In its present form, Nanjing (Nanking) is a Ming dynasty creation. It was the capital of the first Ming ruler, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (reigned 1368–98), who called the city Yingtianfu. During his reign he commissioned a magnificent palace as well as a massive city wall, exceeding 32 kilometres (20 miles) around, intersected by 13 gates. In 1421, however, his son, Emperor Yongle (reigned 1402–24), moved the capital north to Beijing, for which he was to implement a design that would eclipse Yingtianfu in grandeur. Nanjing was then given its present name—the Southern Capital.

The location of the city is strikingly attractive, swept on its northern flank by the Yangzi River and surrounded by mountains. The river and mountains have made the city of strategic importance throughout history. It has been the capital of eight dynasties, and the setting of many bloody battles. The Rape of Nanking must be the worst example of these bloodbaths in recent times. In 1937 the Japanese occupied the city in the wake of the fleeing Kuomintang (Nationalist) army, which had made the city its temporary capital after the Japanese conquest of northern China. The occupation was followed by the brutal massacre of an estimated 300,000 people, both soldiers and civilians.

Modern Nanjing


A great achievement of Nanjing is its bridge across the Yangzi River, which was built despite the withdrawl of the Russian engineers who designed it. The Yangzi Bridge, with its road and rail platforms, is six-and-a-half kilometres (four miles) long, and was completed in 1968. The bridge is a symbol of national pride and is important in Chinese communications. Before its construction, all north-south traffic through China had to make the crossing by ferry.

In the city centre, at 30 Meiyuan Xincun, travellers interested in Chinese communist history can visit Zhou Enlai’s house. Here the late premier lived and worked when negotiating with the Kuomintang after the defeat of the Japanese.

Another popular place to visit, particularly for Chinese tourists, is the People’s Revolutionary Martyrs’ Memorial. It stands on the original site of the Rainbow Terrace, a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. It is said to have won its name after the eloquent preaching of a sixth-century monk so moved the Buddha that he sent down a shower of flowers which turned to pebbles. These pretty agate pebbles are collected, polished and sold as souvenirs. They are most beautiful when wet—whether with rain or submerged in water in a small bowl. Traditionally, the glistening pebbles are displayed along with New Year narcissi or goldfish.


City Sights  

The Nanjing Museum houses an excellent collection representing more than 30 centuries of Chinese history. Here you can see a jade burial suit, dating from the Han dynasty, which was believed to prevent physical decay. Small rectangles of jade were wired together to cover the body from head to foot, and a jade disc was then inserted into the corpse’s mouth. Archaeologists discovered that the suit, alas, did not have the desired effect. The exhibits of the museum have been arranged chronologically, so visitors with little time can select the dynastic period in which they are most interested.

The Museum of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom is fascinating for two reasons: its exhibits give a detailed picture of the rebel state set up by Hong Xiuquan, the 19th-century failed scholar who believed he could create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and it has a fine Ming dynasty garden which has survived the political vicissitudes of the city.

The old city walls, more extensive than anything that remains in Beijing today, are worth exploring—perhaps as part of an evening stroll. In the 17th century, these walls were the longest in the world and today, even in a state of decay, they are still a magnificent sight. The Zhonghua Gate and the Heping Gate, built with a mortar mixture of rice-gruel, paste and lime, are the only two to have survived from the Ming dynasty, and they vividly illustrate the insecure nature of those times—when the possibility of insurrection meant that hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese were made to undergo forced labour.


Purple and Gold Mountains


East of the city are the Purple and Gold Mountains, which are home to some of the most famous sights of Nanjing. One of these is the Observatory, built on the summit of one of the peaks. It houses a fine collection of astronomical instruments, including a Ming copy of a Han dynasty earthquake detector. Also in the collection is a bronze armillary sphere, designed by the Yuan dynasty astronomer, Guo Shoujing, in 1275.

The most visited sight in the Purple and Gold Mountains is Zhongshan Ling, the mausoleum of Sun Zhongshan, better known in the West as Dr Sun Yat-sen. He is considered the father of the Chinese Republican Revolution. Dr Sun rose to prominence in the early years of this century as an activist in the anti-imperial movement. Prior to that, he lived in exile abroad (in 1896 he gained much publicity when he made a narrow escape after being kidnapped by Chinese secret service agents in London). In 1911, when news of the Qing overthrow reached him, Dr Sun returned to China and became the first president of the new republic. He did not have the support or personality to stop military leaders from taking power into their own hands, and he died a disappointed man in Beijing in 1925. You reach the mausoleum, which has a roof of brilliant, sky-blue tiles, after a spectacular climb up nearly 400 wide granite steps.