Nanjing City Wall; Oldest, Longest, Highest, Simply the Best!


Today we see Nanjing as an old city, inhabited by new people. The sightings of luxury cars and flashy new cell phones clash rather heavily against the backdrop of this city being the ancient capital.

On the weekends we travel to local tourist sites and briefly immerse ourselves in history, before returning home and turning on the television or computer. How often though, do we appreciate the history in which we are constantly immersed through living in this ancient city?  

In the middle of the 16th century, Italian missionary, Matteo Ricci, said, “This city is more than all other world cities” and at the time he was very correct in saying so. During that period Nanjing was one of the largest cities in the world, with one of the longest histories. However, with the greater rise of cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Nanjing is described as being “second tier”. So where can we look to remind ourselves why these early missionaries and explorers were drawn to Nanjing? The answer lies in one of the most impressive features of our city; the ancient Nanjing City Wall. 

Built over 600 years ago, the City Wall is a large and unique structure, both historically and contemporarily. In fact, of the other city walls built around the same time, the City Wall of Nanjing is the oldest, longest and highest. We have all beheld the Nanjing City Wall at some point. We may have seen the northeast of the wall on one of those weekend trips to Jiming Temple. Perhaps we were having a drink at Secco and glanced up at it from the rim of our glass. We could have been taking a daily jog around Xuanwu Hu and peered at it through a sweaty brow. Perhaps we saw it when we were taking a romantic stroll, by Pipa and Qian Hu, on Purple Mountain. We have possibly had music blaring from our headphones when our bus passed under the magnificent gate of Zhonghuamen. Or for those of us who have ventured to the industrial depths of the northwest, we have seen it near the smoky banks of the Yangtze River. No matter where or how we see it,  the cultural and historical signifiance of this relic should always resonate with us. Needless to say, it made quite an impact on early missionaries and explorers, including Matteo Ricci.

History of the Wall

The Nanjing City Wall that can be seen today is the remains of walls built mostly during the Ming dynasty, though Nanjing was also the capital for five other dynasties (some people count more). The walls of Nanjing have been constructed in different phases, by different people. They originate as early as 472 BC, when they utillised a construction comprising mostly earthen materials. The walls were built into the landscape and were less than a kilometre in length. By 333 BC, the wall was being built with bricks. In AD 211, the Stone City Wall was built, the oldest part of the wall still standing in Nanjing and location of the aptly named “Ghost Face”. 

Between AD 211 and the mid 14th century, parts of the wall were being both built and destroyed at a constant rate. In AD 1366 however, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, decided to build the grandest wall of all. With the help of his general, they built the Nanjing City Wall in 28 years. In its heyday, the wall stretched to a distance of 35 kilometres, and encircled the entire city. This was essential as it is believed that Nanjing was the largest city in the world between the years of 1358 and 1425, with an estimated population of 487,000 in 1400. Being the first emperor of a dynasty with such a sizeable population, Zhu saw fortifying its capital city for protection against potential invaders as having the utmost importance. 

One of the most unique things about the construction of the City Wall during the Ming dynasty is the planning. Many ancient Chinese cities are laid out on a typical urban grid. The mountains are in the north, and the river is in the south with the middle of the city being the axis point. This is based on the beliefs of feng shui with urban plans designed to create a harmonious city. The Nanjing City Wall however, embraced the presence of Purple Mountain and the river to ensure defensive superiority, which led to the wall being built in a free flowing, rather than rectangular, manner.

There are sources that say the wall resembles a “magic gourd.” Recent research states that its shape is based on a combination of star constellations. Can you see the Big Dipper?  The city wall we see today is all that remains of four city walls. There was the Inner City Palace Wall, the Imperial City Wall, the Capital City Wall and the outer Wall. They were three to 27 metres wide (top and base), and 14 to 27 metres in height. There were 13,616 battlements, 200 barracks, 13 gates, and more than 20 water gates and culverts. Of the ancient gates, Zhonghua Gate is the most famous in Nanjing. Its original name is Jubao Gate, or Treasure Gate, based on the legend that someone had buried a pot of gold there. Zhonghua Gate is also said to be the world’s largest city gate.

Bricks and Construction

It took over 1 million skilled and unskilled labourers to build the walls. The materials for construction included limestone, granite and hundreds of thousands of carefully made bricks. They were sealed together using a sticky lime-rice mixture that has proven to be very efficient. Though undoubtedly the most famous building materials were the bricks, coming from over 118 counties of 20 states in five provinces. All the bricks in the City Wall of Nanjing carry inscriptions, a unique character absent in all other city walls.  It is estimated that two to three million bricks were used. Criteria for the bricks were 40 cm long, 20 cm wide, 10 cm thick and with a weight of 15 to 20 kilograms. It seems very specific, but the emperor strictly oversaw the construction process. The bricks were carved with inscriptions, indicating the prefecture or county of their origin, as well as the official in charge, and the maker’s name. This could be viewed as an ancient “satisfaction guaranteed” label. Consequently, the person in charge of supervising construction, “ti diao guan”, was responsible for punishing those whose names were on bricks of poor quality. Punishment was death and therefore workers took great care in their duties. Interestingly, Nanjing City Wall bricks constitute the largest group of brick records ever found in China. 

Unfortunately today, we see a threatened wall, and the issue is not enemies at the gate. Despite being the longest surviving city wall in the world, there is no guarantee it will last forever. Since its construction it has been damaged by historical conflicts, local government, local citizens, natural forces, and more recently a sports car.  Of the 13 ancient gates, four are originals, and the others have remained or been built anew since 1911. In 1998, a body was established to protect the City Wall. Conserving the wall has cost over ¥700 million, and has required the help of many experts. Conservationists face many issues, namely the rebuilding and restoration of the wall. The process is somewhat complicated, compounded by a lack of documentation from that period. It is furthermore believed that in times of mass City Wall demolition, local residents took an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 bricks to build their homes.

In 2008, the Nanjing City Wall was submitted to UNESCO for inclusion on the World Heritage Protection List, along with some other city walls built during the Ming dynasty. It is 2017, and the Nanjing City Wall is still only a tentative candidate. The wall only comes in fairly low on Trip Advisor’s list of most popular attractions in Nanjing, which is surprising considering the many draws it offers tourists. There are museums you can visit to learn more about the city wall; Zhonghuamen has a large brick exhibition, and great views. You can also rent bicycles here and ride along the wall. The Nanjing City Museum has a small exhibition including bricks and statues. You can also visit the City Wall Museum at Jiefang Gate where there is an information room (no English captions) with a few pictures and brick displays. There is also a hall that houses a few floors of great information (in English and Chinese), photos and ancient weapons. The walk along this section of the wall is about four kilometres and offers great views of Purple Mountain and Xuanwu Lake. You can also enter through Jiuhua Shan, a carefully tucked away monastery. 

We are the new people who inhabit this old city, and if Matteo Ricci is to be believed then Nanjing is more than all other cities in the world. Therefore, the next time you take a day trip to a historical site, remember from where it came. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

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