Each city in China I’ve visited so far is memorable because of its people. Mountains, rivers , markets and even some historical artifacts become the same from place to place, but the people I meet and interact with stand out. In Beijing it was Zhao Xing (赵星) and her roommates. In Guilin it was the taxi driver and the tour guides. In Shanghai it’s the caring friends and relatives. And in Nanjing it was my personal tour guide and his family; I’ll call him Mr. Zhang.
I met Zhang’s family in New York last year, when his wife was a post-doctoral student at NYU. We kept in touch, and somehow ended up on the same side of the globe again. Since his wife had to care for their child at home during the weekend I was in Nanjing, Zhang graciously took me around the city.
From the time I got off the bullet train at 9:30 am, it was a whirlwind tour of Sun Yat-Sen’s tomb, the old presidential palace, the city gate, the Confucius Temple, and the new shopping district. In between we also had a delicious lunch, with pigeon meat, and a variety of Nanjing street food.
The next day I awoke to their 7-year-old son wondering aloud why I still had not woken up, at 8 in the morning. He certainly lives out the “early to bed, early to rise” saying, which revives nostalgic memories of my own childhood bedtime of 9pm.
Our itinerary this day was the tomb of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, the former international settlement, and Xuanwu Lake, before heading to the train station. We had homemade dumplings and soymilk for breakfast, lamb hot pot for lunch and vegetarian food for dinner. I was stuffed after just two days.
The eating, Zhang said, is actually most important. More important than the tourist sites. Each place in China has a special kind of food, which for Nanjing includes salted duck and a kind of wild vegetable which only grows in the river here.
But the thrill of touching sculptures made more than 500 years ago at the Ming tombs, of standing at the top of the old city gate and feeling the bricks cast with the brickmaker’s name and location on each one, and experiencing so much history at once was simply incredible.
As an architect Zhang knew much about Nanjing’s city layout and history, and pointed out significant structures — such as an apartment complex which stood above what was once the city jail. Another road was named after the river which ran under it. In both cases, Zhang said, the places are known by what stands out historically, the jail and the river, rather than what presently exists.
Similarly, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is built over the skeletons of thousands of victims. Part of this burial ground is on display, to testify to the brutalities they suffered. While the memorial museum at Hiroshima focused more on the drastic effects of the radiation and heat on the people and city, at Nanjing were recorded the massive atrocities committed towards human beings, from slaughter to rape.
The museum, the memorial grounds and the records of those who lived through that time cannot fully express the terrors Nanjing experienced. But the city and its people were undefeated. They found strength to move on and develop Nanjing into a prosperous city with some of the country’s top universities, attracting students and professors from all over the country. New districts have risen outside the city wall, giving Nanjing a population of 8.1 million, about that of New York City.
Each person has a history, a story, and a perspective on life which, the older he or she grows, is worthy of hearing. For they are the ones who build cities.