Nanjing: It’s the Tops

Nanjing, China, was not on my list of places I must see before I die. Peter and I ended up here because of a logistical snafu — we were hoping to go overland by train from Shanghai to the western city of Xining, but the trains were sold out. We had to buy plane tickets, and the easiest place for us to leave from was Nanjing.

My previous knowledge of Nanjing was as follows:

1. Nanjing is one of the “three ovens” of China — the hottest cities in the country.

2. Nanjing’s most famous recent historical event was The Rape of Nanjing — the horrific incident in 1937 when Japanese troops raped and murdered tens of thousands of civilians.

For what it’s worth, it’s also a former capital of China, and is supposed to have pleasant tree-lined streets, a big park, and the mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen.

Peter and I arrived here exhausted after our supposedly relaxing two days in Suzhou and checked into the Jiangsu Hotel. If the picture on the hotel brochure is to be believed, it is the only tall building in the city. The brochure is not to be believed — but that’s not to say that the hotel doesn’t have its charms. For example, the selection of toiletries on sale in the bathroom includes not just a toothbrush, but a pair of “exquisite article lady’s pants” and a vibrating condom. When we woke up this morning, someone had slipped an ad for call girls under our door.  We didn’t place an order — but that didn’t deter the brochure delivery guy. He slipped another one under the door about an hour ago; I looked up from the desk to find it had magically appeared on the carpeted floor, the Jiangsu equivalent of nightly turn-down service.

Here is something else I didn’t know about Nanjing: unlike most cities in China — most notably Beijing, where the communists destroyed the city’s magnificent walls and built a big road — its Ming-dynasty walls are largely intact. It’s pretty amazing, given that they were built during the 1300s. According to our guidebook, they’re over 30km long, and each brick was supposed to have been stamped with the name of the workshop that made it, so that any poor quality materials could be traced back to their source.

I recently read a book about modern China (Jan Wong’s “Beijing Confidential”) that described the Chinese obsession with walls. She hypothesizes that China’s love of walls demonstrates its desire for safety and security — a desire so extreme that it trumps the potential for expansion. These walls range from absurdly huge (the Great Wall) to the everyday (building courtyard homes that only have windows facing inside). Looking at Nanjing’s wall really brought that obsession to life. Once you build something like that, you’re going to think long and hard before expanding the city’s boundaries.

Anyway. Once we’d gotten outside the walls, the traffic and noise of the city melted away into a beautiful lake-side park. We were considering renting a paddle boat, but then stumbled upon one of those amazing, unexpected spectacles that one can only find in China — like early morning ballroom dancing, or limber 80-year-olds gathering for their evening stretches. It was a bunch of people, many in uniforms that looked like gold pajama suits, playing with tops.

Actually, “tops” isn’t the right word. Having just done a bunch of googling, it seems the closest term is “Chinese yo-yo.” That sounds like a derogatory term, but in fact refers to a toy “comprised of two identical discs attached together by an axle at the centre. Two sticks with a piece of string attached to the ends of the sticks are also required to use the toy. The yoyo is used by holding a stick in each hand while spinning the yoyo on the string attached to the sticks.”

This is probably easier to explain with a photograph.

When we first approached the yo-yo plaza, there was only one woman practicing. Wearing a red t-shirt and loose pants, she was spinning her top back and forth on its string as she performed a tai-chi influenced series of poses, culminating in a descent into a split. I thought she must be busking, but then we noticed that there were dozens of other yo-yos (tops, not people) on the plaza, resting on the ground and steps. In fact, the crowd gathered around her wasn’t really watching; they were getting ready to warm up.

Peter, having caught sight of an enormous top — maybe three feet in diameter — suggested we grab a seat on the steps. “This is going to be amazing,” he said. And he was right.

After finishing their metamorphosis from civilian clothing to golden pajama suits and other team outfits, the toppers, as I’ll call them, gathered in a row of lines. Alternating between attentiveness and boredom, they listened to announcements broadcast from a microphone held by a pot-bellied, baseball-cap wearing man, who had the air of an overly invested coach of a little league baseball team. This went on for quite some time. “Let them spin!” I cried in mock protest. “We want to see them spin!”

Eventually, the coach guy finished his monologue and the performance began — following cues from his whistle (and a small flag), they began entered the plaza in small groups. Each performance was set to a different piece of music, ranging from traditional Chinese songs to what sounded like Chinese hip hop.

I would have thought that watching people spin tops on pieces of string would soon become boring — how many tricks can you possibly do — but it was not. Not only did every person have a different style, but their actual tops differed, from those the height of a shampoo bottle to the enormous top Peter had seen lying on the plaza (it was somewhat anticlimactic, since the top snapped the string). Also interesting: the length of the strings and poles used to propel the tops ranged from your standard length-of-your-armspan variety all the way up to 20-foot-long strings that the toppers controlled with sticks the length of fishing poles, creating a captivating sight: tops whizzing across the plaza on elegant trajectories as if being controlled by some invisible force, the top spinner gracefully dancing beneath them.

The tricks themselves were impressive, but what I enjoyed the most was the pride and joy of the people doing them. I mean, let’s face it: top-spinning is a little ridiculous. But these people loved it, and it showed. That’s something I enjoy about China — whether it’s ballroom dance or spinning tops, there’s a lack of irony here. Why not devote hours each day to playing with a top? Why not gather with your topper friends on a lovely afternoon and put on a show? Men, women, old and young — everyone seemed to genuinely be having a wonderful time (with the possible exception of the lady doing splits — she seemed like a tyrant). As I watched a young woman with a scraggly pony tail and imperfect teeth proudly stand in the middle of the plaza, simultaneously spinning tops around her neck and around her knees before jogging off, top still spinning, I actually got tears in my eyes.

We watched the toppers for several hours before finally moving on, strolling along the wall and enjoying the view of the lake and the refreshing trees. Not too far away from the toppers, a semicircle of young people sat on the ground, listening to what appeared to be trivia questions being asked by a woman on a microphone (as anyone who has had to share space with a Chinese tour group can attest, they are very into megaphones). I was captivated: I could understand perhaps 50 percent of each question, and what I could understand made me think (perhaps erroneously) that I knew the answer. There was something about two trains, and another question regarding the sun and the time of day. The closest I got to an actual answer was in response to a question about the English alphabet. I imagined raising my hand, demonstrating to the crowd my expertise both in Chinese and knowledge available to the average American kindergartener. But unfortunately, I didn’t know what she was asking about the alphabet, so I stayed quiet.

I was focused so intently on the questions that I didn’t hear Peter calling for me. Peter, for those of you who do not know, was the Nutmeg State Badminton Champion  in the early 1990s, and he had set a goal for himself: to play badminton in Nanjing. (He even had me stop a guy on the street who had rackets in his bag and ask him where he intended to use them.)

When I finally did hear Peter’s shouts, I turned around to see that across the path from where I was standing was a small badminton court. Peter was holding a racket. I ran over and watched with wifely pride as he didn’t just keep up with, but trounced, his friendly opponent. (“I was the Nutmeg State Champion,” Peter reminded me when I praised his performance.)

And then, back to the hotel, for a dinner of steamed buns and warm beer. (The previous night we’d gone out in search of non-Chinese food and ended up at a supposedly Thai restaurant where the menu looked suspiciously Chinese, and the same plaintive love song was on repeat for the entire two hours we were there.) I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to Nanjing — but I’m very grateful for its toppers.

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