Sunday, 29 July 2018

Nanjing's own Wonder of the World

I wonder how many of you readers were aware that Nanjing was home to what has been considered an 'eighth wonder of the world?'

Yes, that's right, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, part of the Great Bao'en Temple, makes the alternate list of wonders, along with sites such as the Hagia Sophia, Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Great Wall, at least according to the Wikipedia article 'Wonders of the World':

The Porcelain tower dates back to the early 15th century during the reign of the Ming Dynasty, but the site had been used as a temple for over one thousand years since the era of the six dynasties, and what became known as the Great Bao'en Temple was a highly notable site in the history and spread of Buddhism.  

An Arch from the Original Ming Pagoda,
today in the Nanjing Museum.
Unfortunately though, in the 1850s, Nanjing became the epicenter of what is to date the world's deadliest civil war - the Taiping Rebellion, which killed between 20 and 100 million Chinese - possibly making it the deadliest conflict in human history. 

Being the center of it all, the lower Yangtze saw the most destruction when it came to historical sites, and the pagoda was no different.  Not only was much destroyed in the fighting, but the Taiping rebels, believing that their leader was a brother to Jesus Christ, destroyed what they saw as pagan idols. 

The tower may have also been destroyed to stop the Imperial army from capturing it and using it as an observation tower over the rebel capital of Nanjing.  And so the tower and complex were destroyed, and that could have been the end of the story.

But it wasn't.

Reconstructing a Wonder
It's the year 2010, and the Nanjing Municipal Government has decided to rebuild the wonder that once brought so much pride to locals and awe to foreign visitors.  And with it, came the largest single donation in Chinese History, a Billion Yuan, by Chinese Dollar Billionaire and Philanthropist Wang Jianlin.  

And in 2015, the modern version of the great Bao'en Temple and Pagoda opened to the public.  But when talking about it with my colleagues,  I was surprised at how few had even heard of it.

Either way, in July 2018, I thought I'd pay a visit:

The reconstruction has thus been built in a layout much like the original versions - the pagoda being in the courtyard with a surrounding 'cloister' like structure, this time rebuilt in orange .  This was where replicas and artifacts of the original temple were exhibited, and it's history explained.  

As you can see, the building combines both traditional Chinese architecture with its ultra-modernness:  

So too, on the inside was there a combination of ultra-modernity with the old - the latter appearing in the form of original artifacts along with replicas, as well as paintings and models of the site as it appeared in the Ming era:

But what about the Tower itself?

Traveling up to the top was certainly well worth the view - the pagoda being just south of the City Wall and the Zhonguamen, with the 'old town' and Fuzimiao located just to the north.  Beyond on the left is Xinjeikou, Nanjing's Central Business District.

Although the structure was largely glass, the interior walls had their Buddhas:

So why rebuild and old wonder in such a modern style?
As soon as I saw the Pagoda complex when passing by on metro one day, the obvious question came to mind.  Why rebuild such a historic sight in such a hybrid traditional + modern style, when in the west, we would always try to be as authentic as possible?

Given that each previous reconstruction of the temple had been built to conform or to surpass then contemporary standards, why not also build the 21st Century reconstruction to our latest designs?

And it also shows how the designers see China's modernity and progress in the twenty-first century.  Far from seeing it as an abandonment of Chinese civilization, they see it as a renewal of Chinese tradition and past glory - 21st Century modernity is Chinese Civilization par excellence

And so why not include that modernity in a such a proud historical site?

And let's face it, compared to the dark days of the 19th and 20th Centuries, it is very easy to see the 21st Century as a return to past tradition and glory - no longer is China being overrun by foreign invaders or torn apart by Civil War - and whereas the China of the 20th Century either didn't have the conservationist attitudes, political stability or the funds to rediscover and reinvent her old glories, now in the current glory days she has all three.  

And my visit both to the Pagoda itself, and the nearby newly constructed 'old town' both proved exactly that - China's 21st Century is re-appreciating and rebuilding it's old heritage, and is doing so in light of her present day advancements as a country.

