The city leader was concerned that all the businesses in his town were shuttered. People were afraid to go out. He asked the central government for tax relief, and then embarked on a major project to get people shopping again.
Sound familiar? The concerns are the same type that officials today are dealing with in the face of COVID-19, but the city leader I am referring to is Xin Qiji 辛弃疾, one the Song Dynasty’s military prefects in Chuzhou 滁州, a city across the Yangtze River from Nanjing in China’s heartland. And the danger Xin Qiji faced in the 12th Century was not a pandemic, it was the Jin cavalry poised for yet another invasion from the north. Xin Qiji’s signature solution was also not something mayors or governors in the U.S. are currently considering: he built a soaring pavilion, the tallest structure in Chuzhou, located in today’s Anhui Province.
“Literary types love towers, this has been true since ancient times,” wrote Qian Niansun 钱念孙 in a recent travel book about Anhui. “Most climb or build them either to visit scenic spots or wax poetic, but Xin Qiji established Pillow Pavilion 奠枕楼 in Chuzhou for quite another reason…Pillow Pavilion was actually an 800-year-old ‘Call to Commerce Tower.’”
The pavilion was designed with flashy style and set in a prominent place above a shopping district.
It was part of Xin Qiji’s three-part strategy in 1171-72 to stabilize Chuzhou, which he considered the last stronghold before the river, the teeth to Nanjing’s mouth – because if Nanjing were to fall, then the capital of Hangzhou would be next.
If everyone was fleeing Chuzhou, and the businesses and hotels were all closed, so that the traveling merchants were not feeling safe keeping Chuzhou on their routes, then Xin Qiji knew he could not rebuild the city. So Xin Qiji asked the court for funding to help with tax relief, defense, and a big fancy tower. Xin Qiji was a military statesman, but he was also considered a first-rate lyricist, so of course he wrote a poem about his Call to Commerce Tower, which begins like this:
Travel weary and dusty, guests meet on the road
and exclaim over the tower emerging like an illusion.
They point to the soaring eaves
that ride the clouds like waves.
And then, Xin Qiji hoped, they checked into the local inn and went shopping.
Xin Qiji solicited essays about his new tower from officials he knew in other towns, his way of getting good p.r. on his new welcome beacon — and branding Chuzhou as a destination vacation.
I came across this story while researching my second novel in a historical fiction series about the founding of China’s Ming Dynasty in 1368.
In the 1350s, the first city that the future Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 claimed as a base was Chuzhou, which he captured for the Red Turbans in the summer of 1354. For Zhu Yuanzhang, Chuzhou was a place where he could establish himself as a new kind of leader in the rebellions sweeping across the Yangtze River Valley. It was the city where his name first started to resonate, which meant that the nieces and nephews and in-laws Zhu thought he had lost forever started to turn up at the Chuzhou gate, seeking his protection. This resulted in one of my favorite passages in the autobiographical essay Zhu later wrote, “To be able to gather together was like being born again. We grabbed at each other’s clothes and remembered old times for as long as we could.”
Today’s Chuzhou is a provincial city on the outskirts of the thriving Yangtze River Delta region, but for much of its history, Chuzhou was a border town, and so flared in importance whenever battles raged. It’s known as “the tail of Chu and the head of Wu 楚尾无头,” because it sits on the edge of both of those ancient kingdoms. The Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus – their armies all came down from the north to rip through Chuzhou in successive invasions of China. Xin Qiji’s poem continues:
This year peace extends across the land,
Enemy troops have been pushed back from the river,
Though their cavalry may threaten again come autumn.
I lean from the tower railing, and notice the fine breeze from the southeast,
Moving northwest across the Divine Land.
That was the history that drew me into the city, but I was surprised at the tower story. The original Pillow Pavilion is long gone and people aren’t even sure where exactly it stood, but in 2017 the city of Chuzhou “rebuilt” it, no doubt in a location that would serve as a current call to commerce.
It is a kind of bittersweet consolation to know that people in distant eras suffered through the kinds of problems we consider modern and novel. Will the businesses ever reopen? Will the current catastrophe ever come to an end? Maybe recreating an 800-year-old Call to Commerce Tower is a sign that we will prevail; or maybe that we will never learn from our mistakes.
Here is how Xin Qiji ended his poem on Pillow Pavilion:
For now I focus on the happy mood,
Turning my attention to a game of matching verse, enhanced by wine.
My dream for aiding my country,
Is that in all years the people here can, as in the past, roam free.
Here’s the text for the entire poem: