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.


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.

The Xiaoling Mausoleum: Greatest of the Ming Tombs

The Xiaoling Mausoleum is one of the supreme historical attractions of the Yangtze Delta Region. Though much less famous in the West than the major historical sites of Beijing, this mausoleum complex is as much a part of China’s imperial past as the Forbidden City and The Temple of Heaven. A radical departure from the design of earlier imperial tombs, Xiaoling subsequently served as a blueprint for most of the imperial tombs from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, making it a singularly influential architectural complex. For the traveller interested in Chinese art, architecture or history, this vast complex- recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001- repays leisurely exploration.

Emperor Hongwu was the first of the Ming Emperors, and the first Han Chinese ruler in over 150 years. The liberator of China from Mongul rule, Hongwu wanted a tomb that befitted his importance to the nation. Twenty years before his death, he had already amassed a vast workforce to begin construction on his final resting place. There were 5000 guards tasked with overseeing the project, and a veritable army of laborers worked under them. The symbolism of the project was obvious: the Chinese imperial tradition had resumed. Yet rather than marking a mere resumption of the Chinese tomb-building tradition, the Xiaoling Mausoleum was also a new start. Whereas earlier Chinese imperial tombs had square bases, Xiaoling Mausoleum boasted an oval-shaped burial mound. Also new was the Sacred Way, a two-kilometre long avenue lined with colossal statues, which marked the official approach to the emperor’s tomb. It was this marriage of tradition and innovation which makes this tomb such an intriguing site.

There is, in a sense, a correct way to say the tomb, and Chinese tour groups certainly view the site according to tradition. This fact is even reflected in the name of the usual starting point: The Archway for Dismounting. Similar to those found at many Chinese religious sites, this particular gateway is almost 8 metres tall. Beyond it is the Great Golden Gate, a twenty-two metre high construction which first conveys the scale on which the project was conceived. Astoundingly, the monumental brick gateway was once part of a twenty-two kilometre long perimeter wall which enclosed the entire tomb area. Now little but this one gateway remains. Impressive as the gateway is, it is the two-kilometre long Sacred Way beyond which is truly memorable.

The Sacred Way is lined with colossal stone statues, some zoomorphic and some humanoid. These figurines, dignified and whimsical at the same time, possess a unique charm, and they are the feature we are most likely to recall when thinking of Xiaoling today. The paired sets of animals come first. Four of the six are real animals, and denizens of Hongwu’s private zoo; the other two are creatures from Chinese mythology. You will pass- in this order- lions, xiezhi, camels, elephants, qilin and horses. While the real animals are unlikely to require any introduction, the same cannot be said of ziezhis and qilins. The former is a kind of Chinese unicorn, and the qilin, sometimes confused with the giraffe, is a two horned creature with cleft feet. The humanoid section of the Sacred Way follows, after a sharp right turn. This turn, unusual in Chinese Imperial Tombs, was to avoid the tomb of a Wu Kingdom ruler on a small protuberance known as Plum Blossom Hill. Along the Sacred Way we find a crisp, life-like rendering of civil and military officials in late fourteenth-century dress. Even today hese august figures give a vivid impression of the pomposity of the Ming Dynasty court.

Elephants along the Sacred Way

Elephants along the Sacred Way

At the end of this section lie a series of ornamental stone bridges, and beyond these is a temple complex where devotees could make offerings to Emperor Hongwu. The temple complex has largely vanished, but there are some interesting remains, including stelae left by two Emperors who visited the area during the Qing Dynasty- Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong. Like everything else here, these stelae are on quite a scale, and the stone turtles that bear them along weigh fifty tonnes. There are the bases of stone fire-altars where paper money and other offerings were left by visitors to the tomb. A couple of old halls also remain, notably the Hall of Prominent Favour whose twenty-metre high stone walls are an intimation of the grandeur of the final monument, the Soul Tower.

