Jiangsu is a long, narrow province hugging the coast south of Shandong. Low-lying, flat and wet, it is one of China’s most fertile and long-inhabited areas. Today, much of it is industrial sprawl, but there are a few gems among all the new factory towns; provincial capital Nanjing is one of the country’s great historical cities, while ancient Suzhou is famous throughout China for its gardens and silk production.
Visiting the region, you find yourself in a world of water. The whole area is intensively drained, canalized, irrigated and farmed, and the rivers, canals and lakes which web the plain give it much of its character. The traditional way to travel here was by boat, with the Grand Canal once navigable all the way from Hangzhou in Zhejiang province to Beijing. The province’s other great water highway – the Yangzi River – connects Nanjing with Shanghai, ensuring that trade from both east and west continues to bring wealth to the region.
Jiangsu cuisine tends to be on the sweet side and is characterized by an emphasis on flavour rather than texture, and by the use of wine in cooking. That said, one of the best-known dishes, yanshui ya (brine duck), has none of these qualities. The duck is first pressed and salted, then steeped in brine and baked; the skin should be creamy-coloured and the flesh red and tender. Other Jiangsu dishes worth trying include majiang yaopian (pig’s intestines), jiwei xia (a lake crustacean vaguely resembling a lobster, but much better tasting, locals affirm) and paxiang jiao (a type of vegetable that resembles banana leaves).
Formerly known in the West as Nanking, NANJING – the “Southern Capital” – stands as a direct foil to the “Northern Capital” of Beijing, and the city is still considered China’s rightful hub by many Overseas Chinese, particularly those from Taiwan. Its current prosperity derives both from its proximity to Shanghai and from its gateway position on the Yangzi River, which stretches away west deep into China’s interior. With leafy, shaded avenues and a laidback air, it’s one of those cities that’s perhaps better to live in than visit, though a wealth of historic sites means that it’s well worth a few days of anyone’s time.
Though Nanjing was walled as many as 2500 years ago, the present city wall is basically the work of the first Ming emperor, who extended and strengthened the earlier walls in 1369–73. Built of brick and more than 32km long, construction followed the contours of the country, skirting Xuanwu Lake in the north, fringing Xijin Shan in the east, and tracing the Qinhuai River (which doubled as a moat) to the west and south. The wall was mainly paid for by rich families resettled here by the emperor: one third of it was “donated” by a single native of Wuxiang in Zhejiang province. Its construction employed 200,000 conscripts, who ensured that the bricks were all the same size and specification, each one bearing the names of the workman and overseer. They were held together, to an average height of 12m and a thickness of 7m, by a mortar of lime and glutinous rice paste.
The original structure, of red rock in places, is still plainly visible along a 300m section of the wall at the so-called Shitoucheng, in the west of the city between Caochangmen Dajie and Fenghuang Jie. You can see it from bus #18, which runs outside the walls between Xinjiekou and the west train station.
One of the consequences of the weakness of the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century was the extraordinary Taiping Uprising, an event that would lead to the slaughter of millions, and which has been described as the most colossal civil war in the history of the world. The Taipings were led by Hong Xiuquan, failed civil-service candidate and Christian evangelist, who, following a fever, declared himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. In 1851, he assembled 20,000 armed followers at Jintian village, near Guiping in Guangxi province, and established the Taiping Tianguo, or Kingdom of Heavenly Peace. This militia routed the local Manchu forces, and by the following year was sweeping up through Hunan into central China. They captured Nanjing in 1853, but though the kingdom survived another eleven years, this was its last achievement. Poorly planned expeditions failed to take Beijing or win over western China, and Hong’s leadership – originally based on the enfranchisement of the peasantry and the outlawing of opium, alcohol and sexual discrimination – devolved into paranoia and fanaticism. After a gigantic struggle, Qing forces finally managed to unseat the Taipings when Western governments sent in assistance, most notably in the person of Queen Victoria’s personal favourite, Charles “Chinese” Gordon.
Despite the rebellion’s ultimately disastrous failure and its overtly Christian message, the whole episode is seen as a precursor to the arrival of Communism in China. Indeed, in its fanatical rejection of Confucianism and the incredible damage it wrought on buildings and sites of historic value, it finds curious echoes in Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.