Nanjing: China's southern capital isn't history

Culture | by Miller Wey
Posted: July 1st, 2012 | Updated: July 16th, 2014 | Comments

China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city. With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi. In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. 


Former Ming Dynasty and Republic of China capital, Nanjing offers a wealth of historical sights that survived the development of modern China. While the breakneck development that has thrust Beijing and Shanghai onto the world stage hasn't quite made it to Nanjing, it's no backwater. It's a modern city with transport conveniently provided by a two-line subway and a burgeoning music and nightlife scene. While it lives up to its name as one of the "four furnaces of China" (the humidity is what makes the heat truly oppressive), cool respite is close by at Xuanwu Lake, Zijin Shan or in one of the city's many attractions, many located near the center of the city. A relatively short fast train ride from Shanghai, there's much to do and see in the old "South Capital"—plenty enough for a weekend trip or a week-long excursion. Although, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the furnace.

Gu Lou is where to go

The district surrounding the eponymous Nanjing Drum Tower is a great starting point for exploring the city.  The Ming-era Drum Tower in Gu Lou District has a small museum at the top where you can take in a view of the surrounding area, with the traditional Chinese rooftops of Nanjing University peeking up nearby through the trees. If you're taking a weekend trip to Nanjing, start from a Zifeng Tower, you'll find what you're looking for. From up high in Zifeng Tower's InterContinental, you can get a good vista of the city—even if you don't want to drop the kuai for a five-star room, you can drop by the 78th floor bar. Several of the city's historic sites are also located within walking distance from the district. To the northwest is beautiful Xuanwu Lake. Once an imperial getaway, the public park is surrounded by walking paths, playgrounds and cherry blossom groves. When the weather is nice, locals are out enjoying the scenery and beautiful weather or getting in some paddle-boating. While there's not much historic about it besides the back story, Xuanwu Lake is bordered to its south by the Taicheng City Wall, one of the remaining sections of the city wall.

Beside the wall, the Jiming Temple is alive with the chanting of Buddhist nuns and faithful locals burning incense and praying. If it's close to a meal time, the temple's vegetarian restaurant has tasty meat-free (and faux-meat) dishes on the cheap. Avoid the hot plum juice. Not for everyone, but a good escape from the heat, the Nanjing Museum of Paleontology is a short walk south from the temple. Farther to the east lies one of the structures from Nanjing's day as the Republic of China capital, the Presidential Palace. The building was originally built as a Ming Dynasty palace and later used by the Taiping Rebellion—who also made Nanjing their capital, renaming it Tianjing or "Heavenly Capital"—before Dr. Sun Yatsen was sworn in as provisional president at the palace. The Nationalist government wasn't able to actually use the building as the Presidential Palace until after the defeat of the Japanese at the end of World War II when they were forced to leave the city they took the city in 1937.

While the Presidential Palace is more of interest to history buffs, many of the other ROC-era Nanjing attractions are interesting whether or not history is to you. One of the most attractive Chinese university campuses, Nanjing University's Gu Lou campus, on the south side of the district, looks like something you'd expect to find in a historic school in Europe or the United States, but with distinct Chinese characteristics. Actually established before the ROC, this briefly served as one of the flagship campuses of modern China, with prominent international figures taking time to visit or teach at the university. Beautiful ivy-covered brick buildings line wide tree-lined streets and open grassy areas make for a lovely afternoon stroll (maybe while you consider finally taking those Chinese classes).

To the west is a much darker part of that part of Chinese history. The Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre is dedicated to the victims (300,000 is the official Chinese government number, but other accounts vary) and tells the history of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which ultimately became a facet of the Pacific theater of World War II, and the "Rape of Nanking," when Japanese troops took the city, slaughtering and raping thousands. Exhibits in the museum overlap somewhat and actually looking at everything on display and exploring each part would easily take several hours. A number of documentaries, including Nanking, and books, like The Rape of Nanking, explore more about the event. The latter is on sale at the memorial's gift shop. More of the city's history can also be explored at the Nanjing Museum, to Gu Lou's east.

