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.

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?

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.

A gate to history

Walking along Zhonghua Avenue in Nanjing, I paused at this imposing European style gate to take a photo. It is unusual to find architecture like this in China. Even though the lock on the gate was executed in a Chinese style, the whole appearance screamed Europe. A little plaque on the wall next to the gate gave a brief time line of this school established by American missionaries at the very end of the 19th century.

Christianity has been present in Nanjing since the 14th century, and even seems to have influenced the Taiping revolution in a small way. But the presence of American missionaries between the mid-19th century and the Rape of Nanjing is now an obscure chapter in the history of Nanjing. Their arrival in the wake of the shameful Treaty of Nanjing causes official Chinese histories to ignore them. At the same time, their help, meager through it was, during the Rape of Nanjing is acknowledged. The result is a parsimonious acknowledgement as in this plaque, or the recently installed bust of Pearl Buck in the grounds of the university. I did not have time to explore Nanjing very well, but I can imagine myself tracing such histories in future.

Nanjing notes

An old China hand put the thought of visiting Nanjing into my head. I’d never thought seriously about it. The first thing to decide is when to go. Nanjing’s municipal corporation gives some help in deciding. They also have a page with suggestions for what to do if you visit for three days. I guess I’ll have only a short weekend in this town, between meetings, so I’ll have to be even more selective. Another website for travel to China which I’ve found useful over the years calls itself Travel China Guide. Its page on Nanjing is informative and deep, and roughly agrees with what the city suggests.

Nanjing seemed to drop out of history after the Ming Yongle emperor moved the capital to Beijing in 1420 CE. But it has played an important role in the rebuilding of modern China. One may trace the beginning of the end of Imperial China to the very unequal Treaty of Nanjing imposed on China by Britain in 1842 CE. The end of Imperial China came with the Wuchang uprising in 1911, and Nanjing became the capital of Republican China. It was captured by Japan, and over 6 weeks in 1937, between 40,000 and 300,000 civilians were massacred. During the Civil War, Communist forces captured Nanjing in 1949, since when it has been the capital of Jiangsu province.

Jiangnan, land of excellence and beauty;
Jinling, province of both emperors and kings!
In graceful curves are its surrounding jade-green waters
Gleaming in the distance, its ascending crimson towers.
Soaring gables flank the Causeway;
Drooping willows shade the Imperial Moat.

—“Air on entering the court” by Xie Tiao (464-499 CE)

Places to see

It’s hard to make a core list of things that I don’t want to miss in a short trip to Nanjing. After some consideration of how much I can walk at a stretch, and how often I need to look for food, I decided to break up my trip into a series of walks. I can be flexible about how many of these I do. One walk would take me from the Zhonghua Gate to the Confucius Temple. Another walk would take me to the ruins of the Ming Imperial palace and the Nanjing Museum. A third walk would be to the Purple mountain area where the tomb of the first Ming emperor is. Walk number four is would be around the Gulou area (the Drum Tower) and the Xuanwu lake, and the fifth would be in the downtown area of Xinjiekou.


I’m quite sure that in my walk around the temple area I’ll get to taste some of the sesame buns that Nanjing is famous for. I guess I’ll just mark some popular Tangbao places on my map, so that when I walk around I can pop into one or two to taste this specialty. I really want to compare it with Shanghai’s Xiaolongbao. Duck in brine (Yánshuǐ yā, 盐水鸭) and Duck’s blood vermicelli soup (Yā xiě fěnsī tāng, 鸭血粉丝汤) are definitely on the menu, and the web sites that I’ve browsed give me some idea of where to go looking for them. The seasonal delicacy at this time is hairy crab, and I guess I’ll just have to figure where to look for them.

Lucy and diamonds in the mud

The ancestors of humans may have lived in rain-forests or grasslands, deserts or river valleys, but much of our knowledge of our own deep history comes from a relatively few fossils, a large fraction of which are on display in the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. This was one place that The Family and I were determined not to miss. We’d left it till the last day of our stay, but we kept aside the whole morning for it. There’s a lot to see, and it does take a while.

Our understanding of human evolution can change when new fossils are found. But what we do know now is that about 7 million years ago the climate became drier, and the dense forests of Africa broke into a patchwork of grassland and forest. In this new and cooler earth, East African primates diverged from their ancestors and became bipedal. Early hominins included the genus Australopithecus. The near-complete skeleton of a specimen called Lucy stands in the outer hall of human evolution. This is a little older than 3 million years. It is amazing to see that they are small, just over a meter in height. At half the height of modern humans, it is not hard to believe the explanatory material which says that they were “prey as much as hunter”.

