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.

A small exhibition

Inside the Zhan garden in Nanjing, I came across a little exhibition of arts and crafts. All I could tell was that it was not in a contemporary style. The labels on the exhibits were written in calligraphic Chinese, which I find very hard to read. If you are able to read the poster in the gallery below, I would be very glad to have your help in learning more about what I saw.

I’m always fascinated by the Chinese imagery of horses. The rest of the world divides horses into two types of symbols: those of speed (think race horses), the other of plodding power (think of a draft horse). The Chinese view of horses is that of nearly untamed power; it is an achievement to tame it. I looked carefully at all the horses on display. Chinese calligraphic art makes it way into the design of plates. I love the acute observation and wonderful execution of the pictures of flowers and birds that you can see.

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.

The fashion pandas

The celestial animals of China never included the panda. But last month if you had walked through Xintiandi in Shanghai you would have thought that the panda was more important than the dragon. One looked at me very suspiciously as I walked into a mall. I felt like backing right out.

This grandpa clicking a selfie with his grand-daughter, wife, and daughter was a typical family in China. I never tire of people-watching in China. Families are so small that they no longer require the words for the complicated family relationships that are common all over Asia. Pandas know this; China is trying very hard to make pandas give up the one child policy.

A lonely panda is so sad. I stood next to one and took a photo. Of course this was an advertising campaign for a fashion event, but I don’t care. They are grumpy, uninterested in much except shoots and leaves. I still like seeing them on streets.

Moving art

I saw very little street art in Nairobi, but there was a lot of art on the streets. It was on the private buses and matatus which you can see everywhere on the roads. Here is a small gallery of this art, collected as I was driven around the streets of the city. I was told that some of the artists charge a lot for the paintings. It is clear why. Enjoy paging through the gallery; just click on any thumbnail to open it.

Things, beautiful things

As a tourist in Kenya you will see a lot of handicrafts, from roadside stalls to museum gift shops. One thing you cannot miss seeing is the beautiful sense of design in every piece. Things for everyday use are sold on the pavement: from wooden furniture to beautifully decorated trays. I suppose these things are used by locals, but I could easily imagine us keeping one of these trays on our table as a fruit basket. Tourists are confronted with little (or big) carved pieces of stone or wood. They are beautifully decorated with the colours, lines, circles, and stippling that I began to identify as a local artistic idiom. Click on any of the images below to go into a better view of the merchandise. I really loved them.

All this beauty comes from a land which was systematically devastated by wars of slavery, during which able-bodied people were largely taken away captive. Who makes these, I asked now and then. Often the answer is mzee, a Swahili word meaning old man, used more as a term of respect than a description of age. If art like this is the remnant of the culture of this continent, I wonder what it will be like when it comes to a full flowering.

The perfect center of Nairobi

When I walked in through the doors of the Nairobi Gallery I knew there had to be something interesting about the small round lobby. The dartboard pattern of tiles on the floor pointed to the very center of the circular lobby, directly under the dome. Could it have held a Foucault’s pendulum at one time? I squinted up to the gallery and decided that the height did not look correct. The name of the cafe outside, Zero Point, should have alerted me if I’d paid attention to it.

But it wasn’t until I saw this plaque on the wall did the historical significance hit me. Nairobi was built in 1899 to be a railway depot on the Uganda Railway, which ran from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. The zero point would have been a survey benchmark in the construction of the railways by the British East India Company. By the time the railway was finished, Nairobi had begun to grow. After a major cholera outbreak in 1901, there was some talk of moving the township, but Railway engineers thought that it would remain an Indian township and could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.” Winston Churchill, traveling to see the railways in 1907 as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wrote that the place “enjoys no advantages as a residential site.” By then it was too late to shift the town.

By 1913, when the Provincial Commissioner’s office was constructed at this spot, Nairobi had “outgrown its swamp and tin-roof days”, as Beryl Markham writes in her book West by Night. Joseph Murumbi, independent Kenya’s second Vice-President, who eventually moved to this house, was two years old and living in India at that time. He moved back to Kenya and joined the African Union Party, becoming its general secretary in 1952, part of constituent assembly after independence, Foreign Minister, and finally the Vice-President, resigning at the end of 1966 and moving away from politics. The photo above shows a recreation of his study during the time that he lived here.

The core of the collection we saw was a bequest from his wife, Sheila Murumbi, to the Kenyan nation. The couple had been collectors of African art through their lives, and had encouraged the continuation of traditional forms in many ways. The lobby contained the two beautiful traditional carved doors which you see in the photos above. These are portals, so to say, through which you pass into the wonderful collection here. We were the only visitors during the two hours we spent here. Unfortunate, because it is a great collection, and a perfectly wonderful way to spend a morning when you pass through Nairobi.

Three African artists

When I saw the painting in the featured photo in Nairobi Gallery, I thought to myself “So like a Chagall.” Apparently Jak Katarikawe (born 1940 in Kigezi, Uganda, died October 19 2018) was sometimes called Africa’s Chagall for his whimsical paintings of elephants and cattle. In interviews he said that his sense of colour came from stained glass windows in the churches of Uganda. He was mentored by Sam Ntiru of the Makarere University’s art department, when he was a driver in the university. He moved to Kenya in the 1970s, and became professionally successful. This painting is probably from the 1970s.

Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 30 August 1932) experimented with techniques to make low-relief works through printing. The example in Nairobi Galery seems to be from his early experimental period when he started depositing bronze patinas on lino cuts. It would be interesting to see how he extended these methods over a large part of his lifetime, first using resin and plaster of Paris (which he called Plastographs), then metal foil, and finally artificial polymers which look like ivory.

Salih Abdou Mashamoun was born (in 1946?) in the village of Debeira in Wadi Halfa, Northern Sudan, which was inundated by the building of the Aswan High Dam. He was a poet and artist, and a Sudanese diplomat until the country became an Islamic state. In an interview, Mashamoun says that he was mentored by Seif Wanley in Alexandria, where he entered the university in 1964. He was the featured artist in the African Heritage exhibition in Nairobi in 1976 when it burnt down, so that much of his early work is now lost. This work, a gouache on stretched goatskin, is one of the two which were saved. It is from the period just before the fire.

These three artists whose works I saw in Nariobi Gallery stand at the beginning of the contemporary art of post-colonial Africa. It will be interesting to go back to Nairobi and explore the directions that their successors are taking.