My first visit to Nanjing was in 1989, and since then I’ve visited the city at least a dozen times. Yet over the past few months I’ve gotten to know the city better than ever. And I’m finding I’m liking it more and more with each visit.
This past weekend I accompanied my daughter Sarah to Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu Province and the former Southern Capital of China, where she took part in a debate competition along with a few hundred other students from the surrounding region. While Sarah and her partner Grace were busy debating with the other teams, I took advantage of my two- day stay to explore the city some more.
Like I said I have been to Nanjing many times in the past and have visited some of the most famous sites, such as Zhonghua Gate, Qixia Temple, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, and of course, the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. This time I managed to visit a few important places I hadn’t been to before, or else hadn’t been to in many many years, including the Linggu Temple 灵谷寺 and the Ming First Emperor’s Mausoleum 明孝陵. I also spent a morning at the Nanjing Museum, which I believe was my first time there. In addition I walked extensively around the center of the city and in the area of the Drum Tower, clocking over 18,000 steps or 15k in one day. My overall impression is that Nanjing offers up a very nice combination of traditional features and rich historical culture along with an increasingly cosmopolitan and globalizing environment, and the city seems to strike a nice balance between the two.
My previous visit to Nanjing was work-related—not to my core job at DKU, but my “second career” as a documentary TV host. This is a long story which I will save for another post; suffice it to say that I was hired by Jiangsu TV last year to host a series of shows about several foreigners who came to the aid of Chinese people during the horrifying event known as the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. During that short and intense filming stint, which took place mainly over the October holiday week, we filmed at many famous places. One of the first items on my agenda was to pick up the set of DVDs that the Jiangsu TV station had produced, which had been left for me at a hotel near the Drum Tower. On the way over, I stopped in for a brief visit at the Drum Tower Hospital, which was a big part of the story occupying one of the episodes.
Afterwards, I paid a brief visit to the Drum Tower, which has a nice exhibition of old Nanjing city photos inside the tower. I then strolled around that area, which is dominated by the tallest building in Nanjing, and then headed by didi (Chinese Uber) to Zhong Shan mountain on the city’s eastern edge, where the Linggu Temple is located along with the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and other famous sites.
For 100 RMB I bought an entrance ticket to the park that included several sites, and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around to each one. These included the impressive Wuliang Palace, which features an exhibition dedicated to the Revolution of 1912, and also the tall Linggu Pagoda 灵骨塔 built for the Soldiers killed during the Nationalist Revolution, which after climbing nine or ten floors offers a stunning view of the surrounding forest-covered mountainside. One of the other features of this park is the birdsong, which is everywhere and quite beautiful to hear.
Linggu Temple itself struck me as a bit underwhelming, if only because I’ve been to so many Chinese Buddhist temples recently, and it felt a bit stilted in comparison with Qixia temple 栖霞寺 to the northeast of Nanjing or the Tiantong Chan 天童禅寺 Temple in Ningbo. Perhaps this is because it’s located in a major tourist area. Still it was worth the visit, and the Buddhist icons are splendiferous.
After walking around that area of the mountain, I took a bus over to the Mausoleum of the First Ming Emperor. On the bus, a young man from Henan struck up a conversation with me in English, telling me he had little opportunity to practice his English in Zhengzhou. I was more than happy to oblige him.
Having taken many tours of the Ming Tombs in the hills north of Beijing, it was interesting to compare the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang’s mausoleum to those of his progeny. The ancestral worship hall was destroyed long ago and the one they built in its place is once again quite underwhelming compared to what the original must have been like—but at least you can see the foundations for the pillars and get a sense of how grand it once was. On the other hand, the tower in front of the tomb mound is very impressive in its grandeur. Inside the tower is an exhibition of the layouts of all the Ming tombs along with some information about each one. After visiting the Emperor’s tomb, I paused for a rest and some delicious guihua gao (pounded rice cake with cassowary), and then walked down the Sacred Path to the entrance gate. There I confounded the locals who were waiting to take us rubes back to the city with their hefty taxi fees, and ordered a didi. One taxi hawker kept circling me like a buzzard, taunting me in his limited English, and it was with great satisfaction that I waved him goodbye when my didi finally arrived. So instead of paying 80 or 100 RMB which is what they try to charge tourists, it only cost me 13 RMB to get back to the Drum Tower area in the didi.
The following morning, I took the number 2 subway from our hotel over to the neighborhood of the Nanjing Museum 南京博物院. I must admit it took some effort to find the entrance where I could buy a ticket, and then some more to find the booth where they sell tickets to foreigners. This is not because they don’t want to encourage foreign guests—although perhaps there is still some residual fear after all the plundering we did of Chinese treasures over the past two centuries. The fact is that it’s often more challenging for foreigners to buy tickets here in China because they have all these automated systems now for Chinese nationals to purchase tickets using their IDs, but they don’t work in the case of foreign passports. Anyhow, after visiting two or three halls and standing in some wrong lines, I finally found the spot where I could buy a ticket and found myself in the historical section of the museum, where I spent a hurried hour rushing through the exhibitions in order to get an overall sense of the historical narrative of the museum and what it’s greatest treasures were. Unfortunately many of the greatest treasures of this museum which opened in 1933 were hauled away by the KMT, so you have to go to Taipei to see them.
Still, there are plenty of exquisite treasures to see in this museum, and here are some of the highlights.
The museum basically tells the story of ancient China’s growth and development from the local perspective, highlighting the rich cultural heritage of the Jiangnan Region. Some of the highlights include scale models of the traditional cities of Yangzhou, Suzhou, and of course, Nanjing. Some of the great masters of painting, such as Dong Qichang and the Four Wangs of late Ming-early Qing period are also featured in this hall. And there were many items I’d never laid eyes on before, ornamental decorations, arches, and exquisite artworks made out of bricks depicting dragons and the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七贤 from the Six Dynasties 六朝 era.
After visiting the museum, I returned just in time to see my daughter compete in the final round of the debate competition, where she and her partner earned a respectable second place, though some in the audience would have pegged them for first place.
After the usual scramble through the Nanjing Station, we are now comfortably seated in the high-speed train bound for Shanghai—a two hour trip which back in the old days would have taken an entire day to complete, and even a few years ago would have been at least double that time.
I feel that every time I visit Nanjing I gain a deeper understanding of its important and unique place in the history of China and see more of its cultural and historical treasures. At the same time Nanjing is a pretty comfortable place to be, somewhere between the decadent grandeur of Beijing and the fast-moving international business environment of Shanghai. Like Beijing, its stately avenues are meant as much to inspire awe as move traffic, and the plane trees lining its streets are much taller and grander than those of Shanghai’s French Concession. Like Shanghai, Nanjing now has its share of shopping malls and I even noticed that the Blue Frog and Element Fresh restaurant chains of Shanghai have invaded that city as well. Still, even though Sarah and I enjoyed a meal in each, it was nice to join Grace’s parents for a good old Nanjing-style meal with some BBQ’d lamb and roast duck.
Unlike both of the other Chinese cities that I know and love so well, Nanjing also has a unique combination of rivers, lakes, and mountains that make it the hands-down winner in the natural beauty competition. Beijing has the mountains and the lakes, small and man-made though they may be, and Shanghai boasts the rivers, but neither has all three!
This is definitely a city I’d like to spend more time visiting in future, and given its close proximity to Shanghai and Kunshan, and its deep connections to China’s long history, it won’t be long before I’m back there for another round of temple touring, street walking, and museum going.