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Cultural Nanjing – History, Heritage and Avant Garde

Nanjing has been China’s “southern capital” on and off since the 3rd century CE until as recently as 1949, and China’s many different ruling classes has a tendency to endow their political, economic and military home-bases with deep-pocketed support for arts, culture, education and research. Still known today for its ancient city wall built by 200,000 workers over two decades during the Ming dynasty, Nanjing’s greater metropolitan is now a 21st century megalopolis home to 30 million people. The former southern capital continues to push boundaries and expand in all directions beyond its ancient fortifications, and is just a one-hour high speed rail ride away from Shanghai.

Nanjing water front, photo by China Residencies

As a river port city steeped in a long history of trade, Nanjing has often times been China's most economically powerful international hub,as early as the 5th century CE. The famous admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch of Arab-Mongol descent originally from Kunming sailed to Africa and throughout Southeast Asia from Nanjing. As the capital of the Republic of China and the KMT, monuments to Sun Yat-Sen & Chiang Kai-shek remain major historical and tourist attractions. The Japanese Imperial Army invaded in 1937, killing hundreds of thousands and burning the city the Nanjing Massacre, and occupied the city until 1946. The KMT came back for three years until the PLA invaded in 1949. Each successive ruling class left distinct marks on the city that remain today. For decades, a former army base was home to many artist studios, but the entire area was demolished in April 2018. Other ‘art zones’ like Finder Art Factory area by the old wall also are no longer exist. Now, artists and creative folks are more dispersed throughout the city, gathering in independent spaces and hubs throughout the city.

Culture writ large is enormously important in all of China’s four ancient capitals (Luoyang, Beijing & Xi’an) and Nanjing is still home to some of China’s best research universities, libraries, and oldest independent bookstores, like Xianfeng -- Avant Garde. The bookstore’s 13 locations across the city and beyond repurpose legacy architecture -- intricate wooden ancient study halls and temples from imperial times, european-influenced limestone buildings of the Republican period, and vast communist era car-parks adjacent to soviet-style stadiums. In recent years, Librairie Avant Garde is venturing further afield, with branches opening up in villages outside of Hangzhou and in Zhejiang province with plans to host residencies.