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This mighty city rivals Beijing as a mecca of monumental Chinese architecture and fascinating history
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Nanjing is less-likely to show up on the itinerary of your typical all-China tourist, but as its name suggests – the Southern Capital – this dynamic city is filled to the brim with history to rival the Northern Capital’s, Beijing, left behind by the Ming Dynasty and the Nationalists under whom Nanjing was the sole capital of China. Nanjing is also an attractive city with mountains, lakes, parks and its massive Ming-era city walls which still ring the city.
Below is a list of some of the things I did and enjoyed on my trips to Nanjing.
1. The Confucian Temple 夫子廟
In the past, aspiring Confucian scholars from throughout the empire would converge on this area to take the imperial examinations. Many of the historical buildings surrounding the temple itself, now a museum, have been preserved and converted into shops – transforming this neighborhood into one of Nanjing’s major shopping and entertainment centers.
2. The Zhonghua Gate 中华门
Along with Xian, Nanjing has some of the best preserved Ming dynasty fortifications in China and this gate is an excellent vantage point to observe the wall snaking off into the sprawling city. Construtcted in the mid 14th century, the gate’s name has changed over the years. The current name, Zhonghuamen meaning simply China Gate, was bestowed by the Nationalists who used the name in reaction to the Communist’s use of the name for a gate in Beijing – both sides insinuating that their capitals were the true representatives of Greater-China.
To get to the gate, you can take subway line 1 to Zhonghuamen station – get out at exit #2, cross the highway, turn right and keep walking until you get to Yuhua Lu, then turn left and keep heading straight to reach the Gate.
The gate is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., tickets cost 50 yuan.
3. Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall 侵華日軍南京大屠殺遇難同胞紀念館
One of the sites where you can go in depth into one of the high-casualty tragedies for which Nanjing is famous (the other being the Taiping Rebellion). There are two sections, the memorial hall and museum. The memorial hall is filled with grisly sculptures and anguished monuments to the terror of those weeks, along with an exposed mass burial site with the victim’s bones in view. And despite China’s reputation for nationalist grandstanding and vitriol regarding its World War II history, the exhibits in the museum are evenhanded and sobering. See my separate post about this site for more of my thoughts on it.
The site is next to the Yunjin Lu Subway station, free of charge, open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m and closed on Mondays.
4. Chaotiangong 朝天宫
This is a majestic Ming Dynasty palace complex, with an attached antiques market and the Municipal Museum. The original buildings were burned down during the Taiping Rebellion – the current structures date to the late 19th century.
The palace is near the Zhangfuyuan Station – Line 1.
5. Bailuzhou Park 白鹭洲公园
Like everything in Nanjing, this small and less-visited area of the city has an interesting history. It was once the estate of a Ming general. When the Manchus conquered the city, the neighborhood was the Chinese quarter. Finally, many of the historical structures in the park itself were destroyed in the Taiping Rebellion and not rebuilt until the 1950s.
The park is within walking distance of the Confucius Temple, but you can also take Subway Line 3 to Wudingmen Station, get out at exit 3, cross Changle Road and head right to the south gate of the park.
6. Taiping Kingdom History Museum 太平天国历史博物馆
The Taiping Rebellion was a bloody conflict that swept through China and upended its society. It occurred in the mid-19th century, roughly the same time as the American Civil War, though the Taiping Rebellion was longer and deadlier. Some estimates claim the rebellion resulted in more deaths than World War I. Begun by a failed imperial examinations candidate who, after dreaming of a bearded man and his son, believed he was the son of God and Jesus’s brother. He led his followers north from Guangxi and eventually captured Nanjing. The movement was highly ideological and endeavored to end feudalism, replacing it with an egalitarian, communal society in which women were afforded equal rights, in this way presaging the Communist movement in the next century.
The museum itself is set in a peaceful garden, once belonging to a Ming Emperor and later the residence of one of the Taiping Heavenly Princes, a setting that bears no suggestion of the chaos of the period. In the museum you can see Taiping currency, uniforms, weapons, maps and documents with English explanations.
