Nanjing - In Search of Ancient China

Updated on  | By | Permalink

A weekend trip to Nanjing for WWII museums, temples, and ancient city walls.

For most travelers, Shanghai is more Epcot than Ancient China (in reality, there’s a great deal of interesting history to be found, but that’s a subject for another post). If you walked carefully, you could spend a month in Shanghai and never feel that you’d left Manhattan. Longing for a taste of ancient China (particularly spurred by the history of China that I’m currently reading), I set off for Nanjing this past weekend with fellow Fellows Brian and Emma and recent USC alum Danny.

Historical Digression
Before we continue, an irresponsibly brief history of Nanjing is in order. The first thing you must know is that Nanjing has periodically been China’s capital city more than a dozen times, for everything from the 10th century Tang Dynasty to the mid-19th century Taiping Rebellion to the first Chinese republic. The second thing you must know is that Nanjing was the site of a massive Japanese attack on Chinese civilians during WWII. Around 300,000 people were killed in about a month, many of whom were also tortured and raped. The incident was made famous in the Western world by Iris Chang’s book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II and has soured Chinese-Japanese relations ever since.

A Morning of Obstacles
Given my masochistic early-riser habits, I played scout and left for Nanjing on the 7:38am train, about two hours before Brian, Emma, and Danny. On the way, I was dubbed “Yingwen laoshi”, or “English teacher”, by a young Chinese boy’s parents across the aisle. The boy responded by periodically holding up an object and shouting “What color?!” and then burying his face in his mother’s lap while giggling at the prospect of having addressed a foreigner. I’m not sure if I taught him anything but I learned the Chinese words for ‘orange’ and ‘purple’. His little sister, unfortunately, was too shy to talk to me, an effect I invariably have on the young Chinese girls.

Upon arriving in Nanjing, I had expected to use my extra time to visit a museum or two but was woefully misled. Instead, I was charged with a far more challenging and pressing mission: find the hostel.

Obstacle #1: Find the Hostel
To find the hostel, one must first know where it is. Given that I had left my map in Shanghai and the address on the train (something I realized at the painfully ironic time when the whistle blew), my only chance was that I could somehow convey the idea of a hostel with my broken Chinese.

“Yi gi ren yiqi shuijiao de difang.”

The wrinkled faces in response told me that “a place where people sleep together” was probably conveying the wrong idea. Luckily, the name of a Nanjing street buried in my memory popped into my conscious mind and I banked on the fact that it must have been buried there while I was searching for hostels. A benevolent English-speaking Chinese girl helped me acquire a blue Poker chip that would act as my subway ticket. Thirty minutes later, I discovered that the street whose name had popped into my head spanned half the city and determined that I needed a new strategy.

New Strategy #1: Ask a lady selling wedding dresses
Response: “Go right! It’s not far!”
Successful?: No

New Strategy #2: Ask an Italian restaurant with the promising words “Lonely Planet” in its name
Response: “You can stay at the hotel across the street…“
Successful?: No

New Strategy #3: Ask to use the internet in a hotel lobby
Response: “No.”
Successful?: See above.

New Strategy #4: Ask a woman working at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese-American Studies (they must speak in English! Right??)
Response: A poorly sketched map leading in the direction the hostel “might” be
Successful?: A nudge in the right direction

New Strategy #5: Ask every Nanjing Normal University student that passes if they know where the nearest hostel is
Response: “It’s across the street.”
Successful?: Money. Always ask the college students.

I have never looked into the eyes of a desk clerk so longingly as I did the young Chinese girl at the Nanjing International Youth Hostel. I likely frightened her. By this time, my Shanghai companions had arrived in Nanjing and, after a short conversation between their taxi driver and the object of my longing gaze, the hostel.

Obstacle #2: Find a Room
Unfortunately, young Chinese desk clerk-girl was running the hostel’s reservation system by pencil and paper and didn’t quite have the ability to work a matrix like a computer, leading to the hostel booking more guests than beds. Brian, Emma, and Danny snagged the last 3-person dorm and I received what I was told was the last unbooked bed. A quick investigation led to me report back that unbooked beds don’t have sleeping hippies in them. Fortunately, there was still one bed left. Unfortunately, it was in the room of a Swiss family traveling with three kids.

Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue. I like kids. But this Swiss family and I had a bit of history. While in Shanghai the weekend before, I had seen them at Yuyuan Gardens, a sight I remembered due to their distinctive Swissness and the fact that their children were drawing pictures. Upon recognizing them at the hostel, I had promptly informed them that we had met before at Yuyuan Gardens or that, actually, I had just been watching them there and… The father’s look betrayed that my comment was noticeably creepy and I backed away slowly. Moments later, I had learned we were sharing a room.

Obstacle #3: Find Lunch
By this time, we were deliriously hungry and snagged a cab to head downtown. Live bullfrogs, skinned chickens, and a host of other signs convinced us that we would pass on a local restaurant. Instead, we chose a promisingly elegant Cantonese restaurant in the Nanjing equivalent of Shanghai’s Xintiandi (Disney-like district of Western restaurants for expats).

