Poetry and foreign trade amid classical architecture
The crested letters, “VR”, adorn the wall of the former British consulate in Zhenjiang. They represent Victoria Reign, of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. As a great place to start a visit to Zhenjiang, they are just a hint to much more history to come, from Chinese dynasties dating back to when William the Conqueror sat on the English throne.
Because Xijindu Street in Zhenjiang has been in continuous use for 1,000 years. Previously called Suanshan Dock, Marco Polo is said to have landed here from Yangzhou. The ferry remained a major crossing of the Yangtze River until the 1980s and its final closure in 2003.
As a Class 4A National Tourist Attractions, Xijin Ferry Historical and Cultural Blocks are located in the northwest part of Zhenjiang City, where the Yangtze River and the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal intersect. As such, the Xijin Ferry has quickly become a very important transportation hub.
Yes, it is a tourist spot today, but it is one where the cultural relics and heritage of Zhenjiang are preserved intact to the greatest extent possible.
But something should be pointed out before buying a train ticket to Zhenjiang. Don’t come here hoping to find a ferry, like in a big ship to ferry you across the river.
In this case, “ferry” refers to the entire area around the south crossing point of the Yangtze River in Zhenjiang.
And being there for a millennium means it has grown and shrunk, been built and elevated 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 about the common usage of the word “marina.” You won’t find expensive yachts in the Big Marina, Small Marina or Yushan Marina. Because it was ancient times, and so it was actually the Zhenjiang docks.
The confusion is further compounded by another old nickname; the Jinling Ferry. And we have the Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Hu, to thank.
The poetry of the Tang dynasty is considered by many to be among the greatest in all of Chinese history. Zhang used the “seven and four” style of the time in his poem, “On Jinling Ferry”, in which four lines are made up of seven words each. In this case, Jinling does not refer to any of Nanjing’s old names, but rather refers to the Runzhou district of Zhenjiang, i.e. the part of the city around the Xijin ferry.
I lived in the pavilion in Jinling
Homesickness tortured me all evening
The sun falls as the moon rises
Now the lights of Guazhou can be seen
Typical of Tang dynasty poetry, the nostalgia expressed by Zhang reflects his sadness at spending a night at the Jinling ferry around 820 CE, thus also illustrating the longevity of the ferry and its import even at that time.
To bring our story more up to date, visitors to this part of Zhenjiang will also be struck by the colonial influence of foreign powers. Since Zhenjiang was the only point of convergence of the north-south and east-west waterways, it was essential for exerting influence.
In 1903, Zhenjiang was second only to Shanghai in the number of foreign trade ships, with no less than 11 country steamships serving the needs of international trade.
Among the first are the oil giants. Texaco, Mobil, and Asiatic Petroleum all opened branches in Xijin Ferry around the turn of the century. As a subsidiary of Shell, Asiatic Petroleum’s office is now the Zhenjiang Folk Art Museum, on Changjiang Road near the Ferry parking lot.
Further afield, a visit to Zhenjiang would not be complete without two other important and historical stops.
From 1928 to 1949, Nanjing being the capital of the Republic of China, Zhenjiang became the capital of Jiangsu Province. The former British Consulate, which is now a main building of the Zhenjiang Museum Complex, is an outstanding example of British colonial architecture. Today, it is also listed as a major protected site for its national historical and cultural value. Admission is free all year round.
Finally, there is the former residence of the famous American author Pearl S. Buck. Based on his experience with local Zhenjiang residents growing up, Buck’s “The Good Earth” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932. The title was the best-selling novel in the United States in 1931 and 1932 and became one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.
While Buck spoke Chinese with a heavy Zhenjiang accent, US President Richard Nixon hailed her as “a human bridge between the civilizations of East and West”. His mother, Carie, and his four siblings are buried in Zhenjiang in the city’s Protestant cemetery; three of them left their resting place in Shanghai at the request of Carie in her will.