The museum is within walking distance of the Confucius Temple, but you can also take Subway Line 1 to Sanshan Street Station, get out at exit 4 and head east on Jinshajing, turn left on Zhonghua Road, right on Jiaofu Alley and then right again on Jiaofuying to reach the east gate of the garden/museum.
7. The Presidential Palace 总统府
The various occupying forces that have invaded Nanjing over the past few centuries used this tract of land as a centers of government. From the Taiping Heavenly King, to the Qing Dynasty, to the Republican Nationalists under Sun Yat Sen, to the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai Shek – this bygone capital compound has changed hands continuously. Many of the Neoclassical structures were built by the Qing in the 19th century or by the Nationalists in the 1920s and 30s. There are extensive gardens in the Chinese traditional style attached to the more modern 20th century buildings. Here you can see the offices and meeting rooms used by numerous presidents and prime miniters of the past.
The palace is near the Daxinggong Station – Metro Line 1
8. Meiyuan Xincun 梅园新村
In between the Presidential Palace and the Ruins of the Ming Dynasty Palace, there is a narrow lane where you can find the former Chinese Communist Party office headed during the Civil War by Zhou Enlai who negotiated with the Kuomintang here after the Japanese surrender. There’s a museum in the original buildings where these meetings are commemorated, with the usual propaganda painting the meetings as prototypical examples of the magnanimity of the Communist Part and the duplicity of the Nationalists.
9. Ruins of the Ming Dynasty Imperial Palace 明故宫遗址
This quiet and plain expanse of stone and grass was once one of the most imposing palaces in the world, constructed as the residence of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, who began life as a peasant. The Ming palace in Nanjing was the prototype for the Forbidden City in Beijing, built by the Ming Emperor, Yongle, who relegated Nanjing to a reserve capital. The mighty palace in Nanjing was razed and disassembled by the Qing, Taiping Rebels and the modern Nationalist and Communist governments. However, you can still see the massive platforms of the Meridian Gate, the detailing on some foundation stones and what were once the inner and outer bridges of the Golden Water.
The ruins of the palace are along Zhongshan Dong Lu directly above Minggugong subway station – Line 2.
10. Purple Mountain 紫金山
This is my favorite spot in Nanjing, a vast area of old growth forest and mountain scenery on the outskirts of the city, jam-packed with historic sites (inlcuding one UNESCO site), tombs, temples and botanical gardens.
You could spend an entire day here, wandering the paths from site to site. The most famous points of interest are the tombs – the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum 明孝陵 the tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming Emperor Hongwu – and Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum 中山陵. Both are striking feats of architecture, one a prototypical example of Ming-era tomb building and the other of Nationalist-era monumental construction.
The Purple Mountain Observatory 紫金山天文台 is worth investigating. Light pollution from Nanjing has rendered the Observatory useless as a scientific research base, but today it houses a museum. The cable-car nearby is worth taking up to the top of the mountain for its views of the surrounding landscape and of the smoggy Nanjing skyline. It costs 35 RMB one-way and 60 RMB round-trip – you can also just huff it up the mountain.
Other interesting sites include the 14th century Wuliang or Beamless Hall, built of stone without a single wooden beam and the Linggu Pagoda, built in the 1920s to commemorate China’s war-dead and designed by an American architect.
To get to the scenic area, you can get out at three different subway station (Muxuyuan, Xiamafang and Zhonglingjie) all on Line 2, depending on which sites you want to prioritize.
You can buy a “Purple Mountain Pass” for 100 RMB which will include the price of some of the major sites, including the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. There’s also a cheap shuttle bus circulating through the scenic area.
11. 1865 Creative District Park
This is a trendy art district converted from late 19th and early 20th century factories and warehouses. There’s a hostel in this area that I’ve stayed in twice, and it’s a calm, quiet location where you can take a breather from the bustle of the city. The tranquility of the neighborhood reflects the fact that it hasn’t quite taken off as a hip hangout, probably because it was created by local government fiat rather than organically. Nonetheless, it’s a little-visited spot with some nice public art and good views of the city wall across the Qinhuai River.
To get here take Line 3 to Yuhuamen Station. Exit and head north to Yingtian Street under the big elevated overpass. Cross the street and turn right to reach the first gate into the park.
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