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The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing

This is one megaproject that straddles different eras. One that is both of the 21st Century and 15th Century. A building that was said to be among the seven wonders of the medieval world, described by the French mathematician, Le Comte as “the best contrived and noblest structure of all the East,” but also one that met a sad demise in the 19th Century, only to rise once again above the city of Nanjing in the modern era. 

The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing which gazes out over the Chinese city today is not the original tower that was destroyed during the 19th Century Taiping Rebellion, but instead a faithful replica of one of the most iconic buildings in Chinese history. Today’s structure is simple, yet regal, tall, but short by today’s skyscraper standards. 

Sadly almost nothing remains of the original Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, a pagoda that was said to shimmer magically in the sun and become one of the most famous buildings in the world over 600 years ago. 


Today Nanjing is a bustling Chinese city with a population of just over 8.5 million, but its history goes a long way back. The name translates into English as Southern Capital and acted as the capital of various dynasties and governments, particularly between AD 220 and 589, and sporadically after that. 

This was a city that always held huge importance and is still referred to as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China – along with Beijing, Xi’an and Luoyang. Its hay day came in the 15th Century, when, with an estimated population of 500,000, it was thought to be the most populated city in the world at that time. 

Quick side note, various Chinese cities and ancient Rome were thought to have already reached the one million population mark before that, but for whatever reasons they all suffered a sharp decline in numbers. 

Ok, back to Nanjing. If its glory days came in the 15th Century when the construction of the Porcelain Tower took place, then its darkest hour began in the final weeks of 1937. As the invading Japanese army swept towards the city, few would have had any inclination of just what was to come. 

And what came next was a six-week rampage of murder and rape resulting in between 50,000 and 300,000 deaths – depending on your sources and most likely your nationality. The shattered city emerged from Japanese occupation a ghost of its former self, but in 1946 it once again became the seat of the central government. A few years later it was once again attacked as the Chinese Communist People’s Liberation Army overwhelmed the Kuomintang government forces, who eventually fled to Taiwan.

Like many cities in China, Nanjing has undergone a staggering leap forward in recent decades and is now home to a wealth of booming industries, including IT, energy-saving and environmental protection, new energy, smart power grid and intelligent equipment manufacturing. 

In 2010, the Zifeng Tower was completed, a 450 meter (1,480 ft) supertall skyscraper, which is the tallest in Nanjing, the eleventh tallest in China and the twentieth tallest in the world. The city had a glittering pearl to rival almost anything in the world, but in the very same year, Wang Jianlin, a Chinese businessman, donated a billion yuan (US$156 million) for the reconstruction of a tower that might not be able to rival the Zifeng Tower in terms of height but would reestablish a glorious structure not seen for over 150 years. 

The elegant Porcelain Tower of Nanjing was about to rise again.    


But before we get to the new tower, let’s dive all the way back to the 15th Century, and the glorious period when the city of Nanjing was the most populated in the world. 

In 1412, during the Ming Dynasty, the Yongle Emperor (Zhu Di) ordered the construction of a tower that would eventually rise to nine storeys in height and would form the most visually arresting section of the larger Bao’en temple complex, which means Temple of Gratitude in Chinese. While it’s a little unclear as to the exact purpose of the tower, apart from being very tall and very impressive which has traditionally interested humans, some scholars have claimed that the tower was built to honour either both of the Emperor’s parents or just his mother. 

The designing process got underway, but sadly the Emperor did not live to see his vision realised and construction was completed by his predecessor, the Xuande Emperor (Zhu Zanji) over 17 years.

Placed in charge of the building work and the general restoration of the Bao’en temple was none other than Zheng He. Now, that name might not pop out at you, but he was one of the most extraordinary naval explorers of his day and commanded expeditionary treasure voyages to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, often using ships that dwarfed everything else being used at the time. 

This is also the man named in Gavin Menzies’ 2002 book, 1421, The Year China Discovered The World, as the real first non-native to reach the shores of America. To call this claim controversial would be putting it mildly. While Menzies was able to present old maps, his theories were light on real evidence. But that had absolutely nothing to do with Zheng He who certainly did command enormous sea voyages, but who probably never went to America. 

In 1428 he was placed in charge of the construction of the Nanjing Porcelain Tower. Apparently, fleet admiral also equated to architect and project manager back in those days, but He was a man of many talents. He was also an eunuch, which may or may not explain his focus and due diligence – if you know what I mean.

The Original Porcelain Tower 

The original tower was completed in 1431 and stood at a hugely impressive 97 metres (260 ft) and was 30 metres (97 ft) in diameter at its octagonal base. Inside the tower was a staircase that wound from the ground to an observation point at the top and included 184 steps. These stairs climbed through the nine temple levels, each becoming smaller than the last as the tower narrowed toward the top. Also along the stairwell were small nooks where visitors would find Buddhist statues, bells and lanterns illuminating the way. One diligent visitor counted 140 lamps and 152 bells chiming with the wind, including those also hanging outside. 

The final level came with a pole running from the floor up through the roof where it emerged from the top of the structure as the Porcelain Tower’s iconic spire with a set of iron rings and a carving of a pineapple, seen as a large-scale offering. From the outside, you could see small roofs protruding from each level which all curved slightly upwards. Attached to these flanges (projecting rims) were the outer bells, larger at the bottom but decreasing with size as the tower rose.  

