I lived in Nanjing for two years, from 2006 to 2008. During those years, the best thing that happened to the city, as far as I was concerned, was the introduction of high-speed rail service that cut the travel time between Nanjing and Shanghai in half.
Nanjing is a fine city, and there are certainly many worse places to live, but I never really warmed up to it. After methodically working my way through every site listed in the Nanjing section of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I had seen enough of the place to know that it wasn’t going to be my “China home” for life. Halfway through my second year there, the debut of the dongche, or high-speed rail line, meant that I could cover the 300 kilometers to Shanghai in only two hours. Suddenly, day trips became possible, and I started using my weekends and days off for quick jaunts down to Shanghai in search of better food, a more varied yarn store selection, and access to a broader range of English-language books.
That high-speed service has gotten even faster since 2008, and now travel between the cities requires as little as an hour and fifteen minutes on the train in each direction. So this weekend, instead of traveling to Shanghai for an escape from Nanjing, I found myself heading to Nanjing to serve as tour guide for a small group of visiting American students coming from Shanghai.
Since we only had one day (which basically meant seven to eight hours of tour time), I kept the itinerary simple and picked sites that emphasized Nanjing’s twentieth-century history, my theme for the tour. We didn’t go to the city’s biggest attraction—the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum—for two reasons: (1) it’s a little outside the city proper and going there would have eaten up our whole afternoon, and (2) the weather wasn’t supposed to be great on Sunday. Sun’s final resting spot is at the top of a hill, and I didn’t think anyone in the group would be enthusiastic about climbing 392 steps in the raw wind that marks a Nanjing November.
Instead, we alighted from the train and made our way by subway to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. This enormous museum recounts the history of the Rape of Nanjing, a horrific slaughter perpetrated by Japanese army troops over a six-week period in late 1937 and early 1938. As many as 300,000 people died in the massacre, and the museum repeats and emphasizes this number at every turn. The Chinese and Japanese governments have argued over the Rape of Nanjing for years—some in Japan deny it even took place, while others vehemently dispute the 300,000 death toll, claiming that the actual number of deaths was much lower. Sino-Japanese relations have repeatedly chilled over Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where several perpetrators of the Nanjing Massacre are enshrined.
It is, in short, a historical event that very much affects international politics in the present day, and the museum seems to me like the Chinese government’s indictment of Japan. The exhibits are overwhelming—not just in the crimes that they describe, but in the volume of text and photographs used to convey these descriptions. Every wall of every room is covered with newspaper stories, diary entries, excerpts from survivor interviews, transcripts from war crimes trials, and more. In the end, I actually found the amount of information supplied to be excessive, especially since the museum was jam-packed with visitors all jostling to get close enough to read the placards. There was no way I could read everything, so in some rooms I read nothing beyond the large introductory placard explaining the focus of that exhibit section. I wondered if, due to the political tensions surrounding the Nanjing Massacre, the museum designers had felt pressured to include every last scrap of evidence available to them in their case against the Japanese. It is unquestionably a horrific story that needs to be told—but a more judicious selection of material, and less reliance on walls of text, might have made it easier for visitors to follow.
We spent close to two hours in the museum (probably the minimum needed for a visit—it’s huge), then headed back to the subway to ride a few stops east over to Shanghai Lu. This street forms the western boundary of the Nanjing University campus, and many of the alleyways that branch off of it house small stores and restaurants that cater to students, both Chinese and international. I led the group to “Bird Flu Alley” (it’s an affectionate nickname, I swear), or Nan Yinyang Ying, for lunch at Harbin Dumplings. Harbin Dumplings is more or less the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant—the ceiling is sagging, the wallpaper is peeling off, and I’m not sure anyone in the kitchen wears gloves while handling food—but they make really good dumplings. I wish I’d gotten a few dozen to bring back to Shanghai with me.
The next item on our itinerary was a quick tour of the Nanjing University campus, which is green and leafy and, for my money, one of the prettiest college campuses in China. It’s a great place to wander, sit on a bench (if you can find a free one) with a cup of coffee and a book, or admire old Chinese-style buildings from the early twentieth century. At the southeast corner of campus, just a few steps away from the Zhujiang Lu subway station, sits the John Rabe House, a small museum commemorating “the good man of Nanjing.” John Rabe worked for Siemens (and also headed the Nanjing branch of the Nazi Party); when the Nanjing Massacre started, he helped to organize the few remaining foreigners in the city to run the Nanjing Safety Zone. Under Rabe’s leadership, the Safety Zone provided refuge for hundreds of thousands of Chinese seeking shelter from the atrocities being committed in their city.
Unfortunately, the Rabe House is closed on weekends, so we could only stand outside while I talked about his life and the Safety Zone. From there, we got back on the subway and rode over to the Zongtong Fu, or Presidential Palace, where Chiang Kai-shek’s government was located during the “Nanjing Decade” (1927-37) and then again after World War II ended. While most people assume that Beijing has always been the capital of China, “Nanjing” translates to “Southern Capital” for a reason—the city has enjoyed its time as the country’s seat of government at different points in the past. In the Presidential Palace complex, visitors can walk past Chiang Kai-shek’s old office and peek into different reception rooms used by officials in the Nationalist government.
Most of the rooms look tired and dusty, and the few English-language placards in the museum section seemed to have been produced through Google Translate. It was quite a contrast to the much newer massacre memorial museum, which features flawless English text throughout (as well as Japanese, though I can’t speak to its accuracy in translation) and modern architectural details that wouldn’t be out of place in any American museum. While the massacre memorial museum was clearly designed with the expectation that it would receive visitors from all over the globe, the Presidential Palace is geared toward domestic tourists.
Although Chiang Kai-shek’s reputation has been improving on the mainland in recent years—he is no longer denounced with the venom of the Mao era—the Presidential Palace downplays his time as China’s leader. Instead, the real star of the show is Sun Yat-sen, whose term as provisional president of the Republic of China lasted just over two months in 1912. Still, Sun is honored as the father of modern China, and he’s the one who wanted the capital moved to Nanjing, so it’s not so surprising that an entire pavilion at the Presidential Palace is filled with terrible oil paintings of him. There’s also a small exhibit dedicated to his nine weeks in office.
Our final destination of the day was immediately west of the Presidential Palace—in fact, we could see part of it from the palace’s gardens. We were heading to the “1912” entertainment district for a quick early dinner at one of the many restaurants housed in the complex. Many of them are chains (KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Bellagio), and after surveying all our options, the group voted for snacks at Starbucks rather than a full meal. Though 1912 is touted as Nanjing’s version of the Xintiandi complex in Shanghai, it’s a pretty weak imitation; Xintiandi has a much bigger and better slate of restaurant offerings, as well as nice shops to browse in, while 1912 is mostly standard restaurants, a few nightclubs, and a couple of questionable-looking spas (including one for men, named “Camp David”). If you’re in Nanjing and looking for good food, I’d recommend sticking to the Nanjing University area rather than believing the hype about 1912.
We rolled into Shanghai Hongqiao Rail Station just before 8pm, which meant that our round-trip to Nanjing had taken precisely 12 hours. It’s a far cry from the days when a journey between the cities had involved five hours each way on a slow train. And while I quickly grew tired of Nanjing when I lived there, I appreciate it now that I’m an occasional visitor. The city has a lot to recommend it as a weekend destination: a variety of historic sites, the lovely Xuanwu Lake and imposing city wall, and—of course—lunch at Harbin Dumplings.