Sto­ries Be­hind a Red Brick

Life­is­fullofamaz­ing­peo­ple­and­some­ofthe­sep­a­s­sion­ate­peo­ple­with­theirex­traor­di­nary sto­rieshave­crossed­my­pathsinWuhan.

Special Focus - - Contents - Luc Pauwels

It all started with a red brick that I found on a guided ur­ban walk around the Bao­tong Tem­ple area in Wuchang. “Red bricks and bricks in gen­eral are slowly dis­ap­pear­ing from the city scene,” I told a group of eigh­teen peo­ple point­ing to some of the re­main­ing red­brick houses.

We turned our backs on Hong­shan Hill with the Bao­tong Tem­ple el­e­gantly draped on its slopes, and walked past the red- brick houses. The street once housed one of the largest and most im­por­tant fac­to­ries in Wuhan, the Wuhan Boiler Fac­tory, which had pro­duced in­dus­trial boil­ers since the 1950s. In 2006 the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment de­cided to re­lo­cate all large fac­to­ries like the Boiler Fac­tory to the out­skirts of the city.

Dur­ing my walk, I stuffed my back­pack with all the star­marked red bricks I could find, some bro­ken and oth­ers in­tact. They were ex­tremely heavy, which in­di­cated they were of high qual­ity.

I de­cided to call my friend Mr. Zhang, an ex­pert in ur­ban civ­i­liza­tion and di­rec­tor of a mu­seum in Wuhan that spe­cial­izes in stones and bricks. I was told that the starred red bricks had ac­tu­ally been pro­duced in Wuhan since the end of the 19th cen­tury us­ing ma­chines and tech­nol­ogy im­ported from Ger­many and other Western coun­tries. The bricks, Mr. Zhang told me, were pop­u­lar with for­eign firms, Chi­nese firms, and rich fam­i­lies, as well as gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and army di­vi­sions.

At home, I stud­ied the bricks more closely. They were non- por­ous, seem­ingly im­per­me­able and of a high den­sity— ex­actly what one would ex­pect of Ger­man or Western qual­ity items. The star marks on the bricks had par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated me with their per­fect shapes. I called Mr. Zhang again, this time ar­rang­ing for a meet­ing and a visit to his mu­seum.

The Jingchu Epi­graph & Rub­bing Mu­seum lo­cated on Xin­hua Road in Jiang­han District houses thou­sands of stones, bricks, and tiles. My visit to the mu­seum started in the Jingchu Epi­graph hall, one of its three ex­hi­bi­tion halls, with a small se­lec­tion of exquisitely dec­o­rated Pan­longcheng pot­tery items dat­ing back to the Erli­gang

cul­ture pe­riod, a 3,500- yearold Bronze Age ur­ban civ­i­liza­tion.

“The first bricks found and un­earthed in Wuhan date back 1,600 years and orig­i­nate from the South­ern and North­ern Dy­nas­ties ( 420- 589). It was a pe­riod of large- scale mi­gra­tions of Han- Chi­nese from the north to the lands south of the Yangtze River,” Mr. Zhang ex­plained.

The bricks re­fer to an emerg­ing civ­i­liza­tion in Wuhan and were used in tomb struc­tures, 1600 years ago. They have mainly been found by Mr. Zhang along the Yangtze River bank. The bricks are all del­i­cately dec­o­rated with sculpted sol­dier fig­ures that were be­lieved to pro­vide pro­tec­tion to the de­ceased in the af­ter­life.

Mr. Zhang and I first met at the end of 2016, im­me­di­ately shar­ing our pas­sion for Wuhan and Wuhan’s her­itage. Coin­ci­den­tally, both of us had also left former lives be­hind in ‘ north­ern’ Xi’an to es­tab­lish our­selves in ‘south­ern’ Wuhan af­ter mar­ry­ing a Wuhanese lo­cal; Mr. Zhang in 1993 and my­self in 2003.

“At first I liked Wuhan with its tall build­ings, many lakes,

and rivers,” Mr. Zhang told me. “Although I soon be­gan miss­ing the rich cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal life I had ex­pe­ri­enced in Xi’an. Ac­tu­ally, Wuhan is a city of im­mi­grants, traders, and busi­ness peo­ple with lit­tle affin­ity to the city.”

Grow­ing more and more cu­ri­ous, I asked Mr. Zhang what had made him start col­lect­ing stones, bricks, and tiles. “Back in Xi’an I col­lected old tiles as a hobby,” he re­sponded. “The area around Xi’an was lit­tered with an­cient ar­ti­facts, you know.” I nod­ded in re­sponse.

