Nanjing has a special place in Chinese history. The city was the capital of several great kingdoms and governments. That’s why Nanjing is essential in understanding China’s history. The city delicately balances the old and new, the traditional and the modern. Its impressive 14th century city wall can still be seen today, together with several monumental city gates. Nanjing boasts many impressive sites from different historical periods, including the famous Nanjing Decade. When it comes to modern architecture, Nanjing doesn’t disappoint either. To us, the following are the 10 most interesting facts about Nanjing.
01 Nanjing Is China’s Eight Largest City
Nanjing is China’s eight-largest city, ahead of Wuhan and Xi’an. According to the last official census of 2010, the urban population of Nanjing was 5.8 million people. At that time, the population within the Administrative Area of Nanjing stood at 7.2 million people. In the last 10 years, Nanjing grew at a stable pace and is now the home of some 8.8 million people. The vast majority of inhabitants are Han Chinese. Only about 1.4 percent of locals are ethnic minorities. Among them, the most numerous are Hui, a Chinese speaking Muslim ethnic group.
02 Its Name Means Southern Capital
Nanjing’s official name literally means Southern Capital. The word Nan means the south, and the word Jing means capital. The Ming Dynasty gave Nanjing its name in 1403 to distinguish it from its northern capital, Beijing. In fact, from 1403 to 1644, the Ming Dynasty ruled China from both capitals. However, Nanjing had other names throughout its history. Jiangning, for instance, is made of two abbreviations. Jiang is short for Jiangsu, the encompassing province, and Ning short for Nanjing. When Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China, people called it Jing, meaning capital.
03 Nanjing Is One of China’s Four Great Capitals
China is a massive country with a fascinating past. Throughout its history, empires, different regional powers, and countless states occupied the territory of present-day China. Thus, several Chinese cities were the capital of at least a state at one time or the other. However, only four cities were the capital of several different historical kingdoms. These are called the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. They are Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang, and Xi’an. Nanjing was seven times the capital of smaller kingdoms, two times the seat of unified China, and twice the seat of a revolutionary government. Besides, from 1938 to 1945, during the Sino-Japanese War, it was the capital of a puppet state.
04 There Are Two City Centers
Nanjing has two distinct city centers. The modern one is within the central business district of Xinjiekou. Its epicenter is the small pedestrian area southeast of the Xinjiekou Metro Station. Fancy shopping centers and tall high tech skyscrapers dot the area. The traditional city center, three kilometers to the south, is much larger. The north of the traditional center is the area around Confucius Temple (Fuzimiao) and the Qinhuai River, a tributary of the Yangtze River. Wonderful old temples and gardens populate the lovely pedestrian area, including the beautiful Jiangnan Examination Hall and the splendid Zhan Garden. On the other hand, pedestrian Laomendong Street divides the south of the traditional center.
05 The Ancient City Wall of Nanjing Still Exists
Maybe the Nanjing City Wall isn’t as famous as the one in Xi’an, but it’s equally impressive. Its irregular shape is the result of its unique geography. Indeed, several rivers, a lake, and a mountain surround the city. The Hongwu Emperor designed the wall, right after founding the Ming Dynasty in 1368. The original city wall had a perimeter of 35 kilometers (22 miles) and was the world’s longest circular city wall. It took 21 years and 200,000 workers to complete it. Like Beijing, the city had 4 sections: the Forbidden City, the Imperial City, the Inner City, and the Outer City. Some 21 kilometers (13 miles) of the Inner Wall can still be seen today, including several monumental city gates.
06 Nanjing Has Many Historical Temples
Due to its historical importance, Nanjing has a plethora of ancient temples. The abovementioned Confucius Temple was built in the year 1034 on the site of the former imperial university. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, the structure you can see today is from the 19th century. Next to Huanwu Lake is one of the oldest Nanjing temples, Jiming. The first structure on the site was built in 527 during the Liang Dynasty. However, the ones still standing today are from the 19th century. The seven-story pagoda overlooking the lake is its most distinct feature. Jionghai Temple has a special place in Chinese history. The Qing government negotiated a peace treaty with the British after the First Opium War here.
07 The Buildings From the Nanjing Decade Are Unique
Like most cities around the world, Nanjing had its ups and downs. The period between 1927 and 1937, known in China as the Nanjing Decade, was especially glorious. During that time, Nanjing was the capital of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China. Thus, the monumental buildings from that period dot the city. These interesting structures combine Chinese and western architectural elements. The Presidential Palace in downtown Nanjing is a large compound of buildings from different historical periods. Its most famous landmark, the Main Gate, is a monumental entrance from 1929 with western style decorations. On the other hand, the Nanjing Great Hall of the People from 1936 has Chinese decorations and is a bit more modern.
08 Nanjing’s Contemporary Architecture Is Sophisticated
Nanjing has a skyline that combines old houses, ancient temples, massive city walls, hills, modern architecture, and skyscrapers. Among the recently built commercial towers, the Nanjing International Youth Cultural Center stands out for its elegance. In 2016, renowned Zaha Hadid designed the two towers and the adjacent conference center inspired by a sailing ship. The Sifang Art Collective might be a bit outside of the city, but is worth a visit. The complex consists of 20 buildings, each designed by a different internationally acclaimed architect. The collective’s centerpiece, an art gallery designed by Steven Hall, is a monumental suspended structure that looms over the Laoshan National Forest Park.
09 Outstanding Mountain Presides Over the City
Nanjing is special because it lies between mountains, rivers, and lakes. To the west of the center, we find the mighty Yangtze River, to the north, the charming Xuanwu Lake, and to the northeast, the imposing Zijin Shan or Purple Mountain. The foot of the Purple Mountain, with its fantastic sites, is particularly interesting due to its importance in Chinese history. The Ming Xaoling is a big 15th century mausoleum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mausoleum was built for Emperor Hongwu, founder of the Ming dynasty. The nearby Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum might be 500 years younger, but it is equally impressive. It blends modern architecture with traditional imperial tomb architecture.
10 Nanjing Metro Is China’s Fourth Largest
When the first line opened in Nanjing in 2005, it was the 9th metro system in China. Nanjing built its metro at an incredible speed. Today, Nanjing has the fourth largest metro system in China, with 376 kilometers, 10 different lines, and 159 stations. Unique in China, the city’s metro system includes an extensive suburban network. In fact, out of the existing 10 lines, five serve Nanjing’s suburbs. Stations in these lines are a bit further away from each other, and trains are shorter. Additionally, Nanjing boasts two modern tram lines: Hexi Tram, west of the city center, and Qilin Tram, east of the city center.