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Charming town with temples and dungeon
By Tan Weiyun

Ancient Cicheng Town outside Ningbo is more than a picturesque place to stroll down cobblestone lanes. It contains an old government complex and dungeon for waxwork figures of corrupt officials. Tan Weiyun explores.

When the bus hits the cobblestone street after leaving the main road, ancient Cicheng Town looms in the distance, shrouded by early morning mists. Then the sun's rays turn the gray roof tiles rosy red and light up another peaceful day in Cicheng.

This was my second visit to the town dating back more than 1,200 years and lying northwest of Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province. My first visit was 20 years ago when I was age 7 and my father took me to visit a friend.

Fortunately, not much has changed in the peaceful, walkable piece of the past.

I remember fragments of that early visit - white-washed walls and gray tile roofs, elaborately carved window frames, big vats to preserve sticky rice cakes, old wells, a sparkling river filled with carp. I remember a sun-bathed courtyard where cherry trees bloomed and long, narrow crisscrossing lanes that seemed endless and mysterious to a child.

Two decades later, as I strolled along the same cobblestone street, these fragments came together and the place greeted me like an old acquaintance.

The high brick walls, deep lanes and flagstone stones where moss and lichen squeezed through the cracks were exactly as I remember.

The Confucius Temple in the center of Cicheng was built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to honor the sage who shaped Chinese thinking. The imposing threshold (to keep out evil spirits) stands almost half a meter high and four stone drums are placed at the entrance, all signifying the stature of the philosopher.

On the interior walls, Confucianism was boiled down in pictures to easy-to-follow essentials and scenes of righteous behavior: A devoted wife drowns herself in a river on hearing of her husband's death; filial children care for an ailing father day and night and a good mother mends her son's shirt in dim candlelight.

Though much of it seems out-of-date, Confucius' precepts emphasized order during chaotic times and established a moral standard.

Two Confucius statues, depicting very different men, caught my attention. One is solemn, wearing a trimmed beard and a tidy robe and staring into the distance; the other is shabby, wearing a full, unkempt beard and looking like a brawny farmer.

Which is the real Confucius? When Chinese talk of the sage, the image that comes to mind is always that of a modest gentleman. However, from anecdotes and unofficial history I read, Confucious loved good wine, fine food, especially meat, and liked to gossip, comment and pass judgment on almost everything.

He often criticized and spoke harshly - he famously said, "Only women and small-minded people are hard to get along with."

Of course, he's practically a deity, but he was a real man and a grandfather. Somehow, I prefer the statue of the rough-looking Confucius, showing another, more human side.

This was one of the Confucius temples that survived the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) in which "old things, old ideas and old customs" were reviled and destroyed.

Back then, clever Cicheng locals painted the walls red for revolution and wrote many quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong on them. Thus, the Red Guards overlooked the temple and it was spared.

A 10-minute walk from the temple stands the ancient government complex at the end of Jiefang Road, the oldest and busiest street in the town.

Built in AD 738 and rebuilt over the years, it was in use by the government until 1954. Covering more than 40,000 square meters, it stands as a reminder of ancient government architecture and administration.

At the front gate is a giant drum. Anyone claiming he or she was unjustly treated could strike the drum and appeal to higher authorities. But the petitioner first had to roll over a board stuck with nails, as punishment for going above the head of local authorities and violating administrative hierarchy in pursuit of justice.

In the eastern part of the complex were tax and grain departments, while in the west were departments in charge of sacrificial offerings, civil affairs, military matters, law and public construction.

As the whole complex is mainly build of wood, there are many large stone vats containing water for firefighters.

As I went deeper to a rear courtyard, I was startled by a giant bronze mirror that gave me a fright. It's placed at the entrance of Qingfeng Garden, built to commemorate honest officials.

Along a corridor the official hats from various dynasties are displayed. At one end of a corridor a large door is shaped like an ancient rounded coin. The moment I entered, I was shocked by the scene before me.

Dimly lit and filled with scary music, this was the jail that held corrupt officials and others. Today it has been turned into a waxwork national rogues gallery of China's infamous officials. They include He Shen (1750-1799), who was even richer than the state treasury, and Yan Song (1480-1567), who manipulated the emperor for more than 20 years. They are in handcuffs and chains, lying or sitting in the damp, cold cell, staring at visitors.

I missed the dungeon back when I was 7 years old. Two decades later when I returned to Cicheng, it became more than the picturesque small town that I remembered from a carefree childhood visit. It was a place that gave me a lot to think about.

How to get there: Take train or plane to Ningbo, and transfer to Buese No. 331 or 335 to Cicheng. It's 14 kilometers away from downtown Ningbo.

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