Weightless weekends

I’m always amazed by how much of a dedicated following kites have in China. Kites are a children’s pastime in India, and kite fights the ultimate competitive sport for some. There is esoteric school-kid knowledge about how to coat the string with ground glass, saw at another fighter’s string in the air, escape traps, create them, which kept some friends fired up. But most people outgrow them as they grow up. Budgets being limited to a school child’s allowance, Indian kites have not grown beyond basic paper squares stabilized by a tail, and the cane spinneret has certainly not evolved since my childhood. So when I saw the sleek gadget that the man in the featured photo holds in his gloved hand, I was entranced.

But then, on further thought, this evolution is natural. Kite flying is a big thing in China too, but here it is an adult pastime as well. The money available for innovation and attention paid to kites is a different magnitude. The kites are large and can be complicated. I watched a group of enthusiasts gather in the garden in Nanjing which used to be the Ming palace six centuries ago. They came with their big kites, heavy gloves, and other paraphernalia. I watched as they put together the equipment. Telescopic metal frames, and lightweight fabric for the kites, comfortable spinnerets, nice gloves, a little game of cards (always a must in China), and then they were ready to fill the sky with darting and colourful shapes.

Chinese tradition says that kites were invented by two Confucian scholars, Mo Zi and Lu Ban, in the time of the Warring States (5th to 3rd century BCE). Tang-era (7th to 10th century CE) stories talk of flying kites for pleasure, and Ming-era (14th to 17th century CE) documents talk of the art form that kites had become. I was happy to dedicate a little part of my afternoon to watching an ancient Chinese custom.

The Emperor’s Tomb

The final decades of the Mongol reign over China were turbulent: dissident religious sects revolted, peasants were restless, military adventurers calling themselves the successors of ancient dynasties rose. A penniless orphan from Anhui province, Zhu Yuanzhang, was adopted by one of the Buddhist sects (the Red Turbans) and rose to become a successful warlord, and eventually the founding emperor, Huangwu, of the Ming dynasty. 1368 CE is taken to be the beginning of his thirty year reign.

He established his capital in Nanjing, and, in 1381 CE, began constructing a grand tomb for himself in the Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan) to the north east, just outside the walls of the city. I walked down part of the imperial Spirit Way in the company of many of the descendants of the emperor’s subjects and reached this stgone archway at its end. The only thing I can read in the calligraphy above the gate is the word “gate”. When I compare this gate to the weathered stone of the statues along the Spirit Way, it is clear that this is a recent structure.

The Ming Xiaoling is still a little way down the beautiful sun-dappled road. In 1382 CE the Empress Ma died and was buried in this tomb. Her name Xiao Ling, is now part of the name of the tomb. The Ming part of the name Ming Xiaoling refers to the emperor, who was also buried here. The weather was perfect. I’d walked for about an hour, and I sat on one of the benches along this road and sipped some water. I could hear some birds, but my eyes were too dazzled by sunlight to see them properly as they hopped around in the shadows under nearby bushes.

The road rose a little, and then there was a little brook, with a bridge over it. From the bridge I took the photo that you see above: my first view of the major structures remaining of the tomb. The feng shui was perfect: water in front, mountain at the back, on a perfect north-south axis, facing south. You don’t expect an emperor to cut stint on his spiritual eternity, when a little bit of geo-engineering can fix it.

The great triple-doored gate, Wenwu Fangmen (文武方门 pinyin: Wénwǔ fāng mén) is a great attraction all by itself. There was a queue of people waiting to take photos, of themselves or friends, in front of one of the impressive doors. I was happy to have this opportunity for ambush photography. The imperial yellow of the roof, the line of tiles just below, and the honour guard of guardian figures at the ends of the roof (featured photo) were all worth pausing to see.

Just after Wenwu Fangmen was a lovely area which was in full use by photographers. This was my idea of heaven: so many opportunities for ambush photography! It seems that fallen maple leaves, perhaps fallen leaves of any kind, have become important cultural objects. I wonder whether this is just modern day photo posts, or is there an older resonance to it? When you start photographing photographers and their subjects, you start noticing the tropes that are local favourites. Another obervation: one of the wonderful things that a truly ancient civilization realizes is that people need to use toilets. The Zijin Shan area has many, and there’s even one inside the tomb complex.

Just beyond this was a Tablet Hall with a stele bearing an inscription by the Kangxi emperor of the Qian dynasty attesting to the greatness of the Ming. The turtle which bear the stele is in great demand by photographers, so I moved out to take a photo of the structure. This one has a slate roof with finials in the form of a fish. The fish finial is very common in Japanese architecture, but I haven’t noticed too many in China. An emperor uses the dragon and its sons as motifs, so maybe the combination of the fish and a slate roof seemed to indicate that this structure was not built by an emperor.

Beyond this was an area desolate in terms of architecture, but converted now into a beautiful garden. I understand that there were old structures here which have fallen into ruin. A few small structures remain: like the altar in the photo above. A gusty breeze had set in, shaking leaves off trees. It was a charming sight, to stand under these tall trees and watch showers of brown leaves. Unfortunately, you need a wide-angle and a zoom simultaneously to capture the feel of such a place, so I downed my camera and stood there magicked into stillness.

You exit this area through another triple gate. The shadows of trees on this great wall somehow captured, for me, a sense of this magical square: the crisp weather of a late autumn, the sunlight, the beautiful tall trees slowly losing their leaves, and the calmness of a constantly visited tomb. I was happy to have chosen to take a long walk on such a beautiful day.

