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It is said that the towering statue at the entrance to Nanjing’s Confucius Temple is one of the largest representations of Confucius in all of China. Standing in its shadow, I felt the immense impact the ancient philosopher had on Asia; indeed, his followers built more than 3,000 temples to continue his studies after he died 2,500 years ago. Travelers can find these temples today throughout China, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, but Nanjing’s is perhaps one of the most famous.
A lot of that has to do with Nanjing itself, a “small” Chinese city of about 8 million people, located only an hour from Shanghai if clients take a bullet train. It has major historical ties, particularly ones that would interest a North American traveler. For example, it’s the birthplace of the Ming Dynasty, during which the temple played an important role as a religious hub and state-administered university.
As disciples of Confucius sought wisdom at the temple, hopeful politicians sharpened their pencils next door. Adjacent to the temple was the Jiangnan Examination Hall, the country’s largest imperial examination hall, where candidates would compete for government positions and undergo scholarly inspection during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The presence of the examination halls, university and Confucius Temple brought people from across the country to Nanjing and made this area a hub of government, commerce, religion and entertainment.
Today, the location is known collectively by locals as “Confucius Temple,” and it buzzes with tourism. But that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, this historical hub was practically forgotten. In fact, the Qinhuai River, which flows directly in front of the Confucius Temple, was “black” as recently as the mid-1980s. But the local government invested $375 million into its revitalization, transforming the once-polluted river into the pleasant urban waterway that exists today, lined with restaurants, apartment buildings, tourist shops, riverboats and hotels.
Now, there’s no better way to spend the evening than by tour boat, gently gliding under scenic stone bridges in the glow of decorative lights hung from sycamore trees.