Chengdu’s Song Xian Qiao Antique and art market creeps up on the visitor.
The main gate is chipped and peeling, the entrance gives a subdued, yawning welcome and judging from the dusty shops facing out towards the main street, Song Xian Qiao has not much to offer a souvenir-seeking tourist.
Once through the gate, however, Chengdu’s antique bazaar unfolds to reveal a society of starving artists and hucksters, antique buffs and collectors, scam artists and thieves and the occasional wandering nomad carving Tang poems onto Myanmar jadeite.
Expansive Collection of Art
The market stretches out over 20,000 square meters and accommodates anywhere from 500 to 800 separate vendors. Established vendors are housed in a three-story building between the confluence of the Modi and Huan Hua creeks. Lined up along the creeks and beneath the shop awnings, hawkers from around southwest China lay carpets down and set up shop. Many of these carpet-shops have slowly morphed into aluminum and wood stalls, creating narrow alleyways for even more carpet vendors until Sundays at the market boast nigh on 1000 individual entities – including original shops, stalls, carpets and guys with duffel bags – all vying for the attention of tourists, bargain seekers and curio collectors.
Businessmen selling mass produced souvenirs for the tourists, carpet-vendors and unknown artists and craftsmen share the courtyard spanning from the back of the main building to the creek. Artists of some repute and bona fide antique dealers take up the first and some of the second floor of the main building. Artists with a Name reside on the second and third floors.
Several Sichuanese artists have their workshops here and spend a good deal of time traveling from here to Beijing, Shanghai and Paris attending exhibitions and conferences. Original works by some of these artists sell for $3,000 and over.
The west side of Chengdu has been a center for art and culture for more than 1500 years. Wu Hou Temple holds the tomb of Marquis Zhu Ge Liang, the legendary prime minister of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period (221 AD – 263 AD) and just down the street is the poet Du Fu’s residence during the 8th century, now also a shrine to the 240 poems written during his stay here along the banks of the Huan Hua creek. Many of Du Fu’s poems at the time dealt with the turmoil of the Anshi Rebellion and the decline of the Tang Dynasty, which had driven him to this retreat, and the peace and tranquility he found here at Song Xian Qiao.
Location & History
The current site of the antique market between the two bridges, Song Xian Qiao and Yu Xian Qiao has been a source of inspiration and mystery since the Song and Tang Dynasties.
A story is told of two slumbering gods appearing during the Lantern Festival, some 1500 years ago, one on the bridge and the other below. The drool from the one above was witnessed dripping steadily into the mouth of the one below, where upon a startled academic noted that two mouths form the character “lu,” which also happens to be the surname of one of the Eight Celestials, Lu Dong Bing.
At the time, travelers and locals had gathered at the banks of the Huan Hua Creek to watch the light of the lanterns mingle with blossoms.
When the slumbering men suddenly disappeared, the crowd remarked excitedly, “They were actually Lu Dong Bing coming to watch the lights and blossoms!”
Since that time almost 1,500 years ago, the bridges have been dubbed Yu Xian (“Meet a God”) and Song Xian (“Watch Him Go”).
These days one tends to meet the likes of Deng Ping, 78, local Song Xian Qiao expert and self-proclaimed arbiter of all deals involving foreigners. He tends to appear and disappear whenever a deal needs brokering and has been a fixture for as long as anyone can remember.
“Who knows where the old man came from,” remarks Shen Ping, a local artist selling acrylic paintings of old Chengdu, as he puffs a cigarette. “I wish he were a god, then maybe he could help sell a few more of these paintings.”
Song Xian Qiao is a great place to bargain shop for friends and family and to pick up odds and ends for an eclectic home. One of the best times to go are during Saturdays and Sundays, when the house is packed.