Archive for May, 2015

Nanjing history walking tour

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Professor Wilton Fowler

There’s nothing quite like taking a tour of a noteworthy location with a knowledgeable history professor…. & we were very, very lucky to have exactly such a walking tour of Nanjing with Professor Wilton Fowler, a historian who has taught American Studies at HNC for eleven years. His course on American Diplomatic History is an extremely popular course (with lots of auditing students, since his class size limit is quickly reached!) — and he’s also teaching a seminar course this semester entitled ‘Missionaries in China.’ This tour was a bittersweet occasion, however, because he is retiring from HNC (a second retirement, as he is already Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Washington) – and this was thus a last chance for us to tap into the considerable knowledge of local history he has built up over the years.

Wang Jingwei’s former residence

Many of the tour sites were certainly off-the-beaten-path, including a building that formerly was the site of China’s Supreme Court (now a commercial building with a broken fountain out front, hosting an arts complex), as well as the former American Embassy (now a hotel). Another interesting site was the former residence of Wang Jingwei. Wang’s story was told quite nicely recently by Rana Mitter, in his book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Mitter considered it “one of the great tragedies of twentieth-century history”:

He was a more prominent nationalist and revolutionary in his youth than either Mao or Chiang, and served as second in command to the legendary Dr. Sun Yat-sen. But during the war against Japan, Wang authored a decision that would condemn him, to this day, as “a traitor for a thousand generations” against the Chinese people.

That decision was to lead a puppet government, based here in Nanjing, for the Japanese occupation. History – and the Chinese people — have not forgotten.

Another historical tour site laden with WWII memories was Ginling College. This women’s college, designed by the American architect Henry K. Murphy (please see posting immediately below), was located within Nanjing’s “Safety Zone,” and served as a refuge and sanctuary-of-last-resort for young Chinese women and others trying to escape the brutal reality of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ in 1937. Anyone who has watched Lu Chuan’s searing film City of Life and Death knows very well about Ginling…. & the crucial role that it played during that harrowing period.

Ginling College
Source: Cody, 2001; credit: Wesleyan University, Meng Collection

Today Ginling is a part of Nanjing Normal University, located just a few blocks away from HNC… and our tour took place on a beautiful Sunday morning, with many young students walking about, far removed in time (if not in place) from such traumas. Historians such as Professor Fowler keep us honest about the past, however, and force us to be vigilant today – and we will certainly miss his voice here at HNC!

Henry Killam Murphy

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Linggu Pagoda

Ginling College (in the posting immediately above) served as a showcase for the skills of a talented and thoughtful American architect, Henry Killam Murphy. Murphy is not particularly well known in the U.S. (even among architects) – but his fame is well established in China…. in part no doubt because he tended to specialize in the architecture of educational facilities and institutions of higher learning. Peking University, Tsinghua University, Ginling College, and many, many others bear his design imprint… and he was especially active here in Nanjing.

Murphy’s approach came to be called “adaptive architecture,” which sought to apply new ideas about construction, lighting, heating, plumbing, materials, etc. – ideas that were becoming prevalent in his native U.S. practice — within the traditional forms of Chinese design (e.g., graceful, curving roofs; colorful & intricate dougong [brackets, cornices] under the eaves; etc.). He wanted his buildings to look Chinese – but to be world-class in their structure and form and operations.

His practice in Nanjing was helped by his relationship with the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, who pushed the city – China’s capital at that time – to the forefront of urban design & reconstruction. Murphy helped in city planning, & was a strong proponent of keeping Nanjing’s city wall intact. “It would be a great mistake to tear it down,” he wrote, even though other Chinese cities were doing so at the time (& last November’s posting certainly indicates the wisdom of that judgement!).

Sturdy pagoda stairs

Murphy was chosen by the KMT government to design and build what he referred to as “China’s Arlington” – a memorial cemetery & building complex for ‘revolutionary martyrs’ erected in the Linggu Temple area of Purple Mountain. He was “greatly thrilled” about the prospect of designing a pagoda for the site, since his design would utilize reinforced concrete (still a relatively new technique in China), and could similarly embody “…ideas I have been gradually working out in my mind for many years for the most beautiful pagoda in China.” And so, on a recent weekend, I made it a point to visit (and climb!) Murphy’s nine-story Linggu Pagoda. I can attest – and the above photo shows – that it is indeed very beautiful; and a second photo gives some hint of its sturdy – indeed very sturdy! – concrete steps & inside construction.

The quotes above are from a wonderfully written guide to Murphy and his work, Jeffrey Cody’s book Building in China: Henry K. Murphy’s “Adaptive Architecture,” 1914-1935. In addition to cogently telling Murphy’s fascinating story, the book includes a number of other tidbits that I found quite interesting. Despite having taught for many years in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, for example, I hadn’t realized that that school was the favorite amongst Chinese architects of that period (e.g., in 1931, 12 of the 28 U.S. university graduates in the Society of Chinese Architects had gone there). Similarly, I hadn’t realized that Edmund Bacon, the renowned Philadelphia city planner (and yes, probably forever better known as father of the actor Kevin Bacon) had worked for Murphy in his Shanghai office during the early 1930’s Depression.