About 2.3 to 2 million years ago genus Homo seems to have become common, at least if one is to go by the fossils found in and around Lake Turkana. The skull of Homo rudolfensis (photo above) was found by Richard Leaky. It has a largish skull, with a brain volume of 750 milliliters. I thought the face looked a little primitive, so I was surprised to find that the brain was among the largest of its time.

In a case next to it was a skull of Homo habilis (photo above). This looked more like a human’s I thought, but its brain was smaller (about 650 milliliters). The skull was found by Louis Leaky in the 1960s, roughly ten years before Richard Leaky’s find. There was quite a crowd in this side gallery where these more modern pre-human remains are on display. Both these species were tool users; it seems that the technology of stone tools in older than Homo sapiens.

The star of the show is the near-complete skeleton of the Turkana Boy (aka “Nariokotome Boy”, photo above) found in 1984 by Richard Leaky. This is a skeleton of an 11 year old boy of the species Homo erectus, which had died 1.4 million years ago. To my untrained eye the spine looked like it belonged to something that walked on two feet, but apparently it is not so clear at all. There were years of controversy before experts began to agree. Homo erectus, with a brain of about 900 millilitres (a photo of a skull is below) , seems to have evolved about 1.8 million years ago, and could walk, run, and throw accurately.

Another thing that experts seem to agree on today is that H. erectus created the technology of the symmetrical and well-shaped “hand-axes” that you see in the featured photo (these are called Acheulian tools, and have been recovered from across East Africa and Asia) and traveled out of Africa into Asia, A million years later, the African population evolved into Homo sapiens, built better tools, and migrated out of Africa again to eventually take over the world. Many details remain unsettled, but this big outline has lasted for about 30 years as more fossils are discovered across Asia and Africa.

Little Swahili eats

Kaimati was not a food term I’d come across before I came across the deep-fried delights. These little balls of sweetened flour were crisp outside and fluffy and airy inside. What a pleasant surprise. Where did it come from? A little asking told me that this was coastal food. The East African coast has seen Indian Ocean trade for over a millennium, so it could have come from anywhere. In the far west of Kenya, where I ate this, I was also told it was Swahili food. That fits, because the Swahili are Arab speakers who diffused inland from the coast. Later, searching the web I found that it is a local version of the middle eastern Lugmat or Luqaimat. On the coast of Kenya it is known as Iftari food, something to have when you have your big meal at night after breaking your fast during the month of Ramazan. It is also said to be Iftair food in Muscat and Oman. That gives credence to the theory that it was carried along the western coast of the Indian Ocean by traders.

The basketful of samosas with minced meat got over awfully fast, and had to be refilled very often. I think of samosas as Indian food, but it seems that it comes out of Turkey. Trade brought it to India, where it changed. (Why not? Even the Big Mac changed, but it is a long and complicated tale which is best left to another post.) The Turkish version is filled with meat, but today the commonest variety in India has a spicy potato filling. You have to hunt for other fillings (two of my favourites are the spicy minced meat filling, and one which is filled with a mixture of lentils). In Kenya it is known as coastal food, so clearly brought here by trade. Did this come straight from Turkey, or from India? The spicy meat filling was redolent of an Indian influence. A toast to trade: raise your favourite tipple, whether it is made of wheat, sugar, potato, corn, or anything else which trade carried across the world.

Above the rift valley

45 million years ago the continental plate of Africa began tearing into three. About an hour’s drive westwards from Nairobi you get to see the long crack where the Somali plate is separating from the Nubian plate. We took the B3 Escarpment road and stopped at a gap between souvenir shops. It was early in the morning, and sun had not yet burnt the chill out of the air. We stood in the way of the upward rushing air and looked out at that enormous valley, thinking of the grasslands teeming with wildlife, and how in another 45 million years it will be part of the sea separating the continents of Nubia and Somalia.

I looked around at the shops around us. Several sold the usual carvings and paintings. But there were a few which sold sheepskin. I’m sure that this wouldn’t last long in the humidity and warmth of Mumbai. But some of the shops had nice paintings of animals. For that matter, the railing separating us from the long drop to the valley was also painted. We admired them and moved on.

The road drops steeply to the floor of the valley after this, and both of us kept looking out at that enchanting view. On the way back, a few days later, I noticed the distinctive flora of this region: the very tall African candelabra (Euphorbia ammak) also known as the Candelabra spurge. Just before the road climbed steeply I saw a church which looked totally out of place. As I took the photo, The Family noticed a signboard which said that it had been built by Italian prisoners of war during the second world war. That gave me a little handle with which to tease information out of the net. It seems that B3 was built by these same prisoners. The search also led me to a book called No Picnic on Mount Kenya, which is an account by one of the prisoners, Felice Benuzzi, who broke out of his camp to go and climb Mount Kenya. It is quite a read.

I leave you with a superb photo captured by The Family from our car as we made fitful progress through the horrendous traffic on B3 in the evening.