Melancholic tang poetry on shikumen walls

Somewhere in the labyrinth of shikumen lanes between Jinan Lu (济南路) and Hefei Lu (合肥路), the soundtrack of longtang living was underway: the clanging of spatulas against sizzling woks, screaming children sprinting down alleys, the clattering of mahjong tiles behind closed windows, loud conversations between elderly neighbors and blaring television sets echoing down darkened hallways.

Not to mention the incessant thuds of hard stone crashing through wood and concrete.

Residents were slowly bracing for the demise of one particular lane. Individual families – upon finalizing an agreed settlement – would move out, and contracted companies, often from Chongqing province, would lock up and later brick up the entrance to prevent squatters. Eventually, when approval papers trickled down from the relevant authorities, the workers would begin to tear apart the structures, knocking down walls and ripping up flooring to recycle wood, tiles and brick.

Standing outside a left-behind home, I watched a trio of middle-aged workers tidying up long planks of sturdy cherry-stained wood (“They don’t make these like they use to!” remarked a passing resident) and bundled them up to be transported for sale. By the entrance, a young boss bellowed into a mobile phone while angrily stabbing the air with his leather man-purse.

“Don’t you dare bullshit me! We agreed to deliver the goods tonight. What? What? How am I going to explain to my boss? Now you listen to me…”

Tense minutes ticked by as negotiations wound down to a reluctant compromise, after which the young man stormed off in a haze of cigarette smoke. I slipped through the doors into a noisy hive of sawing and heavy lifting. Debris covered every inch of the space. The interior was punctuated by a gaping hole in the wall, knocked through to facilitate the conveyance of the planks from the back of the house.

“Your boss sounds quite fierce.” I joked to a worker diligently sanding down the planks. His crinkly face broke into nervous laughter. I offered up some Double Happiness cigarettes I often carried with me to break the ice (I don’t smoke), which he politely refused.

Behind him, the pale green walls were covered in writing. On the right was a note by an anonymous Mr Li, “50 years old and an assistant professor seeking a suitable woman for marriage.” It was written carelessly, almost poorly but definitely lewd. “Enjoy drinking heartily. Ladies skilled in bed can call xxx-xxx-xxxx.”

Poetry on Shikumen Walls 02

As if emerging from his split personality, the writer subsequently graced the corresponding walls with two poems that I later discover were by prominent Tang poets, painted in practiced and smooth calligraphy strokes. He extracted two lines from a languorous poem in five-character sets, 山居秋暝 (“Living in the Mountain on an Autumn Night”) composed by Tang poet Wang Wei (王维) (699-759).





After the new rain in the secluded mountains,

It is getting cool, with an autumn message arriving at dusk.

The bright moon shines through the pines,

The clear stream flows over the rocks.

A stir in the bamboo groves — the washing women come home

as the swaying lotus leaves usher in fishing boats down the stream.

The spring splendor fading,

the mountains remain as an appealing abode to me.

(translated by Qu Xiaolong, 1953-)

The worker saw how mesmerized I was by the calligraphy, and said, quite pleased, “Very nice, isn’t it? I like this one about Chinese nature and scenery.”

Surprised (and feeling guilty for such bourgeois thoughts), I stared back, “You wrote these?”

He shook his head, “I notice them in a few houses we’ve worked in around here. In fact, they run all the way to the back rooms. I may not have studied much but the writing is very nice.”

Behind him was another poem in seven character sets, 枫桥夜泊 (“A Night-Mooring Near Maple Bridge”) referencing said bridge near Suzhou’s Hanshan (or Cold Mountain) Temple where a bell tolls, penned by the prominent Tang poet Zhang Ji (张继) (715-779). The words were faded from dust and wear, and upon my post-discovery research, the words haunted me.

月落乌啼霜满天, 江枫渔火对愁眠

姑苏城外寒山寺, 夜半钟声到客船

While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;

Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;

And I hear, from beyond Su-chou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,

Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.

(translated by Witter Bynner, 1881-1968)

The poem painted a dark and chilly night where a melancholic traveler’s boat pulls into the banks outside of Suzhou and is struck by the cry of crows, a glimmer of a fisherman’s light and stirred by the temple’s ringing bell. A desolate scene, a friend remarked later. Just like the darkened room we were standing in, strewn with stone, wood and memories of a family we never met.

I wondered if the worker I met understood the significance of the poignant words (I certainly didn’t then). One could say it was poetic, almost ironic, that the calligrapher’s only audience was the wreckers and movers in a house with an expiration date.

Just then, the young boss returned. Annoyed at my presence, he walked aggressively towards me and barked, “What you doing here?” I reeled back, repulsed by the sourness of his harsh cigarette breath.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the worker quickly bow down his head and resumed sanding wood. I exited quickly, leaving behind the clamor and calligraphy swirling in my head.

