Formerly known in the West as Nanking, the colossal city of NANJING (南京, nánjīng) handles its size well. With leafy, shaded avenues and a generally laidback air, it’s one of those cities that’s perhaps better to live in than visit – accordingly, many simply pass through on their way to Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou, but a wealth of historic sites means that it’s well worth a few days of anyone’s time. Its very name, “Southern Capital”, stands as a direct foil to the “Northern Capital” of Beijing, and the city is still considered the rightful capital of China by many Overseas Chinese, particularly those from Taiwan. Today, it’s a prosperous city, benefiting both from its proximity to Shanghai and from its gateway position on the Yangzi River, which stretches away west deep into China’s interior. With broad, tree-lined boulevards and balconied houses within Ming walls and gates, Nanjing is also one of the most attractive of the major Chinese cities, and although it has become rather an expensive place to visit, it offers a fairly cosmopolitan range of tourist facilities.

Brief history

Occupying a strategic site on the south bank of the Yangzi River, Nanjing has had an important role from the earliest times, though not until 600 BC were there the beginnings of a walled city. By the time the Han empire broke up in 220 AD, Nanjing was the capital of half a dozen local dynasties, and when the Sui reunited China in 589, the building of the Grand Canal began to considerably increase the city’s economic importance. During the Tang and Song periods, the city rivalled nearby Hangzhou as the wealthiest in the country, and in 1368 the first emperor of the Ming dynasty decided to establish Nanjing as the capital of all China.

Although Nanjing’s claims to be the capital would be usurped by the heavily northern-based Qing dynasty, for centuries thereafter anti-authoritarian movements associated themselves with efforts to restore the old capital. For eleven years in the mid-nineteenth century, the Taiping rebels set up the capital of their Kingdom of Heavenly Peace at Nanjing. The siege and final recapture of the city by the foreign-backed Qing armies in 1864 was one of the saddest and most dramatic events in China’s history. After the Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking which ceded Hong Kong to Britain was signed here in 1841, and Nanjing itself also suffered the indignity of being a treaty port. Following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, however, the city flowered again and became the provisional capital of the new Republic of China, with Sun Yatsen as its first president.

In 1937, the name Nanjing became synonymous with one of the worst atrocities of World War II, after the so-called Rape of Nanking, in which invading Japanese soldiers butchered an estimated 300,000 civilians. Subsequently, Chiang Kai-shek’s government escaped the Japanese advance by moving west to Chongqing, though after Japan’s surrender and Chiang’s return, Nanjing briefly resumed its status as the official capital of China. Just four years later, however, in 1949, the victorious Communists decided to abandon Nanjing as capital altogether, choosing instead the ancient – and highly conservative – city of Beijing in which to base the country’s first “modern” government.

  • The Taiping Uprising
  • Nanjing’s city walls