An ancient Chinese capital marked (but not marred) by recent history.
Before I came to China, I knew about Nanjing.
I knew about the war crimes committed there. I knew about the looting, arson, and destruction committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew about the monstrosity of rape and murder that occurred there. The horrifying details (which I’ll not name, but can be accessed here) I had mostly put out of mind. Physical and mental distance from the massacre coupled with a human desire to not dwell in past atrocity let me forget how terribly gruesome and inhuman we humans can be. The Rape of Nanjing is an apt name for this massacre of human life and morality.
I went to Nanjing to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I saw the mass grave where corpses — infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle-aged, and elderly alike — were buried hastily and indiscriminately. I saw signs bearing the unholy number 300,000 and the monuments erected in memoriam.
But Nanjing, due to and despite its history, is much more than historicity.
The city is authentic, the people and places genuine. Events big and small happened here, and will continue to do so for a long, very long time. The actions we take in Nanjing are a real part of what Nanjing is. You’re part of the scenery, as is everyone else. That means tourists will take your picture with gusto, without a second thought, and certainly without asking.
It should be noted that Nanjing is home to the BEST potstickers in China. Ground meat (usually pork) with green onions or spinach wrapped with thin pieces of dough into half-moon-shaped pockets then pan-fried in a large, shallow wok — what could possibly go wrong there? Somewhere near the eastern entrance to the city’s Purple Mountain scenic park you can find the best of the best.
The beautiful Purple Mountain scenic area [Tiles 1-4] is much bigger than you think. You could wander around the park’s trails, temples, Ming Dynasty palace and tombs for days, but you’re here to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum [Tiles 5-8]. The 中山陵 (zhong1shan1 ling2) commemorates the life and accomplishments of one of greater China’s most formative leaders.
Interestingly, Sun is well-respected in both China and Taiwan despite lingering ideological (and subsequently, separatist) disputes from the Chinese Civil War, in which Sun’s Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, played a central part. He is seen as the “Father of the Nation” (国父 孫中山先生) in Taiwan or the “forerunner of democratic revolution” (革命先行者) in the PRC because of his role in ending Qing dynastic rule and establishing the Republic of China.¹
Nanjing’s most famous Confucius temple is also noteworthy. The Fuzimiao has 11th century roots as a temple and university, though the standing building dates from the 19th century Qing Dynasty.² The temple and nearby complex were restored in 1985 after it was used as army barracks during the Kuomintang regime of the late 1920s and early ’30s.²
The city’s downtown food scene is incredible. Surrounding the Fuzimiao and all along the nearby Qinhuai River are countless made-to-order buffets. The food is cheap and unbelievably tasty, and, in classic Chinese style, the restaurants are an absolute melee. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or generally berated into buying far too many dishes. As with most things in China, just go with it. Personal recommendations are the tangbao//汤包 (like a giant xiaolongbao eaten with a straw and chopsticks) and whatever the sweet, jelly, fruity soup is below.
Once you’ve had a nice, over-sized lunch, take a walk along the ancient city wall to digest — you’ll need to make room for dinner.