What to see in Nanjing, and why now is an appropriate time to explore China’s former capital
The Chinese capital under the Ming dynasty, and after the 1912 revolution, Nanjing has a rich heritage to explore, a moving monument to 1937 Japanese massacre, and tranquil, tree-lined streets for relaxation
This year marks both the 80th anniversary of the Nanking massacre and the 175th anniversary of the Treaty of Nanking, which formally ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain. This historical city on the Yangtze River is about a couple of hours away from Hong Kong, and easily accessible via inexpensive flights, so it’s an apt time to plan a trip to the former capital of China and sample its cultural treats.
Now known as Nanjing, the city’s rich heritage stretches back long before the opium wars. It was first known as Nanking when Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, selected the city as China’s capital in 1367 and ordered the construction of 35km of city walls to protect him and his subjects.
These days it’s a modern high-rise city, but most of the brown stone walls of the ancient Ming city still stand and many sections are open to the public. As in most Chinese cities, the local authorities are exerting enormous effort to conserve their cultural heritage, and Nanjing has more than its fair share. Memorial parks, mausoleums, palaces, museums, ancestral halls, pagodas and temples are dotted across the urban landscape.
When Chiang Kai-shek established his capital in Nanking in 1927 there followed 10 years of relative stability and prosperity in China, known as the “Nanking decade”. It was abruptly terminated by the Sino-Japanese war, which inflicted a ghastly human toll on China and on Nanking in particular. Between mid-December 1937 and the end of January 1938, some 300,000 residents died and many more were subject to atrocities at the hands of the occupying Imperial Japanese Army.
The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall commemorates the tragic events. It’s a sprawling complex on the western suburbs of the city and has become something of a national shrine. Despite the brutal subject matter, the curators have resisted the temptation to reduce the inhumanity of war to undiluted nationalism and xenophobia. Instead, the emphasis is on historical evidence and the vital importance of preserving peace with other nations.
The site also encompasses the mass grave of victims of the massacre, the most macabre part of which is some exposed remains. It’s a profoundly compelling and solemn experience, albeit less so in the intense heat of a peak summer weekend when thousands of families crowd the site, taking advantage of the free admission.
When Sun Yat-sen declared the first provisional republican government of China on January 1, 1912, he did so at the Presidential Palace in the centre of the city. Later his successor, Chiang started construction of new government buildings there, so this vast 90,000 square metre compound that dates back 650 years includes classic Ming pagodas and courtyards combined with the distinctive grey brick of classic republican architecture.
Given its political significance, it’s delightfully understated. Visitors can see Chiang’s office on the second floor of the Zichao Building, but it’s preferable to wander around aimlessly and enjoy the boating pools, carp ponds, pagodas, halls, stone boats and bamboo gardens and take a rest in the shade of ancient trees.
The city is rapidly updating its international visitor infrastructure and adjacent to the presidential palace is the 1912 nightlife zone, named after the year the Republic of China was founded. It’s a pedestrian zone lined with tall trees where street vendors sell upmarket souvenirs and trinkets.
The grey villas were originally residences for senior government officials and they have been adapted for tourism and leisure.
To sit in the tranquil shade of tall trees in the middle of a busy city and gather your thoughts while sipping a cold drink at the May craft beer and coffee shop is extremely refreshing. There is also a nightclub, Thai massage centre, coffee shops and several Western-style restaurants.
At one establishment, called James Bar (1912 Downtown, Nanjing), guests are requested to place a pin in a map of the world mounted on the wall of the bar to indicate their hometown. Mine was the only one placed in Hong Kong.
Another example of the city’s imaginative use of historic buildings is The Yihe Mansions, an impressive, five-star boutique hotel created from faded yellow-brick republican government mansions in Jiangsu Road in the Gulou district.
The hotel is private and has an opulent air, but the public can wander about under the maple trees and immerse themselves in 1930s republican China, as long as they don’t disturb the guests. Project manager Laughing Tu says the hotel is new but the 26 suites and rooms are already fully booked most weekends and the hotel has won a Unesco award.
There is no bar, but the two high-end restaurants (one Chinese and one French) are both open to non-residents.
The oldest, perhaps most impressive and certainly most crowded cultural site is in the southwest corner of the walled city. The name of the Confucius Temple is slightly misleading because, in addition to the ornate temple itself which dates back to 1034, there is an extensive complex of other temples, pagodas, markets and shops in pedestrian streets and attractive narrow lanes.
The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times (most recently in 1984) and the scenic area is on the banks of the Qinhuai River. Boat trips are popular with selfie-obsessed tourists but don’t tend to stray far from the banks.
The temple area is also a perfect location to sample local cuisine from market stalls and the many restaurants. Neither English nor Cantonese is spoken anywhere outside the large Western-style hotels, so this can be an error-prone process of pointing and smiling for those who don’t speak Putonghua. Fortunately, it’s so cheap the occasional culinary mishap (mistaking raw duck tongue on a stick for satay in my case) does not break the bank.
China Eastern, Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Airlines all offer direct flights from Hong Kong to Nanjing, which take two hours and 20 minutes. Once there, the heritage sites of Nanjing are reached via a modern metro system and a cheap and strictly regulated taxi service. If you prefer walking, the major streets are lined with mature trees, much as they were in the Ming dynasty.