Nanjing: A Walk Along the Watchtowers / by Thomas O'Malley

Nanjing city wall

This article (with pics) was penned for Aspire, the magazine of Hong Kong Airlines. 


Tom O’Malley embarks on an urban hike into the past atop Nanjing’s city walls.

How many bricks does it take to build a wall around a city? This thought nagged at me as I scrambled up the stone steps to Taicheng, a section of weather-worn battlements that still wrap around much of the former Chinese capital of Nanjing.

Popping out on to the crenelated top reveals what must be the most wow view of any city in China. The wall, wide enough for two cars to pass each other, winds away in front and behind like a medieval Mario Kart track. To the north, the glassy expanse of Xuanwu Lake, flanked by willow trees, sparkles in the sun; rising in the east is Purple Mountain, a forested hillock of tombs including those of Sun Yat-sen and the first Ming Emperor; to the south, the seven tapering tiers of a temple pagoda; and to the west, framed against a great curve of the wall, the space-age skyscrapers of modern Nanjing.

About 350 million, by the way. Bricks. That’s according to a small museum I discover inside one of the wall’s restored towers. Equally astonishing is how many of the bricks are inscribed with Chinese characters. These, I’m told, are a maker’s mark, recording the name of the craftsman that made it over six centuries ago. Kilns hundreds of miles away supplied the bricks, and woe betide any that fell short of the required quality. With your signature stamped on it, there could be no excuses for shoddy workmanship.

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From the museum, I hike along the Wall for about a mile northwest, skirting the shoreline of the lake, until I reach the Xuanwu Gate, a decorative addition from the Qing Dynasty allowing traffic to pass from the old city to the lakeshore below. From here you get a sense of another feature of the Nanjing Wall – it’s irregularity. The wall traces the city’s natural contours, skirting around the lake and utilizing natural defensive features like river channels and Purple Mountain. It seems an almost organic component of Nanjing’s urban landscape.

But what’s most remarkable is that the walls are still here in the first place. Despite demolition work in the 1960s, two thirds of the 32km-long structure remain, which is more than can be said for poor old Beijing. In the same decade, Chairman Mao presided over the wholesale demolition of Beijing’s walls to make way for a ring road and subway line. As the capital, Beijing had to be shown to be modern, efficient and forward-thinking. In Nanjing, parts of the old wall were torn down to make way for roads and buildings, but the rest was left to fend for itself against time, weather and brick thieves.

Fortunately for Nanjing, the first Ming Emperor was a stickler for quality. Zhu Yuanzhang saw off the Mongols and declared Nanjing the capital of China in 1368, under the new stewardship of the Ming. Pretty much straight away he got busy constructing the city wall atop remnants of wall from older dynasties. It took 20,000 workers 20 years to complete.

All those signed bricks were held together by an innovative mortar of lime and glutinous rice, which helped preserve the remaining Nanjing walls well enough so that it was decided, in the 1980s, that they should be looked after a little better. From then on, restoration occurred a bit at a time – a gate here, a few metres there. Several years ago previously unrestored sections were spruced up, cleared of vegetation and opened to the public in time for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Today, over 12 kilometres of broad, weather-worn walkways await the wall-walker, while many of the demolished sections are marked by connecting urban parkways or walking routes. 

“In the early twentieth century, major Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan and Changsha all had their walls knocked down as they modernized, but Nanjing was lucky.” Liu Bin is a Researcher at the Nanjing City Wall Museum, and full of facts about what he sees as Nanjing’s unique cultural treasure. “Most people don’t know that not only is Nanjing’s city wall one of the longest in the world, it’s moat is too,” says Liu Bin, explaining that it cleverly incorporates two lakes and rivers in its design. 

