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.

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.

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.

Three doors and a window

Every Chinese garden has doors: either the mystic moon doors, or the mysteriously locked doors of various pavilions. The Ming era Zhan garden of Nanjing was no exception. This is supposed to have belonged to the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who then gave it to his general, Xu Da. This one also had ornate windows in pavilions where you could sit and look out at the garden (featured photo). The pavilion faced a beautiful pool, and the view out of the window did not look that good.

One of my favourite photos of doors I this garden was of this unassuming door at the side of a large pavilion which contained part of the museum of the Taiping revolution. It wasn’t the door itself which fascinated me, the the beautiful courtyard, and the view into the illuminated space of the museum.

This black stained door in a white wall, with brass fittings and a lock was exactly the kind of mysterious door I had noticed elsewhere. What could lie behind it? Historical archives or gardening tools? There is nothing that tells you about the space behind. Quite mysterious.

This looked like a special moon gate to me. Most moon gates are simply round openings in walls. This has a couple of extra notches cut into it. Is that meaningful, or just a decorative touch? I don’t know.

Zhan garden

One of the walks I’d planned in Nanjing included one of the five most famous gardens of Southern China: the Zhan garden. This Ming-era garden was given its present name by the Qing-dynasty Qianlong emperor when he visited the garden, perhaps in the mid-18th century. I’ve been walking through Chinese gardens, puzzling out their aesthetics, and a chance question by a colleague allowed me to reflect on what I’d seen. Sharing a taxi to the airport, he asked “Are they like Japanese gardens?” I thought for a while. Yes, perhaps in their cultural importance they are. But architecturally they are different.

They seem to be laid out in a series of areas connected by passages or moon gates. The most popular area in the Zhan garden is near the western entrance, with a large pool, multiple pavilions, willow trees drooping gracefully into the water (featured photo). This is a wonderfully pretty spot, and a magnet for people taking photos of loved ones, or selfies with them. But linking different scenes is part of the architectural design. So you can walk from here into the southern rockery, with its massive pile of stones and trees. Once you get past that you are in a pool again, surrounded by rocks. This pool held a couple of very sleepy black swans. You could walk across stones into a pavilion, and pass through it into a bamboo grove where a large tribe of sparrows were chirping and flying around. Then somehow there was the sound of falling water, and I walked through a moon gate to see an artistically constructed waterfall in front of me. Trees, flowers, birds, even a cat or two, still and flowing water, a succession of sounds, these seem to make up Chinese gardens. Now that I’ve started paying attention to these gardens, I think I have to keep looking at more.

A fun show

At one end of Wuhan’s Han Street entertainment area is the Han Show Theatre. Modeled after Chinese red lanterns, the architects Steven Chilton and Marc Fisher (who was the director of the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics) created a theatre that made it difficult not to have my jaw drop. What looks at first sight like a grandiose stage swings away to create a deep swimming pool. The front seats draw back from the pool area. Behind the immense stage three screens descend to form a backdrop on which videos play.

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I got to see the Han Show, crafted by the Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone. While watching the spectacular acrobatics and aquatics show I thought to myself that this was the Cirque du Soleil on a really grand Chinese scale. I was happy to find later that I was not mistaken; Dragone was one of the creators of the Cirque du Soleil. Given a 2.5 billion RMB investment from the Wanda group, the architects and directors created a ninety minute show that leaves you with a great big smile on your face.

At a late point in the show I realized that I did not have to take stills. So here is a video of a part of the show that was fun. Not as impressive as the forty meter high dive (one of the photos in the slide show above), but great fun.

Wuhan Railway Station

I hadn’t succeeded in buying train tickets from Wuhan to Nanjing and back on the internet before coming to China, so I decided to go and buy them at the station. Immediately after checking into my hotel, I took the subway and reached the station. This turns out to be very convenient: subway ticket vending machines, like ATMs, in China can be set to English before you start. And of course, the subway is the fastest way to get from anywhere to a railway station.

Wuhan’s new railway station was built in 2009 to serve the high-speed trains (G trains, 高速动车组列车, Gāosù dòngchē) on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Hong Kong and the Shanghai-Wuhan-Chengdu lines. Since these run on special tracks which allow speeds up to 350 Km/hour, these networks are newly built, and avoid older tracks and stations.

The 19th century was a great time for railways, as you can see even now if you go to some of the world’s iconic old railway stations: Gare (now Musee) d’Orsay in Paris or the Sirkeci Garı in Istanbul. Wuhan’s railway station, designed by the French company AREP, could become one of the iconic structures of the 21st century revival of railways. The sinusoidal roof is supposed to resemble a crane’s wings. The built up area with its third of a million square meters, can sustain a significantly expanded service in future. When I came back a week later to take the train, I found the boarding process very convenient.

Magic night

I flew in to Shanghai too late at night to fly out immediately. So I treated myself to a room overlooking the runway. There is nothing special and local about most airports, and Hongqiao airport looked like it could have been anywhere in the world. At night even a fairly empty airport looks wonderful. I showered and sat nursing a beer at the window, looking at the last few flights landing. One took off, very much to my surprise. Blinking red lights moved slowly across the tarmac. Blue and yellow lights showed these beached behemoths their way. The bellows of landing crafts were muted by the double glazing. I let the TV play its welcome tune on a loop until I went to sleep.

When I woke in the morning the airport was busy, but the sunlight had robbed it of its magic. It was just a vast expanse of dull gray concrete now. The screaming of jets taking off was just a background hubbub. I was in a hurry, and didn’t pay it much attention. I would have to ease myself into a flying tube too soon.

Another Safari Lodge

When we walked into our room in the lodge at Maasai Mara, I was simultaneously enchanted and mildly disappointed. Enchanted, because of the balcony which looked over a seemingly endless plain, with the Mara river faintly visible in the distance, and mildly disappointed at the size of the room, compared to the “tent” we had in Amboseli. Later, when we heard lions roaring at night, the sturdiness of the door which you see in the featured photo would become a major point of concern for The Family. As it turned out, we spent very little time in the room, and I thought I was quite satisfied with it.

I can’t say that experience of two safari lodges has given me any insight into the design of such facilities, but what I did notice was the effort that is made to blend in. This one sat on top of an escarpment, and was surrounded w=by giant masts for antennae. Someone had the interesting idea of disguising them as trees. It is laughable, because the masts were so much higher than trees, but at the same time, the idea was charming. The artificial lines of the lodge were almost hidden by the artfully placed trees around it. The disturbance to the local ecosystem was small enough that we could do a bit of bird-watching at breakfast.

I liked the colour scheme that had been chosen. The aesthetics of the earth colours was local, and the design elements of wavy lines and spots was also something I’d seen used by local artists many times. This skylight at the reception was eye-catching. This lodge was the closest to the equator that we’d spent: it was 1 degree, 24 minutes, and 9 seconds south of the equator, according to a board outside the lobby. The reason I was comfortable in a jacket after sundown was because we were also 1625 meters above mean sea level. Most of Kenya seems to have much more pleasant weather than India.

The Family and I agreed that the dining area was nice. The bright colour scheme and large doors made sure that there was always enough natural light during the day. If you wanted, you could take your food out into the balconies. The grasslands of Africa are not home to monkeys, so there was no chance that your food would be stolen, or worse, that you would be held hostage by a tribe of monkeys. Birds hopped on to the table as we ate, but they didn’t seem to be particularly interested in our food. This was a lodge we wouldn’t mind going back to.