History is a door

It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.

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.

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.

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.