The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing

One of the most famous buildings Chinese buildings in the West was long the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. Often mentioned as one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World, the Ming Dynasty structure was completed by the Yongle Emperor around 1420. It is easy to understand why it captured the European imagination. After all, Ming porcelain was a luxury ware when it was a single bowl or dish. The idea of an entire tower made of porcelain must have excited all sorts of Orientalist fancies.

The structure survived under fairly recently. It was struck by lightning in 1803 and the top three stories were destroyed, but they were eventually replaced. However, disaster struck again in the mid-nineteenth century when Nanjing became the centre of fighting during the Taiping Rebellion. Eventually the rebels decided to level the structure as they were afraid the enemy would use it as an observation tower. Having survived for more than four-hundred years, the tower was finally reduced to a pile of ruins. Some of the bricks and a gateway were recycled, but truly very little remained.

The best surviving English-language description of the tower comes from Granville Gower, a British captain who visited the tower during the Opium War in 1842. He offers a very detailed account of which the following is perhaps the most lyrically evocative part.

   It is an octagonal building of nine stories, rising to a height of 261 feet; bright with many-coloured porcelain, which throws off a reflected light like the glittering rays from gems: it is in perfect preservation.

   The porcelain is fastened to the tower with mortar, as Dutch tiles are upon a stove, except the projecting cornices and bas reliefs of grotesque monsters, which are nailed. The various colours are white, red, yellow and green; the roofing tiles are all of the imperial yellow.

    It stands in a spacious court, surrounded on three sides by a wall, the fourth open to two extensive sets of granite steps descending to the jos house attached to the pagoda facing the town. Another large enclosure planted with regular rows of trees extends to the road ad suburbs.

The projecting flanges, if I may so term them, of the separate stories curve upwards at the points, to which are suspended bells of size proportioned to the taper of the tower. A priest assured me that after they were first hung up, after the complete repair of the … pagoda in the last century, they used to ring forth charming melodies at the command of the mistress of the tower, “The Queen of Heaven”, until she, wrathful at the indifference and falling off of her followers, in a fit of anger, deprived them of sound.

arched doorway

An original arched doorway in the Nanjing Museum

Though the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing is no more, history buffs can get some sense of this magnificent structure by visiting the Nanjing Museum. One of the prize exhibits is a beautifully preserved gateway from the site, which shows mythological creatures in ornate detail.  Even this small remnant of the tower is an impressive sight. Plans to “rebuild” the structure are also afoot. Due to an enormous $156 million dollar donation from a businessman benefactor, the city of Nanjing is now rebuilding a replica of the Porcelain Tower on the original site. Personally, I am dubious about these “manufactured antiquities” but it may well be worth a peep when it’s finished.

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