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Exploring Nanjing

Started: 2016-03-26 21:49:30

Submitted: 2016-03-27 11:09:33

Visibility: World-readable

24 January 2016: In which the intrepid narrator explores the city of Nanjing
View of Nanjing from hotel window
View of Nanjing from hotel window

On my first of two days as a tourist in Nanjing, I started my day by heading to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, a somber museum memorializing the war crimes committed by the Japanese army against the city of Nanjing when they invaded in 1937. The museum began with the historical context of the war, with artifacts from the various armies involved. The displays were crowded with tourists on this Sunday morning, so I had to jostle for position to read the text. I forgot to pick up an audio guide, and instead read the text on the displays. Everything was printed in three languages: Chinese, Japanese, and English; I found the inclusion of Japanese interesting, given the subject matter of the museum.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial
Nanjing Massacre Memorial

The next part of the museum discussed the actual invasion of Nanjing, including the interesting detail that the Chinese Nationalist army used the historic masonry city walls for defensive fortifications. Masonry walls went out of fashion with the introduction of early modern artillery about four hundred years ago, and the invading Japanese army did exactly what every army has done since 1600 when faced with a wall they couldn't easily climb: back up their infantry to standoff distance, bring their field artillery to bear on the walls, wait for them to crumble, then send their infantry through the breech.

This led to the main part of the museum, discussing the rape of Nanjing, when the victorious Japanese army took out their frustrations on the civilian population of Nanjing, raping and murdering and digging mass graves to dispose of their victims. The museum was built on top of one of the graves, which had been partially excavated to expose the human skeletons that remained, nearly eighty years after they were hastily buried. I had trouble imagining how the skeletons in the pit in front of me had been buried for decades before being exposed again.

Garden at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial
Garden at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial

The museum tried to end on a note of peace and reconciliation, with a large statue of a figure in white representing peace in an icy garden behind the museum.

One thing I thought was missing from the museum was a discussion of the political context in which the museum itself was built. The museum lacked the "woe is us" tone that infested many of the other history museums I visited; it stuck to the facts but my cynical side left me wondering if there was a bit of an ulterior motive behind presenting the story the way they did. Two days later, as I was riding the Shanghai metro on my way to the airport to fly home, I happened to be listening to an episode of This American Life, "Poetry of Propaganda", which had an act Party On! that discussed the way the Chinese Communist Party uses Chinese history to build up a national identity by promoting the idea that China has suffered at the hands of other nations, and now China must stand up and defend itself.

Grounds of the Nanjing Museum
Grounds of the Nanjing Museum

I rode the metro to the Nanjing Museum, which had an interesting collection of artifacts from Chinese history spread out over several buildings. Like most of the large city museums I'd visited in China, it lacked an obvious directory telling me where things I might want to see were. (I think I would have noticed the directory even if it were in Chinese, even though that wouldn't actually have been useful for me, though it's possible I was just looking for something resembling a map.) I ended up wandering around looking at galleries almost at random, stumbling upon some interesting sculptures, and some less-interesting exhibits of Chinese calligraphy. (Chinese calligraphy doesn't do much for me, since I can't read Chinese.) I did enjoy the full-sized walk-through diorama of a street in Nanjing during the Republican period in the 1920s, populated with shops and merchants, plus a few cars and buses and trams, and a small-scale train station.

I looked through the rest of the museum, which featured a series of interlocking galleries with various artifacts from Chinese history. Most of the collection was the same sort of porcelain that I'd seen at several museums already (I ended up seeing enough porcelain to last me a while), but the most impressive artifact was a ceremonial suit of armor, made with inch-square jade tiles threaded together.

I looked through the gift shop on my way out of the museum, but didn't find anything especially enlightening. I headed back to the metro and stopped by a crowded Starbucks for a snack. I tried to find the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum, about a weird period in the late 19th century when a rebellion from the shaky Qing dynasty carved out a good-sized chunk of eastern China under the control of a guy claiming to be Jesus' younger brother, before it was eventually put down by a coalition of European and American forces. (I have a book about it that I haven't gotten around to reading yet.) I wandered around the block where my map told me it was supposed to be before I realized that the museum was actually inside Zhanyuan Park. I paid a small admission fee for the park and found the museum inside, which was a single room with some artifacts -- with text entirely in Chinese. I looked at the artifacts, which were somewhat less than enlightening without the text.

Pond at Zhanyuan Park
Pond at Zhanyuan Park

The rest of the park was occupied by a nice traditional Chinese garden. It was a cold winter day, with the forecast high only 24°F -- which was still warmer than my time in Beijing.

Mandarin ducks swimming in the garden pond
Mandarin ducks swimming in the garden pond

I left the garden and walked south to the Gate of China, the main city gate on the restored Nanjing city walls. The gate was an impressive multi-layered fortification, with multiple inner gates designed to allow the medieval defenders to coral and harass the attackers even when some of the gates were breached. (I immediately began considering how I could build the gate in Lego.) The upper portions of the gate held long barrel vaults where defending soldiers were garrisoned; now the vaults held displays of artifacts from the walls, and a gift shop selling the same trinkets I saw around China.

Central corridor in the Gate of China
Central corridor in the Gate of China

From the top of the gate I could see the setting sun illuminating the modern towers in central Nanjing, the apartment towers in the distance, and the pagoda just outside the walls.

Nanjing city gate and city centre
Nanjing city gate and city centre
Nanjing city walls and Qinhuai River at dusk
Nanjing city walls and Qinhuai River at dusk

After looking around the gate, I walked through the frigid twilight to the nearest metro station, past a large block of brick houses being demolished to make way for more modern development, and rode the metro back to my hotel. I looked for suitable vegetarian-friendly restaurants to eat supper at and found the selection somewhat more lacking than I was used to in Beijing. (There was one vegetarian restaurant that looked interesting but it was nowhere near the metro, and I hadn't yet figured out the bus system.) I found an Indian restaurant a few blocks from my hotel in central Nanjing where I found the same sort of standardized northern Indian food I'm used to eating in most Indian restaurants in the United States. I wondered about the history of Indian food in China and thought I should learn more -- later.

For more photos from my day in Nanjing, see Photos on 2016-01-24.

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