Nanjing has served as the capital of China at various points in its history, its name literally translates as “south capital”. Although it doesn’t match the scale of Beijing or Shanghai it is still a huge city (approximately 10 million inhabitants) and is expanding at a high rate. We were staying in an AirBnB in a new apartment complex on the north side of the Yangtze, an area called Pukou which had been relatively undeveloped until fairly recently. A metro line was completed in 2015 that linked the area north of the river with the centre of the city and since then the population living there has exploded. We had travelled past these vast developments on the train; apartment blocks so large that a single one would be note worthy in the UK stand in regiments of 10 or even 20 buildings. We were curious to see what living in one would be like. I can report that they are very comfortable on the inside, with a clever layout that made the apartment feel spacious, plus they had a young cat named “Boss” who was incredibly affectionate. There’s no language barrier with pets, I think that’s why they are always such a pleasant surprise when we find them in a place we are staying.
On our first day we decided to walk through the central Xuanwu park from north to south. It was a very pleasant route, the park has a large lake in the centre with three islands in it linked with several bridges. Like a lot of attractions in China it has a curious timeless feel to it, with lots of traditional buildings and sculptures that look brand new. While pausing on a bench admiring a classical statue that looked to be made from concrete we overheard a man repeatedly saying “Meiguo” whilst gesturing in our direction. This means American in Chinese so we promptly set about putting him straight. “Yinguo” we said, whilst pointing at our chests, but this didn’t work. The man shook his head, pointed to us and repeated “Meiguo, Meiguo!”. We could not convince him we were British so after several fruitless minutes we moved on towards the sounds of fur elise being played over a loudspeaker. It was emanating from a giant rubber duck, surrounded by smaller, but still very large, rubber ducks. It was a unique experience.
After the overthrow of the monarchy the republican government in China was established, with their headquarters in Nanjing. This large compound, known as the presidential palace, is now a museum of the leadership of that time. It’s a fascinating museum, simultaneously heralding the victory of the people over the emperor whilst also denouncing the “traitors” that came to power immediately afterwards. The buildings themselves are quite nice and unassuming, none more than four stories high with lots of courtyards and walking galleries. It was a bit busy when we were there and most of the information was in Chinese but there was sufficient English signage to understand what the different buildings functions were. It was also quite hot so after we left we stopped for ice cream at the brilliantly named “eyes cream” where they sell ice cream with eyes on. Delicious.
Nanjing Massacre Museum
In 1937-38 during the height of the second world war Nanjing bore witness to one of the worst atrocities of that conflict. 300,000 people were murdered with still more being raped and assaulted. The memorial museum is informative and poignant, sharing the stories of many who lived through the time including the professors of Nanjing university who managed to shield a number of local people from the worst of the atrocities. It is incredibly powerful, centered around a mass grave which has been excavated so you can view the exposed remains of the people who were buried there. The purpose of the memorial, echoed by the voices of the survivors, is one of remembrance in the hope that such an event will never be repeated.
There are lots of sculptures throughout the museum, including a sequence as you enter that are accompanied by descriptions of what some of the people went through. They’re incredibly emotive with many that are hard to look at. But the concluding statue, placed on a tall pillar emblazoned with word ‘peace’, reaches upwards and seems to echo the feelings of rising above and away from the atrocities that were committed here.
A PhD friend of Rosanna’s studied her undergraduate degree in Nanjing University and she put us in touch with her friend Chaonan, who took us for a tour of the university. She informed us that what we were seeing was actually just the historic city campus and that there is a much larger campus further from the city centre. She used to study there and it would take 40 minutes by public transport to reach it. This was an amusing contrast to our alma mater, the University of York, who built a second campus 10 minutes walk from the original campus and offered a free bus service between them and still faced huge complaints from students. The university playing fields were full of people exercising and playing sport – not just students but local people as well. The basketball courts were full which made me wistful, but then I was also reminded of what annoys me about casual basketball when I saw two american guys just playing against each other completely ignoring the eight chinese players who were technically playing the same game as them.
Chaonan also took us to an incredible bookshop – it is in an old underground car park and was weirdly very beautiful. There were lots of chairs inside that people were relaxing on and reading the books.
Nanjing at Night
We were also taken out by Song, another second friend (is that the correct nomenclature?). He took us to a traditional restaurant for dinner and then back to the park where we started our Nanjing explorations. However he took us at night and the views were breathtaking. The musical ducks were gone and the lights of the city at night reflecting off the lake were magical.
Full pictures from our time in Nanjing can be found here: