Open Sesame!

I walk into food stores whenever I can. There’s no better way to figure out, for example, that sesame candy is a big thing in China. Now sesame was domesticated first in India, sugar was first refined in India, and it makes sense that the two would have been put together in India. Since it is widely available across India, I never gave it a second thought. But as I began to travel in east Asia, I noticed that Koreans and Chinese also think of exactly the same sweet as their own. I bought a few packets of this Chinese tilgud as a novelty to be handed to various people in India. Every one had the same reaction, “Oh they eat it too! What do they call it?”

The Chinese name is the same as the Hindi name: 芝麻糖, to be pronounced zhīma táng. If you don’t know Hindi or Chinese, you could say sesame sweet instead; it would also mean the same. The sweet has travelled both east and west, and is now found right across Asia. It is also conspicuous by its historic absence in the west; the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets fails to mention sesame even once. Whatever its origin, I hope some historian sits down and tries to figure out how it travelled. It must be a fascinating story.

Hallucigenia

In the last thirty years there has been an explosion of fossil discoveries in China. These have added significantly, perhaps even revolutionized, much of our earlier knowledge of some geological eras. I knew that museums in China have wonderful collections of fossil dinosaurs. I was surprised to find that the new discoveries span a much longer history. The Cambrian, which started about 540 million years ago, and lasted for over 50 million years, is part of this. Our earliest knowledge of the biota of the Cambrian came from the Burgess Shale, found in Canada in 1909. The slow fragmentation of the large super-continent of Pannotia, its warm coastal seas, and the complete lack of land plants still supported an immense variety of aquatic life. One of these animals was the Hallucigenia whose fossil from the Chengjiang shales I saw in the natural history museum in Shanghai.

Model of pre-Cambrian animal Hallucigenia

The fossil looks like a crude sketch. It was first described in 1977, when it was reconstructed upside down and front to back. Walking on seven pairs of spiny legs while waving seven tentacles on its back made it something that could be dreamt up on a trip, hence the name Hallucigenia. It turned out that the blob at one end of its body is not its head, but the contents of its guts squeezed out by the clay which buried it. Finally, with electron microscopy, in 2015, a final picture could be created not only of the way it looked, but also how it walked (what a difference good optics makes!). What the animation above does not show is the circle of teeth around the throat, and that is new information which connects it to the family tree of insects. It was once thought that most of the Cambrian animals left no descendants; this may not be true.

People-watching on weekends

Weekends in China turn out to be pretty hectic for me, since I tend to plan to do much too much during that time. Sometimes it is a relaxed hour in a park. Others also seem to have the same idea. It is nice to see a bunch of pensioners soaking up the mild winter sun in the Minggugong park of Nanjing. But most of China seems to work at a different pace.

The crowd outside Fuzi Miao was a little denser. The age distribution was typical of such places in China, mostly young people, some a little older. That soundtrack is very useful when you are practicing the language. Try picking out the snatches of conversation you hear. I fail this kind of test pretty comprehensively. Still, a person from Mumbai can feel pretty comfortable in the middle of a crowd like this.

Metro stations are usually full of people in a hurry. And Xinjiekou station in Nanjing does have long corridors to hurry down. You don’t expect to see someone doing something worth taking a photo of. But I can’t pass up an opportunity for ambush photography, can I?

On the subway, hanging on to a strap, I feel as sleepy as this pair. Just a few stops, I tell myself. And then a few steps, and then I can hit the bed. Looking forward to it, now.

The Confucius Temple of Nanjing

Most temples that you see in China today have been reconstructed in the past couple of decades. To a tourist they look similar, partly because they fill the same social purpose in different cities. But the one in Nanjing is historically special. When the Ming Hongwu emperor won his bloody wars against the Mongol Yuan empire, he was not very fond of the Confucian scholars, and depended more on his eunuch advisers. But as a practical matter, he was eventually forced to enlist this cadre into his bureaucracy. This temple was the center of learning which then eventually supported the Ming empire, and was often at loggerheads with the Confucian scholars of Beijing.

After sunset the area around the Confucius temple (Fuzi Miao) comes alive with people. It is a shopping area, food street, and entertainment district all rolled into one. I threaded my way through the crowds, and walked into the temple. The present structure is said to date from 1869 CE, but has clearly been renovated more recently. It was established here in 1034 CE during the Song dynasty (which also instituted the civil examinations).

I walked up to the huge brazier in the forecourt which holds incense sticks, because I always find something interesting going on here. The first time I visited China I was struck by the huge numbers of young people offering incense at temples, and was told that they pray for good luck in the college entrance examinations: the Gaokao. I’d wondered since then whether the fervent prayers at temples are driven by the perception of a cultural continuity between the old imperial exams and their modern version, the Gaokao.

Further on I came across some lovely visuals. A huge brass pot stood in one corner of the first courtyard, filled with water and with candles floating on the surface. Historically, Confucianism had at its heart a set of rituals and sacrifices, centered around the emperor. Along with this, its emphasis on the family and kin groups made it a way of preserving a way of life even through the many political upheavals that China went through. The temple was burnt during the Japanese occupation. Confucianism was looked upon as a part of the ossified cultural baggage of imperial China, and the remains of the temple were vandalized extensively during the Cultural Revolution.

A conscious decision was taken in 1985 to revitalize the remnant of the market area around the derelict Fuzi Miao. The crowds that I saw on the Saturday have been part of what is said to be China’s most successful urban heritage restoration for the last three decades. The early restorations were the tasteful white walled buildings with the upward sweeping tiled roofs that I had seen from the city walls. The restoration of the temple came somewhat later. The ritual sacrifices of the Song, Ming, and Qing eras are no longer performed, but crowds are happy to participate in the lesser rituals: the offering of incense, the tying of memorial tablets, the ringing of bell and drum.

There is a small museum inside the complex. This apparently dates from the early republican period. One of the items on display which caught my eye was this beautifully decorated chair. I suppose this is one of the sedan chairs on which imperial bureaucrats travelled. Although not made “of beaten gold”, as 16th century European travellers wrote, the work on it was remarkable. Early western visitors to China were extremely impressed by the power wielded by the bureaucracy, and the deference showed to them. It was remarkable that anyone could become a bureaucrat after passing the examinations, provided, of course, they could afford to pay for their studies. In 1381 CE, 14 years after the beginning of Hongwu’s reign, this temple was renamed as a State Academy and expanded its tradition of training people in Confucian learning. It continued doing this until the Republican government abolished the exams.

This piece of calligraphy is likely to be famous. I find myself totally unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing (my reading of this tablet is the unlikely piece of wisdom “tired people blow up”). One consequence of the importance of imperial examinations was widespread literacy. Anyone could study and become an imperial officer. John Keay presents an estimate that between 10 and 20% of the Chinese population was prepared to the first level of the imperial exams in the 16th century. This is a remarkable achievement when basic literacy figures were much lower in the rest of the world. I walked out of the complex thinking about the early start that China had on all the components of modernism, and its strange historic inability to build a new world with these tools. A century of Chinese scholars have spent their lives thinking the same thoughts, and surely their work will be worth reading.

A what-if of history

I’d quite forgotten a bit of history when I made my plans for Nanjing, but bits of it came back to me as I looked at the boats cruising the Qinhuai river in front of the Great Spirit Screen (photo above). After the Ming Yongle emperor consolidated his power, his attention turned to the west. The northern Silk Route through Gansu again became active as he began trading with Herat and Samarkand, where Timur’s successor Shahrukh reigned. Although the emperor moved his capital to Beijing, this place became the nucleus of a forgotten but grand era in Chinese history. The admiral Zheng He was ordered to build a fleet and sail down the Yangtze river into the Indian Ocean. The seven voyages took place between 1405 and 1431 CE. This was the first and last time before the 20th century that a Chinese navy ventured so far.

By day and night the lofty sails, unfurled like clouds, continued their star-like course, traversing the savage waves as if they were a public thoroughfare.
— Zheng He’s diaries, quoted by John Keay

What I began to remember in fragments was that the Qinhuai river became the site of one of the greatest shipyards of the 15th century. The shipyard was situated upstream, at the place where the Qinhuai river meets the Yangtze, not far from the present day Yangtzijiang tunnel. I had to look up the details later in the writings of Edward Dreyer. He estimates that the Ming treasure ships were over 130 meters long and with a beam of about 50 meters. Zheng He’s fleets contained between 100 and 300 of these ships, each with a displacement of about 20,000 to 30,000 tons. In comparison, Vasco da Gama’s flag ship, Sao Gabriel, had a length of 27 meters and width of 8.5 meters. His fleet consisted of 4 ships. Ibn Battuta reports seeing treasure ships during his travels. Even troop ships travelling with the fleet were as large as Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, launched in 1765. The engineering achievement of the shipyard of Nanjing was clearly ahead of its time. I wish there was something to see of this great shipyard, but apparently there is nothing.

We stopped at the usual civilizations: Champa, Java, Palembang, Semudera, Atjeh, Pahang, Malacca, the Maldives, Ceylon, Cochin, and Calicut.
— Zheng He’s diaries, about the voyage of 1417-19 CE

Zheng He’s ships visited Qui Nhon in central Vietnam, passed through the Straits of Malacca, anchored in Calicut, and sailed on to Hormuz, Aden, and, once, all the way to Mailindi. The Indian Ocean trade was at its height at this time, and Zheng He’s voyages managed to bring a lot of merchandise back to China. However, many at the court saw the shipyards and voyages as needless expense, and after the Yongle emperor was buried, the shipyards were closed and the voyages were forgotten. A large part of this is ascribed to Chinese factional politics, Confucian scholars and bureaucrats resented the power of the eunuchs, which included Zheng He. It was interesting to spend a few idle moments on the banks of Qinhuai thinking about the path not taken by China. What if there had been an active Chinese navy in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean during the age of Ottoman and European expansion? How different could history have been?

The future is another place

I sat in a crowded and noisy food court in an airport. I’d just found that my flight was delayed by over an hour, making it certain that I would miss my connection and therefore reach home only in the early hours of the morning. I didn’t feel like working, so I got myself a large beer. The last time I passed through this airport, almost a year ago, the whole clan was here, and our chatter must have added to the white noise which I now noticed around me. I’d spent the clan holiday taking group portraits posed as action movie posters. But I’ll not bore you with reminiscences. If you bear with me, I propose to bore you with a rant.

I sat and stared at a large TV screen. For some reason it was playing a non-Bollywood Hindi karaoke. The lyrics scrolled across the screen as some half-familiar female model appeared in beautiful locations: “I was sent from heaven for you.” The horrible story which had dominated headlines for the last week was in my mind: a young doctor abducted from a road, gang raped and burnt to death.

This song was a reflection of an entitled male mindset: you are the apple of heaven’s eyes; women are sent for you. Consent is heaven’s prerogative. Many ancient Bollywood songs were love songs and duets, couples singing about their eternal love for each other. Those songs were set in the same unrealistic locations, but they implied mutual attraction and consent. How did they morph into this sexist song? The past was a foreign country, they did things differently there. But the future can also be a different country. I look forward to the pop culture of a more consensual future. Some of it is already being made. Will others please come forward to make it?

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

Food street, not for tourists

I love walking through the food streets of China. There is always something interesting to see and taste. That’s why I was looking forward to the food street near the Confucius Temple of Nanjing. But I was in for a rude shock. It seems that they took payment only through your phone app: Alipay or WeChat. As far as I can tell, these are connected to your Chinese salary accounts, and therefore closed to tourists. The Chinese are great business-people and hate to lose customers, but either the crowds or the language barrier prevented the shopkeepers from telling me how to pay.

Disappointing in one way, of course. But the sight of a food street always perks me up. So I had great fun walking around, examining things, looking at people, and taking photos. You can see the results in the gallery above. As always, click on any image to get to a slide show.

Just outside the street was a booth with a robot waiting for someone to pay for an ice cream. There was a crowd pressed up against the glass of the booth clicking away as avidly as me. Eventually one lady decided that she wanted a frozen yogurt and paid for it, so that I could take the video I’d wanted to take.

I wasn’t left hungry, of course. I walked into a lane full of sit-down restaurants and one of them had both the Duck’s blood and vermicelli soup and the pot stickers which are some of the specialties of the Nanjing style of food. For those of you who are sitting on the edge of your bar stool, no the liquid in the soup is not blood. The duck’s blood is used to make blood sausages pieces of which you can see floating in the soup in the photo above. Having had blood sausages half way across the world, I found this rather less than exciting.

Getting to the Confucius Temple

My ultimate aim for my first day’s walk in Nanjing was to get to the Confucius Temple area around dinner time. I’d marked out two other things I wanted to see on the way: the Ming-era Zhan garden and the Zhonghua wall within the Tang-era city wall. It’s bound to be a long walk, I thought as I got off at the Sanshanjie matro station. As I looked for the correct exit, a large mural on the wall (featured photo) told me that I was at the right place.

The Confucius temple is not far from the metro station. It is a short walk from the Zhan garden, but the walk to the wall meant a bit of a detour. I had time for that. I’d guessed that it would be good to be at the wall during sunset, and in the neighbourhood of the temple afterwards. This was a good guess. As I approached the temple, next to Qinhuai river, famous in history for its courtesans, the nine dragon wall lit up for the night. Judging by the stir in the crowd here, people had been waiting for the moment when I happened to arrive.

The origins of the Confucius temple may be a millennium old, but the buildings had fallen into disrepair until refurbishing began in 1984. The Dragon Wall and the symbolic gate (Tianxia Wenshu, photo above) probably come from this period of reconstruction. I would be very happy if someone could point me to any photo of these structures from before 1984.

Walking on a wall in China

One of my targets for the first day’s walk in Nanjing was the Zhonghua gate. When the Hongwu emperor founded the Ming dynasty and made Nanjing the capital of his kingdom in the second half of the 14th century, he decided he needed to defend it well. The southern and western parts of the city were already defended by a wall built during the Tang period (between the 7th and 10th centuries). The Ming emperor added new sections to the east and north and completely walled in the city, and also added fortifications to the Zhonghua gate in the south.

I marveled at the thickness of the three concentric layers of walls. They have guard posts built into them. Some of these rooms now house art installations and exhibitions. Others are just locked up. I gawked at the barbicans, and the grooves through which thick wooden gates could be lowered in a hurry if enemies were spotted. I could sprain my back taking a photo (above) of the 20 meter high wall at the southern end while standing in front of the gate.

It was much easier to stand just inside the outermost gate, and take a shot along the entrance (looking north, photo above) of the four concentric gateways. I happened to be there the day before the Nanjing city marathon. When I looked at the news a couple of days later I found that over 55 thousand people had registered for the 30 thousand spots available. It was open to anyone from any country who had a valid ID. The runners squeezed through this passage in the walls at one point in the race.

Steps led up the walls. As I climbed them I realized how easy they were on the knees. I wondered how old the steps were, could they be original? The steps up the Great Wall near Beijing, in Badaling, had been high and uneven, putting a lot of strain on the knees. Here, the slope and the height of the steps was such that I’m sure that even a reasonably mobile 70 year old person would be able to negotiate it.

I looked back towards the center of town from the top of the wall. The high rises occupied a large part of the city center, but the skyline did not sport the fancy shapes that you see in Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou. Closer to the wall was a thicket of charming old houses. These were roofed with red fired-clay tiles, and were not in good repair. At one end of a dense mass of them, some had been torn down, and a crane towered over the open land. I guess they will be replaced by newer buildings in a year or two.

Straight down the line of the gate was the busy Zhonghua Road. I stared at it for a while. Buses came down it at a slow pace, while cars sped around them whenever they could. At a large pedestrian island marked by zebra stripes, a lady had stopped her electric bike. These vehicles run along pedestrian pathways. They are battery powered, and therefore quite silent. I find that I’m often startled by one of them whizzing past me. This looked like a nice photo to take.

The other side of the Zhonghua Road had much fancier low buildings: white walls with black clay roofs and accents. Is this what is replacing the old neighbourhoods, I wondered. Later as I walked through the lanes between these buildings towards the Confucius Temple, I realized that many of them housed fancy shops and restaurants. So perhaps this is the shape of things to come. Unfortunate that the charming old tiled houses are being replaced entirely by these, but it is better than having high rise towers cheek by jowl with the 600 year old walls.

The huge area on top of the walls was full of people. It looked like you could take golf carts around the walls, or even bike along it if you wanted. People were doing both these things. Others strolled, or sat in groups and chatted. And, of course, some were having their wedding photos taken. I was happy to take the opportunity to do a little ambush photography on a Ming-era wall.