Nanjing’s Mighty City Walls

Following the advice of the Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to climb up onto Nanjing’s city walls behind Jiming Temple. A taxi to the temple from downtown cost us around 20 yuan, and took only ten to fifteen minutes; the roads were quiet over the whole Dragon Boat Festival period. Having gotten out of the taxi, I went over to the window and paid the entrance fee. At 10 yuan, it was reasonably priced and just like at Qixia Temple, you got three incense sticks for the price of the entrance fee; free incense must have been a Nanjing thing.

Like so many temples in China, this complex boasts very little in the way of historic architecture considering its great age. According to legend it was founded some 1450 years ago during the Liang Dynasty, but few of the surviving buildings date back further than the 1980s. A disastrous fire ripped through the complex in 1973, engulfing most of the buildings, so most of what you see today is a modern reconstruction. Not that that should turn you off a visit here: the temple has a magnificent hilltop site with views across to downtown Nanjing and nearby Xuanwu Lake. Fans of Chinese temple architecture will also find much to admire amongst the halls, ornamental shrubs,  incense containers, steep staircases rising up the hillsides and the seven-storey bell-tower  at the peak, which rather resembles the Miaoguang Tower in Wuxi. There is also a reasonably priced vegetarian restaurant at the temple.

Jiming Temple from the Nanjing City Walls

Jiming Temple from the Nanjing City Walls

But for us, Jiming Temple was mainly chosen as an access point to get onto Nanjing’s Ming-Dynasty City Walls. There is an entrance gate at the rear of the temple complex where you can buy tickets for the walls. The cost for a normal ticket was 15 yuan or you can get a “postcard ticket” for 18 yuan; we opted for the cheaper version and walked straight out onto the “Taiping” section of the walls, which runs from Jiming Temple to the foot of Purple Mountain, with the northern shore of Xuanwu lake close by the wall. As we got our first close-up look of the walls, I thought of the passage from Granville Gower’s 1843 book in which offers a detailed description of the walls as they appeared at the close of the 1842 Opium War:

The walls are built of brick, of an average thickness of 25 feet at the top, and 60 feet at the bottom, and vary from 35 to 90 feet in height. In places they are built against the escarped sides of hills, where they cross the even ground and over the dips: they are as high inside as on the out; this we could distinctly see from our position. They are built like this of Chin-kiang-foo, of bric, propped by earthen banks. Round their whole extent tents were pitched; and where the natural defences were not so good, and opposite the gates, they were numerous. From our position we looked down upon a guard-house full of troops, all staring up at us; their gingals, matchlocks, bows and arrows, and quick lime, were piled in readiness under the cover of a shed.

Today the military purpose of the wall is much less obvious than at the time of Gower’s visit, which took place during a war, but there are some cannons installed along the wall behind Jiming Temple, which serve as a reminder of its original function. These would obviously have been popular with tourists, but at the time of our visit there was no one posing with them because we were the only people on the walls. Enjoying our escape from the crowds of urban China, we decided to walk along the city walls as far as Taiping Gate, which was signposted as being 1.7 kilometres away. Considerable a distance as this was, it constituted only a small part of the extant walls, and even less when compared to the original scale of the fortifications. In Gower’s day, the walls had yet to face the depredations of the Taiping Rebellion or World War Two and were much more extensive.

The present walls of Nanjing encircles an undulating plain, and are bounded on three sides by walls of irregular height, and on the fourth by a river. They form an irregular pentagon: the old walls extend far beyond the present range; they can be traced but with difficulty; and it asserted that they passed 50 miles over hill and dale. The new ones, by our rough calculation, measure 22 miles, and have 9 gates; seven into the Chinese, two into the Tartar city.

Many of the bricks are marked with Chinese writing, and it is said that the wall’s builder, the Emperor Hongwu, insisted that the brick-makers use their name on their bricks to aid in the identification of low-grade building materials; apparently, some of them tried to pass off defective bricks with too much sand in the mix. Cameron and I took different things from this tale. I was struck by the organizational capacities of the ancient Chinese: their capacity to monitor large supply chains for ancient construction projects. Viewing the story from quite a different angle, Cameron saw that corruption had been a serious problem even in ancient China, with fraudulent producers trying to make a fast buck (yuan) from the central government.

As the wall nears the Taiping Gate, there are excellent views across to Purple Mountain, where the vast mausoleum of the Emperor Hongwu was constructed. Today the mountain is also home to the mausoleum of Chinese hero, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Neither of these complexes are visible from the city walls, but the forested slopes of the mountain make for a very attractive backdrop to the lake. It became obvious how the wall-builders had made effective of natural landforms in fortifying Nanjing; the walls, the lake and the mountain had all been utilized in shielding Nanjing from attackers.

Of further interest was a black, brick pagoda, which was perched up on a hill above the Taiping Gate. With a shape like a Tang Dynasty Pagoda- in particular, the famous Flying Goose Pagoda in Xian- the structure had an ancient look, and we were intrigued that none of our guidebooks had mentioned it. But when we researched it later, we learned that it dated only to 1944. Designed in imitation of the “stacked boxes” look of a Tang Dynasty Pagoda, Sanzang Pagoda had been built to house an ancient Buddhist skull relic which had been found during World World Two. At the time of our visit, the hill was being “renovated”, with the eroded hillsides being concrete rendered, presumably to protect the foundations of the structure. But rather than climb up there, we decided to walk back to Jiming Temple and proceed follow another section of the wall southward to the next gate.

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