There is a lot about China that we hear today, but it is still largely unknown to us and relatively unexplored. China is riding a wave of excitement as it races into the twenty-first century and there are two
things propelling its transition which go hand in hand: the country’s modernisation and rapid economic development, and opening its doors to the outside world.
It’s not surprising that Chinese universities are starting to compete with the rest of the world and globally students are flocking there to study. Away from Shanghai, China’s business and cosmopolitan centre, and Beijing, the ancient capital city, there is another place which is attracting young foreign students: the university city of Nanjing.
This year I travelled to Nanjing when I visited my friend who I met on a school exchange a couple of years ago. Back then China was another world to me, and two days in Nanjing just wasn’t enough, so I went back for a few weeks. Despite a population of around five million, which would make it Britain’s second biggest city, Nanjing is nowhere near the size of China’s most populated cities. It has served as capital of China twice and has a celebrated and rich history. The Ming Dynasty city walls still remain to this day, albeit a bit decrepit. Nanjing was China’s capital during the Republic rule before the communists took power and made Beijing capital in 1949. It was during this period that many of Nanjing’s universities were established.
Now, like all of China, Nanjing is embracing a prosperous period of commercialism with shopping malls, bar districts and skyscrapers (the Greenland Financial Centre is the eighth tallest building in the world). Although after a three hour train journey from Shanghai, Nanjing seemed so ‘Chinese’ that it was a bit of a culture shock. Shanghai has been made with the foreign customer in mind and very much mirrors any other western city with a strong multicultural vibe. One is able to blend into the crowd anonymously as the population gets on with its hectic lives. However, when I arrived in Nanjing city centre for the first time, hundreds of people were staring and taking photos. Nanjing is commercialising in its own local way. You will still find street food, pagodas and that famous little noodle house which is tucked away down a side alley (usually behind a construction site).
It’s probably the national parks which are the biggest attraction here for foreigners. Zhongshan Park, in memory of republican revolutionary Sun Yatsen, covers a large area of trees, mountains and lakes, and its centre piece, Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum, is awe inspiring. Xuanwu Lake though was my favourite spot in the city. Just within the city walls, it is covered by hills on its east side and skyscrapers on its west side and is dotted with statues and gardens which make it look stunning.
What I liked most about Nanjing was its youth culture. 1912 is the posh new bar district in Nanjing where locals are prepared to pay steep prices for a good night out. I would like to add that foreigners like me usually get a discount. There are some foreign students that work here for ‘marketing purposes’. Foreign business is good business in China and if non-locals are going to your nightclub, then your nightclub is the club to go to. These clubs are a lot different to those in the west. They are usually without dance floors and instead have a lot more tables, podiums and stages. Nearer the university district, there are more western-style nightclubs like the underground Castle Bar which is open until six in the morning, and unlike the lavish clubs in 1912, Castle Bar is more down to earth, and is most popular with foreign students.
Xin Jie Kou is the stylish and hip centre of Nanjing where you can find cinemas, arcades and the most entertaining feature: KTV. This is where you hire a private room to sing karaoke and you can find them anywhere in China. The Fashion Lady is perhaps what defines the youth in Nanjing most; an underground mall three stories deep, with a high density of street stalls selling anything from hand painted t-shirts to tacky souvenirs. They contain alternative boutiques and cafes which serve ‘milk tea’. It’s like an underground Camden market, with a little more colour, an added Asian twang, and a load of cheap knock-offs.
While I was in Nanjing I met students from every continent which speaks volumes for the diversity of their backgrounds. Approximately 1700 international students are enrolled at the city’s main university and in recent years other universities have invested millions of Yuan into constructing modern campuses to attract the best students. With China being the next economic superpower and university fees in the West climbing, it is hardly surprising more and more students are choosing to study in cities such as Nanjing. Remnants of its previous life still remain, but Nanjing has regenerated itself well and still feels young. It works hard and plays hard like a good student should, and seems ready for the challenge of tomorrow.