As impressive as its height was, the Porcelain Tower was not the tallest pagoda in China when it was completed. That award remained with a 100 meter (330 ft) tall wooden pagoda in Chang’an built in 611 AD but which no longer exists. But while it may not have been a true record-breaker, it was widely considered the beautiful pagoda in China. 

Unlike other pagodas built simply with wood or even the Liaodi Pagoda, which remains the tallest brick pagoda in the world at a height of 84 metres (276 ft) and was completed over 500 years before, the Porcelain Tower was built with porcelain bricks which were said to shimmer in the sun. This was combined with a mixture of green, yellow, brown and white glazes in the design of animals, flowers, bamboo, landscapes and Buddhist images. 

Word of the tower quickly spread far across the border of China. Western travellers gazed in amazement at its beauty and it wasn’t long until replicas began appearing in Europe. In London, Kew Gardens installed their own version of the tower, albeit on a smaller scale, while a 2.7 metres (9ft) porcelain replica still resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

It was a delightful structure that was the envy of the world, but like any building of such symbolic power, it was also a target. 

The Destruction of the Tower  

And when I say target I mean both through man’s own destructive hand and the fateful circumstance of nature. Its first attack came from the sky. In 1801 the Porcelain Tower was struck by lightning, knocking off the top four levels. For nearly 50 years it remained as it was, damaged but still strikingly beautiful. 

But alas, large-scale rebellions tend not to give great regard to beauty and historical monuments. The Taiping Rebellion erupted in 1850 between the ruling Qing dynasty and the theocratic Taiping Heavenly Kingdom – a Christian uprising led by the revolutionary and self-appointed ‘heavenly-king’, Hong Xiuquan – who by the way referred to himself as Jesus’ brother. 

Using Nanjing (then Tianjing) as its capital, the so-called Heavenly Dynasty eventually expanded to include much of southern China and control over 30 million people. While there was no doubt plenty of honourable social reforms involved, infighting and over-ambition finally put paid to the Heavenly Dynasty in 1864. With his enemies laying siege to Nanjing, Xiuquan was said to have died from accidental food poisoning after eating wild mushrooms. 

Once the Qing soldiers had forced their way into Nanjing, Xiuquan’s body was exhumed for identification before being cremated. His ashes were then loaded into a cannon and fired out, to ensure that there was no final resting place for this rebellious – son of god – leader. 

Anyway, back to the tower. As fervent Christians determined to rid China of its Buddhist ways, followers of the Heavenly Dynasty began destroying the Porcelain Tower sometime between 1850 and 1854, when a visiting American described entering the hollowed-out remains of the tower. 

In 1856, the real end came as Heavenly Dynasty soldiers finally destroyed the tower for good. Pieces of the once beautiful building were salvaged and used for other buildings in the city, with possible original fragments even finding their way to the Calcutta Museum in 1877 – though these had never been definitively identified. 

What was widely regarded as one of the jewels of medieval architecture, was not more. 

The New Tower        

As I mentioned earlier, Nanjing experienced mixed fortunes over the next 150 years, but with the dawn of the new millennium, it became clear that Chinese power and prestige was roaring back. 

Porcelain Tower of Nanjing - Night View
Porcelain Tower of Nanjing – Night View.By Whisper of the heart is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Much of this was centred on commerce, trade and modern architecture. The involvement of the Communist Party in China has not been kind to the nation’s historical monuments, although perhaps the most famous, Beijing’s Forbidden City, was thankfully spared the revolutionary vigour of destruction. And if you’re interested in that, we’ve recently done a video all about the wondrous Forbidden City so why not check that out after this.   

In 2010, China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, donated a billion yuan (US$156 million) to build a full-scale replica of the Porcelain Tower as well as the Porcelain Tower Heritage Park project. At the time, this was reported to be the largest single personal donation ever made in China.

Both the new tower and the park were opened in 2015. Built almost entirely of steel, the modern Nanjing Tower may not have the romantic aura of its predecessor but it’s certainly the next best thing. Today a visit to the new tower is a true 21st Century experience, where visitors can use QR codes around the site to gain a better understanding of its turbulent past.

One room inside comes encased with mirrored walls and thousands of light bulbs each constantly changing colour, said to represent the Buddhist concept of light – it has been described as a 90s-inspired Buddhist dance floor, whether or not that was the plan we’re not entirely sure. 

But it’s not all modern lights and disco balls. Inside you can find the ruins of the original structure, though not much it must be said.  

The Tower that Rose Twice

Sadly all we know of the original tower comes from the scant local information, travelogues and the various pictures drawn. It’s impossible to get a clear sense of what approaching the glinting beauty of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing must have been like back in the 15th Century.

With the heydays of Rome and Athens disappearing into the distance, the medieval period is not necessarily associated with beautiful, endearing monuments. Yes, some mighty impressive castles were built across Europe, but they lacked the grace and sophistication of the Tower in Nanjing. 

What we see today is very much a modern take on an old, treasured relic. It is of course not the same, but in 600 years, who knows, maybe we’ll think differently. The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, the tower that fell once and rose twice.   

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