The Soul Tower is a massive stone construction on the scale of a castle. An arched entranceway penetrates the wall and as soon as you enter, the cool, dark passageway encloses you on all sides. You ascend to the top of the tower via a set of stone stairs, and as you descend it may well occur to you that this inner sanctum was once reserved for the Emperors of China. People were once killed for even daring to approach here. The tunnel leads to an upper terrace which has views back to the temple complex and across to the enormous tumulus mound behind- the forest burial mound of Emperor Hongwu and his queen. With a diameter of four hundred metres across, the mound is thought to contain an enormous clay vault, but until it is excavated, there is no real way of knowing whether this still contains the body of the first Ming Emperor.

With so little of Nanjing’s historical centre remaining, this mausoleum is all the more important. A visit here is the surest way to appreciate the grandeur of the early Ming Dynasty, when Nanjing was, rather briefly, the centre of the Chinese world. While Beijing, the Northern Capital, is richly endowed with antiquities, Nanjing’s architectural heritage has fallen victim to the ravages of the Taiping Rebellion and World War Two. The greatest of the surviving sites in the city and environs is surely this magnificent tomb.

The Holy Hill of Qixiashan

In June 2014, during China’s annual Dragon Boat Festival, Cameron and I headed to Nanjing with our American friend, Karen. Qixiashan, often known in English sources as Qixia Mountain, was the first place we visited. We had originally planned to go there on the second day, but upon arriving in Nanjing by train, we realized the bus stop for Qixiashan was right alongside the railway station. Rather than heading back out to Nanjing Railway Station the following day, we decided to go to the mountain right away. We were helped by a young woman from Shandong, who was in the area for the Dragon Boat Festival weekend. She was heading most of the way out to Qixia herself and offered to show us where the bus left from.

The cost of the bus was a mere 3 yuan, even though it was twenty-two kilometres out to the mountain. Having rarely caught local buses in China, I was surprised by the low cost;  this was how the ordinary people traveled. The trip out to Qixia took us through the outer suburbs of Nanjing, which imperceptibly morphed into a series of roadside villages. We never really got from civilization, as nondescript, concrete houses and shops lined the road all the way. Arriving in Qixia District, locally known for its autumn foliage, I was dismayed to see refineries and factories pouring out effluent. While Nanjing is certainly known for its smog, I hadn’t expected it to be even worse out in the hills.

Just short of Qixiashan, our Shandongese helper stood up and handed us a note she had written in English. She advised that if we needed help in finding somewhere in China, it was always best to ask young people, as they had studied English in school for years; Older people might not know any English. Worst of all, she warned, was asking a taxi or pedicab driver for help: they would probably just take advantage of foreigners and drive them round and round in circles!

A few minutes later we were dropped by the side of the road. Nothing about the place looked very inviting. There were some drab concrete buildings along the main road and a filthy canal just ahead. Not seeing any young people about, we asked a middle-aged man and he gestured that we had to head straight and then make a right turn. Following his instructions, we walked about five minutes through a strip of shops and arrived at the entrance to Qixia Temple, which was located at the foot of Qixia Hill.

From this point things rapidly started to improve. The complex was fronted by pine, maple and gingko trees, giving the place a cool, peaceful feel. We found the ticket booth, paid the 25 yuan entrance price (which included three sticks of sandalwood incense each) and headed towards the main temple. There were a few Chinese pilgrims making their way towards the temple, but by Chinese standards this was a very quiet place. Cameron commented that he had rarely been to any tourist sight in China with so few people about. We passed a bell-tower, a large, semi-circular pond, and then we arrived at the first of the temple courtyards.

The temple itself is still an active Buddhist monastery and there we spotted a few monks and nuns. However, most of the visitors were devotees. There were burning incense sticks in the courtyard of the first hall, The Hall of Heavenly Kings. Long metal vessels were filled with soft ash and a low flame ran through the most recent incense sticks, rapidly consuming them too. We lit our incense sticks and stood them upright in the ash, where they stood with their tips slowly burning. From there, we proceeded to the first wooden hall, which was fronted by a pair of bronze elephants. It had mustard-yellow walls, a black-tiled roof and arched doorways.