Not all of Nanjing’s ancient structures have fared so well, however. Heading south, I discover very little left of Emperor Zhu’s palace, Nanjing’s own ‘Forbidden City’ built by Zhu in the 14th century. Left to ruin over the centuries, a few broken stone gates and column bases are all that remain, set inside a quiet park close to the Zhongshan Gate, another traffic portal hewn into the city wall. From here I hike a further mile or so south along the battlements to the wall’s south-eastern corner, taking in the sheer scale of urban Nanjing along the way.

Without doubt the single most impressive feature of Nanjing’s walls greets me when I reach the narrow Qinhuai River. The Zhonghua Gate, or ‘Gate of the Nation’ as it was whimsically renamed by Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek, is a Ming Dynasty fortress gate guarding the ‘front door’ of Nanjing. It looks like a castle, and anyone coming into the city would have had to pass through a series of connecting courtyards overlooked by deadly firing positions, described by one observer as like “catching turtles in a jar.”

In fact, the Zhonghua Gate together with Nanjing’s walls were pressed into service once again in 1937 during the war with the Japanese. The walls were studded with machine-gun placements, ready to defend against the coming Japanese army, who had just taken Shanghai, and they proved a formidable barrier for their better trained and equipped opponents. But as history has proven, the Japanese forces eventually smashed through and what happened next – the Nanjing massacre - is considered one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.

But fortunately, the future for Nanjing’s wall is bright. For 2018, the Municipal Government have announced plans to continue with various restoration projects, including cleaning up the moat, planting more trees alongside the wall, and adding more lighting along its length. Then, explains Liu Bin, they will apply to UNESCO for World Cultural Heritage status.

“Nanjing is one of the four ancient capitals of China with a history of over 3,000 years. We need to remember that history is one of our most important resources, and we must work to keep a memory of our history and culture, and also improve the whole city and make it more attractive.”

During China’s breakneck development in the last few decades, heritage has undoubtedly been an area that has suffered. Wholesale modernisation has meant the tearing down of old neighbourhoods and defunct relics like city walls. Only with time and reflection are people now taking stock and looking back with some regret on the decisions that were made.

And so, appropriately, the last word must go to another Chinese city, 1,300 miles to the north – Datong. Like many others, its walls were lost to time, decay and demolition during the twentieth century. But thanks to the work of an unusually impassioned and motivated mayor, Geng Yanbo (known, somewhat affectionately, as ‘Demolition Geng’), Datong now has an almost complete set of city walls once again. Built from scratch at great expense, and forcing the displacement of thousands of city residents, it was a controversial project designed to ignite tourism in this dusty coal-mining city. Questions have also been raised about its clear lack of historical accuracy (UNESCO status is out of the question), but the Datong walls have drawn great praise from locals and visitors, are a boon to tourism, and lit up at night really are are a sight to behold.

Whether “Demolition Geng” has ushered in a new era of Chinese wall building remains to be seen, but in a strange twist it does go to show that city walls still have a value in modern society – not for defence, of course – but for leisure, and winning hearts and minds.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Grand Mansion, A Luxury Collection Hotel

This newly-built palace of hospitality boasts beautifully-appointed guest rooms and a commanding location overlooking the Presidential Palace, with many of the city’s best central sights within walking distance.

InterContinental Nanjing

Occupying the uppermost floors of the 450-metre tall Zifeng Tower, the InterCon has been the city’s most glamorous hotel since it opened in 2010. Tastefully decked out rooms come with panoramic views as standard, while Prime Bar on top is a great spot for classy cocktails and juicy steaks.

WHAT TO EAT:

Dapaidang (Nanjing Impressions)

Nanjing’s most popular traditional restaurant chain, Dapaidang is the place to come for traditional ‘Nanjing salt duck’, marinated in a salt, spice and osmanthus brine, as well as delectable soy sauce noodles and other treats.

Loamendong

This restored historic neighbourhood backs on to the southern-most stretch of the city wall, and offers a number of traditional vendors selling hearty beef dumplings, freshly roasted Nanjing duck and duck fat ‘shaobing’ bread.

See more of my Nanjing photos here