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Resurrecting Nanjing: The Porcelain Pagoda

  • Written by Casey Rich

Recently, the resurrection of Nanjing began with a massive government effort to rebuilt the city wall – the longest one in the world. As part of this endeavor, officials are also planning to rebuild a landmark that is an integral part of Nanjing's hertiage. Historian Casey Rich reports. {xtypo_dropcap}H{/xtypo_dropcap}ere in Nanjing, a city rich in history since even before its time as Jinling (金陵) the capital of the Southern Tang Kingdom, the opportunity to feel the surging force of history is still alive – if a little plastic like the tops of Zhonghuamen (中华门).

Recently, the resurrection of Nanjing began with the reconstruction of the city-wall (the longest city-wall in the history of the world). The city government has decided to reconstruct the entirety of the wall, perhaps as an attempt to keep out Anhui provincials looking to sell our long-missing chao mian. In fact, it was at the city-wall museum near Jimingsi (鸡鸣寺) with my class that I found what I’d been looking for for a long time now: a part of a model displaying the city during the Ming Dynasty.

South of Zhonghuamen once stood the tiny structure of a delightful little pagoda, which has been gone from the Nanjing skyline for some time.

{typography box_white left=300px}If you're interested in learning more about Nanjing's fragment of Buddha skull, click here to read an excellent account on ChinaExpat.com.{/typography} Now, the loss of a simple pagoda here or there is not an unusual development in Chinese history. In fact, Jimingsi burned down in the 1970’s – cause uncertain. I had been searching for the location of Dabaoensi (大报恩寺) since reading about the discovery of an ancient miniature pagoda in Nanjing, which is thought to contain a piece of the Buddha’s skull. Although this discovery is interesting enough by itself (taking those who want to learn more on a journey through Asoka’s India and into the Buddhism of early China), I was more interested in what once lay above that piece of bone.

After reading about it, my challenge was to see if I could find the location of the temple under which this discovery had been made.

Searching for the Pagoda

Asking Nanjing Ren about the history of Nanjing is a lot like volunteering to lift stones out from mud in a monsoon. I was told by several people that they had never heard of Dabaoensi. Thus, my search continued. I discovered through much fact checking that perhaps it would be better if I were to ask if locals know about the famous Porcelain Pagoda (陶塔).  Eventually, someone pointed me in the right direction, south of Zhonghuamen. There I stumbled upon a cross-road of Nanjing’s history, a location that really had put our little city on the map some six-centuries ago.

This site was at its grandest when the Porcelain Pagoda was built during the reign of the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu. It was built on the original location of a previous temple. It is believed that back before the Tang Dynasty the temple received the gift of the small Asoka Pagoda and placed it underground for safe keeping, where it was eventually buried when that temple was destroyed.  Many years later Emperor Hongwu decided to build the Temple of Ultimate Gratitude (Dabaoensi) on the same sight, just outside of the southern gate of the city wall.  There, he built a fantastic temple compound crowned with the famed Porcelain Pagoda.

For centuries this tower would be known throughout the world for its beauty, especially at night, when it was lit by hundreds of lanterns. Today it is considered (as it was then) one of the seven wonders of the medieval world. However, the touch of history gets just a bit heavier when we come to the destruction of this famous tower. It was in 1856 (during the Taiping Rebellion) that the tower was destroyed by the rebels, in order to prevent it being used as an observation point to take the city back. They were using Nanjing as their capital, and it was there that they made their last stand. 

Hooray for Progress

It all comes together today, thanks to the leaders of this city having a desire to fill the coffers with tourist dollars. Nanjing is enjoying a cultural restoration. The construction site where the piece of the Buddha’s skull was found is in fact a reconstruction site. There, just south of the city wall, the government has begun to rebuild this landmark. 

This project got the go-ahead back in 2004 and is expected to cost some 600 million RMB.  The new site will have commercial areas and pedestrian walk-ways, perhaps evolving into a new Fuzi Miao.  Though at present I could not find a completion date for the project, existing homes and businesses have been leveled, meaning that whenever the pagoda is completed, it will be another brick in the resurrection of Nanjing. Perhaps, if the sky is ever clear enough, someday you’ll be able to see the tower as you walk into the new Aqua City Mall.

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