This is the tenth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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The past is not dead; the past is not even past.   William Faulkner’s words might have been written about Nanjing – one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and from 1928 to 1937 (‘The Nanjing decade’) the crucible for the making of a modern national and nationalist China.
It was in 1928 that Chiang Kai-shek set up his Nationalist government there and where the New Life Movement was founded a few years later.
This complex period came to a horrific end in 1937 with the Japanese invasion and the Nanjing Massacre in which somewhere between 200000 and 300000 Nanjingers were butchered by the Japanese in one month.
No recent leader of China has been more interested in history and in shaping the past for present purposes than Xi Jinping – and so it is no surprise that Nanjing’s long history and its crucial Republican ten years as capital between 1928 and 1937 remain noisy elements in China’s contemporary life.  But it is important to stress that the fascination with Nanjing’s highwater Republican past is not simply a product of the Chinese government’s command. There has been generalised ‘Republican fever’ (“民国热”) in China (about the longer republican period stretching from 1912 to 1949) since the 90s. This is in part an expression of the Chinese young’s increasing fascination with all things vintage. Twenty years ago, there were no ‘second hand clothes/vintage stores, whether in Beijing or Nanjing. That has changed and like other young people across the world, the Chinese young like to revisit a commodified version of their history.
building the past
One expression of such commodification in Nanjing is the 2015 Grand Mansion, part of the Luxury Hotel Collection marinated in the paraphenalia of the Republican period. There is a huge library (a nod to Nanjing’s reputation as a book city  – more below) and a restaurant where guests are offered cuisine from the Republican era. There are other Republican-era restaurants and cafes where the young hang out. There is no reason to damn such commodification. All cities now, wherever in the world, provide for their citizens and visitors a sanitised excursion into the past.
Of course, the very physical fabric of Nanjing is an eloquent and visible testament to the Republican period. One of the most famous and beautiful buildings, now a museum, is Meiling Palace, built between 1931-4 as a two-storey home by the President for his wife. While its exterior is in traditional Chinese style, its interior is western, with mosaic bathroom floors, and floor to ceiling windows as in the image below (Song Meiling, the President’s wife, was educated in the US).
As we write, A Pocket Book of Nanjing Republican Architecture is being translated for publication in North America.
At another level entirely, Nanjing’s role as capital of the Republic and its meaning is tussled over in an increasingly nationalist China.  The ‘Nanjing Decade’ is complicated for the present day government. It was pre-1949 and international in numerous ways (its leader and wife were active Christians) At the same it was profoundly nationalist, with its ambitions to develop a constitutional  democracy. It was undone by violence, corruption and many other forces, not least brutality against Communists. One of our Nanjing contacts said that the Nanjing Decade in political terms is much thought about, little spoken about at present.

the life of memorials
Survivor of Nanjing Massacre lays flowers in front of a wall where the names of victims have been inscribed at the Memorial Hall.
For all that western books about China speak of its rise, there is still within China part of the  government’s story which focuses on China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers (of which the Japanese invasion and the Nanjing Massacre are terrifying examples).
Yet in another part of the government wood, the Nanjing of the Republican era with its modernising patriotic air can be absorbed as part of the rejuvenating present-day government China story. There are Nanjing memorials of the Republican era that are as disturbing as memorials anywhere in the world. One takes the form of a museum built in 1985 dedicated to the Japanese massacre of 1937 (Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders) and there is a second one, to our knowledge, the only one in the world, dedicated to memorialising the women who were enslaved sexually – by the Japanese. It was opened in 2015. These museums remain a repository of the city’s war memories and one of our contacts mentioned that many Nanjingers have family members – grandparents or great-grandparents – who were marked by the massacre.
Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders in Nanjing
Earlier this year there was a trigger in Nanjing for venting anti-Japanese feelings when it was discovered that a young former nurse had five years ago placed some memorial tablets to Japanese war criminals in a Buddhist temple in Nanjing, in the belief that this would rid her of her nightmares. This led to huge Weibo protests – not least in Nanjing. When we asked one of our interviewees whether he thought this anti-Japanese felling was triggered by memories of 1937, he demurred, saying it is mostly the young that express anti-Japanese sentiment. Another disagreed, saying the anti-Japanese feeling was much more widespread, it was simply that the young are generally more active on social media. A third said that foreign media tended to give such outpourings more visibility than was justified. And a fourth, that the outbursts were less stirred than stoked. It really is the case that the past is not past.

