I have been lucky enough to receive some very talented travel writing pieces from a young family friend who has been teaching English in China. Here she writes about her lone tour of Nanjing and shares some interesting facts about the war. Brilliant photos too:-
With my time in Yangzhou almost coming to an end I take a south-bound coach to spend a night in Nanjing, ex-capital of China and current capital of Jiangsu province. As all the other teachers are working it’s my first solo trip and I’m apprehensive as I disembark, armed with a crumpled map of the area around my hostel and a sign on which a Chinese speaking friend has written “Please take me to the nearest metro station” in Chinese characters. My nerves are unfounded – the sign works well enough with a local taxi driver and I’m soon dropping off my belongings in the dormitory I’m sharing with five Chinese men. They gape open-mouthed at my blonde hair and white skin – even after almost seven weeks in China I’m still not quite used to the wave of astonishment that seems to follow me everywhere I go.
I grab my raincoat and umbrella and head out into the drizzle to have a look at what Nanjing has to offer. As it turns out, this city offers a lot and I’m gushing about it to anyone who will listen on my return to Yangzhou the following evening. The Presidential Palace, where Sun Yat-sen met with his government after the formation of the Republic in 1912, is pleasant and peaceful and the serenity of its pretty gardens contrast with the magnificent skyscrapers that make up the skyline around it:-
I spend the evening walking around the bustling area near the river and sipping coffee on a waterside terrace as darkness falls and the city begins to light up. Small tourist boats float by in the dusk and the streets are alive with food vendors. I buy some skewers that are delicious but make the fatal error of misreading “stinky tofu” as “sticky tofu” and ordering this as well. The stench of stinky tofu, not unlike manure, is something I’ve unwillingly become familiar with in China and, as I found out, it tastes exactly like it smells.
The Sun Yat-sen mausoleum and Ming Tomb Scenic Area are also sights to behold, located in the hilly East of the city. I take the advice of my travel guide and wait until I’ve reached the top of the many steps to the Mausoleum before I turn around and enjoy the view- it’s breath taking. A beautiful stone arch lies at the foot of the hill, surrounded by rolling green forests that continue until the towering city that you can just make out on the horizon, disappearing into the smog. The Ming Tomb is similarly spectacular- a huge area of greenery, broken up by gorgeous buildings and temples and pathways lined with impressive statues. The area near Nanjing Railway Station is also worth a look. A sprawling lake is scattered with tiny boats and water lilies and surrounded by imposing skyscrapers and apartment blocks. It is the Chinese city of my imagination- a gorgeous hybrid of the old and the new, of tranquillity and bustle, of technology and tradition.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to my trip however, which was as harrowing as it was fascinating, was my visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum, where I spent an afternoon reading the terrible details and look at shocking photographs of the Japanese invasion in 1937, often referred to as the “rape of Nanjing”. This is an aspect to the build up to World War II that we do not really learn about in the West and I am horrified by what I see. The cruelty that the people of Nanjing were subjected to is gruesome and horrific and, as it occurred less than 100 years ago, not really in the distant past. I feel as though I have finally gained an insight into something else I have noticed during my time teaching in Yangzhou- the attitude of the Chinese towards the Japanese.
During our induction as teachers, Japan was actually named as a topic we should avoid in lessons, along with Tibet, Taiwan and, surprisingly, green hats- apparently a taboo subject in China as it means the partner of the wearer is cheating on them, and also apparently a potential lesson topic… The taboo surrounding Japan is perhaps easier to identify. Sino-Japanese relations have always been tetchy (forgive the gross understatement) and even now border disagreements result in strong political tensions. These political tensions have strongly infiltrated everyday life. One class of students informs me that Japanese culture is all stolen from the Chinese, from the writing system to the food to the traditional dress. The architect of the World Financial Centre in Shanghai was forced to change the circular hole in the top of the skyscraper to a square, as the circle was considered too reminiscent of the Japanese flag. While walking down Dong Guan Street in Yangzhou I am shocked by a sign outside a restaurant. Although the English translation is poor and slightly comical (Decline in Japanese), the message is clear- no Japanese people are allowed to enter the restaurant. The students nod when I enquire about it- they know the place. The owner had family who were slaughtered in the Nanjing massacre. They shrug when I explain to them that in England restaurants could never deny entry to a certain nationality, regardless of the historical or current actions of their government or army. “China does not like Japan.”
Although I am not about to begin condoning the banning of an entire nation in a restaurant or the casual anti-Japanese sentiment I have become accustomed to in China, I would say that my trip to Nanjing has at least allowed me to begin to understand its source. It is difficult to read what I read and to see what I saw without feeling a surge of anger at the inhumane acts perpetrated against a defenceless population. It also allowed me to see the events of the 20th century on a wider scale. While we are all familiar with the battlefronts of the West, there were battlefronts in the East as well and while the UK was fighting a war, China was fighting its own.
While Nanjing ticked all the boxes as a vibrant, interesting and enjoyable weekend away, it also opened my eyes to an element of world history I had not previously considered and gave me an insight into the roots of modern China and some of its viewpoints. Incidentally, China carried on its fight with Japan all the way through World War II, holding them off and eventually emerging victorious, something many historians believe had a large effect on the outcome of the entire war. As we focus on our own role in the Second World War it is easy to forget the role of faraway lands. Perhaps we have more to thank China and its resilient people for than we first may think.