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If You Want to Understand the Real China, Go to Nanjing

If You Want to Understand the Real China, Go to Nanjing

Asia, China, Deep Shit, Jiangsu, Slider

I know how your average Joe views China. And it isn’t a pretty sight.

Pollution. Communism. Un-free. Un-American. Communism. Censorship. And uh, more communism.

Not exactly an appealing picture. When I tell people I live in Shanghai, China I usually get greeted with a whatthefuckwereyouthinking face and “uh…why?” Traveling around Southeast Asia, I realized how many people just totally skip China as a country. No desire to go there at all.

Then there’s the people at home. “Oh, my. Why would you want to live in a Communist country?” and “I could never live there long term.”

Excuse me. You’ve never even been there. How the fuck would you have any idea?

What? Couldn't see yourself living here?
What? Couldn’t see yourself living here?

I can sympathize. (Kind of.) The media doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of China. We’re bombarded with pictures of the pollution in Beijing, tales of human rights violations, and an ever growing suspicion of China’s motives.

Most regard China as a creeping enemy. We seem to be afraid of the country for its growing economy and different government ideologies. Not to mention all those island disputes. And obnoxious Chinese tourists.

However, I would argue that most people know jack squat about China.

Tourism to China itself is somewhat limited by a pricey visa that is a headache to get. (But click here for more info on how to easily get one in Hong Kong.)

And the vast majority of people who do travel to China go to pretty much the same cities as well. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and maybe Xi’an.


China is the 4th largest country in the world with bajilllions of people, a long and complex history, 23 provinces (excluding autonomous regions, SAR, and administrative municipalities), and 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China. Where do you even begin trying to understand it?

Why The Famous Cities are Not Accurate Representations of China:

I’ve had some friend’s claim they’ve been to China because they’ve been to Hong Kong. No, no, no. Hong Kong is not China. It’s a special province that belongs to China. Many of the people living there are ethnically Chinese. But they don’t speak the same language. Don’t even have the same currency. Don’t have the same censorship. Going to Hong Kong actually counts as leaving the county. (For visa purposes and all.) And you certainly are learning nothing about China China by going there. (Intentional repetitive use of the word there.)

Beijing and Shanghai are closer hits. But people here have a better grasp of the outside world (in comparison) and you’re certainly not going to learn about the greater country as a whole by visiting these cities for a few days.

The blues in the water don't even look real!

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t go there. Hong Kong is a lovely place and one of my favorite cities in the world. I’ve gone on and on about how much I love living in Shanghai here. And Beijing is one of the most fascinating cities I’ve ever been to, rich with Chinese culture and history.

Furthermore, I love that people are going to these cities, falling in love with them, and then telling other people about their awesome experiences. China needs that. And the rest of the world could benefit from easing tensions with this superpower.

However, if you want to gain a better understanding of China without living here, you should visit Nanjing.

On people’s trips to China, Nanjing is often overlooked. This is a mistake. Even if you’re in the country for only a few weeks, a quick trip to Nanjing is easy to fit into your itinerary. The city is only 1 ½ hours away from Shanghai by high speed rail. Plus, it’s one of the most interesting Chinese cities in terms of history and natural beauty.


Background Info:

First of all, Nanjing has been the capital of China many times throughout history, even as recently as 1949. Nanjing itself means “Southern Capital”.

Testaments to its long history are found all over the city with the presence of temples and the old historical city wall, the longest in the world, mixed together with modern skyscrapers.


Nanjing is also relatively green. Thick sections of trees give the city a secluded feel and Zi Xia Lake (my Chinese name) has such clean water that it’s actually a local favorite spot to swim. And it’s not like, you know, acid water.

Zi Xia Lake
Zi Xia Lake

Important Historical Sites:

One of the most important historical sites in all of China, Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum is located in Nanjing. Think China’s version of the Lincoln Memorial. Complete with a bunch of steps.


Sun Yat-Sen is one of the most important figures of Chinese history, regarded today as the “Father of the Nation.”  He helped overthrow the Qing dynasty and became the first President of the New Republic of China. So he’s basically China’s version of George Washington.

Kind of.

He’s one of the only Chinese figures revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Dr. Sun is a pretty cool dude. And his mausoleum is something you definitely want to include in a visit to China.


If you want to understand a bit more about China, Dr. Sun is a good place to start.

