For most of my life, China has been a bit of a mystery.
In primary school, I learned about European royalty, the plight of the Native Americans and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. In high school, I had an animated history teacher who worked himself into such a frenzy during lectures that his stories became more like theater. I could close my eyes and, with his vivid descriptions, picture a stumpy Napoleon riding horseback into the teeth of a thousand bullets.
Sadly, Asian history was boiled down to just a few major events: a country that bombed us (Japan, at Pearl Harbor) and a country we bombed the hell out of a couple of decades later to stop the spread of communism (Vietnam). In college, I bought a book about a World War II mission to rescue US and British POWs, including some survivors of the Bataan Death March, from a Japanese camp in the Philippines.
So it wasn’t until I moved to China in 2010 that I began to understand the country’s history. I didn’t even know that Beijing was not always the national capital. In April, I traveled to Nanjing, the seat of power from 1368 to 1420 during the Ming Dynasty and again in the early 20th century, before the Communists “liberated” China in 1949.
To third Ming emperor Yongle, who moved the capital to Beijing in 1420, I’ve got to ask: Dude, what were you thinking? Beijing doesn’t get much precipitation, so it can be brutally dry. It’s prone to sandstorms in spring, which leave a red film over everything unfortunate enough to be left outdoors. The winters are long and, when the winds whip down from Siberia, bone-chillingly cold. And unlike many major cities in the world, it isn’t located near any large body of water. Continue reading