I was almost at the heart of the tomb now. I was boxed into a narrow open space with the final Spirit Tower, called the Ming Lou. As I took a photo of the two-story tower, a dry leaf slowly dropped in front of me: close enough to be clearly visible in the final photo, far enough to be in focus. Chance favours the prepared camera. It was now time to climb.

It was a warm time of the day. After climbing up to the huge parapet of the Spirit Tower I rummaged in my backpack for the little package of oranges I’d bought the day before. I love these little juicy oranges. Eating oranges in the mild sunshine of an Indian winter are some of my best childhood memories, and sitting on that sunny parapet on this autumn day, finishing off the oranges brought me to a happy place. The northern side of the Spirit Tower faces the mound under which the Emperor Ming Taizu, ie, the Hongwu Emperor, and his consort Empress Ma, called the Xiaoling Empress and buried. I walked around to take a photo of the mound.

The light was good enough for me to try to take a photo of the top of Ming Lou. I like the intricate woodwork of the roof, and I must sit down and educate myself on this some day. Nothing about imperial tombs are accidental, and there must be symbolic meaning to each detail. I wondered how often this tower and its roof have been renovated. Certainly once after the Taiping Revolution, but perhaps several times again since the century and half after that.

On our first visit to China, The Family and I had taken a guided tour to the tomb of the Yongle emperor, son of the Hongwu emperor. On that tour, near Beijing, the guide told us many things which we would not have otherwise known. Among them is the ancient custom that when you leave a tomb you take a side path, and you don’t look back. Following that custom, I discovered a lovely thing which I would have missed otherwise: a forest of steles carried on the backs of Bixi. A bixi is the son of a dragon and a turtle, has the qualities of a dragon, and also the life and strength of the turtle. One of them looks like it could be a Ming-era sculpture. The other looks like a modern concrete replacement.

The Spirit Way

When I made up my mind to try and visit the tomb of the first Ming emperor on the Purple mountain (Zijin Shan) of Nanjing I knew that I would not be alone. My experience in China is that parks are a magnet for families on Sundays. I expected crowds, and family photographs to be taken.

There was a lot of digging and replanting on the mountainside, and many roads were closed. The marked path led me to join the great Spirit Way to the tomb in the middle. I saw a pair of animal statues flanking the road, facing each other. What were they? Lions? No, they had scaly bodies. Maybe the Suan Ni, the offspring of a lion and a dragon? Wrong again. A plaque told me that they were Qilin. That made cultural sense: this mythical creature is seen at the passing of a great ruler. The Hongwu emperor would certainly have built a few on his own Spirit Way. But these are without the single horn that they normally sport. The young man you see in the photo had already been photographed by his father, but seemed to like the beast too much to leave. I thought I would take the two of them together.

After the Qilin come the horses; two pairs of them, one pair kneeling, the other on its legs. It is possible to photograph these statues without people if you wait long enough. But this was a popular set of statues, and it would have taken a long time. I might as well do some ambush photography, I thought, and took the photo that you see above.

After the horses the road turns (the featured photo shows the pillars at the turning). This is deliberate, and is supposed to deter demons who travel only in straight lines. Autumn is a lovely time to visit this place, as you can see from the photos here. The road is lined with beautifully spreading trees which threw dappled shadows across the path. Old postcards that I’ve seen show a bare hillside stretching to the tomb. The trees are then recently planted, and quite likely after 1984.

The statuary on this second segment of the spirit path probably represent officials. The first pair wore swords and carried maces. An ordinary soldier would not come so close to the tomb of the emperor. These had to be generals, I decided. They were less popular with families, so it wasn’t so hard to take photos of these. I liked the dappled light and the autumn colours. Perhaps spring would be equally nice in a different way. Walking up the hill in summer would be uncomfortable, I think.

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The last set of statues before the gate of the tomb were probably bureaucrats. This seemed to be popular with young men. I think the statue of the mandarin looks quite happy to pose with this young man. I’ve taken a photo with and without the youngster so that you can decide which one you prefer. The Hongwu emperor started building his tomb in 1381, and died 18 years later. I thought that this early Ming artwork has stayed remarkably untouched by the many upheavals that China has gone through.

The Purple Mountain

I’d two alternatives planned for Sunday morning in Nanjing. If the weather was good, I would go up to Zijin Shan, the Purple Mountain, and visit the Xiaoling tomb of the first Ming emperor. On the other hand, if it rained or it was too cold, I would go off to see the famous Nanjing Museum. As it happened, it was a beautiful autumn day, crisp and cool, and I felt very well rested after a long sleep, and ready for a good walk. I wasn’t sure that the autumn colours would still persist into the middle of November, but it had been a warm month, and I was lucky. The first view of the area was stunning, as you can see in the featured photo.

It was a lovely day for a walk, and clearly a large number of people had come to the same decision. The Purple Mountain covers a large area, but Nanjing is a large town. The place was crowded. When I’m not on the track of birds or wildlife, I don’t mind crowds. I walked along with Chinese families, groups of friends, couples out to enjoy themselves. A sunlit meadow surrounded by maple trees drew my attention. I sat on a bench below a tree and shed my sweater. The leaves were turning colour above me. It was wonderfully restful, but after a week of sitting in meetings, I wanted to spend the day walking.

Later, when I got back to the stream I walked along it. In the beautiful light even dry twigs could be beautiful. Families had claimed bits of the river bank for a while, to take photos of each other, or to sit down for a picnic. I sat and took photos of the beautiful autumn.

The weeping willows which dip their leaves into the flowing water were turning colour. How does one capture the warmth and the sunlight? Perhaps by concentrating on little details like the backlit leaves.

Little dry leaves floated down the river. I took a few photos. It was time to go.

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.

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?

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.

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.