• Image about Nanjing
Elephant statues on Stone Statue Road at Ming Xiaoling, which is a Ming ­Dynasty tomb and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ian Trower/Corbis

There are two things you hear in Nanjing about the lotus. First, they say that it is a very clean plant, unmarred by pollution or sediment. This much has been proved by science. Nanotechnologists in the United States and elsewhere actually study lotus leaves for their unique ability to repel dirt that then washes off entirely in any rain. The second thing you hear is that eating lotus seeds cools the body. This is more important than you might think: Nanjing is known as one of the “three ovens” of China, one of the places where the heat and humidity of being an inland river city can be overwhelming (think St. Louis in August). And even though Nanjing was pleasant, rainy and slightly cool while I was there, the lotus seeds were still oddly refreshing, like jicama or celery. More importantly, it’s a quasi-meditative act. Dumplings are eaten whole, soups are slurped quickly while still hot. But lotus seeds need to be picked out of the pod one at a time, and that in and of itself calms my mind and body. The traffic pecks at my brain less, and I start to notice the trees and the poetic names of the roads (we are standing on a boulevard called Crawling Dragon). Either I have been transformed by a plant, or my mind has finally adjusted to China. Either way, Nanjing is about to get extremely pleasant.
  • Image about Nanjing
the distinctive round houses of a Nanjing village
Michael S. Yamashita/National Geographic Stock

Start with the trees. They really are spectacular, particularly the plane trees. They were planted early in the last century to stand sentry along a series of wide boulevards, and they bring a little hint of Paris, or perhaps Berlin along the Spree River, to Nanjing. They are famous outside of Nanjing and inspire so much passion within the city that when a new subway project threatened too many of the trees, residents did something they don’t do often or without great cause in China: They protested. Rallying around their “green Great Wall,” egged on by outraged local bloggers, they managed to force local authorities to redraw their plans to minimize damage.

The greenery continues all the way to the top of Zijin (Purple-Gold) Mountain just on the outskirts of town. It, too, is teeming with visitors and tourists, there either to see the tomb of the Ming emperor Zhi Yvanzhang or the stately, terraced Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, which celebrates the man who both mainland China and Taiwan consider the Father of the Nation.
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Chinese street vendors making breakfast
Chris Mellor/Lonely Planet Images

There are more monuments to the long political importance of Nanjing. Chief among these is the Presidential Palace, the headquarters of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and previous rulers. The proud heritage is etched in the name of the city: The suffix -jing means “capital,” so Nanjing is “southern capital” and Beijing is the “northern capital.” Beijing clearly is the seat of power now, but Nanjing hasn’t forgotten that it once ruled over all of China.

Nanjing is also a university town. Southeast University is renowned for its engineers. Nanjing University is better known for its classical arts, producing poets and scholars and more than a few notable politicians. But in a quiet corner of the university’s northern gate (in China, the southern gate is usually the main gate), past dorm windows where shoes wet from the rain are hung by their laces to dry, there is an extraordinary piece of history.