“In the late 90s I stum­bled on a large lot of old bricks and tiles dur­ing a trip to Zhe­jiang Prov­ince. Later it turned out that the bricks and tiles were from the Han and Jin Dy­nas­ties. It was over­whelm­ing, and my hobby soon got out of con­trol, to such an ex­tent that I had to stack most of the tiles and bricks un­der my bed and sofa.”

We joked for a while, me about col­lect­ing stamps and dust un­der my bed, Mr. Zhang about his Han Dy­nasty bed and Jin Dy­nasty sofa. “And then you started your mu­seum?” I asked.

“As an ac­claimed na­tional am­bas­sador of the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of stereo­scopic rub­bing I was of­ten in­vited by the Cul­ture Bureau of the Jiang­han Gov­ern­ment District in Wuhan. When they learned about my vast col­lec­tion of im­pe­rial and lo­cal ar­ti­facts, they spon­ta­neously of­fered me a space to ex­hibit a se­lec­tion of my per­sonal col­lec­tion and to open it to the pub­lic.”

In­side the mu­seum we moved on, en­ter­ing an­other room be­fore stop­ping at a show­case dis­play­ing sev­eral bricks. ”Oh! My red bricks!” I shouted out loud.

“Not yet,” Mr. Zhang re­turned in a teas­ing tone. “These are the first ma­chine- made bricks made in China, or more pre­cisely Wuhan, at the end of the 19th cen­tury.”

A stan­dard for Chi­nese ma­chine- made bricks was first in­tro­duced at the end of the 19th cen­tury by Zhang Zhi­dong in Wuhan. Zhang Zhi­dong was a Chi­nese of­fi­cial from the late Qing Gov­ern­ment who founded the Hubei Ar­se­nal ( or Hanyang Iron Fac­tory) in 1894. To build the fac­tory, the largest in­dus­tri­al­ized fac­tory of Asia at that time, heat- re­sis­tant bricks were needed. Zhang Zhi­dong found that Western coun­tries like Ger­many, the UK, and the US had the tech­nol­ogy and ma­chines to pro­duce heat-re­sis­tant bricks.

The Chi­nese char­ac­ters

for Gov­ern­ment Fac­tory ( 官

厂 ) im­printed on the bricks in­di­cate that they are the first batch of stan­dard­ized ma­chine-made bricks pro­duced in Wuhan and used in the con­struc­tion of the Hanyang Iron Fac­tory.

The Hanyang Iron Fac­tory then be­gan pro­duc­ing can­nons, fire arms, and car­tridges, play­ing an im­por­tant role in the his­tory of China. In 1911 the Hanyang Iron Fac­tory sup­plied and sup­ported the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the Wuchang Up­ris­ing or Xin­hai Rev­o­lu­tion. The Wuchang Up­ris­ing was the first suc­cess­ful armed re­bel­lion against the rul­ing Qing Dy­nasty, which led to its down­fall, and thus con­cluded more than two thou­sand years of im­pe­rial rule in China.

I turned to my friend and asked. “Is that where the name ‘Da Wuhan’ comes from?”

Mr. Zhang looked at me sus­pi­ciously. “Haven’t I ex­plained this to you be­fore?” Mr. Zhang then told me that in China, only Wuhan and Shang­hai are re­ferred to as “Da” ( lit­er­ally mean­ing ‘ big’ in Man­darin) and that from the 1930s on “Da” re­ferred to large geo­graph­i­cal ar­eas, ma­jor trade ports, and cities where Chi­nese and Western busi­nesses, cul­tures, hos­pi­tals, as­so­ci­a­tions and most in­ter­est­ing to me as an ed­u­ca­tor, schools, could co­ex­ist.

Through the merger of Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang in 1927, Wuhan was al­ready con­sid­ered big, im­por­tant, and “Da.” Hankou be­longed to the group of four ma­jor trade cen­ters in China along with Foshan ( Guang­dong Prov­ince), Jingdezhen ( Jiangxi Prov­ince), and Zhux­ian ( He­nan Prov­ince), and few peo­ple know that be­tween 1861 and the 1930s, Hankou was the world’s largest in­ter­na­tional tea mar­ket, dubbed “the world’s tea store­house, ” ship­ping out mil­lions of kilo­grams of tea an­nu­ally to the rest of the world.

“Very Da,” I joked, af­ter he had fin­ished his his­tory les­son. Sud­denly, I thought about the schools of that era, Western as well as Chi­nese, which Mr. Zhang had men­tioned in the past. “I re­ally would love to see and visit one of those old school build­ings,” I told Mr. Zhang. He smiled broadly and then said that he would take me to Tan­hualin area in Wuchang.

“From brick to brick,” I said in a melo­di­ous tone.

“From story to story,” my friend con­tin­ued. “And I’ll in­tro­duce you to the man who has fought most of his life to pro­tect Tan­hualin from be­ing de­mol­ished…” but that’s a story for an­other time.

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