men of letters. Just imagine listening to Kunqu Opera in a private garden in the era of its social zenith!
The scholar-official was the typical opera enthusiast of the day. This is a case where the Kunqu art and the temperament and interest of its fans were wholly compatible. The scholar-official's pursuit of leisure and unconventional grace suited Kunqu's relaxed and unhurried pace, while the music's melancholy passages resonated with their grief and sorrow. In the 19th century, the rise of the urban petty bourgeois pushed Kunqu Opera into decline. At the time of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, there was no professional Kunqu troupe left. In 2001, Kunqu rose from its ashes, making the first batch on UNESCO's world intangible cultural heritage list. With no shortage of attention after that, traditional Kunqu productions, such as Palace of Eternal Youth, The Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan, have been staged inside and outside China with people all over the world following its development with great interest.
Meanwhile in Suzhou, people can choose to take in a Kunqu opera, much the way it was originally performed, in some outstanding gardens and teahouses.