Within walking distance of the mausoleum are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Ming tombs. These mausoleums and tombs are interesting historical relics from the emperors of the Ming dynasty.



Getting My Political Nerd On at the Nanjing Memorial Massacre Museum:

Most importantly, you have to visit the Nanjing Memorial Massacre Museum. The Rape of Nanking is one of the most horrific scenes of world history.

To put it simply, the Japanese were not, ahem, nice. After capturing China’s then current capital in 1937, the Japanese killed over 300,000 innocent people over a period of six weeks. They mercilessly killed prisoners of war, refugees, and babies. It is estimated that there were over 20,000 cases of rape and gang-rape. All done to ‘subjugate’ the rest of China.

I was surprised at how well the government set up the museum. It’s a very respectful memorial. A visit to the museum is just as important as a visit to the Killing Fields in Phnom Pehn or a concentration camp in Germany. It sheds light on horrible war crimes committed and helps foreigners to understand fissure points in Asian relations.


If you’re confused about the high tensions among Sino-Japanese relations then the museum will really hit home on the point. Japan has never formally apologized. Some Japanese politicians have even recently denied and downplayed the atrocities committed.

This forces you to rethink issues and ask critical questions. Would our country trust another country that bombed historical sites, raped thousands of our women, and killed innocents in our own capital in memorable history and then never even formally apologized for it?


The museum is also key in showing how the Chinese have interpreted treaties that came out of World War 2:

“It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall return to China.”

Cairo Declaration

That’s Taiwan guys. And this is the time period where China believes that Taiwan was “reunited” with the mainland.

I know a lot of people think that current island disputes between China and Japan are because China is a bit of a dick. And power hungry. Well, this museum will open your eyes to the fact that relations are actually a bit more complex.

Another key quote that stood out to me from the museum:

“We should not forget that small and weak nations will always be bullied and invaded by powerful nations….we should struggle unceasingly for the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the realization of the peaceful reunification of our motherland, and the maintenance of world peace. Let’s work together to prevent war and build a peaceful and harmonious world!”

Propaganda or not, the Chinese people believe this.

There’s a lot of stuff in the museum about forgiveness of the Japanese people. However, there’s also a lot of stuff about the “national humiliation” that China suffered and how it wants to prevent this from ever happening again.

Now, I’m one of the first to criticize the Chinese government and some of their actions on the international stage. And I have firsthand experience with the censorship and propaganda by the government. I certainly belong to Team Taiwan and have a whole slew of issues with China’s stance on human rights. China is in no way the perfect country.


However, I do think it is important to understand the Chinese perspective on these issues. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with their interpretation of events.

You travel to learn more about the world and about other cultures. Well, if you want to learn a bit more about one of the greatest modern superpowers, you should visit China. And if you want to further expand your knowledge on what makes China tick, Nanjing is a good place to start.


What do you think? Have you ever been to Nanjing? Do you think it helped further your understanding of China? Do you think visiting places like the Nanjing Memorial Massacre Museum is important?

About the author

Vegetarian foodie and tree hugger over here. I've got all the blog tips on traveling sustainably. So follow along for epic hikes, savory food, and all around ethical travel.


  1. steve lustgarten
    July 31, 2016 at 12:58 am

    Ok you sold me on a visit to Nanjing. I spent several months in China last year and am returning in October to pick up where I left off. This time Shanghai and now Nanjing and then out to Sichuan Yunnan.

    • Phyllis
      October 7, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Have fun on the return trip! China’s such a big country-so many places to explore 🙂

  2. James Hill
    April 16, 2017 at 3:45 am

    Great blog! Very insightful.
    I never knew how unappealing China is to most people, until I told friends of my trip there and received similar reactions to you.
    I too am pretty convinced I want to take a cheeky trip there to take advantage of the 144 h visa.
    Do you have any tips on other scenic Nanjing day-trips?

    • Phyllis
      April 17, 2017 at 9:47 pm

      Hey! Unfortunately-I was only in Nanjing for 2 or 3 full days I believe. I had also just got back from a month of hanging out in Southeast Asia so me my friend decided to keep things light and easy. We visited all the Ming tombs, Sun-Yat Sen memorial, and the Nanjing massacre museum. To be honest, from my research before going there, I’m not sure there’s much to do besides that. If you’re in the area though for some time I would definitely recommend Shanghai, Huangshan Mountain, and Hangzhou. They’re all close and offer a great little glimpse into China! 🙂

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