Thursday, May 6, 2010

Changting in the heart of Hakka country

From Yongding (永定), the center of Hakka roundhouses in Fujian, it was a short hop and skip to Changting (长汀)—at least it was now with new super highways that bridged chasms and bore through mountains.

I had a sentimental reason to visit Changting; I was born there. My parents were teaching at Xiamen University and the university had moved inward in anticipation of the Japanese invasion. Indeed, Xiamen port was taken by the Japanese imperial troops early in the War but they were spread too thin to bother moving westward toward the remote region around Changting.

Changting now a city of around 6-700,000 was already an important city in the Tang dynasty known as Tingzhoufu (汀洲府). The city’s tag line was that Rewi Ally said that Changting ranked as one of two most beautiful ancient cities in China along with Fenghuang (凤凰) in Hunan. Now that I have been to both places, I’d say it’s a bit of exaggeration. Fenghuang had much more to offer as a tourist destination.

Just one comparison should suffice to illustrate my point. Both cities have a pretty river flowing through the center of the city. In Fenghuang, the visitor can skip across the river over carefully placed concrete blocks pretending to be stones and hire boatmen to pole them on bamboo rafts down the river while being serenade in ethnic Miao folk songs. Changting offered a scenic riverside park for strollers but no raft rides. We did see a fisherman sitting comfortably in the middle of the river casting towards deeper pools. Ms Chen, our guide, explained since a huge flood that occurred in late 1990’s, Ting Jiang (汀江) has been reduced to not much more than a creek. The flood must have swept the resident dragon king out to sea, she speculated.

I went to Changting partly to see Fujian’s version of a Fenghuang but more because I wanted to see if there was anything left of Xiamen University campus, where I spent the first six years of my life.

Our guide took us to the largest elementary school in Changting just as the school was letting students home for lunch. This No. 1 elementary school with over 2500 students was built over the grounds of the former university. The only building remained of Xiada (夏大) was the “Daxiongdian” (大雄殿) built in the traditional style of a Chinese temple. On prominent display by the front door was a sign commemorating the former site of the university from 1937 to 1946.

Practically next door to the school was a Confucius temple, Wen Miao (文庙). My mother had told me that we lived in a Confucius temple. Our guide was quite adamant that it was not possible for anyone to live in the side chambers of the main courtyard leading to the main temple. Then my wife, May, spotted a wing of rooms in a dilapidated building in the back of the temple. A couple of rooms were still in use with beds. Others were for storing stuff and gathering mold and dust. Overall, the wing of rooms was just a slight upgrade from a manger. May and I agreed that we’ve found my likely place of birth. The feeling was personally gratifying.

Changting may not be quite ready for big time tourism—the best hotel in town did not even have a tourist map to give to the visitor, but did have an unusual local specialty called ba gan, i.e., eight dried edibles such as dried bamboo shoots, vegetable, bean curd, pork etc. The one that caught my attention was dried field mice. The advertisement showed red roasted color but easily recognizable dried whole rodent, tail and all. I was disappointed that the actual vacuum blister package contained only diced pieces. Still for about $1.35 per package, I got myself a bargain for a conversation piece.

From Changting’s museum, we learned that the old Tingzhoufu was the center of Hakka country. The displays talked about the culture and customs of the Hakka people and their five major waves of migration beginning from the great turmoil of Western Jin dynasty around the fourth century AD when they fled south from what is now the Henan region to Fujian. From Fujian, subsequent waves took the Hakkas to other parts of China and then to Southeast Asia.

Before the Nationalists and the Communists agreed to unite and fight the invading Japanese and before the Long March, Changting was an important commercial base for the CCP. In fact it was known as Red Shanghai, claiming that anything that was available in those days in Shanghai, it could be purchased in Changting. Jinggangshan (井冈山) where the main forces were stationed was just a short distance away on the other side of the Fujian-Jiangxi border.

If you are already going to visit the roundhouses of Yongding, then I would recommend a stop in Changting. The museum has excellent displays, albeit in Chinese only, that provide a thorough introduction of the Hakka people, culture and values. At the martyr monument for Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白) and the museum next to the statue of General Yang Chengwu (杨成武), one can find a lot of material describing the early days of CCP and its struggle against the KMT. Qu was an intellectual giant in the CCP’s early movement who was too sick with TB to join the Long March. He stayed behind, was captured and Chiang Kai-shek personally ordered his execution. Yang was a local who rose to become a three star general.

Going back to Xiamen from Changting only took a little over 3 hours on limited access toll road all the way. We counted 40 tunnels and probably as many viaducts in the 280 km span of the highway, from the mountainous western edge of Fujian to the seaport. Some of the tunnels were over 3 miles long. Some had serpentine curvature. Knowing that construction of the tunnels began from both ends, we marveled at the engineering skills involved and concluded that one by-product of its heavy infrastructure investment is that no one knows how to build bridges and bore tunnels better than China.

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Changting still has some alley sized streets that date back to Song dynasty

On this Song dynasty street, haircut still costs US 75 cents

Around the corner of the elementary school, a patient hawker was waiting for the children to look and buy his plastics toys.

The school gave the kids a 2.5 hour noon time break to give them time to go home for lunch.

A scenic view of Tingjiang River with part of the city wall visible on the right.

The riverside park just inside the city wall.

Changting also has a chenghuangmiao, a city god temple. In many cities in China, this temple is regarded as old superstition and has been torn down.

On one wing of the city god temple were arrays of small figurines that looked like depiction of historical or mythical figures revered in old China.

On the two sides of the main temple were ten murals depicting each of the ten magistrates in Hell that will review the sins committed by the new arrival and his orderlies then carried out the punishment to fit the crime.


Art Chen said...


Happy to hear that you too were born in a manger.


Dori said...

How cool to revisit the place of your birth and find it so charming. I'd be suspicious of those dried field mice, though!!!

Anonymous said...

I'll definately be using your China blogs as travel guides when my husband and I go next year!

Unknown said...

I was just in Changting the weekend of February 12 traveling from Shanghai to Xiamen by plane and then by bus to Changting. Changting is the hometown of a good friend I met at Jimei University in Xiamen who came to Shanghai for a year to help me with my business. She's back home now having shagged a government job there. I think it's a great town, you're right about the excellence of the museum; the people are as friendly as any in China. Stayed at the same hotel -- I never did check out that big entertainment center complex next door. Serendipitously, I just wrote about it on my own blog.