It had been the decision of the Chinese Nationalists, ten years earlier, to move the capital from Beijing to Nanjing. Governing the vast country would be easier that way, or so the policy makers hoped. Nanjing was centrally located, with roughly equal distances to the north and south borders, and it was well served by three railroads and a network of highways. It was in close proximity to the economically vibrant eastern seaboard—China's link to the outside world—with only 200 miles between it and the nation's primary commercial center, Shanghai. The trip could be done within a day by car, train or, more often, by boat down the mighty Yangtze.
To be sure, picking Nanjing as the new capital was more than a matter of practical convenience. The founder of the republic, the late Sun Yatsen, had argued that it was essential to move the seat of government away from Beijing, because “the light of the 20th century” would never be able to penetrate the Forbidden City where generations of Qing Dynasty rulers had contented themselves with being caretakers of a stagnant society, seemingly unable to cope with the requirements of the modern world.
It had been a society still stuck in medieval ways, turning unfortunate boys destined for court duty into eunuchs and binding the feet of its upper-class girls, while allowing the vast majority of its people to live in abject poverty and executing its criminals in spectacularly cruel fashions, using methods such as the ancient technique of death by a thousand cuts. The Nationalist revolutionaries who had overthrown the last emperor a quarter century earlier had wanted to cut the links to this ugly past and begin all over again in Nanjing.
Nanjing, the largest city in Jiangsu province, had spent the past decade in a frenzy of construction in a bid to catapult itself into the modern age, and by 1937 it was beginning to look like a genuine capital. Landmarks that would have attracted attention in any city in the world emerged in rapid succession. The Foreign Ministry, completed in 1934 with the help of New York architect Henry K. Murphy, was more modernistic than Washington’s State Department, wrote American journalist Julius Eigner, who visited the city on behalf of National Geographic.
The Ministry of Communications, erected a year later from drawings prepared by a Russian architect, was Nanjing’s most impressive construction, combining a roof suggestive of imperial palaces with an unmistakably western design. The Ministry of Railways, “perhaps the best laid out and the most attractive of all of the government quarters erected so far,” according to Eigner, was frequently used for high-level government meetings. Commercial interests had followed in the government agencies’ footsteps. By 1937, most Chinese banks had set up local branches in the city, and over the course of a decade real estate prices in the business district had grown by 700 percent.
16 September 2016
Nanjing Capital Boomtown, 1930s
From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 304-328: