Last month, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its World War II victory against Japan. The most infamous atrocity committed during that war on China’s territory was Japan’s massacre of Nanjing.
After seizing Shanghai in 1937, the Japanese Army went on a six-week rampage, killing and raping an estimated 300,000 civilians. The event remains a painful memory for the Chinese people and contributes to ongoing tense relations with their eastern neighbor.
In recent years, several books and movies about the massacre have come out, including the bestselling book The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, and the movie Nanjing Heroes, directed by Zhang Yimou.
But while the country has a hard time moving beyond Nanjing’s difficult history, the city is reinventing itself as a hub for architecture, art and youth. Its renewal is spurred by a combination of young entrepreneurs, large numbers of university students and government-led revitalization efforts.
Perhaps no building is more revealing of the city’s rejuvenation than Zifeng Tower, a 450-meter skyscraper that’s home to stores, offices, restaurants, an Intercontinental hotel and a public observatory. Its construction concluded in 2010, and today it stands as China’s fourth tallest building and the world’s 12th tallest.
Another ambitious project is the Chinese International Practical Exhibition of Architecture, a $250 million permanent exhibition of architecture realized by 24 architects, of which 11 are from China and 13 are from abroad.
The park is located about 20 kilometers outside the city and includes a contemporary architecture museum, an international conference center, a hotel and a recreation center, as well as 20 villas. Designers include American architect Steven Holl, British architect David Adjaye and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The project began in 2003 but encountered several years of delays.
The park will help put Nanjing on the art world map, according to Zhu Tong, director of the Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, which is part of the complex.
“Many people think the contemporary art centers are in Beijing and Shanghai,” Zhu told The New York Times, “but we want to show the world that Nanjing will be the best in the country for contemporary art.”
The city is indeed taking steps toward becoming an international hub for art. In October 2010, it hosted its first biennale at the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum, which reopened in a new building that same year.
Several artists returned to Nanjing in recent years after living abroad. Qian Dajing returned to his hometown after spending 20 years in New York because he believed Nanjing was ready for his public art installations. Qian told The Times that he wanted to use what he learned in the West to create “something real” in his hometown.
Artist Yang Yong-chun, on the other hand, wanted to create something big.
The Nanjing-based artist made the world’s largest 3D painting to celebrate the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, which the city hosted. The painting, called “The Rhythm of Youth,” stretches 374 meters and took 20 artists working 20 days to complete.
Scenes in the painting include a snowy mountain, a yellow rapeseed flowerbed in Jiangnan and some of Nanjng’s modern buildings, including Zifeng Tower.
Nanjing is home to several major universities, and the large number of students give it a college-town feel. Youth hang out at bars such as New Castle Bar, which hosts live performances of indie rock music; 61House, a former bomb shelter that was converted into a hip bar in the university district; and Ellen’s, a dive bar with cheap burgers and European rap music.
Several interesting bookstores resulted from college life bleeding into city life. The Chinese bookstore chain Popular Bookmall opened a streetside shop in Nanjing’s Gulou District that operates under the honor system. Passers-by who want to buy books are asked to drop the money into a lock box. Prices are set at 30 percent of the cover price.
Librairie Avant-Garde, a bookshop in an underground parking lot, is a popular attraction both for college students and for tourists. In 2013, CNN named it China’s most beautiful bookshop. The store has retained some of its original design, including two yellow traffic stripes. It has added simple bookshelves and lighting, along with a large cross on one of the walls.
The bookshop aims to be a humanities store as well as a religious store, manager Zhang Xing told CNN.
“Here… reading is our religion, and this place is a heaven for book lovers,” he said.
Bookshops reflect a city’s well-being, said Librairie Avant-Garde owner Qian Xiaohua. And by that measure, Nanjing is doing well.