Nanjing now: philosophy, history and Jacuzzis

by Jeff Kingston

Nanjing is a bustling city of 7 million, about six times its population before the Japanese rampage of 1937, and looks like many of the other modern, gleaming urbanscapes that have mushroomed up across China.

What sets it apart are the sycamore-lined boulevards and a rich trove of historic buildings enclosed by a towering stone wall that snakes around what used to be the city limits. Most of these ramparts date from the 14th century, the Ming era, although there have been extensive renovations. Now it makes a wonderful perch and relatively tranquil path for sweeping views of Purple Mountain and the shimmering rivers and lakes that abound in and around the city.

In the dog days of summer, the dappled shade of the sycamores is refreshing, softening din of the heavy traffic while conjuring up images of France. One of the liveliest parts of contemporary Nanjing centers on the Confucius Temple, locally known as Fuzi Miao. It was originally constructed in 1034 but has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. In 1986, the local government finally restored it after it was burned down by Japanese troops in 1937. Inside, one can see elegant gardens with ponds and pavilions and a 6-meter-tall statue of Confucius. The scenes of Confucius’ life depicted in bas-relief showcase the usual virtues of etiquette, decorum and wisdom, but oddly enough, none of them show him rolling in his grave, as he surely must be.

Since Deng Xiaoping unveiled a series of reforms beginning in 1978, getting rich has become glorified in China. Nowhere is this change of heart more obvious and unlikely than in the Confucius Temple.

Tucked away in one of the corners of the sprawling complex, some famous calligrapher executed in one stroke on stone a character that embodies wealth and power while suggesting the shape of a tiger, or so the guide assured me. She waved away my camera, muttering something about how it was a sacred image that needed protection as she led me to a shop where rubbings of the calligraphy and reproductions mounted on silk brocade were on offer for extraordinary prices. She explained how these items were in high demand as lucky charms for all the visitors who wanted to improve their odds of striking it rich.

Perhaps I missed that section of Confucius’ Analects on the virtues of unrestrained materialism, but I found consolation sitting in an open-air teahouse adjacent to the gardens where musicians play classical music and fragrant tea is sipped as a welcome breeze alleviates the scorching heat. This city is known as one of the four furnaces of China, and on this score it does not disappoint.

Around Fuzi Miao there are hundreds of small stores and stalls selling all sorts of goods and souvenirs ranging from stuffed foxes to gourd art and Chinese medicine, along with a mishmash of carvings, jewelry, toys, stuffed animals and T-shirts. This is the place for hard bargaining because vendors consider tourists fair game and a good chance for language practice, even if it tends to focus on imperative commands such as “You buy” and white lies like “this is very old” and “I give you good deal.”

Around the bustling streets and warrens are a variety of food options, from grilled kebabs to dim sum and some fancier establishments with gourmet pretensions. If the simple ambience of fluorescent lighting, concrete floors, packed tables of loud patrons and wailing babies, minimal service, point-and-shoot ordering and hard stools appeals, the Chinese equivalents of izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) are plentiful and easy on the wallet.

Nanjing is known for salted duck and steamed dumplings stuffed with a mixture of crab and pork, both excellent dishes to wash down with the cold beer on offer. The edamame (boiled soy beans in the pod) are cooked with anise, an inspired elaboration of a familiar summer staple while the parboiled, sliced goya (bitter gourd) with ginger serves as another healthy side dish.

After dinner, as twilight gathers, people flock to the wharves of the Qin Huai River where raffish rickshaw touts in yellow tunics and straw hats hawk a nostalgic spin around the environs while boat operators offer a range of tours. It is best to set off on the small open-air boats at dusk when the neon decorations come to life along the banks of what once was a foul canal but has recently been cleaned up at considerable expense.

Efforts to restore the river to its former glory do not extend to a revival of the bawdy houses for which it was once famed, but the results are charming as one wends along the willow-flanked waterways. Old buildings have been spruced up while lanterns and lighting have been ingeniously deployed to conjure up another era.

It is a magical interlude as one passes under arched bridges festooned with neon, gliding past new buildings and teahouses built in classical style and enjoying the cool evening breeze. This ethereal experience was only slightly tarnished by the fortyish woman sitting alongside, barking into her mobile phone and spitting loudly to the embarrassment of her daughters, who went into universal teenager mode by feigning no relation with the abominable adult.

More pleasant was the Taiwanese engineering professor speaking flawless English and extolling the improved transportation links that make this former capital of the Kuomintang easily accessible from Taipei. He told me that Nanjing is a popular tourist destination for Chinese because of its many spectacular sites, including Ming tombs, Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum and the Presidential Palace, and he praised the local authorities for their preservation efforts.

Only two hours from Shanghai by train and three hours from Tokyo by direct flight, Nanjing has much to offer either as a side trip or destination on its own.

The city boasts many good hotels at reasonable rates, but there is one outstanding option on the outskirts that makes it worth visiting just for the extraordinary escape that awaits. The Kayumanis (Cinnamon) of Bali fame has opened a boutique spa resort in a renowned hot-springs area that pampers guests with a mystical experience of serenity and indulgence. The spacious villas enclosed in private compounds are designed with a Zen-minimalist aesthetic on the outside, and a blend of modern and traditional chic interiors. Some villas look out over a misty pond, others to the surrounding mountains, and all have their own pools and hot-spring-fed Jacuzzi. This is an oasis of tranquillity and privacy enhanced considerably by a Balinese staff that has mastered the art of hospitality. There are many good reasons why Conde Nast named Kayumanis Nanjing to its Hot List for 2008 of Top Hotels in the World and not least would be the soothing Balinese vibe amid the cacophony of modern China.