As this meal has been deemed “the meal which shall not be spoken of”, I will treat it only long enough to tell you that it was a model of cultural miscommunication and that we left 150 yuan on the table and bolted after two and a half hours, having been served only hot water and about half our dishes.

Saving Nanjing
After the Morning of Obstacles, we had almost lost faith in our search for Ancient China, but Nanjing quickly reassured us. Almost immediately after lunch, we stumbled upon a massive, multi-tiered Buddhist temple. Unlike many of the tourist-filled temples of Shanghai, this temple was a place of pilgrimage and we witnessed more prayers & rituals than camera flashes, as people burned incense, knelt before giant bronze idols, and tossed coins into the high, narrow rim of a tall pot (funny how religious traditions often involve throwing money). The highest tiers of the temple also afforded us kingly views of the rest of the city, the grand Xuanwu Lake, and the nearby Ming dynasty wall.

Intrigued by the sight of the ancient wall, we mounted it and snaked our way across the city, learning along the way that it had encircled the city since the 14th century, when the Ming Dynasty had been founded with Nanjing as its capital. Blocked, overgrown staircase after blocked, overgrown staircase encouraged us to walk all the way to the end of the wall and exit onto the bank of the Xuanwu Lake. Halfway around the lake, we discovered a small dock renting paddle boats. We stood a moment contemplating before the owner pointed out that he also rented motor boats.

“Women keyi kai ma?”

Affirmative, sir. You can drive.

Not a difficult decision. For 35 yuan ($5), we had a motor boat to ourselves for an hour. Unfortunately, the English concept of motor boat does not mesh with the Chinese one and we discovered our speed to be somewhere between a floating candy bar wrapper and a child with Swimmies. Regardless, we enjoyed our hour of boating immensely.

Given that lunch had “never happened”, all our temple prostrating, wall climbing, and boat cruising left us mighty hungry and we bravely returned to the same Disney complex that house the earlier scene of the crime. This time our choice was rewarded with a meal fit for the first Ming emperor. We ate no less than 8 dishes, including fried rice served in a pineapple, pumpkin slices buried in mounds of garlic, a selection of fresh vegetables buried beneath an avalanche of a delicious coconut milk-based sauce, and a rainbow of curries. We lamented the lack of pumpkin dishes in the states, resolved to learn the Chinese ways of pumpkin preparation, and returned to the hostel.

The others prepared for a night out. I read in the lobby, waiting for the Swiss family to go to sleep, before slipping into the room and drifting off.

Museum is Not the Right Word
Anticipating the nauseating effect of what had been described to me as “the most depressing museum you will ever enter”, I left the hostel before breakfast for the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. What I encountered was less museum and more reenactment. The Nanjing Massacre has the “fortune” of having been both fairly recent and the subject of a huge postwar investigation, so many artifacts and accounts have been extremely well-preserved. Actual bunkers used by the Japanese line the dark entrance halls as ominous bells toll over loudspeakers. Guns, grenades, letters, and dozens of attic-fulls of period memorabilia fill case-after-case. Above them hang Chinese and English translations of eye-witness accounts, describing siblings beaten to death, parents raped, and subjects burned alive. I spent a good deal of the morning leaned over a pit of skeletal remains, pondering first the need for human death in war and subsequently the need for human death at all, eventually declaring both unacceptable tragedies and quietly resolving to seek to end both. Eventually, I felt chillingly overwhelmed and hurried through the rest of the exhibition, summarizing the postwar investigation and recent Chinese-Japanese relations.

Head for the Hills
There are few worries that a hike can’t resolve and when I need to disentangle something from my mind, I head for the unpolluted, simple beauty of the nearest national park. I met up with Brian, Emma, and Danny at the nearby Purple Mountain, donned my best old man posture, and feebly hopped onto the cable car heading for the summit. My protestations were silenced by the stunning panoramic views we enjoyed and the realization that, had I actually climbed the mountain, I’d probably still be descending today.

Upon summitting, we learned why Nanjing is referred to as one of China’s Three Furnaces. The manfolk stripped to the waist. The womanfolk endured. A hilltop snack shop offered us exactly the remedies we needed - skinned cucumbers and green pea-flavored popsicles. We reveled in our unorthodoxy and continued to explore the mountain, discovering epic peaks, banned “Military Practice Areas”, bamboo forests, and a plethora of dead insects, rivaling any pre-Cambrian fossil site in the world for range and size of specimens. The knowledge of our impending train ride home convinced us to abandon our search for the famous ancient tombs of Purple Mountain and head back to the city for lunch and the train station waiting room.

Between periods of engrossing myself in my Chinese history with renewed vigor, I traded bits of Chinese with an inquisitive and talkative young Chinese boy sitting next to me. I introduced him to an unrepresentative selection of American music (consisting primarily of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and 19th century classical) from my iPod, enlightened him on the popularity of Boba (milk tea) in the States, and gave him a prized American quarter. He snapped the accompanying photo, taught me why Chinese tourists always flash a peace sign in pictures (it means “cool”), and convinced me that I’ll always have more fun talking to children than adults. Curiosity is a virtue.