Ghosts of China's past haunt former capital Nanjing

NANJING, China – The eastern city of Nanjing contains vestiges of China's past that represent an inconvenient truth for the government today: the Chinese world has not always revolved around the Communists and Beijing.

China is preparing for grand celebrations next month to mark 70 years since Mao Zedong founded the Communist government based in the northern capital.

But Nanjing locals still remember when Mao's Nationalist rivals controlled China from their city, and some hint at dismay over its lost stature.

"Nanjing was the capital of short-lived dynasties in history, and regimes died away quickly," Jiang Shaojian, a Nanjing resident, told an AFP journalist.

"It is cursed," he lamented.

The two cities have long vied for the mantle of national capital, which is suggested in the very names: Beijing means "northern capital", while Nanjing is "southern capital."

Nanjing periodically gained and lost bragging rights during China's long imperial history, most recently during the Ming dynasty when it was the seat of power from 1368-1421 and may have been the world's largest city of the time.

Following the 1911 overthrow of imperial rule led by Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese republic was founded, with Nanjing later made the capital by the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) – sworn enemies of the Communists.

Under current President Xi Jinping, who has constructed a personality cult around his rule, depictions of past Chinese leaders and Communist rivals are downplayed or strictly controlled.

But in Nanjing, the reminders of former Nationalist presidents Sun and Chiang Kai-shek endure at the city's erstwhile Presidential Palace.

Awkward presence

The grounds, with its Baroque columns, arches, and other Western touches, are now a museum displaying Chiang's office desk and wall paintings of him in military regalia.

Nearby, tourists climb hundreds of steps up a mountainside covered in pine and cypress trees to the imposing Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, his final resting place.

Sun is, uniquely, revered both by the Communists and the Nationalists, who eventually fled across the Taiwan Straits in a Chinese political schism still yet to heal.

But Sun remains an awkward presence despite his image being seen throughout Nanjing.

He was a key figure in the republic who co-founded the Kuomintang party, but China gets around this by playing up his revolutionary and patriotic bona fides.

Asked about this ungainly juxtaposition, a tour guide at the mausoleum swatted the question aside with practiced ease.

"Sun promoted national unification because of his unbiased political ideals. It doesn't matter that he was a founder of the Kuomintang," the guide said.

"He would definitely side with the Communists in regards to cross-strait ties with Taiwan," he added, repeating a claim advanced by the Communist Party.

Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949, but China still views the island as its territory awaiting reunification.

Some scholars and overseas Chinese, however, say the cosmopolitan, Christian, republican physician would hardly be a supporter of the Communist Party today.

But Anson Luo, a 36-year-old businessman from Sun's home province of Guangdong in southern China, dismisses those doubters.

"If there was no Sun, China would have wandered in the darkness for many years," Luo said. – Rappler.com