Exploring the History of Nanjing | 南京的历史探索之旅

Written by & Photos by (作者, 图片来源): Vincent R. Vinci 魏文深

Editor’s Note: Every other month, we’ll be traveling to a new location – in and around China – for a look at its history. We’ll also provide a list of recommended reading materials at the end of each article for you to get more depth out of these amazing spots. This month, we start with Nanjing, provincial capital of Jiangsu and former capital of the Republic of China. (Recommended Reading can be found at the end of the article).

History is alive for those who seek it. Walking through the wide avenues and streets of the capital of Jiangsu Province, the history of a capital besieged is all around. Streets where self-proclaimed kings once presided over a pseudo-Christian society, streets once bombarded and blown to bits by invading foreign armies. Despite being an open book for those interested in some of the more turbulent moments in Chinese history, Nanjing today is a city at peace, with the only invading armies being the tourists and families that flocked here for Chinese New Year.

The city has been an on-and-off capital for various dynasties – especially the capital of the State of Eastern Wu from 229-280 and under various kingdoms in the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589) – but it wasn’t until the beginning of the Ming Dynasty when the Hongwu Emperor rebuilt the city and named it the capital of the entire country in 1368.

Although the capital was relocated to Beijing under the Yongle Emperor in 1421, Nanjing became a capital once again in 1853, when it was taken by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and renamed Tianjing (Heavenly Capital). With the fall of the Taiping in 1864, it wasn’t until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 that the city was chosen again as the provisional capital of the nation, this time under the flag of the Republic of China.

Nanjing’s final days as the capital of China came in 1927, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who had risen to prominence in the ruling Nationalist Party, chose it as the government’s seat of power in the Republic of China. It remained the capital until the Nationalists fled to Taiwan following their ousting by the Communist Party in 1949. The city has seen much throughout its long history, and it is these events – from its razing at the onset of the Sui Dynasty, to its capture by the British in 1842 and later the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937 – that have shaped Nanjing to be what it is today. Even though the history of the southern capital has been neatly relocated into museums and parks to make way for the progress that has taken most big cities in China, history can still be felt in the streets and busy thoroughfares for those who look for it.

Perhaps the best place to find a crossroads of history is the Presidential Palace. The palace, which is very much a modern version of the Forbidden City, has been around for over 600 years in various incarnations. During the Qing Dynasty it served as the Office of the Viceroy of Liangjiang before the city fell into the hands of the Taiping Rebels.

The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom


The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was a religious and political movement led by Xiuquan Hong, son of a Hakka farmer in Guangdong who, after a failed attempt at passing a provincial civil service exam and exposure to Christian texts, suffered a nervous breakdown and dreamed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. After rallying his relatives and nearby villages to his pseudo-Christian movement, his army ignited a rebellion in 1851 and found?themselves within the walls of Nanjing by 1853, where they built a grand palace where the presidential complex stands today.


The only remnants of the grand Palace of the Heavenly King are a replica of Hong’s immaculate golden crane-flanked throne and a study room and bed chamber for his concubines, located in the bowels of?the complex that stands today. There is also an imposing statue of Hong situated between models of his former village and an explanation (in Chinese with English titles only) of the Taiping Rebellion’s sweep across the land.

Modern Times

The rest of Hong’s palace was burned to the ground by the Qing in 1864 and reconstructed as offices for the governor-general of the province built in neoclassical style in 1870. It wasn’t until 42 years later that the new palace, with its tan modest buildings done up in a mixed Western and Chinese style with hallways of red pillars complimented by more with tan and white flowing columned halls, would see the swearing in of Sun Yat-sen as the provisional president during the Xinhai Revolution of 1912.

Occupied once again by the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, the architecture becomes monolithic and more brutal in nature, yet at peace with the surrounding palace. Walking through the menacing grey and tan structures with their plain offices, one could feel them come to life. The hustle and bustle of running a nation in tumultuous times fully realized if one tones out the sound of tourists milling about.

It is hard to leave this large and foreboding complex, portraits of Sun flanked by various flags of the Republic over every entryway, gardens and hallways building a maze in this modern-day palace with each corner and turn lending new understanding to the capital and its past.

