We left Shanghai in a hurry. The combination of sleeping in a windowless hostel and the everyday battle with millions of tiny elbows did us in. Or maybe it was because we couldn’t find a decent place to get a drink? In any case, we made a decision, and booked it outta there, heading to Nanjing.
China has been one big lesson in misplaced expectations and outright misunderstandings. I don’t want to say that we haven’t done our homework – we’re devouring books on China, couch surfing to meet locals and we have our (banned) Lonely Planet guidebook – but what we’re reading and what we’re seeing don’t exactly match. And herein lies the problem.
In Nanjing we expected the “leafy boulevards” touted in the book and were surprised to see crowded streets, smog and heavy ongoing construction. Anything less crowded than Shanghai would have been awesome, but Nanjing isn’t a village, it’s a city of 8 million people and 2 subway lines. The density of Nanjing doesn’t rival Shanghai, but it’s bike traffic does. The same etiquette frustrations in Shanghai exist in Nanjing, which was a bummer until a fellow couch surfer gave us this sage advice: China is a mess. Join in and laugh or you’ll go nuts. And make sure to elbow right back on the train.
We expected to see a city littered with ancient historical sites and traditional buildings. But we’re slowly learning to put our expectations in check, particularly because it feels like in China the future looks brighter than the imperialist past.
This future that we see is surprising. It seems that the Chinese have a very mercantile approach to life: it’s an even bigger rat race here than in NYC. In every city we’re seeing rows of clothing stores on every block, enterprising individuals hawking the kitchen sink out of their hole in the wall, and alleys of restaurants one mimicking the other all the way down the road. It’s all about the RMB, baby!
Our first stop in Nanjing was the Confucius Temple where we could absorb the history in the form of a river cruise or feast on delicacies like McDonalds and KFC. The whole area used to be a college where students would study for years to pass the imperial exams. Although it’s been rebuilt, the ancient history is all but lost. Today this area is a glorified shopping mall. For those of you who have been to the Alamo, it’s a little like that but even more commercial.
We’re also in the process of discovering just how much of the culture was destroyed by the Japanese or by the Chinese themselves during the Cultural Revolution. Nanjing was totally destroyed by the Japanese when they conquered the city. The torture leveled against the Chinese is on par with the Nazis and is considered the Asian Holocaust – check out the book Rape of Nanking for more brutal details.
When we do have a chance to catch a glimpse at ancient China, it always comes with a plaque explaining how this area or this artifact was “liberated from former imperialist powers by the CPC”. It’s begining to get repetitious. The fact of it’s current existence is proof enough that it was valued by the CPC, as they destroyed everything else.
Among the historic sites we saw in Nanjing included the Sun Yat Sen mausoleum. Sun Yat Sen is considered by both communists and the Kuomintang (the other side in the civil war, now in Taiwan) to be the National Father of modern day China and every city has a street named after him. Zhongshan lu is my favorite street in every city, because it’s the only word I recognize.
Sun Yat Sen set up his government in Nanjing and is entombed here. Nanjing was also the Kuomintang capital and the capital during the Ming Dynasty. With that checkered history, I had to expect that the city lost a lot of it’s history during the cultural revolution.
The 15th century Ming Dynasty walls, Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum survived and so did the Presidential Palace – which has a crazy history.
In the years before Sun Yat Sun, the Qing Dynasty was falling apart and this character, Hong Xiuquan, arrived on the scene. Possibly mentally ill, he thought that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and his followers united to fight the ruling dynasty. His dynastic challenge resulted in one of history’s highest death tolls – more than 20 million people were killed! During this rebellion, Nanjing was conquered by Hong’s Taiping Revolution forces and the Ming-era Presidential Palace in Nanjing was undated to be his palace, until it was once again recaptured by the Qing, leveled and reconstructed. In the 20th century Sun Yat Sen was sworn in as president of the Republic of China and years later it became the HQ for the Kuomingtang.
Why is this so weird? Because the palace had rooms for the “Heavenly King”, the flag from the Republic of China (formerly the Kuomintang flag, now one flown in Taiwan) and the residential buildings where Sun Yat Sen lived.
That’s a lot of history to take in, particularly when you’re trying to understand the history from the plaques on the wall.
In China it’s pretty hard to root out the truth, and there are always omissions and outright falsehoods (like China won the Korean war).
One of the places that we purposely decided to skip was the Nanjing Massacre Museum. What you won’t find out in the museum is that the Chinese gov’t told the citizens to stay inside the city walls, and then fled. The entire situation was a huge human disaster (Japan raped, and brutally killed 300,000 Chinese) and remains on of the huge issues between China and Japan even today.
So we did find a bit of history in Nanjing and we’re growing into China. It hasn’t been the smoothest transition but we’re beginning to enjoy the chaos. And maybe our expectations of an ancient civilization were a little off base, we’re adjusting because god knows China isn’t going to change because I don’t like the spitting!