Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nanjing Ninjutsu

Nanjing vs. Chongqing

I've moved from Chongqing to Nanjing for the coming year; I will be teaching at the Nanjing College of Information Technology, starting Friday. I figure a little background on my environs would be useful in understanding and imagining the stories I will tell.

Chongqing city proper has about 7 million denizens, Nanjing has about 6 million although it comprises a much smaller land area. Nanjing is a cleaner, greener city that has 22 universities and colleges, and numerous parks including a large lake near the middle of the city, the most complete ancient city walls remaining in China, and Zijin Mountain where famed first president of China, Sun Yat-sen lies buried.

Ancient Nanjing

One of my friends who lived here in Nanjing for a time told me this story:

When the first emperor to unite all of China, Chin Shi Huang, of the Chin Dynasty, had completed his conquests and lay tired on his throne in the ancient city of Chang'an (now called Xi'an), he asked that the greatest geomancer (Feng Shui expert) be brought before him to consult. The emperor wished to know the best location in China to establish the seat of the empire, and if there were any locations that might by their energy forces provide a rival to his throne.

The geomancer told the emperor that there was one place with such good feng shui that it could not help but to produce a rival to the emperor's throne: Nanjing.

The emperor, perplexed, asked if there was anything to be done about this possible threat. The geomancer, backed by the emperor's forces, built a canal to drain away the good feng shui of Nanjing. Thus, while several dynasties, including the Southern Song Dynasty, the early Ming Dynasty, and the Nationalist government (before retreating to Chongqing in WWII, and before retreating to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War) have made Nanjing their capital, few have lasted there for very long.

Modern Times

Today's Nanjing is a city of government (seat of Jiangsu Province), a city of gardens, and a city of students. With twenty-two universities, young people abound in the streets and exotic cuisine is available for the many foreign teachers and students who come to live here for a time. Some of the older universities (Nanjing U., Nanjing Normal U., SouthEast U.) will be exactly a hundred years old next year.

One key difference between Nanjing and Chongqing which we noticed almost immediately is that the air here seems fresher. That could be partly because the rather flatter landscape allows the winds to blow away smog at a faster rate than in the narrow, hilly river valleys that comprise Chongqing. Another reason is that this is a much greener city, with gardens and campuses seemingly around every corner. Walking along a tree-lined boulevard, I could actually smell some of the summer smells which I had grown accustomed to in rural Michigan. Speaking of the trees, giant sycamores overhang the main boulevards of the city. Some say these trees have been here since the days when Qing emperors may have passed by in the midst of their vast retinues.

One of the more famous attrocities of world history has made Nanjing (or its older spelling in English, Nanking) rather famous. The so-called 'Rape of Nanking' during the early years of World War II saw much of the city razed, at least 300,000 Chinese massacred, and plenty of rapes and maiming committed by the Japanese soldiers. This episode in the city's history has certainly been branded into the minds of Chinese school children, and is one of the reasons why most Chinese express hatred of Japan (despite the fact that Japanese cartoons and cuisine are often quite popular). The Nanjing Massacre Museum, which I have previously visited, lays open a mass grave so that tourists can view the tragedy firsthand. Even if other parts of China seem to have made their peace with the Japanese (notably Dalian, Qingdao, or Shanghai), I doubt that the Nanjingren will forget their historic emnity any time soon.

Living Situation

We will be very comfortable in our new life here in Nanjing, I'm sure. Our first evening we had some quite passable lasagna and pasta with roasted pine nuts. The next evening we dined at a putative Xinjiang (Turkic Muslim westernmost province in China) restaurant. I know there must be a Subway restaurant or two in the city, because I saw a girl walking down the street with a sub wrapped in the familiar logo-printed paper of that sandwich chain. I'm quite excited for that, and excited as well to see what other gems of international cuisine might turn up. The local supermarket giants (even the Chinese ones) seem well stocked with proper pickles, dijon mustard, tortilla chips, cheese, bacon, and even American hotdogs. For lunch today I roasted up some of those.

I should also be able to access plenty of English-language reading material. The ultra-modern central public library which I drooled over the last time I visited this city, a couple years ago, is now open, and I made a point of getting my very own library card. I'm allowed to take one book out at a time, and take a book for up to a month before fines start to set in. The English-language section isn't huge (and is mostly comprised of nonfiction), but I did spot a few gems, including that book about gnomes which spawned the 'David the Gnome' children's tv show which I watched when I was a child. The book isn't as suited for children as the tv show was, however, with a rather more European attitude on nudity being expressed in the drawings of the illustrator. For that matter, could it be that the version of that book which the public library in Berrien Springs stocked had been censored? I don't at all recall this section on Rusalki.... They do have lovely bodies, though!

Our apartment is at the northwestern edge of the city, an hour's walk from Nanjing University's campus, maybe a fifteen minute walk to the banks of the Changjiang (Yangtze River), and right next to a large forested park. Right across the street from us, there is a giant tower with a rotating restaurant clinging like a treefrog at the top of it (you know the sort). We probably won't be having much difficulty finding our way home from other parts of the city.
Across the other street (our hi-rise apartment complex is on a corner) one section of Nanjing's ancient city wall begins. It comforts me to think that in ancient days my abode would be situated right about where I am, and I might have more or less the same view of the city that a tower guardsman might have had.

Here's another view from the window of our apartment, looking south across a park towards the bright center of the city:
The apartment itself is much smaller than my apartment in Chonging, but that is expected in a more expensive city and a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom duals as a living room, the kitchen (which is not much of a kitchen at that, with no permanent stove and very limited counter space) duals as an entryway, and the bathroom is small enough to have one hand in the shower, one hand in the sink, and one's butt on the toilet.

Working Situation

My college is located on in a 'university city' district out beyond the city proper, in what I'm sure was farmland not many years ago. This is a common trend in Chinese cities, what with city officials eager to sell off valuable urban campuses to developers, as well as develop research hubs on cheaply obtained (against the protests of farmers?) land in the countryside. Chongqing had set up something similar, and I'm sure that students here (just as there) dreaded being sent off to such modernist "learning" concentration camps. The architecture is uniformly modernist, with vast empty, sun-drenched squares, lawns no one is allowed to walk upon, and overall only a slight improvement on the socialist architecture of Soviet times. Form is addressed in ways that doubtlessly looked good on the drawing board, but less so with rust stains forming down the sides of the white-and-blue buildings, and a distinct lack of comfortable places for students or faculty to hang out. In reality, all the faculty and staff live in the city proper and arrive on campus via an hour-long shuttle ride. Only the students are required to live in such bland surroundings.

As to the students, I'm sure I'll know more about that on my first working day--this Friday. The director of the BCIT program informed me, in a wry aside, that my students are a bit rowdy and not terribly bright or studious. I suppose thats why they ended up in this educational ghetto, and not on the gladed campus of Nanjing University.

These things aside, I'm sure life in Nanjing this year will be pleasant. Once again I will re-iterate my welcome for any of you who might like to see China this year and come visit. I hope this invitation will not continue to fall on deaf ears, as China really is worth seeing and certainly won't be getting any cheaper than it is. Now's the time to see this vast land!

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