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Jining magnet for China's great Tang poet
2012-12-13
By Yao Minji

The canal area in downtown Jining is the most developed place in the capital city of Shandong Province where high-end department stores and hotels rise along the water. A nearby outdoor market is filled with small shops and vendors selling garments, accessories, snacks and daily necessities.

The Eastern Mosque, a few steps from the canal's river bank and minutes from the market, stands out with its red layered wooden roofs.

It was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with donations from dozens of local Muslim traders. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), most parts were rebuilt, except for the four gates.

The first gate is a wooden fence and behind it is a stone stele with carvings of lions, flowers, sheep and unicorn. More delicate carvings of all kinds of dragons and sculptures can also be found on the sophisticated three-layer rooftop of the main structure. This type of layered rooftop, fusing Islamic and Chinese elements, is found only in mosques in China.

"The mosques demonstrate how the canal heavily influenced Jining, which attracted traders, including Muslims, from all over China," says Li Guangfang, deputy director and canal expert from Jining Bureau of Cultural Heritage.

The mosque is on a street of restaurants, many of which sell halal food. Seventy-two-year-old Hong Meng is a regular customer at a few halal eateries on the street and occasionally he goes fishing from a large platform that extends from the river bank out into the center of the canal.

Muslim merchants

"I know my early ancestors came to China in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) with Mongolian troops. They moved to Jining to avoid the Yellow River floods and relocated here, because this is a high spot, so it is safer," Hong says.

Hong is derived from his original Arabic family name. The family traded various projects, including leather goods, which were popular among Muslim merchants. Hong says his ancestors traded in Beijing and Tianjin to the north and Yangzhou and Shanghai to the south.

His ancestors made Jining their base, while other Muslim traders settled elsewhere along the canal.

Historians are not certain of the dates, but the earliest official visits of Muslims can be traced back to the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-689).

Since then, Arab and Persian merchants traded along the Silk Road, as well as the Grand Canal of China and its branches for centuries. Their descendants live in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities and Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces.

"People call Jining a city whose residents all came from the canal, because the ancestors of many people here hailed from somewhere else via the canal and relocated," says Zhu Hunming, who is shopping for a bamboo-made case in a back street near the mosque.

"Many of them are Muslims, who traded along the river. So you can see such mosques and Muslims areas in many canal cities, and it is especially apparent in Jining," he adds.

The street is known as Zhu Gan Xiang, literally meaning a bamboo lane, and is filled with shops and vendors selling all kinds of bamboo-made products from small baskets to tall bookshelves.

Bamboo is a typical southern Chinese plant, but early traders brought bamboo products with them along the canal. There were many bamboo vendors' lanes in northern Chinese cities where people made and sold bamboo products.

In ancient times, when the downtown canal was still in use, the bamboo lane was just one of many specialized streets near the canal. Vendors either bought from canal traders or sold them a range of items, including supplies, utensils, clothing, fruits and vegetables.

Like many Muslims in the city, Zhu's ancestors were jewelry traders in Zhejiang Province, moving to Jining in the late Ming Dynasty. They expanded into leather-goods trade and later were involved in China's early banking system, Zhu says. He still has distant relatives in Hangzhou and Shanghai because in the early 20th century, trade expanded southward again along the canal.

Like many canals cities, Jining was once filled with people from all over the country, including Li Bai (AD 701-762), one of the greatest Chinese poets, also known as the "Poetry Immortal," famous for extolling the pleasures of wine, good food and good company.

Li, also known as Li Taibai, was born in today's Kyrgyz Republic and moved to Sichuan Province with his family at the age of five. The romantic and adventurous poet and swordsman traveled widely in his lifetime, but he spent the most time in the city of Jining - 23 years. He moved to the city when he was in his productive mid-30s and left dozens of poems about the area, so many that people often mistakenly consider him native of Shandong Province.

Mountain life

At Li's time, the government had just initiated the national examination system to select government officials among talented people of all social stratum.

It was still popular and considered better to be recommended for high rank by an official or a nobleman in the imperial court. For that to happen, a man needed a nationwide reputation of excellence or bravery or both. It also helped to look like a humble recluse who didn't care about fame or wealth.

To that end, it is said, Li and his friends adopted a rustic life in the mountains near Jining, legendary for its excellent rice wines. The group were known as the "Idlers of the Bamboo Brook," an informal group dedicated to literature and wine.

There Li created many famous poems. The retreat "worked," career-wise, and Li went to court where he was favored by the emperor and wrote many poems, though he never achieved high rank. He later left court and returned to Jining.

Li also wrote poems at a restaurant in Jining, which became famous because of him. Around 200 years after his death, when he was acknowledged as one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, the restaurant was rebuilt and named after him, Tai Bai Jiu Lou.

Today the restaurant has been again rebuilt and contains a museum dedicated to Li Bai. Visitors can climb to the top of the two-story building, a 20-minute walk from the canal downtown, to see the canal though the view is much changed.

In his journeys around China, poet Li often traveled on the canal system and in one of his most famous poem he describes bidding farewell to a poet friend who was departing for Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, "in the mist and flowers in March."

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