Probably for the best, there are two sides to my time in Yancheng Park. Once I was done reflecting on little random things inside the ancient side of the park I traveled back the end of it fitted with modern rollercoasters. I had a few hours left and thought I ought to spend them with my colleagues and students. I appreciated coming out of the quiet contemplation of the old park and falling into the bustle of an amusement park full of kids on a field trip. In a lot of ways that’s how China functions – all slices of humanity formed up into a dish with a taste of everything. Crowded and loud yields to quiet and silent, distrust and scamming turns to friendships and handshakes. The double-sided day caught the way things blend here, and since I am a pretentious sucker for thematically encapsulating things I liked it all a lot.
Since the park consisted of three circles I exited by taking the semicircular routes I had missed when coming in and got to see everything pretty cleanly after only a few hours. In the second ring there was not much to see on the return, but it was a quiet and pleasant walk. Crossing the bridge back to the outermost and largest circle, I saw a bunch of photographers working with two people – a couple, models, actors, I am not sure – who were dressed up to the nines. The man had an old western style suit with long coat tails and the woman was dressed a bit like a southern belle. Naturally I shamelessly took my own photos and caught the fellow resting in the grass after he and a cameraman grappled for five minutes with the tall rubber boots that clung to his feet.
After that I looped through the other side. Without much attractions or distractions the trail back was another slow and ponderous trot alongside the riverbank. The sun had really come up, the smog had cleared out and in the distance I could spy the tall buildings sprouting up all around the park. In a short while I came upon the wooden riverside platform that I had seen an old man walking along earlier. It was clear why he had chosen that path. Not a noise distracted from the wide and sprawling blue sky now populated with perfectly puffy white clouds. The Sun’s beams shot clarity into the river’s water and in its reflection the sky came down to meet the earth for a fine afternoon. The reflection allured the treetops into the river and sat them right beside the blue sky and all its pretty white clouds until everything blended underneath the subtle veneer of sunlight.
The bridge that I had crossed to get here crested in around the bend and before I knew it I was back in the park plaza. All along the way I had met various students from other schools and my own (though not the grade I teach) that said hi just to practice some English. As I walked into the amusement park entrance I found a group of my students who greeted me with a cheer of “Austin!” Hearing it is always a bit gratifying even if it doesn’t necessarily mean much. I recognized the majority but only knew the name of one. I try to hold names down, but I have never been good at remembering them and I have around 400 total students who sometimes tell me their English name and other times use their Chinese one so remembering is quite a task. They tell me they are from class 5 and are happy to have me travelling with them for a while. They ask me some questions and try to speak Chinese with me, but I struggle with a lot of it.
Our walk is ending and as I am parting the kids start giving me gifts. One hands me a bird made of hardened clay and says, “niao!” He says it a few times until I’ve repeated it right – not a bad Chinese lesson! The character for bird is always one I’ve liked: 鸟. Look close and it really resembles a cute little bird. Gift giving overall is very common in China and students love to give to their teachers. I have a little section of my coffee table dedicated to the small tchotchkies I’ve been given. The gesture’s great, but I often try to deny them because I know the kids could really get more from a little Thor doll, a toy car, or legos than I could. It doesn’t work most time – they are insistent!
After class 5 and I say our goodbyes I cross a bridge and catch all sorts of strangeness I couldn’t really photograph well. Mostly, they were water attractions like paddleboats dipped in neon and striped in the brightest shades of primary colors. I was tempted by a big translucent plastic hamster ball that you could get inside and awkwardly roll across the lake but I didn’t want to bother with the line.
Just a few steps later I found a few students from my class 9 in a dimly lit emperor’s palace playing dress up with a bunch of fancy old costumes. One of my favorite students had a wooden sword and was eager to show it off. Another had a multi-segmented plastic blade that extended with the click of a button. Others were posing for pictures in their fancy garments. Plenty had some questions or words for me, which I did my best to respond too. It felt a bit awkward trying to rumble with my second language as well as a role of teacher I was not sure how to play. The two things both felt as foreign to me as my setting, but there was a way it all felt kind of like settling in. I know so many of these kids and some of the chaperones too and I guess they know me too.
Crossing a bridge led me into the area where some of the biggest rides are, as well as some kind of fake mountain that has the faces of five ancient Chinese men carved into them. Apparently an entrance in the side of that odd Chinese Mount Rushmore leads into a haunted house. Just outside of it there’s a little hill with a flat landing that cuts its slope right in the middle. A bunch of students from my school were resting on it, so for a while I followed suit and sat down. But it’s tricky to rest around any of the kids. They’re curiosity takes hold and they question me about all sorts of things, most of which I only half understand and have to work to hard to answer properly. In the plaza nearby a few people sit in these open faced cylinders that play music and roll around. At first they stuck out to me, but by now I have seen them in every plaza by every mall.
