The Confucian Temple in Jiading, one of the largest in China, houses the Museum of Imperial Examination of Ancient China. (Jiang Xiaowei/SHINE)
A travel experience doesn't have to mean leaving the city. Each of Shanghai's districts has its own personality and interesting places to visit.
What better time to take a closer look at Jiading District than during the celebration of its 800-year anniversary!
In 1217, during what were called the "Jiading years" of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), the reigning government decided to set up a county named after the era. Thus did Jiading become a thriving center a half century before Shanghai County was created.
Jiading is located in the northwest part of the city, with an area of about 464 square kilometers and a population of more than 1.5 million people. It is about 20 kilometers from downtown Shanghai.
The district is home to a campus of Shanghai University and the Shanghai International Circuit where the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix is held every year. It is also home to a major part of Shanghai's automobile industry.
But for visitors, the main attractions are more historic. Its two top draw cards are the Confucian Temple and Nanxiang Old Town.
The Confucian Temple
Two years after Jiading County was established, the Southern Song Dynasty authorities decided to build a temple to worship Confucius. It was quite a logical move since Confucianism was highly respected during the era.
Historical records praised the temple as "magnificent and gorgeous, better than those in other places." Even today the Confucian Temple in Jiading is still one of the largest in China. It served not only as a site for ceremonies of worship but also as a school dedicated to the teachings of the ancient master.
The temple was expanded several times, most recently in the late 19th century. By the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it comprised more than 100 halls and rooms. During the Qing era, Emperor Kangxi and all emperors who succeeded him wrote inscribed boards for the temple. Some still hang in the main hall.
Some of the ancient trees on the temple grounds actually predate the buildings themselves. The oldest tree is a juniper planted during the Yuan Dynasty (1276-1368). The tree is very much alive, though its thick trunk has slanted and needs support.
Shanghai once was home to five Confucian temples. Three remain relatively well preserved. Apart from the one downtown near Yuyuan Garden which is known for its used books market, the other two — one in Jiading and one in Chongming County — have been modified into museums.
The temple in Jiading is now home to the Museum of Imperial Examination of Ancient China. Starting in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), an imperial examination system was held to choose court officials. The system was so all-powerful that it had a finger in every pie of ancient society as well as in the public's mindset.
Jiading was believed to be a place with a stellar academic atmosphere. The area produced three zhuangyuan, or exam takers decreed champions of the final round, which was usually presided over by emperors; and 192 jinshi, or examinees passing the final round. Jinshi was the ultimate dream of almost all scholars in ancient China because it bode well for the start of a prosperous official career.
The museum displays the entire history of the examination system, which in its day produced what was considered the cream of society. The exams were exercises in blood, sweat and tears for exam takers.
One of the exhibits, for example, lists the names of tongsheng, or those who passed the first round of the exams. They show a 48-year-old man on one list mostly dominated by teenagers. Visitors can imagine how the man must have felt upon finally passing the first round after maybe three decades of trying and failing.
Two parts of the exhibitions are apparently more interesting to visitors than the others. One is the replica of an examination room. It is divided into small cells, with stone chairs and desks, each holding one applicant.
Exam-takers weren't allowed to leave the cells — except maybe to go to the bathroom — until all the exams were finished, so they took food boxes and blankets with them.