ART, the mall AND the MIND
Nanjing Outsider Art Studio
Perhaps it’s inevitable that a city with such a weighty history does not have a particularly thriving contemporary art scene. Or perhaps one should say scenes. There is a temptation to say that there is a dual cultural art economy – one powered by State museums; the other by private individuals and corporations. But it is rather more complicated than that. It is true that none of the State museums shows much contemporary art – with the exception of AMNUA, the important Nanjing art school which shows both contemporary Chinese and international artists (disclosure: we curated a Sean Scully retrospective there in 2016).
In the private sector there is the Sifang Art Museum which does show both Chinese and international contemporary artists – and is on the ‘global circuit’. We have been told but cannot confirm that the foundation underpinning it has had financial problems and that the city government is now supporting the museum quite substantially. Sifang is quite far from the city – and is not the kind of museum one could ‘bump’ into. Which is why one should take seriously the art institutions in Nanjing which are located in shopping malls in the city centre  and which thus touch many more people’s lives. After all the history of culture is partly the history of access to that culture.
There are two such shopping mall museums in Nanjing, the Deji Art Museum (德基美术馆) and the G Museum (金鹰美术馆), both owned by developers. One has his own established collection; and the other is forging his. It is not strictly accurate, though, to describe these as private museums since developers – if they want land – are ‘encouraged’ by the government to set up museums. It is early days to make any definitive judgement on these museums – and there clearly are issues – not least in the time of Covid. The issue is – will they receive the necessary interest and support they need from the national and international communities?
Covid lockdowns have hit the cultural world of China hard, as everywhere – and has put pressure on everyone’s mental as well as physical health. Nanjing was hit very hard in 2021 and responded well but for a time the airport was closed. With this context it may be that the most interesting art initiative in Nanjing is one that the international contemporary art world is not likely to be much aware of and that has been around since 2006.
At that time the artist and counsellor Guo Haiping worked for three months in the Nanjing Zutangshan Psychiatric Hospital where he saw the benefits art practice could have on people with mental health problems (his interest in the idea had developed many years earlier). In the same year he set up the Nanjing Outsider Art Studio (he is at pains to stress that Outsider Art is something more capacious than art made by people with mental health problems); eight years later, he set up the Nanjing Outsider Art Centre (南京天成艺术中心).
Guo Haiping’s initiatives have been supported by the Nanjing government – indispensably so. Even if the first official mention of management of mental health problems in China was in the Tang dynasty, its  more recent record has not been what it might be. Art practice as supported by Guo Haiping  in Nanjing is important in issues around mental health and more generally reaches part of the community beyond the official artworld – and the art so made has been shown in China and abroad.
 BOOKS and bibles
Nanjing may not match Shanghai, its close neighbour, in terms of art but in terms of books it is extraordinarily important.  One account has it that there are 10000 literary works created in or written about Nanjing – and China’s first literary academy was founded there in 438.
Books as different as Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber and the missionary Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth are rooted there and in 2019 Nanjing was designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Not the least of the reasons for its status is the number of extraordinary bookshops there – including Librairie Avant-garde, formerly a bomb shelter and government parking lot, it is now one of China’s and the world’s most beautiful bookshops, now with several branches. Founded by the bibliophile Qian Xiaohua, a devout Christian, it may be an independent bookshop, but it also functions as a public space, as do other bookshops that punctuate the streets of Nanjing. (At the top of this newsletter, under the title, is an image of one of the branches of Librairie Avant-garde.)
Another indication of Nanjing’s literary status is that The Luxun Literary Prize, one of China’s most prestigious literary prizes, this year has four Nanjing writers as winners of various categories: Ge Liang, Han Dong, He Ping and Zhu Zuci.
Publishing too is strong in Nanjing – and what makes the publishing scene most remarkable is The Amity Foundation, set up in in 1985 by the late K.H. Ting, President emeritus of the China Christian Council, the government-approved Protestant church in China. The Foundation also has a printing company, the Amity Printing Company (APC, 爱德印刷有限公司) in Nanjing which is the largest producer of Bibles in China, and one of the largest in the world. It is a joint venture with the United Bible Societies.
Like everything else in Nanjing, Bible publishing illuminates the paradox at the heart of the city. Some Nanjing friends tell us that Shanghai is to New York as Chicago is to Nanjing. Shanghai may be the great international city in China but Nanjing is the first national city. Yet the history and present cultural life of Nanjing is both international and national.  At a moment when there is a great debate both within and out of China about how self-sufficient China wishes to be, and that includes in the cultural field, the future of Nanjing deserves to be watched carefully.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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