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Nanjing: The southern capital

  • Brandon Taylor
    Brandon Taylor
Published January 07. 2012 09:02AM

Nanjing has temples. Nanjing has palaces. Nanjing has pagodas. Nanjing has all the typical cultural landmarks common in every other city in China. Yet, this burgeoning metropolis in east China's Jiangsu province sets itself apart because of its role in China's modern history.

I visited Nanjing, which means "south capital," in early October during China's National Day celebration. Opting to skip Nanjing's standard tourist fare (once you've seen one temple, palace or pagoda, you've pretty much seen them all), I made my way to the Nanjing Massacre memorial.

The site, officially called the Memorial for Compatriots Killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression, honors the estimated 300,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians killed during the Japanese occupation that started in 1937. More than 20,000 women were also raped by soldiers of Japan's Imperial Army. The incident still haunts China. It's one of the reasons, if not the reason, animosity exists between the two Asian nations today.

The atmosphere around the memorial was cold, quiet, dark. Even with the afternoon sun beating down on me, I felt a chill.

A giant statue of a slender woman holding her dead son stands outside the memorial's entrance - her face looking to the heavens in anguish, as if to ask "Why?" Leading up to, but positioned as if running away from the memorial, are smaller sculptures of victims - mothers, fathers, children and friends - each with a different expression of horror on their faces. Their hollow eyes cry out for help; their faces twisted by pain and fear.

Inside the memorial, it only got chillier.

One of the first things I saw when entering was a massive slab of black marble with the number 300,000 carved into it - for the victims. In another area, a long wall stretches out with the names of the dead or missing inscribed on its shiny, gray surface. A plain of football-sized rocks marks the spot where a mass grave of 10,000 bodies had been discovered after the Second World War. Near the end of the memorial, a torch burns steadily - the spirit of the city and perhaps a symbol for a new tomorrow.

Aside from the memorial, Nanjing has a number of less morose attractions. The Grand Canal, a major commercial waterway running from Beijing to Hangzhou, passes through the city, as does the great Yangtze River. There are halls to the people's heroes and a zoo. But Nanjing's major tourist draw - and the reason I was visiting - is the mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China.

Sun was a major political figure in the earlier part of the 20th century, pushing for reform in China. He was a revolutionary, and the Chinese love revolutionaries. In 1911 Sun headed an uprising that overthrew China's last monarchy and ushered in a Chinese republic. The new nation's capital was established in Nanjing.

The Republic of China was short lived, with warlordism, infighting between China's Kuomintang (KMT) and Communists (CCP), and the Japanese invasion in the 1930s hampering any real democratic progress. The doctor died in 1925 before stability could be established in the country - the CCP achieved that in 1949 but left Sun's democratic vision out of its equation for a New China.

The memorial hall sits atop a hill, hundreds of steps leading to its peak. Inside was a large statue of Sun sitting Abe Lincoln-style, looking out over China. Sun's marble coffin is in a separate room closed to the public.

As I left the memorial hall, I looked out over the landscape. Gentle hills, green forests and no signs of the city. It was peaceful - a bit too peaceful actually. I somehow felt that this had been done on purpose; that the Communist Party had stuck Sun out here in the hills to hide him.

Sun helped establish a new China, but he was also the founder of the KMT, the political arch-nemesis of the CCP. The KMT fled to Taiwan after being defeated in a civil war in 1949. Today, CCP historical revisionists conveniently leave out or distort the fact that Sun embraced democracy - not the kind with Chinese characteristics - which exists in Taiwan but not on the mainland.

So Sun gets stuck in the hills of Nanjing. Every so often - for major political events like the centenary of the 1911 Revolution on Oct. 10 - the Chinese government rolls out a giant portrait of the father of the nation in Tiananmen Square. But it doesn't stay there for long, lest the people start looking into the democratic ideals Dr. Sun Yat-sen actually supported.

Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at He can be reached at

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