Greetings From the Future, in the South Capital, Dear Readers!
Apologies for the tardiness in our dispatches from a tomorrow, which due to VPN issues, fun and an explosion of learning about Chinese culture, is actually some time last week … or earlier. Let me catch you up to speed.
After visiting Beijing, Qingdao and Tai’an, we stopped through Nanjing. With a population over eight million, Nanjing is one of the largest commercial centers in eastern China. While, the idea of touring mega-cities raised second thoughts, we were fortunately convinced to make the trip.
Maria’s former co-worker grew up here, while a friend of mine is currently studying at Johns Hopkins’ Nanjing University partner program for graduate students studying Chinese. Needless to say, my poor attempts at Chinese (beginning with pointing and ending in frustration) were not needed for our dinners with Brett.
Let’s back up and give some historical context to Nanjing fueled by little more than my curiosity and wikipedia …
China’s history goes back thousands of years, but we can break things into dynastic blocks to make the more modern end of things understandable: (Is it more complicated than this? You bet! While I recognize some of our readers are Chinese citizens and brilliant westerners with advanced degrees, we’re just trying to explain why this city is so interesting. Also, I’m not going back thousands of years to neolithic stuff. We’ll start year 1000.) 960 AD-1279AD is the Song Dynasty, 1279-1368 A.D. is Yuan Dynasty (Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Kublai started that one), the Ming Dynasty was 1368-1644 A.D. (ceramics, vases…you’ve heard the name) the Qing Dynasty was 1644-1912 (The Last Emperor … go watch that movie tonight), followed briefly by the Republic of China at 1912-1949 (Chang Kai Shek lost a war to Mao and ran off to Taiwan, bringing that government to the former island of Formosa), and the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to the present.
The city’s name tells us a bit of its history. We began our sojourn in Beijing, whose Chinese characters are 北京. “北,” meaning “north,” and “京,” meaning “capital.” Nanjing’s characters are “南京,” or “south capital.” It was actually the capital of China for some time. After the Ming Dynasty tossed the Yuan out of power (the Mongols) they moved the seat of power to Nanjing, from Beijing, and built a city wall that still surrounds much of the city, providing gorgeous views of Xuanwu Lake (stay tuned for video footage). There are numerous reports that Nanjing was the largest city in the world during the early Ming rule, before the Ming relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421.
In an effort to keep this readable, I will now fast forward hundreds of years to several historical facets of Nanjing, which coincide with places we visited. There are, literally, thousands of books to expound on how important this city is, but we were only there for a couple days, and I want to talk about a Jesus cult that started a war involving people who abstained from sex and didn’t cut their hair. On to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Haven’t heard of it? Are you a movie producer? Take note and do further research!
Ever have a bad day? Ever failed a test? Have you ever watched those ads at 3 a.m. after a couple beers and thought, “I could totally become a motorcycle mechanic!”
Hong Xiuquan wanted to work for the Qing Dynasty. As such, he took the requisite civil service exam, which had a very low pass rate and was very stressful. Hong failed this test four times in a row. After a defeat, some people turn to a bottle, some to the Bible, some to yoga. Hong was likely trying to turn to the Bible, but with a bottle in his hand, all while in downward dog.
Hong met a Christian missionary while at a low water mark. There was likely some depersonalization going on, a bit of depression, and a whole lot of “what does it all mean?” Hong began to believe that he was Jesus Christ’s brother. Hong then believed his brother wanted him to set up a heaven on earth. Fast-forward a bit and you have the Taiping Rebellion, one of the largest wars in history.
Haven’t heard of it?
More people died in the Taiping Rebellion than the Civil War … and it was contemporary to the Civil War.
Also … more people died in the Taiping Rebellion than WWI.
The Taiping Army, headed by Hong Xiuquan, overtook Nanjing and used it as the capital for their briefly-lived empire. The city was renamed “天京” or “Taijing”, which means, “Heavenly Capital.” They ran their affairs out of the Presidential Palace, which is the same building complex that Chang Kai Shek and Sun Yat Sen ran the Republic of China from during the years proceeding Mao.
(For more on the Taiping Rebellion, read “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” by Steven R. Platt.)
We toured the presidential palace, which I would highly recommend even for those that aren’t particularly interested in history. The grounds were an interesting mix of traditional Chinese gardens and modern architecture with a heavy western influence evident throughout.
Other places worth visiting:
The Nanjing Massacre Museum: While my tone is normally sarcastic, I’ll have to leave that at the door for a moment. Japan’s treatment of Nanjing during WWII is a part of history that most Americans are not completely aware of. I would implore you to do your own research on this incident as I am not rightly qualified to do it justice. What I can say is that while numbers from differing sources vary, 200,000-300,000 deaths (noncombatants) is a fair number, reflected in Nanjing’s well curated and viscerally moving museum. Spending an afternoon here tells a grim tale of what happens in incidents of extreme tragedy: the best and worst of humanity both available.
The Old City Wall: Like most Chinese tourist sites, this costs money to use. I forked out the 30 yuan to go for a run here, twice, but was a bit heartbroken to think, “why can’t everyone use this?” I have since been told that one can purchase a yearly pass at a fairly reasonable price. (My debt to the U.S. Forrest Service in unpaid car passes for access to trailheads have spoiled me.)
The wall gives one an interesting view of both old architecture (the wall itself, several pagodas in the distance), the naturally gorgeous (Xuanwu Lake), and the progressive (buildings like rocket-ships and mildly polluted sunsets that glow orange and allow you to stare directly into the sun).
Experience Local Hospitality (“我请你”or, “let me treat”): We met a group of three locals who invited us to dinner and refused to let us pay. There were raised voices, I had my hand on my wallet, there was good food, I kept my money. If you ever get a chance to repay the favor, buy somebody from China a snack today.
Furthermore, our friend Brett, who is American but has been in China long enough to become unduly generous, took us out to dinner. Brett was able to show us a bit of the nightlife and how a foreigner might find creature comforts in Nanjing. Want to know where to get Indian or Tibetan food on a Tuesday in Nanjing? How about a Belgian wheat ale? Brett’s your man and can explain it to the cabbie in numerous Chinese dialects.
Zebra Bar (a shameless plug for new friends): Across from the hostel we were staying at was a typical foreigner-friendly bar, which for three days a week is run by Gael (from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Paa (from Ghana) who have built an entire menu around African food. As a former D.C. metro resident, I’ve had Ethiopian sponge-bread, but this stuff was otherworldly. Fufu, spicey fish, and chicken … it was great.
Did I bury the lead about two Africans living, working and studying in Nanjing? Possibly.
Both Gael and Paa are studying architecture in a language they began learning within the past three years. They both speak three or four languages. How’s that for impressive?
Purple Mountain: We didn’t get there but are told that it is great. To be honest, Taishan was the preceding trip to this, and I couldn’t deal with another stairstep-to-oblivion day trip. That said, we could totally live in Nanjing and will give it a shot the next go-round.
Signing off … from the Future!!!!