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Poetry & Foreign Trade amid Classical Architecture

The crested letters, “VR”, adorn the former British Consulate’s wall in Zhenjiang. They stand for Victoria Reign, from Britain’s then Queen Victoria. As a great place from which to begin a visit to Zhenjiang, they are also just a hint at a lot more history to come, from Chinese dynasties dating back to when William the Conqueror sat on the English throne.

For Xijindu Street in Zhenjiang has been in continuous use for 1,000 years. Previously called the Suanshan Dock, Marco Polo is said to have landed here on his way from Yangzhou. The ferry remained an important Yangtze River crossing until well into the 1980s and its final closure in 2003.

As National 4A-class tourist attractions, the Xijin Ferry historical and cultural blocks are located in the northwestern part of Zhenjiang city where the Yangtze River and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal intersect. As such, the Xijin Ferry soon became a very important transportation hub.

Yes, it’s a tourist site today, but it’s one where Zhenjiang cultural relics and heritage are preserved intact to the largest possible extent.

But something should be pointed out before buying a train ticket to Zhenjiang. Don’t come here expecting to find a ferry, as in a large ship to transport you across the river.

For “ferry” in this instance refers to the entire area around the Yangtze River’s southern crossing point in Zhenjiang.

And being around for a millennium means it has grown and shrunk, been built and raised with the ebb and flow of political power and the comings and goings of dynasties and foreign influence.

Still with the terminology, English-speaking visitors to Xijin Ferry might also wonder at the common usage of the word “marina”. You won’t find any expensive yachts in Big Marina, Small Marina or the Yushan Marina. For these were the ancient times, and thus in reality these were the docks of Zhenjiang.

Further compounding the confusion is another former moniker; the Jinling Ferry. And we have Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Hu to thank for that.

Tang Dynasty poetry is considered by many to be among the greatest in all of Chinese history. Zhang made use of the era’s “seven and four” style in his poem, “On Jinling Ferry”, in which four lines are comprised by seven words each. In this instance, Jinling is not a reference to one of the former names for Nanjing, but instead refers to the Runzhou District of Zhenjiang, ie the part of city around the Xijin Ferry.

I lived in the pavilion in Jinling
Homesickness has tortured me the whole evening
Sun is falling while Moon is rising
Now lights in Guazhou can be seen

Typical for Tang Dynasty poetry, the nostalgia Zhang expresses reflects his sadness at staying a night at Jinling Ferry in around the year 820 CE, thus also illustrating the longevity of the ferry and its import, even then.

Bringing our story more up to date, visitors to this part of Zhenjiang will also be struck by the colonial influence of foreign powers. With Zhenjiang as the only point where the north-south and east-west waterways converge, it was key to exerting influence.

By 1903, Zhenjiang was second only to Shanghai in terms of the numbers of foreign trade ships, with no less than 11 countries’ steamships serving the needs of international commerce.

Among the first were the oil giants. Texaco, Mobil and Asiatic Petroleum all opened branch offices in Xijin Ferry around the turn of the century. As a subsidiary of Shell, the Asiatic Petroleum office is now the Zhenjiang Folk Art Museum, on Changjiang Road near the Ferry car park.

A little further afield, a visit to Zhenjiang would not be complete without two other important and historical stops.

From 1928 to 1949, with Nanjing serving as the capital of the Republic of China, Zhenjiang became the capital of Jiangsu Province. The former British Consulate, which is now a main building in the Zhenjiang Museum complex, is an outstanding example of British colonial architecture. Today it is also listed as a Major Site Protected for its Historical and Cultural Value at the National Level. Admission is free all year round.

Finally, there is the former residence of the celebrated American author, Pearl S. Buck. Based on her experience with local Zhenjiang people growing up, Buck’s “The Good Earth” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932. The title was the best-selling novel in the USA in both 1931 and 1932 and went on to be one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.

While Buck spoke Chinese with a thick Zhenjiang accent, then US President Richard Nixon praised her as “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and West”. Ella’s mother, Carie, and four siblings are buried in Zhenjiang in the city’s Protestant Cemetery; three of them moved from their resting place in Shanghai at the request of Carie in her will.

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