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History springs to life in ‘southern capital’

The Chinese character jing, meaning “capital city,” is now used in the names of only two cities in China: one is Beijing, today’s capital city, and the other one is Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province in the south. Other ancient capitals such as Xi’an and Luoyang are no longer called jing because of historic changes. (Nanjing is literally “southern capital,” while Beijing is “northern capital.”)


As the only other city honored with jing in its name, Nanjing has a long and prosperous history as China’s onetime capital city and a flourishing cultural heritage.


During the Three Kingdoms (220-280), Sun Quan of the Wu Kingdom relocated his capital to Jianye, today’s Nanjing, in AD 229. Since then, the city has always been at least an economic and cultural center for southern China.


After the Three Kingdoms, several dynasties such as Jin (265-420), Southern Dynasty (420-589), Ming (1368-1644) — before it relocated the capital to Beijing — and the Republic of China (1912-49) chose the city on the Yangtze River to be the political center.


While Nanjing lost its spot as the most important city in China, economic and industrial development has changed it into a modern city. With the Second Asian Youth Games being held in the city this month, starting on August 16, many visitors will get a chance to see its modern stadium and infrastructure. However, historic sites in Nanjing and their cultural influence still remain a great attraction of this ancient city.


Qinhuai River


If you want to start the trip around Nanjing from its most prosperous spot, Qinhuai River is the place. As Nanjing’s mother river, Qinhuai River is the birthplace of its economy, culture and history.


Starting with the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), the banks along the Qinhuai River were the place that the most powerful and noble families in the city and the whole country lived. Countless commercial boats sailed along the river, many scholars and poets gathered there, and lanterns of big mansions on its bank glowed all night long. The river soon became the most prosperous and bustling place in China. The Wang and the Xie families were among the prominent who lived there. Many spots along the river got their names from them. For example, Taoye Du (Taoye Ferry) got its name from a concubine of Wang Xizhi, the greatest calligrapher in Chinese history.


During the dynasties of the Ming as well as the Qing (1644-1911), Qinhuai River reached its peak. A famous red-light district was established along the river. The Confucius Temple was built on the busiest spot along the river, as was Jiangnan Examination Hall, the largest hall for imperial examinations in ancient China. During that time, painted boats with red lanterns shuttled along the river, attracting many writers to pay a visit here and create poems about the luxurious life and the beauties on the river.


Today, the area along Qinhuai River is still one of the busiest commercial areas in the city. The streets around the Confucius Temple have become a colorful pedestrian area where local people and visitors can buy all kinds of products and souvenirs. A cruise along the Qinhuai River, especially at night, is a must-try activity in Nanjing. Stepping into a painted boat — similar to the ancient ones dating back hundreds of years ago, is like stepping into history itself. Stages are built along the river bank, on which Peking Opera and traditional Chinese dance are performed.


For a Chinese visitor, the journey can be overwhelming as all the poems and stories learned about the old days suddenly come to life. The city walls, ancient bridges and gardens are almost the same as they used to be hundreds years ago, exactly like what Chinese ancestors used to see.


But looking up, tall buildings with modern restaurants, cafes and bars appear as a backdrop to the ancient river, creating mixed feelings of old and new.


Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum


Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), the Emperor Hongwu, first emperor of Ming Dynasty, was the most influential emperor in Nanjing’s history as China’s capital. He chose scenic Zhongshan (Zhong Mountain), only 5 kilometers from today’s downtown Nanjing, as the place he would rest after his death.


Departing from the city center, it takes only about 20 minutes to reach the forests of Zhongshan. With the 600-year-old city wall (also built by Zhu Yuanzhang) on one side of the road and tall pine trees on the other, the trip to Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum itself was relaxing and refreshing. Meihua Mountain (Plum Blossom Mountain), near Ming Xiaoling and inside the Zhongshan Hill Scenic Area, is one of the most popular places in China to enjoy spring plum blossoms from February to March, offering its natural beauty to the emperor’s final resting place all year long.


After entering the serene entrance of Ming Xiaoling, I found myself standing in front of the 1,800-meter-long Shendao, or Sacred Way. All the other sacred ways in Chinese emperors’ mausoleums are straight and direct, but the one in Ming Xiaoling has a curving shape, looking like a large “C” and divided into two parts, the Elephant Road and the Wengzhong Road. The reason for the deviation from the common standard goes back some 1,700 years: it was built around the tomb of the city’s first emperor, Sun. Zhu Yuanzhang decided not to follow the principle when he built his own tomb, in order to show respect to Sun Quan, who he regarded as a hero. So today, whoever wants to visit Ming Xiaoling must pass Sun’s tomb first.


Twelve pairs of six kinds of animals — lions, xiezhi (mythological animals with a lion’s body and sometimes a unicorn-like horn), camels, elephants, qilin (mythical hooved creatures) and horses, and four pairs of ministers and generals, all carved from enormous stones — guard the way to the emperor’s tomb. Their simple lines and serene expressions create a quiet and majestic mood.


Many buildings in Ming Xiaoling, such as the main Sacrificial Hall, were destroyed in the wars during Taiping Rebellion and rebuilt in the late Qing Dynasty and modern times. According to the stone foundation from the Ming Dynasty that is still visible, what we can see today covers less than one fourth of the original buildings. Fortunately, the 16-meter-tall wall in front of the tomb is still well kept after 600 years.


Climbing onto the top of the wall, which has a similar structure to the city walls in Nanjing, visitors can get a bird’s-eye view of the whole area. Take a deep breath of the fresh air and look back to the mountain at the trees. Zhu Yuanzhang was buried under those trees, deep in the mountain.


Since the city suffered from times of war from the late Qing Dynasty to the middle of the 20th century, many historic sites in Nanjing were burned to ground and no longer exist. The most important evidence of the historic capital city might be its city walls and the tomb of Zhu Yuanzhang and his empress, never opened or even touched in more than 600 years. The Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.


The Presidential Palace


The Presidential Palace in Nanjing is a unique place in China’s mainland where the history of Republic of China and Kuomintang is displayed. Entering the palace is also like entering a special time capsule, in which a very long and turbulent time in Chinese history is preserved.


In the Ming Dynasty, two dukes’ palaces were built on the location of the palace, then in the Qing Dynasty, the palace was used as the official government building of Liangjiang Zongdu, or the governor of Liangjiang, who was in charge of today’s Jiangsu, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces — the richest part in China. When the Taiping rebels captured Nanjing in 1853, the palace was made into the Palace of Heavenly King Hong Xiuquan. After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, Dr Sun Yat-sen was sworn in here as the provisional president of the Republic of China. He and Chiang Kai-shek both worked here as president.


With all the changes the palace has witnessed in more than 600 years, every spot there has a story to tell. The central area covers 90,000 square meters, including the government office building, the presidential office, the residential area of the president and the gardens. You can easily spend a whole day wandering in the palace if you want to see everything here.


The palace, with its large square structure, light color and simple decoration, exudes an elegant vibe. Its appearance during the Ming and Qing dynasties cannot be seen since almost everything in the palace is kept in a strong minguo (Republic of China) style. The wide stone stairs in the building, the old elevator, the large meeting rooms decorated with old-style armchairs, even the tea cups on the tables are true to the way they were almost 100 years ago. The Flag of the Republic of China is displayed in many rooms, which is rare in China’s mainland.


Since it was the last time Nanjing was the capital city of China, the Republic of China period has greater influence on this city than any other in China’s mainland. It has many republic period buildings and some of its main streets were built during that time. The Presidential Palace is the best representative of the period.