Zijin Shan

Not many big Chinese cities are so close to such a large natural area. The slopes of the "Purple-Gold Mountain" rise up just past the center of the city and are reachable by a somewhat long walk or a short cab or bus ride.  Zijin Shan is lined with hiking paths to explore, including the Zijin Shan plank way. From the end of the plank way, the mountain can be ascended by cable car, which passes several of the monuments on the mountain as well as the Zijin Observatory (Zǐjīn Shān Tiānwéntái, 紫金山天文台). There's a park at the cable car terminus as well as hiking trails leading down and around the mountain. Exploring is made even easier by the temperature, which is somewhat cooler and less humid than in the city.

One of the monuments seen from the cable car seems somewhat out of place in Mainland China: the blue-tiled roof and white of the building call to mind the ROC flag today used by Taiwan, but Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum is a testament to the importance of Dr. Sun to so many Chinese, wherever they call home. While his portrait may only appear in Beijing's Tian'anmen Square on some national holidays, people come to pay tribute year-round at this beautiful structure, modeled after traditional Chinese tombs.

As with the Nationalists, the Ming Dynasty time in their capital at Nanjing was short lived. After the first heir of Emperor Hongwu, first of the Ming Dynasty, was usurped, the Emperor Yongle moved the capital to his own base of power in Beijing. With the seat of power moved north, only the first Ming emperor was laid to rest in Nanjing (what happened to the short-reigning second Ming emperor is unknown, as is his final resting place). Also visible from the cable car ride up, the Ming Xiaoling Tomb is made up of a long, statue-lined "spirit walk" leading to the tomb itself.

City walls, stinky tofu and garden tours

The Nanjing City Wall was one of the longest city walls in the world, with 35 km (22 mi) of 12-meter-high (40 ft) circling what is today central Nanjing. History was tough on the city walls, with the Taiping rebels taking the city and having it taken back from them and later the Japanese invasion. Several segments still exist, however, including a long segment in southwest central Nanjing that includes the Zhonghua Gate.

Tours and personal audio guides are available for exploring the fortress at the Zhonghua Gate, but definitely the best part of this section is renting a bike and riding on the city wall. Rentals may or may not be available depending on crowds, lack of crowds or the heat, so don't get your hopes up too much.

When you're done Nanjing Confucius Temple area. Although the area is obviously centered on the Confucius Temple, the activity in the sprawling market area is definitely concentrated on shopping, boat rides and eating. Our man Hungry Dan explored stinky tofu and street food in Fuzi Miao (the Chinese name of the Confucius Temple, used interchangeably to refer to the whole area), which includes street stall favorites, intimidating exotica and places like KFC for those not ready to break out of the comfort zone.

The Confucius Temple itself is interesting to explore, but the two faces of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum are more so, despite the hefty price tag. The former Ming Dynasty royal garden, later given to a Ming general, was taken by Taiping officials during their time in "Tianjing." During the day, guided tours (available in English) focus on the history of the pseudo-Christian rebellion that almost toppled the Qing Dynasty. After 5 pm when the museum closes, the museum reopens as a nighttime garden tour, when the rockeries, flora, waterways and pagodas are lit by colorful lights. The nighttime tour ends with a Chinese language performance that includes local tea, although a few pitches for souvenir and photo buying are also included.

Rock in the South Capital

While most locals will direct night life inquiries to the gaudy bar street at 1912, Mexican restaurant and bar Behind the Wall offers a more Western-style spot for relaxing with a pint of brew. The latter, located near Zifeng Tower in Gu Lou District, is also a great rock bar and an important part of Nanjing's developing music scene. Once a year, the city puts on the Nanjing Jazz and World Music Festival, one of the largest jazz festivals in China. Since 2002, bands from around the world have come to Nanjing in October for the popular music fest. For fans of something a bit heavier, the Nanjing International Music Festival brings together a variety of domestic and international rock acts for one of China's few rock festivals. The dates vary; the festival was held in October in 2010 when rainstorms made for a soggy time and in April and May in 2011.

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