After I climb down the hill and wander toward the cafeteria the teachers were meeting at I run into a few fifth graders who attend a little English club I hold at the school. They are a bit of a breath of fresh air, them being able to speak a lot more of my own language. Then my class 2 – the students who I had boarded the bus with – come back into vision. I am happy to see them because we are actually trying to find the same person, another English teacher named Aillen, or Shi Lingling. Before we really get to searching the students have plenty of strange candies and toys to show me. Two students have bought a few masks and re-enact the Sichuan Opera in front of me. Just like in the Southwestern styled drama, two kids put on multiple masks and one by one dance around in stilted and jaunty steps. Once one of them comes to a sharp halt, they turn an about face and stare at me as they fling off one mask in the deftest motion they can manage and reveal the other underneath it. The first kid really impressed us all with a solid mimic, and the second made us laugh with the bubbly energy that tripped him up some.
Leading a troupe of 9-10 year olds into the cafeteria goes better than I expected in that I don’t lose anyone, but we are quickly shooed out because the place is closing up shop. Aillen shows up just a second later and talks with the kids in Chinese for a while. Aillen is the head teacher for my grade and one of the staff on campus that makes sure I am adjusting alright. After meeting up with her we head to the new teacher hang out. Once we get there no one really converses much, most of us just checking our phones or relaxing in some way. Aillen and another teacher quickly become engrossed in a historical TV drama playing on a tablet. The two of them sit at the edge of their seats with a headphone each. It is a bit of a humanizing thing to see the head teacher cheer for her favorite characters. For about an hour I lean back and browse my messaging apps on my phone while snacking on some food I got as gifts from students.
The only part of the park I have not seen yet is the entrance, so with an hour of time left to explore I head back to the front to see what I missed. First there are a few gift shops full of children’s toys and sweet stands – the most popular stand twisted orange syrup into wild patterns which then hardened into a kind of lollipop. The very start of park is a winding path through the history of philosophical and metaphysical thought during the Spring and Autumn period. The Spring and Autumn period is a hotbed of activity in Chinese history that led first to the Qin dynasty and then to the Han dynasty a bit later. For over two centuries feudal states in what is now China warred to establish their power over each other, sparking a number of great thinkers across all kingdoms to consider how to bring peace back to the country. Most all of the big names in traditional Chinese thought came from this period, including Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, and plenty more.
Every big and serious thinker and the camp of students that surrounded them earn their own statues and plaques in this park. Every statue aims to capture the thematic impression of each philosophical camp, so that the display far exceeds a bunch of boring depictions of robed old men. The philosopher sits at the center and all around him forms up a sort of garden of other things to complement him. Sometimes the surroundings don’t seem to fit, though. The “strategist school” philosophers are surrounded by caves and overhanging green when I would have assumed a more militant theme. Other themes fit quite well. The Legalist scholar that focused heavily on strict enforcement of the law stands in front of a giant, extended scroll of old characters – presumably a kind of decree. Another metaphysical school focused on Yin, Yang, and the traditional conception of Heaven has a plaza emblazoned with a giant Yin-Yang symbol and all of the hexagrams from an old mystical book called the I-Ching used to divine the will of Heaven. Unfortunately my favorite school – Daoism – was sectioned off for construction.
Yet if any of those statues and their surroundings sounded impressive and fitting, they paled in comparison to Confucius’s depiction. Standing as tall as the fake cliff he’s fused into, Confucius towers over the park with his hands crossed like an x. Beneath him a legion of scholars sit on a giant scroll, reading smaller scrolls in their hands. Each scholar has a different expression and engages with whatever they are reading in a different manner. Some are ecstatic, others look bored, plenty seem interested but among them some seem challenged and others relieved. It is not a far cry from my experience as a student or a teacher.
This kind of grandeur in an amusement park focused on a seminal moment in China’s ancient past should be expected. What I did not expect was how deep the park would run with the theme, as it took on old stories and transformed them into 3D displays. An emperor’s hunting party came to life in a green garden with tall statues of generals on horseback aiming at stone deer. In another spot I found a troupe of musicians sitting and playing a woodwind instrument for a high lord. In their center one musician looked really into his performance as the player next to him gave him a hard side-eye. At first it seemed incidental, but the sculptures were telling a story of a man that snuck into the court of a high lord and pretended to be able to play instruments to get by. The side eye and the emphatic fake performance all made sense.
All of the children there loved the statues too. They liked to skip across the scrolls in front of Confucius and admire his height. Some of the kids fancied the generals in the hunting party and climbed up on the horses to get a closer look or just take a rest. A teenager used a gossiping court official’s scroll as a coaster for his coke bottle. My own students found the giant depiction of China’s old feudal political borders before I did. It was filled with tiny, light rocks that the kids used to throw at each other and giant totems and a wide tree they clung to for higher ground.
For the last fifteen minutes I spent my time with them answering questions and taking some group pictures. Before I knew it the day was over and we all filed back on the bus to head to school again. Confucius saw us off as we headed home. From start to finish the energy was boundless. Swords were still held high, voices were still raised, and adventures were still being sought even as the park faded even from the rear view mirror. Aillen and I each fell far back into our cushy charter bus seats. Surrounded by the consistent chatter of little words and movements, we both let out a wide and long yawn at near exactly the same time. We had to laugh at that. The older things get the sleepier they seem, but it’s lively all the same.
~Austin R Ryan