The strange thing about writing about Nanjing is how few pictures we have of it given how beautiful the city was. Maybe when I’m walking along I’ve gotten inured to all the beautiful lakes and parks and green spaces in Chinese cities, something that for me, at least, was utterly unexpected.
Now a city of somewhat over six million people, Nanjing has been a key city through much of China’s history. Currently the capital of Jiangsu Province, at various times it was the capital of China; the name Nanjing, in fact, means “Southern Capital.” (For what it’s worth, Beijing translates as Northern Capital.)
For me, the highlight was the 1,100-acre Xuanwu Lake and the parks surrounding it. The Chinese apparently have this thing about building walkways in lakes out to islands, creating gorgeous parkland for walking, running, reading, and so on. In this case there are five islands in the lake, and they’re all connected by artificial walkways that have become landscaped works of art. The islands are awash in temples, pagodas, fountains, flower gardens and just all sorts of beauty. I continue to be stunned by how beautiful Chinese urban parks are and by how much green space there is in these cities. I’ve suspected that since we’re staying in tourist areas that maybe we have just been lucky, seeing the best parts of the city we’re in at the moment. But according to Wikipedia, at least, Xuanwu is listed by the city of Nanjing as merely one of the five top parks in the city.
In the West, at least, Nanjing is best known as the site of the notorious Rape of Nanjing, the brutal sacking of the city by Japanese troops in 1937 in what was effectively the start of World War II. At the time Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China and thus was a key target for the invading Japanese. After capturing the city, Japanese troops killed perhaps over 300,000 people, raping and looting as they went. Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanjing, published in 1997, is a vivid and brutal description of the atrocities committed. Sadly, just seven years after the book brought her widespread fame, she committed suicide; one can only wonder about the impact her research must have had on what may have been a fragile woman’s psyche.
So aside from beautiful parks and the bustle of a huge city, we also went to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Part of what fascinated me about the museum was the palpable rage that still exists. When we toured the prisons French colonialists used to brutalize Vietnamese rebels, you didn’t get the sense that they still hate the French. And two years ago, when we were in Eastern Europe and went to museums testifying to the brutality of both Nazis and Soviets, again, it seemed in the past.
Not so in Nanjing, though. They believe the Japanese have never properly acknowledged or atoned for the evil they perpetrated and thus the wounds remain raw. Some Japanese, in fact, deny that anything much happened there, and many seriously doubt China’s claim that over 300,000 people died at the hands of the Japanese. This is uninformed speculation on my part, but my guess is that the difference has a lot to do with decisions made by Douglas MacArthur when the war ended. While German leaders were prosecuted for war crimes, MacArthur determined that getting Japan back on its feet was an American priority and that the country needed the Emperor to remain in charge. Thus Japan never quite had to accept the nature of its World War II behavior the way the Germans did.
Interestingly, we went to the museum the day after President Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe in the White House, lauding the importance of the U.S.-Japanese partnership in ensuring stability and prosperity in Asian Pacific region. Observing the Chinese sense of Japanese aggression, it’s easy to understand that they’re not big fans of the U.S.-Japanese partnership.
The other excitement for us in Nanjing was figuring out how to deal with the wrench in our plans caused by the earthquake in Nepal. We were going to go through Yunan Province in southwestern China, then up into Tibet, and down into Nepal. But Nepal is obviously off the tourist route now and, since the road from Lhasa to Nepal was a hey reason for going to Tibet, we had to question that, too. And then we started thinking; a key reason for going to Yunan was for some great hiking, but Mark’s knee isn’t up to that yet, so we decided to rethink the whole thing.
Then the question was “Well, if we have four full weeks with nothing planned until our reservation in Bhutan, where else would we go?” And Mark said one word: Korea. That’s perfect. We’ve wanted to carve out some time for Korea for a long time, and May is the ideal month to be there. On top of that, a month seems long enough to really dig into it. So after one last stop in China (Xi’an), we’re going to Korea. Don’t worry, though, just South Korea. The neighbor to the north might fascinate Mark, but they’re not letting anyone in these days. OK, then, soon we’re off to Korea!