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How Nanjing tries to be a modern city built on heritage and history

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Text and images by DOM GALEON

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China is a hot-button topic in the Philippines. There really is no need to explain that, except by saying that Filipinos have mixed feelings about the Chinese.

This has not stopped me, however, from visiting China twice in 2019. Both trips were courtesy of China Daily, an English media outlet that partners with various Chinese provinces to bring in foreign journalists for tours. In November, I had the chance to visit a province that isn’t quite known to tourists today, although it is rich with history and plays a significant role in China’s economic development.

Located along the eastern shores of China, just a little north of Shanghai, Jiangsu is a highly developed province. Although it is the third smallest among the country’s administrative regions, its GDP is the second largest in China. Until 1927, Shanghai, which is arguably one of the most prosperous Chinese cities today, was part of Jiangsu. Now, Suzhou is the most advanced of all of the province’s cities.

Our group of journalists didn’t visit Suzhou, however. As China Daily’s deputy editor-in-chief Kang Bing explained to us, the tour was organized primarily to showcase what happens to cities the Chinese government says it has “lifted out of poverty.” Our first destination was Jiangsu’s capital city Nanjing.

Yellow jackets
It’s difficult not to think in terms of centuries when in China. After all, the Chinese have the longest surviving civilization in history, with records dating as far back as 4,000 years ago. Jiangsu is one of its oldest regions and Nanjing was once the capital of six of China’s imperial dynasties because it is located by the banks of the Yangtze River, one of the ancient cradles of civilization.

Apart from figuring in history as the site of one of the worst moments in humankind, Nanjing is also known to be the most “intelligent” cities in China. Home to some 53 higher education institutions and a number of research institutes, the best and the brightest Chinese supposedly come from Nanjing.

To understand how the Chinese who have been lifted out of poverty live, we visited a community in Nanjing, the Xianlin subdistrict and the Xianlin new village. This subdistrict, which was founded in September 2004, is home to some 230,000 people living in 35 communities and with access to 12 colleges—that’s a lot, considering the population. The new village, which we visited, started as a home for former farmers in 1998 and has since become one of China’s top ecological and civilized communities.

Xianlin’s new village has a community center run entirely by volunteers, most of whom are senior citizens. It was quite amusing and amazing to see these seniors, wearing yellow vests, working to improve the lives of the people in their community, and they’re doing it for free!

Throughout Xianlin, there are 9,000 volunteers, according to city officials. This, I think, is a better model for keeping seniors busy, instead of giving them jobs that might be too taxing for their age. I saw an example of this in another country and I pitied the elderly woman I saw working late at night to fix a slab of marble on a pavement. This model of senior citizen involvement wasn’t unique to Xianlin, as we later found out when we visited similar elderly centers in Nantong.

Xianlin is also quite a techie community. Residents have access to an app on their phone that keeps them updated with local developments. There is also a feedback system built on the app, where residents can simply log their comments or complaints. The volunteers, as well as community leaders also often conduct house visits.

A gate to history
Another place we visited in Nanjing was the ZhonghuaGate. Also known as the “Gathering Treasure” gate, Zhonghua was the southern gate of old Nanjing during its days as the capital of the Ming Dynasty. It is the largest existing city gate in China today and, according to the Chinese, is the most complex castle gate in the world, with 27 tunnels and storage spaces designed to shelter some 3,000 soldiers. These spaces are now exhibit halls that detail the history of the gate and of Nanjing.

a street inside the ancient walls of Nanjing, past the Gate of ‘Gathering Treasure’

a street inside the ancient walls of Nanjing, past the Gate of ‘Gathering Treasure’

Then came dinner, which we spent in a place called Jieziyuan Garden. It was the house of a peculiar figure in Chinese history, a man known as Li Yu. He was, for all intents and purposes, a renaissance man—a poet, a novelist, a playwright, an actor, and a producer of Chinese opera, as well as an architect and interior designer, and, to some extent, a philosopher. Li Yu built Jieziyuan Garden to be a home away from his home in Rugao. After he finished construction of the residence, which took him 20 years, he left and went back to his hometown.

In the house built by Li Yu

In the house built by Li Yu

an evening of Chinese opera

an evening of Chinese opera

At Jieziyuan Garden, we were treated to Chinese opera or Xiqu. It wasn’t my first time to see one but it was my first to watch one live. It had a strange beauty to it, largely because I couldn’t understand the language, which wasn’t Mandarin but some old dialect that used to be spoken in Jiangsu, but also because Chinese opera is slow and its actors sing and speak in high-pitched voices. It’s almost similar to Japanese kabuki.

While we were watching one of the acts from a stage set across our dining room, separated by the garden’s pond, Kang asked me what I thought about the performance. I said I liked it. With a visible hint of sadness and regret, he replied that many young Chinese today don’t appreciate Xiqu anymore. “It’s a dying art,” Kang added. “But the government is funding schools to keep it alive.”

street food vendor outside a metro station in Nanjing

street food vendor outside a metro station in Nanjing

It’s pity because such heritage ties China to its very rich past. For a city like Nanjing, which has seen the coming and going of generations of Chinese, the rise and fall of dynasties, and even the conquering tides of foreign invaders, not losing its connection to all this history and heritage is crucial to move forward into the future. During our visit to this city, fortunately, the Chinese government seems to understand the importance of not losing this connection to its past.

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