And so on that note, I will end this blog article by showing you readers the final information board of the museum, before the exit, in which such sentiments are described so beautifully in the second paragraph:

Monday, 23 July 2018

In Search of the Nanjing Decade

Ever since I discovered that Nanjing had been the Capital of China as recently as the 1930s, (or more particularly from 1927 to 1937),  I was determined that find photograph architecture in the city from around that time.

That 10 year period in Chinese history is known by historians as the Nanjing Decade, and was a period of unprecedented modernization and industrialization but too had it's instability and unrest.

Nanjing's 20th Century stint of being the Capital was cut short by the Japanese invasion in 1937 which resulted in the capture of the city by the invaders and the infamous massacre of some 300,000 men, women and children in what was known as the Rape of Nanking.

Since the defeat of the Japanese and subsequent victory of the communists in the Civil War, Beijing, and not Nanjing, has been the capital of the country.

But how much of Nanjing survives from when it was the Capital?
First, of course, there was the damage caused by the Japanese, but then, in the past 30 years, has been the almost complete transformation of Chinese cities, not least their centers, due to the tower block and skyscraper boom.  Old city centers have been bulldozed to make way for the new.

But, nevertheless, I got an idea of what Nanjing Decade Era Nanjing looked like through this wonderful replica street from that time in one of the wings of the Nanjing Museum.

What I particularly liked about the style of architecture shown was  that it is, to me, a hybrid between traditional Chinese and Western influenced architecture of that period.  But what I also wanted to know, was where I could find some real life examples.

Well, the Presidential Palace of Chiang Kai-Sheck, the anti-communist generalissimo who ruled from the city, was a good place to start.

In addition to all the history that was there (and that's all for another article), what I saw there was a wonderful combination of 'traditional chinese architecture', 'Western Art Decco' and 'Chinese Art Decco.'

And then of course, there's this major bank built in 1935, located at the central crossroads of Nanjing's Central Business district, which happens to be my local branch of ICBC.  This is the building shortly after it's construction:

And these are some pictures I took of it while I've been here in 2018:

However, while these two very significant buildings clearly do have a safe future, the same does not seem to be true of more 'every day' buildings dating from that time, which is perhaps why I'm in such a hurry to photograph it all.

Perhaps less than 50 metres along from the bank, in Nanjing's Central Business District, is a line of what looks like to be 1920s and 30s architecture.  Here it was in April 2018:

And here it is now, in July:
Notice the wooden green wall at the bottom.  Yes, it's now been walled off, and the reason is well, obvious.  

And are some more examples from Central Nanjing:

But what's interesting is that the new buildings that are going up in that area, are, in the majority at least, being built in a kind of neo-20's and 30's style, something that was absolutely not the case 20 years ago:

And that itself, is a greatly positive development.  Just as how near the 'old town' area of Fuzimiao, where new buildings are being built in traditional Chinese architecture, so too it seems that many of the new builds in early 20th century districts are being built to imitate that style.

And that certainly wasn't the case 20 years ago - in the area photographed above, just east of Xinjeikou, buildings from the 80s and 90s are all in soulless modern style, compared to what's going up now.  That itself is a cause for optimism, even if the original '20s and '30s buildings are still largely going away.

But what do the people think?
Whenever I've come across older sections of town, I've always been keen to ask the locals what they think of their homes, and this particular trip was no different.  Also a good opportunity to further practice my Mandarin, of course.

When I told one lady that I liked taking pictures of old buildings, she quickly pointed out where a whole lot more still lay around.  When I asked her if she liked them, she said she did and shared my interest. 

However when I got there, I got talking to a resident who expressed her view that their demolition, which would likely happen in a few years, equaled progress and that she much preferred to look at the 21st century space age new build across the road, than at her own old terrace.  

Both sets of opinions I have encountered but the former opinion I would say has seemed more common.  And while I'm at it, here are some pics of that 'block' or so, of older Nanjing:

And here are some other older buildings around that area:

And here is the modern block that the second lady thought was much nicer to look at:

Either way, attitudes to building conservation have changed massively in the past two decades, let alone since the cultural revolution and discovering such differing attitudes on the street was extremely revealing.  

Just like in any other country, individual citizens have differing attitudes towards the changes that they see around them.  For me, discovering those opinions, and the architecture itself of course, was well worth those trips.