This post is a Literary Cities post from Philip Thiel

Photo from Philip Thiel

Photo from Philip Thiel


“Down here,” said Julien, stepping onto a concrete ramp. We descended toward immense Chinese characters glowing above a French translation: Librairie Avant-Garde – the Avant Garde Bookstore. “It looks like a carpark,” I said. “It once was,” Julien replied. Inside, books decorated tunnels still marked with lanes and arrows; also, incongruously, an illuminated cross. I picked a book at random: a translation of Keats. “They read him here?” I asked, but Julien had wandered out of earshot toward an area where people sat in armchairs reading to themselves.  It was my first night in Nanjing, but I already saw a literary city.

Nanjing’s the capital of Jiangsu, a sister-state of Victoria with roughly three times its GDP and fourteen times its population. The province hugs the coast north-west of Shanghai, but its major cities cluster in the south along the Yangtze river which bisects Nanjing on its route to the East China Sea. This sister-state relationship was behind my trip to visit Julien, whose language studies were supported by a state government scholarship that encourages cultural exchange with Jiangsu. As a result, almost all the foreigners I’d meet in China would be Melburnians. Disorienting, flying 8,000 kilometres to be introduced to someone who works at Crown.

So I sought out the locals. One night I attended an event at which students from Nanjing University were practising their language skills by telling and refining stories in English. “In fact my life is very dull,” said one of them before telling a story that made me cry and laugh at the same time. The theme was “last week,” so one student told of wearing high heels; another described failing to return a library book. The Australian host asked the tellers about their feelings. One looked perplexed, and asked “do you always speak your feelings in your stories, like in the series Friends?” “Yes,” I replied, nodding like Rachel.

Meaning came more easily, taking the form of wisdom. Indeed, students were disarmingly able to move from anecdote to proverb, even to myth. “This reminds me of Li Bai,” said one of the students in response to the high heel story: “you achieved much by working hard, just like the old woman that the poet saw beside the river, making a needle by grinding an iron rod.” Again and again listeners would respond in this way, even debating which four-character chengyu best encapsulated the meaning of, say, the story of the misdirected library book. “It’s like the Buddha hitting you over the head.” “No, it’s like finding cool water in your hat – you suddenly realised the truth about something.” By the end of the evening I had stopped asking about feelings, and started muttering my own proverbs; but, to match these local meaning-makers – none of whom were studying literature – I’d need to know way more about poets.

On my last night in the city I met Chelsea, a proud local who talked me through the city’s formidable literary credentials. “Cao Xueqin was born here,” she said. “Oh, I loved Dream of the Red Chamber,” I bragged, but then was way out of my depth. Without skipping a beat, Chelsea traced the novel’s sense of “sorrow and nostalgia” to the history of Nanjing itself, which has seen the rise and fall of six dynasties and whose preserved city walls are a tangible sign of its connection to a historical and literary past. I sipped my beer and asked about the Avant Garde Bookshop.  “We saw a teenage girl there reading Either-Or by Kierkegaard,” Julien explained.

“Oh yeah,” said Chelsea, “at my school if you don’t read anything philosophical by people in the west – you’re going to get bullied.”

Philip Thiel is a Melbourne-based writer and English teacher. He blogs at

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