What we don't know about Sun Yat-sen

Travel reveals the gaps in our education

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 am

This week, our host department, the Office of International Cooperation and Exchanges at Nanjing University, provide a full-day tour of Nanjing, complete with driver and guide.  Our guide was a Nanjing native, a 25 year-old masters degree candidate in Linguistics named Yuan Yuan, but who asked us to call her Vivian.  Most Chinese students whom we have met have an English name, which Vivian says they typically adopt in middle school as they are learning English.  So one of the students in my class, Wang Li, is Lily, another of our assistants, Jia Shi, is Cici, and our very capable program assistant, staff to our host department, Jiang Peiye, is Sophie. 

Our day began with a trip up Zijin shan, the Purple Mountain on the east side of Nanjing, to the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.  Dr. Sun is referred to here as Dr. Sun Zhong-shan, and I'm still a little unclear if the difference is one of dialect, or if one of his names is a pen name.  The trip to the complex was beautiful.  Purple Mountain has been preserved as a green space, covered in woods, broken by ponds, gardens and bamboo groves.  There are walking paths all the way up the mountain.  At times, we could see that they included elaborate elevated walkways.  We've heard that people hike to the top in the early morning to see the sun rise.  There are a number of sites on the mountain, but in between it's wild and natural.  Dr. Sun's memorial starts with an area of tourist shops preceding the turnstile into the site. A large gate announces the entrance and from it stretches a long gradually climbing path followed by a series of 392 stairs, broken at intervals by terraces and a series of buildings.  The stairs become steeper towards the top and culminates in the tomb of the leader.  All the structures are topped with blue tiles, as blue and white were the colors of Dr. Sun's Nationalist party.

Vivian told us that Dr. Sun is greatly honored in China, and in Nanjing especially.  He established the short-lived Nationalist government in Nanjing, and is seen as the father of modern China. His Nationalists helped bring about the end of the Qing Dynasty, and competed with and at times worked with the Communists in the troubled years from 1911 to 1949.  While Dr. Sun is seen as a great man, there is far less love for Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist who took his party (and many treasures from the mainland) to Taiwan once the Communists came fully to power. 

The Mausoleum complex was swarming with tourists who stopped to read every inscription and have their picture snapped by friends and relatives. As far as I can tell, Chinese never take a picture without someone they know in it.  No straight scenery shots for them!  Later in the day, we also toured the former Presidential Palace, seat of the Nationalist government set on the site of a former Ming and Qing era palace.  Here we toured room after room detailing Dr. Sun's every movement for many years and keenly felt our lack of knowledge about this man and this period in Chinese history.  Only some of the labels were in English and it was hard to piece together the entire, complicated story.  We have resolved to find a book about these times and learn more about Dr. Sun.  The Presidential Palace was over run with even more tourists, many in tour groups who were literally running through one another as they passed from one place to another. Luckily, we found our way to a quiet garden and had a wonderful long talk with Vivian about her life.

We ended our day again at Fuzi Miao, toured the Confucian temple of the same name--a weird mix of traditional temple and kitschy statuary, very un-Confucian, and the Examination Hall.  In earlier times, to obtain a position as an official, a man would travel to Nanjing (or other large cities) to sit for a 9-day examination.  Locked into a tiny room, he would write essay after essay, eating and sleeping in his tiny space.  They have recreated a series of the rooms with figures and vignettes detailing some of who might compete for the positions and the rigors they endured which might include heat, cold, fire (and they were locked in!), snakes, and accusations of cheating.  As the evening wore on, the crowds seemed to swell in Fuzi Miao, and from a second floor restaurant, we watched the lights come up on the river (really, a canal) and the boats carrying tourists up and down.