When it comes to the great cities of China, the “southern capital” Nanjing seems to get lost in the conversation sometimes. Sure, it is one of the Four Great Capitals of China (the others being Beijing, Xian, and Luoyang), and it is a relatively well-known, developed, and important city. Still, compared to Beijing and Shanghai, and also Xian, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, Nanjing gets so little attention as a major Chinese city and a tourist destination. This was despite a history of over 2,000 years that included being the capital of China before Beijing in the 20th century and during the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century (coincidentally Nanjing also lost its capital status to Beijing during that time), as well as being the capital of many smaller dynasties and kingdoms.
Of course, despite what I wrote above, Nanjing is very famous, but for something that is more recent and dark. It was the site of one of worst atrocities in the past several hundred years. The Nanjing Massacre occurred in World War II, when Japanese troops killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese after capturing Nanjing. They also went on a mass raping rampage on girls and young and old women alike and did other ghastly things like use Chinese prisoners as live human targets.
It was because of all this history that I made Nanjing the main reason for my visit earlier this year, besides visiting relatives. Also, I wanted to visit a major city that was not Beijing or Shanghai and Nanjing fit the bill perfectly. I also hadn’t visited Nanjing when I went on a multi-city tour last year in the Yangtze Delta that included Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou.
Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, lies on the Yangtze River, further inland from Shanghai. Taking the fast train there, the journey took just about 2 hours. I got dropped off by my relatives at Shanghai Train station with my uncle, where we had to go through a security X-ray machine at the entrance, a process that was repeated at museums as well.
Shanghai Train station was a newish building with a modern white facade and an electronic signobard above the front entrance showing train times; seemingly more modern than the Taipei Railway Station with its dowdy brown appearance. After getting into the station, we proceeded to the waiting area for our gate. This seemed kind of inadequate as anyone could enter the station and get to the gates. In Taipei, you show your ticket to enter the area and then go to your gates. When the time came to board the train, we lined up to pass through glass doors and went down an escalator onto the platform. The train ride was smooth, similar to taking the Taipei High-Speed Rail, reaching all the way up to 271 km/h.
We got off at the Nanjing Railway Station and transferred to the subway inside. On the corridor to the subway, I saw a few vagrants on the floor and somehow I got the feeling that there was more poverty here than Shanghai (Nanjing is a relatively prosperous Chinese city, but less so than Shanghai or nearby Suzhou, its erstwhile rival in historic Chinese times). Taking the Nanjing subway was cheap, only 2RMB (NT$8) for a short ride, compared to NT$15 in Taipei’s MRT. Surprisingly, it was also quite clean and orderly too. Though I have to say this wasn’t the first time I’d been in a sleek and orderly Chinese subway; the first being in Shenzhen. During the two days I took the subway, I saw no pushing or spitting or any type of rowdiness that I’d seen in Internet videos in Shanghai or Beijing subways, despite there being a good bit of people.
Getting to the stop near my hotel, we got out and stepping out into the street, my relative hailed a rickshaw. Unlike at Daishan, these were motorized rickshaws. There were several of them around the subway entrance, and if I was by myself I would not have taken them, because it seemed a bit unsafe. I didn’t just worry about personal safety, but also my suitcase falling out from the back because of the flimsy tray that was held by a cable attached to the top. My uncle was unperturbed and I trusted him and luckily the rickshaw journey went well. I told the driver the hotel address and we went through some side roads, into a lane with construction going on and some very low-income houses and I momentarily panicked inside. I couldn’t believe the hotel was here, though it was cheap. The driver kept driving and pulled into a more developed, but still somewhat shady small commercial street and we eventually found our hotel. Despite my misgivings about the street, it was the perfect location because it was right outside the main square leading into the Fuzimiao (Confucius Temple) area.
As a former imperial capital, Nanjing used to be surrounded by a giant wall. While most of it has long been gone, destroyed or pulled down, a lot of it still remains. Along with Xian, another one of China’s four great ancient capitals, Nanjing’s city wall is a tourist attraction where you can climb up and walk along. Zhongshan Gate is the biggest remaining gate of the Nanjing City Wall and this was our first stop. It forms part of the longest section of the city wall, long enough that you could take a 15-minute ride on a vehicle on it, which we did after we got on top.
The entrance was impressive, a long old and stuffy dark hallway enclosed by old stone and linked to smaller adjoining chambers. The hallway opened up onto a small grass patch and a ramp, wide enough for horses to run up and down, led to the top. On the middle level, there were several chambers with displays, including the story of Sun Mansan, a rich merchant who financed the building of this city wall. He was personally asked by the Ming emperor Zhu Yienzhang, who in keeping with the trend of loyal officials in Chinese history being punished for their service, exiled him years later, supposedly out of jealousy or insecurity. One of the chambers displayed bricks that were used to build the gate, with inscriptions on top of them indicating info such as which region they came from. The displays weren’t exactly in the best of condition, and there were few visitors, but I thought this was an underrated historic attraction.
After, we walked from Zhongshan Gate to the Yuhai Pavilion, a giant forest park located to the south of the city gate that had gigantic Communist memorials, pavilions, a tribute to a court official whose heart was cut out, and a pagoda.
We took a bus back to Fuzimiao, the Confucius Temple area, which was also quite large. It’s portrayed in a lot of tourist websites as one of Nanjing’s best tourist attractions and this made me initially skeptical of going there because it might be too touristy and kitschy. In reality, it turned out to be a really nice place. Sure it was touristy, but it also had a historic charm and a lively atmosphere. There’s the Confucius Temple itself, and there were stores, steles, and an imperial test-taking center for prospective court officials. There were brandname chain stores along with individual pet and souvenir shops and restaurants. On the promenade overlooking the litup Qinhuai River and a double dragon wall sculpture, there were rickshaws on land and boats in the water offering rides. The area was like a square maze with several entrances and it was easy to get lost. This is one thing that hit me about China, places here are huge and much bigger than Taiwan. I had thought that Fuzimiao was just the Confucius Temple surrounded by a few shops, but it wasn’t.