Poetry on Shikumen Walls 03



  • Reply July 25, 2013

    Adam Daniel Mezei

    SAT, I know I say this all too often, but YOU DO THIS SO WELL…the writing — languorously — moves from phrase to phrase, alternating timing, like chiming a bell, tapping a taut drum face, leading the reader through your graphs…it’s just…marvellous. I must have your books on the coffee table here so I can show my guests and visitors…proud to have these there…seriously…

    I know this is a totally off-hand, slightly Luddite question, but with all of the smashing, dismantling, deconstructing, obliteration going on — are there still quite a few (hundreds? thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of shikumen still undergoing these brutal architectural rapes? You continue to find them, because you write about them and the idiosyncratic characters to be found in their vicinity or contributing to their smashing, but it’s because you know of them in advance or are your happening across these more of a happenstance sort of occurrence? I’ve always wondered…how do you plan a walkabout?

    So Double Happiness is the key to the working man’s heart, eh? Do they taste good, at least, on the off chance you sampled one before?

    This is getting crossposted right this instant…

    ps I heard a great BBC FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENTS cast from 20.07.2013 in which one of them opines about what it’s like to the mother of a Singaporean-primary and high school attending daughter…this concept of chiesu (excuse me for the error) and the unwillingness to lose…now I see from where these aptitudes stem…

    • Reply July 31, 2013

      Sue Anne

      You’re always very generous with your compliments, Adam. I have to confess, the shikumens (stone hedge houses) can look the same after you’ve spent an hour roaming through them. There are hundreds of them still, but they are rapidly being demolished and like the themese I have explored in this blog, I still feel conflicted about them. Sometimes, the state of them are really awful so it’s inevitable that they be flattened and rebuilt into taller and more modern buildings. Othertimes, the shikumens are so beautiful, it’s heartbreaking to see them in pieces on the ground. All of this is random, I sometimes pick a place to visit based on what I read around on other photographers’ blogs (mainly Shanghainese guys) but others are just coincidence.

  • Reply July 27, 2013

    Rob Schackne

    I’d like to second the previous poster’s admiration for this moving piece. Thank you very much. Perhaps this sort of sadness, in contemplating the destruction of community and the ruthlessness of history, can only be expressed through poetry. There is no irony present as these old poems bear witness to this moment. Re Mr Mezel’s question, here are some more: In the passing of the last things of this life, is it possible to sense the noisy dust that accompanies destruction? Do you think there could be an Angel of Beauty who sits across the street and waits for the final brick to be taken away? Best wishes.

    • Reply July 31, 2013

      Sue Anne

      Rob, Thanks very much for your note and your lovely, lovely poem, my first on the blog! I’m glad it has inspired you. As I mentioned to Adam, one feels conflicted between the necessity of modernisation (every urban centre goes through this – London, New York, Shanghai is no difference but China just has this ability to do it on such a large scale, it feels overwhelming, almost evil). So sometimes, I try to preface my posts by saying we all romanticize destruction when we don’t have to live in their prior state. So that’s an important caveat. But the Tang poems on the walls were a treat, I really didn’t pay much attention to their content until much, much later.

  • Reply July 27, 2013

    Rob Schackne

    P.S. Please forgive this poor poem, I just wanted it to be here.

    The Wrecking Crew

    There’s no irony present
    these old poems bearing
    witness to the bulldozer
    watching a poem on a wall
    it was noisy to remember
    this dumb dust this mess
    & shall I believe my truth
    that forever there will be
    at least one Angel of Beauty
    who sits across the street
    drinking a double expresso
    who waits on the last brick
    it’s picked up & taken down
    and she sighs right back
    and she says God bless.

    © 2013 Rob Schackne

  • Reply August 5, 2013


    Dropped by your blog after a long while, and was happy to see you actively posting – in spite of the heat. Good translations of ancient poetry have always intrigued me (being language-challenged and such). Right on, girl!

    • Reply August 6, 2013

      Sue Anne

      Where ARE you? Call me when you’re back in Shanghai, or are you still in Mosocw? Yup, I picked up after a short hiatus. I’d like to go walking sometime, COME BACK to Shanghai!

  • Reply August 6, 2013


    I’m just back, after almost two months in the US and Moscow! I’m dying to go walking – but the outside temperature… I’ll be here, waiting for it to go down.

  • Reply August 7, 2013


    Simply brilliant piece, Sue Anne! Glad to know you are back!

    • Reply August 8, 2013

      Sue Anne

      Ishi! Are you back in town?

  • Reply August 8, 2013


    Yes, just got back this week. Let’s catch up soon. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.