The Mausoleum

The city is filled with countless other sites, like the ruins of the old Ming Palace, the reconstructed city wall – a true rip off at 50 RMB per person – and other places of significance, but for those short on time and looking to get a great view of Nanjing and visit the resting place of a key figure in China’s history should definitely make a pilgrimage to the Mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen. The mausoleum began construction in 1926 and was finished 3 years later, with Su n’ s body finally laid to rest in 1929, over looking the city where he served as provisional president, where dreams of a Chinese Republic had started to take shape. Sun Yat-sen holds a special place in Chinese people’s hearts, as could be evidenced by the ungodly crowds we were met with that day, with traffic infested roads leading to people infested pathways. All the way to the top was an endless river of people, bubbling voices?slowly pushing to get there, take some selfies and leave.


It is difficult to tell if we were the only ones in this river in awe of the site before us. Gates topped with blue tiled roofs echoing the blue of the sky topping mellow tan walls with dark copper gates. The Entrance gates, on which the words Bo’ai stand prominent, lead to the first hall in which an epitaph to the nation stands. Beyond this lies over 200 steps up to the Sacrificial Hall, in which Sun’s body rests. Inside he sits below the flag of the Nationalist Party, immortalized in traditional frog-buttoned robes reading a manuscript. Behind the statue was a hall – closed for the day due to crowds – in which a marble coffin holds the man’s remains.

Sun, born in 1866 in Guangdong, saw the problems with China under feudal rule and sought to change it with the Xinhai Revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. His story ended with tragedy, as after stepping down from his role as provisional president, his successor, Yuan Shikai, proclaimed himself emperor and ushered in the Warlord Era, plunging the country into chaos once again. Yet, this monument to his struggle remains, positioning him as the Father of Modern China, a man whose dreams of a democratic republic were never fully realized.

Thoughts on this stay in this former capital were meaningful, gazing through the green quiet pines of Purple Mountain to the smoggy city below, the besieged city is alive with history, a birthplace of some of the most interesting times in China’s history.





1 4 2 1 年,明成祖朱棣将都城迁回北京。1853年,太平军攻克南京,建立太平天国,改称天京,建都11年。1864年,太平天国运动失败后,首都不复存在,直到1911年辛亥革命爆发,中华民国成立,定都南京。


这座城市见证了很多历史变革,也正是这些事件— —从隋朝时期的崛起到1842年和1937年分别被英国和日本帝国军队侵略——把南京打磨成今天的样子。如同多数中国大城市,为了推进现代化建设,南京的文物古迹几乎都被转移到了博物馆和公园里,但对于真正想寻找历史的人来说,大街小巷仍有迹可寻。







随着洪秀全的死和太平天国运动的失败,湘军在186 4年将整个府邸烧成平地。1870年,在原址上重建了新古典风格的两江总督署。直到42年之后,这府邸才转手他人。1912年辛亥革命期间,孙中山在总督府宣誓就任中国民国临时总统。










Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall | 南京大屠杀纪念馆

Of all the places we wish we had gotten the chance to visit in the city, this was the biggest. A tribute to the 300,000 Chinese who were killed during the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanjing during WWII in 1937 – infamously referred to as the Rape of Nanking – the hall has expansive outdoor exhibits, sheltered remains, and an exhibition area with historical documents and videos that chronicle the horrors of this disaster and remember those who were lost.


Recommended Reading | 推荐读物

God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan | 《太平天国》

This wonderful read, penned by historian Jonathan D. Spence, meticulously follows the exploits of Hong Xiuquan, the Heavenly King of the Taiping Rebellion, providing a glimpse at the struggling society Hong was brought up in, rivalries and corruption that grew within his kingdom, and his untimely death and fall to the Qing. There’s also a trippy look at Hong’s crazy dreams that started his ordeal. Ever pictured God with golden hair, long nails, and black,?dragon embroidered robes? We haven’t either.


The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II |《南京暴行——被遗忘的大屠杀》

This book by Iris Chang is perhaps the most recommended book on the massacre that shook China, highlighting the sadistic atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in Nanjing. With intensive survivor interviews and in-depth research, this book has often been noted as the definitive text on the Nanjing Massacre.


Sun Yat-sen | 《孙中山》

As with all great leaders revered after their death, there is much myth and somewhat of a cult surrounding the founder of China’s Republic. Marie-Claire Bergere’s biography provides a balanced look at Sun Yatsen, painting a portrait of a man inspired by the West, an opportunist with sound but sometimes flawed ideas who dreamed of a better China.