Beyond was a second courtyard with a balustraded terrace of white stone and a pair of gingko trees. Here we find the main Buddha Hall, the Vairocana Hall, which is the object of much veneration from local pilgrims. This large hall has fine wood-carving and a dramatically slanting black roof, which turns up at the corners. Inside there are embroidered cloths which hang down from the rafters and towering wooden statues depicting key figures from Chinese mythology. Yet colorful as all this is, these halls are of fairly recent construction, dating only from the late Qing Dynasty. To really get a sense of the immense age of Qixia Temple, you need to look out back of the monastery.

Here we found an 18-metre high stone pagoda, which definitely has a look of great age. The octagonal stone structure, known as the Sheli Pagoda or the Sharira Pagoda, dates back to the short-lived Sui Dynasty and was first constructed in 601. This makes it one of the oldest stone pagodas in all China. Sheli Pagoda retains some crisp carving on its sides, showing eight different Buddha images, one on each aside. The trunk of the pagoda has rows of projecting stone eaves, some of which are damaged, but this rather adds to the sense of antiquity of the structure. Even in its damaged state, it is an elegantly proportioned structure, a slender spire in five tiers.

Yet old as the Sheli Pagoda is, it is not the oldest surviving monument at the site. That honour goes to the so-called Thousand Buddha Cliff, a series of rock-hewn niches and “caves” which honeycomb Qixia Hill, a natural landform situated directly behind the pagoda. There are not actually a thousand niches here- that is a bit of ancient Chinese hyperbole- but there are a sizable number of Buddhas notwithstanding. Three-hundred and fifty is a more accurate number. The caves and niches exist in three main levels, but most of the larger and more impressive ones are on the lowest level at the base of the hill. Even the largest of the niches are rarely more than a couple of metres deep.


Sandstone niches at Qixiashan

We all agreed that the most impressive of all the caves is Number 19, which has a large stone facade in the form of a ceremonial gateway. The oldest of the rock-cut temples, dating back to around the year 500, it was conceived by Ming Shengshao, a scholar-recluse who had “once had a dream of the shining image of Tathagata at the cliff.” After his death around fifteen hundred years ago, the Southern Qi crown prince decided to create the first cave temple in Southern China there. His workers carved out a cave deep enough to house a 7.8 metre tall Amitayas Buddha sitting on a 2.1 metre tall throne. Though badly damaged today, this monumental figure flanked by two Boddhisattvas is still an impressive sight. It is by far the earliest example of Buddhist cave art in Jiangsu.

The following Liang kingdom saw royal patronage of Qixia continue. Fresh caves and niches were dug until the sandstone cliffs of the hill were covered in niches, reliefs and statues. Though nowhere near as impressive as the magnificent grottoes of Yungang in Shanxi, these caves often a glimpse of the earliest stages of Buddhist monastic and religious life in Jiangsu. The niche-carving continued as late as the Southern Tang Dynasty, just before the end of the first millenium, when the last of the niches were dug and the Sheli Pagoda was restored for the final time.

We clambered up to the top of the hill along the narrow stone staircases, spotting niches and carvings here and there. Most of them were in a poor state of disrepair. Karen found it rather depressing that so many of the heads were smashed. Cameron and I discussed why this may have been the case. We suggested that these ravages could have occurred during the Cultural Revolution, but we had no proof that they were damaged by idol-busters of a much earlier age. Notwithstanding the extensive damage, we agreed that the site is a valuable reminder of the early history of the Nanjing era, and a rare glimpse of the Six Dynasties period in Southern China. And quite apart from the history, we also appreciated the solitude. Particularly on the upper slopes, there is almost no one else around. It isn’t often you find yourself alone in China, but it is still possible at Qixia Hill.