Today, Nanjing’s Yangtze River Bridge, the pride of the nation, is preparing for a grand reopening, 2018 being its 50th anniversary, after having been closed for the last 2 years for renovation. On the menu; a strengthening of the grid work of girders that support the bridge and complete repairs of the approaches, together with a thorough makeover that includes the removing of 50 years of pollution to restore the iconic structure’s former lustre, and indeed glory. Oh, and a good lick of blue paint.
The metaphorical road (and railway) that leads to the bridge, however, has another 50 years of story to tell, when we look back to the initial inspiration for a fixed crossing of the Yangtze at Nanjing. Proposed at first by the Sino-British Bank in 1916, after construction of the Shanghai to Nanjing Railway, the new government of the Republic of China decided to turn to French bridge experts to conduct a survey and feasibility study. They never received one.
More attempts were made in subsequent years, including the sending of Chinese personnel to both Europe and the USA in 1925 to look at exploiting their experience in train ferries. Later, in 1930, the Ministry of Railways of the National Government hired a foreign, so-called bridge expert, a certain John Walter. His conclusion was that it not be appropriate to build a bridge across the Yangtze at Nanjing.
As a result, on 22 October, 1933, China’s first train ferry service was opened, operating between Xiaguan Coal Port on the southern side of the river and Pukou on its northern bank. Fast forward past the Anti-Japanese War and on to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when upon the train ferry was operating in the region of 20 crossings per day. This capacity was increased significantly in 1958 but demand was still not being met. At the end of the first Five Year Plan, the State Council put forward a proposal for construction of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge.
Watching with unease the progress being made on the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge upstream, built with the assistance of experts from the Soviet Union, and with a rising concern over a thawing in Sino-Soviet relations, China chose to rely on her own strengths and rise to the challenge of completing her most significant feat of engineering to date.
As such, it had better look pretty good. Thus, the then Bridge Engineering Bureau sought proposals for the design of the bridgeheads. In March of 1960, three designs were shortlisted, out of a total of 57 submissions. Somewhat fittingly, a local design came out on tops, that submitted by Zhong Xunzheng of the Nanjing Institute of Technology, now Southeast University.
The winning design featured the now legendary concrete abutments, each housing an elevator to take people up and and down from the the bus stops on the bridge deck, and topped with statues of revolutionary figures, plus giant, distinctive, red steel Chinese flags.
It is here that a very familiar character enters our narrative. With the navy and the shipping department at loggerheads over the exact clearance necessary to permit the passage of 10,000 ton, ocean-going vessels, then General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Deng Xiaoping, settled the argument; there shall be 24 metres between river and the underside of the steel spans. An important, yet simple decision, Deng’s judgement was a hint as to how instrumental he would become in China’s economic reconstruction following the Great Leap Forward of 1957–1960.
On to some 8 years later, when with much fanfare, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was officially opened. The firecrackers were ablaze, balloons soared into the air while the crowd roared, all in front of a giant back drop of Mao Zedong. Yet, the paramount leader was nowhere to be seen in person. It would take almost another year before the Chairman would inspect the bridge, on 21 September, 1969.
As most people know, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge is a double decker, carrying a twin-track railway underneath and a four-lane vehicular highway on top. An unusual design; there are only two others in China, in Wuhan and Hangzhou, and only one example elsewhere (metro lines not withstanding), which is the Øresund Bridge joining Sweden and Denmark.
Bringing our story bang up to date, it was therefore unusual to find that the initial plans for the Nanjing Yangtze Number 5 Bridge be also for a double deck style of construction. Those plans, drawn up in 2008, were later scrapped; the authorities had bigger things to worry about.
For the Number 5 Bridge’s location was to take its southerly approach roads directly into the Youth Olympic Village, to be completed before the Games in August of 2014. The solution? A tunnel. And a big one at that.
Hence, 150,000 square metres of land was to be dug up, to build what is now the largest underground intersection of roads in China, and hence, this correspondent believes, the whole world.
Ever since those Games, and driving through the underpass today, one major junction remains closed off. This is the road that will one day take us under the Jiajiang river (that slim portion of the Yangtze between Hexi and Jiangxinzhou), and up on to the Number 5 Bridge and over the Yangtze itself.
In many ways, the new bridge is the final piece of a puzzle which began a little more than a century ago. With no more bridges for Nanjing on the horizon, the Number 5 Bridge shall provide the southern link to Jiangbei New Area, the brand new part of Pukou that will, not so ultimately, provide work and residency for 800,000 people.
For all the impressive engineering and statistics, the new Number 5 Bridge, together with the original Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge 13 kilometres downstream, serve as bookends to the legacy of bridge building in Nanjing. While the fancy, new modern constructs do indeed possess a certain beauty of their own, the place occupied by the now 50-year-old Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in every Chinese patriotic heart shall remain forever much the more indelible.