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Visionary shapes city for society to thrive

Updated: Jun 5, 2024 By Li Yingxue China Daily Print
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Nantong in Jiangsu province holds seven national firsts — the first normal school, private museum, textile school, embroidery school, drama school, a school for those with speech and hearing challenges run by Chinese, and the first meteorological station — all thanks to Zhang Jian (1853-1926). He was a zhuangyuan, the top candidate in the imperial examination in 1894 during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a leading social reformer, educator and a patriotic industrial entrepreneur in early 20th-century China.

There was another record — in 1895, Zhang established China's first large-scale cotton textile enterprise the Dasheng Cotton Mills in Tangzha, previously called Tangjiazha, ancient town of Nantong.

The patriotic industrialist and educator's impact on Nantong goes beyond industry. His reforms in education, culture, charity and urban development propelled Nantong into modernization.

How does one person leave such a mark on a city? My recent visit to Nantong uncovered some answers.

For Zhang, his connection with Nantong lasted over a century, shaping the city's present and future.

More than a century ago, Zhang left his official career to establish industrial ventures in Tangzha. The Dasheng Wharf, built for the Dasheng Cotton Mills, became a symbol of that era.

Today, Zhang's vision has come to life. Nantong's textile industry is now diverse and thriving, making textiles one of the city's most iconic and traditional pillar industries.

In late 2022, the Nantong municipal government set an ambitious goal — that by 2024, the city's large-scale textile enterprises expect to achieve a total output value of 220 billion yuan ($30.95 billion).

Zhang envisioned a "one city, three towns" layout for Nantong, aiming for balanced development of the urban, rural and scenic areas. The "one city" was the old downtown area of Nantong, then a county, which was for residential and commercial use.

For the three towns, Tangjiazha was an industrial zone, Tiansheng Port served as the port area and Langshan was a scenic spot. The plan embodied Zhang's idea of harmony between city and nature, similar to the global "garden city "concept of the time.

Du Jiale, head of the Nantong Museum, believes that Zhang seamlessly blended China's traditional culture with modern technology, creating a unique vision. Zhang used Nantong as a test case, turning it into a model county that set an example for much of China, according to Du.

As a pivotal figure in China's modern education reform, Zhang played a crucial role in shaping Nantong's comprehensive education system, blending his educational vision into all his industrial endeavors.

He started with basic education, establishing normal schools and various other educational institutions in Nantong, covering everything from kindergarten to university-level and specialized education.

The Nantong Museum, China's first public museum founded by Zhang in 1905, is now a bustling cultural center. Haonan Villa, Zhang's former residence during his later years and now part of the museum, offers unique historical and cultural experiences. The blooming wisteria in its surroundings that Zhang planted then still attracts many students for sketching sessions today.

"Zhang Jian personally oversaw every aspect of the Nantong Museum's construction, ensuring meticulous attention to detail," Du says.

Zhang believed in modern museum concepts, deeming museums as a venue for education and knowledge spreading purpose, Du says, adding that Zhang's contributions to museology went beyond theory and had a significant impact on the city.

For example, Zhang believed that a museum's architecture should be a city's first exhibit. Today, many visitors view museum buildings as iconic landmarks of the city, Du explains.

Last year, more than 20 research-based learning routes were launched, based on the theme "Zhang Jian and the first modern city", according to Du.

Furthermore, Du mentions that they are currently crafting educational tours, centered around the theme of Zhang's educational legacy.

"We plan to take students on guided visits to a selection of prestigious universities cofounded by Zhang Jian, such as Fudan University, Nanjing University and Tongji University. Through these visits, students will gain deeper insights into the rich cultural heritage of these esteemed institutions," Du says.

Professor He Yun'ao from Nanjing University's School of History praises Zhang as a pioneer among Chinese private entrepreneurs and a key figure in transitioning China from an agricultural to an industrial civilization.

He says: "Zhang Jian transformed Nantong into China's first city in the modern sense and made significant contributions to the industrial, commercial and water conservancy sectors, including projects on the Yangtze, Yellow and Huaihe rivers.

"Zhang Jian truly showed how one person can shape a city and achieve remarkable feats beyond their era," he adds.

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