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Hagiography Today

Started: 2016-02-21 18:48:48

Submitted: 2016-02-21 21:48:55

Visibility: World-readable

16 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator comes face-to-face with fawning hagiographies all over Shanghai

On my third day in Shanghai, I already had a comprehensive plan for the day -- the things I'd set out to see on the previous day when I ended up with a friend-of-a-friend as a guide with his own (interesting and worthwhile) ideas of what I ought to see. I set out to see a bunch of little monuments and museums, starting in the French Concession, most of which had some connection to various figures in modern Chinese history.

For my first stop, I visited the nearby Post Museum, which happened to be right on the way to the nearest metro stop. The museum occupied a floor of an existing post office, in the main post office building dating from the early twentieth century. The museum went through the history of post offices in Shanghai, including a lengthy (and derisive) look at the postal services operated by various foreign powers in Shanghai, and the private postal services that filled the gap between the foreign postal services and the mostly-ineffectual services operated by the mostly-ineffectual Qing Dynasty. The museum also covered the modern era, including an original automatic postal sorting machine. The atrium inside the building, which had originally been an open courtyard and had been roofed over after the building was built, had a few historic vehicles.

Atrium inside the Post Museum
Atrium inside the Post Museum

I took the metro to Xintiandi and walked through the blocks of identical brick Shikumen houses, bisected by a warren of narrow alleys, most of which had been repurposed as an upscale outdoor shopping district.

Narrow alley in Xintiandi
Narrow alley in Xintiandi
Shops and restaurants in Xintiandi
Shops and restaurants in Xintiandi

I found the Site of the 1st National Congress of the CCP, which appeared to be closed for renovation, and walked around the block until I found the Shikumen Open House Museum, which showed a typical family's house in the two-story brick buildings. I took a picture of the kitchen, featuring a wood-burning stove with a couple of built-in pots, for Kiesa.

Kitchen in the Shikumen Open House Museum
Kitchen in the Shikumen Open House Museum
Bedroom in the Shikumen Open House Museum
Bedroom in the Shikumen Open House Museum

I left Xintiandi and walked to Sun Yatsen's Former Residence, a museum built around the house where he lived in Shanghai in 1918, during the Republican period, in the relatively stable period after the Nationalists consolidated power after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, but before the Communist/Nationalist civil war boiled over. (Dr. Sun died in 1925, before the civil war kicked off, so he's regarded as a founding father of both the People's Republic of China (on the mainland) and the Republic of China (otherwise known as Taiwan). An interesting counter-factual parlor game is contemplating what Dr. Sun would have done had he lived long enough to witness the Chinese civil war: would he have intervened in favor of his protégé Chiang Kai-shek, and would the Communists have disavowed him as a result?)

Sun Yatsen's Former Residence
Sun Yatsen's Former Residence

Compared to the next museum I saw, Dr. Sun actually lived here for a significant period of time, and the museum collected some of the original furniture from his house, restoring the house to a condition similar to the one that existed while he lived there (based on the memory of his younger wife, who survived him by decades, long enough to witness and participate in (and, likely, benefit from) her late husband's elevation to founding father in Communist China (which most printed material referred to simply as "New China")). But at some points the cracks seemed to be showing through the hagiography, as the museum glossed over the differences between Sun's philosophies and Communism, and his close relationship with Chiang.

Statue of Sun Yat-Sen
Statue of Sun Yat-Sen

My next stop was Zhou Enlai's Former Residence, not all that far down the street in the French Concession. Zhou only lived here briefly, also during the Republican period, and the house was used as the offices for the local Communist Party organization. (It was, according to the museum, under constant surveillance by the Nationalist government, usually from the house across the street.) This house had more of a "Zhou Enlai Slept Here" feel to it; Zhou is a towering figure and his influence on twentieth Chinese history -- and China to this day -- cannot be overstated, but his connection to Shanghai, and this particular building, was tenuous at best.

Zhou Enlai's Former Residence
Zhou Enlai's Former Residence
Jaeger with a statue of Zhou Enlai
Jaeger with a statue of Zhou Enlai

I went back to Xintiandi for a small lunch at Costa Coffee, then rode the metro to Xujiahui to see St. Ignatius Cathedral. I expected to see a fantastic brick neo-Gothic cathedral in the middle of Shanghai, but instead I saw a brick building entirely surrounded and overwhelmed by massive scaffolding. The cathedral was closed for renovation, so I could only guess at what wonders might exist within the shroud of scaffolding.

St. Ignatius Cathedral covered in scaffolding
St. Ignatius Cathedral covered in scaffolding

I returned to the metro to head to Song Qingling Memorial Park, where Song Qingling (wife of Sun Yatsen) was buried next to her parents in the international cemetery, which was then renamed in her honor. I visited the imposing memorial hall dedicated to her, which featured artifacts and explanatory text forming a fawning hagiography, from her childhood to her marriage to Sun Yatsen to her veneration by the Communist party, who upheld her as a link to the ideals of Dr. Sun. Like most museums I'd seen in Shanghai, it was bilingual in both Chinese and English, giving me the chance to actually read the text and figure out what they were trying to say. I contemplated the idea of a new academic journal, Hagiography Today, which would presumably be dedicated to documenting and dismantling hagiographies wherever they appeared in the world.

Song Qingling Memerial Hall
Song Qingling Memerial Hall
Song family Tomb
Song family Tomb

I finished looking around the gardens with time to spare before supper, which was a weird experience given how packed my itinerary had been. I took the metro back to Xintiandi and poked around the indoor shopping mall, without finding anything interesting, then headed out in search of Vegetarian Lifestyle, a vegetarian restaurant mentioned in one of my guidebooks. I found the street and the address without much trouble, but I did not see anything resembling a vegetarian restaurant at the address listed in my guidebook. I read the description several times before I caught the reference to a 'courtyard' off the road and looked for the nearest thing matching that description. I found the courtyard and found the restaurant opening onto the courtyard -- which was, more or less, roughly in line with the given street address.

Veg appetizer
Veg appetizer

I enjoyed my meal at the all-vegetarian restaurant, though it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to eat. After eating it took me some time to catch the eye of the busy serving staff and request my check -- as was the cultural norm in China. I eventually figured out how to ask for the check in Chinese -- maidan -- which proved useful for the rest of my time in China.

I took the metro back to my hotel and started planning my last full day in Shanghai before heading up to Beijing to continue my adventure.

For more photos from my day in Shanghai, see Photos on 2016-01-16.

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