A scholar who digs up Shanghai's 'roots'
Yin Jun, now in his 60s, is a walking encyclopedia of suburban Shanghai’s Songjiang District. A nearly lifelong resident, he has written several books about the district’s history and culture.
His latest, which is about the origins of place names in Songjiang, will be on the shelves soon.
Yin, deputy director of the Seminar on Songjiang Historical and Cultural Studies, looks at the district as an endless cultural treasure trove.
His latest book, “The View of Huating,” takes readers to the very beginning of the history, exploring how towns and villages got their names and how those names reflected the people who lived there.
Huating is the ancient name of Songjiang and therein lies a tale. The area was originally named in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) after Lu Xun, the marquis of Huating during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280). The name was changed to Songjiang in 1278, after the Wusong River which flowed in the area. In 1912, it reverted back to Huating, but that was discarded three years later because it was the same name as a county in Gansu Province. So it became Songjiang once again.
“Songjiang is sometimes called the ‘root of Shanghai’ because it was the origin of the city, both administratively and culturally,” Yin says. “That’s why I believe it is interesting to trace how the culture evolved through place names.”
The Guangfulin archeology and relics site in the district, part of which opened to the public just recently, is another highlight of the book.
In 1999, excavation on the Guangfulin site began, about half a century after the first relics were found. Yin was responsible for coordinating the work of the archeologists and local government officials. Visiting the dig every day, he developed a sense of what he called “history without words.”
Yin explains in the book why the relics site, which dates back 4,000 years, is called the “root of Shanghai” and why the culture it revealed is so important to the city.
“Before the Guangfulin culture was discovered, there was a gap in historical knowledge of the Yangtze River Delta region,” he explains. “The discovery of the culture not only bridged that gap but also showed the very first cultural fusion in Chinese history.”
The relics unearthed in Guangfulin, including pottery, bone ware and stone farming tools, show characteristics of northern and southeastern China, such as today’s Henan and Fujian provinces.
“It means that even during very ancient times, Songjiang, as well as Shanghai, was a place where different cultures blended,” Yin says. “This is fascinating to me, and I want to share it with my readers.”
Yin’s personal journey through Songjiang was long and winding. His family moved to the district when he was in middle school. His father served in the navy, and the family moved around a lot when he was a child.
The family lived in a lane called Mojialong. It might have been just another temporary stepping stone in his life, but he never really left, at least in spirit.
“We children enjoyed many lane games in Mojialong, and that was my first impression of Songjiang,” he says. “I loved the culture of the area. After graduation, I went to a rural area of the district, like many young people did at that time. Then I joined the army. And when I retired, I was designated to work in the district again. That rounded out my presence in the district.”
In the 1980s, Yin worked in research on the history of the Communist Party of China in the district. That brought him in contact with a great amount of historical material. He didn’t resume his research of the area until 1990, when he transferred to the Songjiang District Bureau of Culture.
Yin remembers a visit to calligraphy and painting master Cheng Shifa (1920-2007), which opened his eyes to the richness of the place where he had grown up.
“Cheng lived in Mojialong when he was young,” Yin says. “He told me a story about Yao Wanchu (1892-1954), another writer living in Songjiang. When Yao was very sick in the hospital, Cheng went to see him, and Yao said ‘I was there when you were born in Mojialong, and now you are here to pay me a last visit. I think we can be friends in life and death.’ The story made me think that this is a place full of human connections, and I wanted to know more.”
Reading and research led Yin to write the book “Culture of Songjiang,” a collection of short stories about famous people of the district. In another book, “Jade of Xiaokunshan Town,” he focused on Lu Ji (AD 261-303) and Lu Yun (AD 262-303), the two most significant cultural figures in Songjiang’s history.
The Lu brothers were writers and artists who were popular throughout China. Lu Ji was the earliest calligrapher in Chinese history to leave a mark in contemporary times. His work “Pingfutie” is considered one of the most precious artistic treasures of the country.
“People might think there is nothing new to tell about the famous brothers, but I didn’t think so,” Yin says. “I tried to write their stories in the style of a documentary so that readers could meet them through accessible stories.”
Yin says he has never ceased to be amazed and humbled by the land of Songjiang and the culture it nurtured.
“The cultural masters in the history of the district are treasures to me,” he says. “I think we should respect what they bequeathed us, and that’s what I want to convey through my books.”