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.

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.

Days and nights

The first thing that strikes you about nights in China is how well-lit they are. After all, the magic of bright lights cannot have escaped a civilization which descends from the one that invented fireworks. I walked along a river and took this photo of a completely still evening.

Eateries are kitsch country. Wouldn’t your ice cream taste much better with a bunny in pain holding a plastic cone? And isn’t it necessary to create a garden, complete with butterflies in a restaurant?

Daylight reveals a more refined touch. Equally kitschy perhaps, but understated. One side of the river wears the look of a traditional garden, complete with weeping willows drooping down to the water, magpies in trees, banked moss, and flowers drying in the late autumn. A crew boats along the river, picking up trash and cleaning it. I’m always amazed by the fact that China, whose citizens litter as thoughtlessly as Indians, has conscientious cleaners who keep public places clean all the time. Money has to be invested in cleaning, and there has to be accountability at work. Magic works in strange ways.

Silversmiths

Chinese shops often employ people to stand outside on the road and announce the deals that you’ll miss if you walk past. Since I follow very little Chinese, most of this is lost to me. But a jewellery shop is different, and I have paused at many to take a look at the fellows working away in full sight.

This time I remembered to take a video. The loudest noise comes from the guy whose job it seems is to hit his hammer on the anvil, and never make contact with the piece of silver he holds.

Chu river, Han street

Some of the most scenic parts of Wuhan lie around its East Lake. From this, a little canal called Chu River runs westwards. On one bank a shopping and entertainment street was inaugurated in 2011, to commemorate the centenary of the Wuchang Revolution which led to the founding of the Chinese republic. I found it interesting that the Wanda Group, one of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered in China, invested 50 billion RMB in this development. At one end of the street you see the Wanda Plaza, the colourful blob of light which you see on the left of the featured photo.

In the next few days I would spend a bit of my little leisure hours in this entertainment street, but today, after an early sea food dinner, I decided to cross the canal and walk down the dark, but pleasant, walking path on the other side. This turned out to be a brilliant place from which to view the street.

As the Chinese middle class expanded, the opportunities for entertainment groups increased rapidly. A street full of shops, restaurants, and bars looks glitzy and modern, and you may take it to be a fake China, but it is not. It is just the 21st century avatar of the Chinatown shopping streets which accounts of foreigners from the late Qing period describe repeatedly.

The newly built shop floors housed in low-rise blocks which look like 19th century warehouses, churches, and other Western-influenced building styles, should be taken light-heartedly. They are a fairy tale theme park where you come in the evenings to listen to a crooner belt out songs in English about diamonds for your baby next to expensive jewellery shops. The tall building at the extreme left of the photo above is an enormous hotel called the Wanda Reign, which stands at the other end of Han street.

The lobby is a grand place, as you can see from the photos above and below. The huge mural on the wall is made of jade. I wonder what fraction of the 50 billion RMB went into making this. I looked around at the gigantic sofas which are thoroughly dwarfed by this grand mural, and found one which I could shrink in to.

This China can be intimidating if you take it too seriously. But the way I deal with it is to think of it as a Disneyland. I don’t think I’m wrong to treat it like this. Walk out on to a street just after dark and look up at the gigantic buildings around you. You can count the lighted windows on the fingers of one hand. Many things in China are fairy tales, except the one piece of magic that really matters. A number of people about equal to the population of the USA was raised out of poverty and into the middle class in one generation.

Bicycle country

China could once have been named Bicycle Country (自行车国, Zìxíngchē guó). Although the balance has shifted to cars, bicycles and electric scooters remain a significant fraction of what you see on roads. It is not at all unusual to see loads of bicycles parked on roads. As I walked along a road in Nanjing I paused to take a photo of the parked bikes.

One of the side effects of taking photos is that you notice more about your subject than you would otherwise. So I suddenly realized that there were very impressive locks on the bikes. In my experience China is crime free; there are cameras everywhere, and watchers behind them: either human or AI. So this looked incongruous. This can’t be a country like Germany, where the general level of safety from threat does not include bicycles. If any Chinese were to complain about a stolen bike, the police would almost certainly be able to trace who had taken it.

Nor is Nanjing special in this respect. I took a photo of a rank of parked bicycles in Wuhan, and saw hefty locks again. This will remain a mystery to me until I learn enough Mandarin to have a casual conversation on the road about why people lock their bicycles.

It is also interesting that there seems to be no cultural difference between electric scooters and bikes. They follow the same traffic rules, and park together. The only difference I noticed is that in this season the scooters came with warm quilted jackets, which you could slip into as you sat down in the driver’s seat. It’s a great idea, and one that could easily be adapted to protect against rain in India. You must have noticed that the jackets were not locked to the scooter!

Curious kids

Of course all kids are curious and their growth depends on exploring the world. That is not what I meant though. It is that whenever I see a child in China I wonder about its social makeup. The one-child policy in China was implemented in the 1980s and has just ended. As a result, two generations of children have grown up in a tapering family tree. The rest of the world continues to have uncles and aunts, cousins and brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. Not in China. If both your parents were single children, then you have no uncles or aunts, no cousins. You and your parents have no brothers or sisters. Your parents have no nephews and nieces. And it is not just one or two isolated families, it is the only way of family for everyone in China. Forget all about the extended families of old sagas or Crazy Rich Asians. This loneliness is the reality of China. My mind works overtime at the simple sight of children playing in a park.