The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing: One of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World
Many children have been warned to be careful around their grandmother’s fine porcelain plates. Those kids may grow up thinking that porcelain is a fragile material which has to be handled with care (or better yet, left alone). It may amaze them to picture a huge tower constructed of that material. But such a construction did once exist in China.
The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing was a pagoda constructed by the Ming Dynasty during the early 15th century. This tower, which is part of the larger Bao En Si (translated as ‘Temple of Repaid Gratitude’) temple complex, is sometimes considered to be one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Medieval World’.
Indeed, this pagoda was widely considered to be the most beautiful pagoda in China, as, unlike the conventional ones made of wood, the walls of this pagoda were of white porcelain bricks, hence its name. The Porcelain Tower was unfortunately destroyed during the 19th century, though a modern replica of the structure was built during the 21st century and is now open to the public.
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A Ming Construction
The Porcelain Tower of Nanjing is said to have been commissioned by the Ming Emperor Yongle in 1412. It took 17 years to be completed. This tower, along with the surrounding temple complex, was built by the emperor to honor either both his parents or just his mother. As this was an expression of the emperor’s filial piety, the temple complex was thus named ‘Bao En Si’. Little has been said about the temple complex itself, considering the fact that it is overshadowed by the much more famous Porcelain Tower.
Emperor Chengzu of the Ming Dynasty, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 220 x 150 cm. Located at the National Palace Museum, Taibei. Chengzu is commonly called the Yongle Emperor. This picture shows him sitting in the 'Dragon' chair. (Public Domain)
A Porcelain Pagoda
The Porcelain Tower is a pagoda, which is a part of traditional Chinese architecture. The structure of the pagoda was derived from that of a stupa, a monument originating in India that was typically used to house the relics of the Buddha or Buddhist saints. This sacred structure arrived in China with Buddhism and was then transformed into the pagoda.
These structures were originally built of wood, though brick and stone came to be used as well later on. Pagodas are like towers, with multiple levels, and their interior may either be solid or hollow. Within a pagoda there is a flight of stairs allowing people to ascend to the top, where a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape may be enjoyed.
"Paolinx pagode". Bao'ensi, Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. Page 136. Pronounced mountain tops (1665). (Public Domain)
Not the Biggest, but Possibly the Most Beautiful
The Porcelain Tower is recorded to have stood at a height of 79 meters (259.19 ft.), with an octagonal base 30 meters (98.43 ft.) in diameter. It is recorded that there had initially been plans to extend the tower’s height to 101 meters (331.37 ft.) by adding an additional four floors, though this was never realized.
The Porcelain Tower may not have been the tallest pagoda ever built (the Liaodi Pagoda in Hebei, for instance, is 84 meters (275.59 ft.) in height), but it was arguably the most beautiful one. The Porcelain Pagoda derived its name from the fact that its walls were made using white porcelain bricks.
During the day, the rays of the sun would be reflected off the bricks, causing the pagoda to glitter. At night, about 140 porcelain lanterns would be lit so as to illuminate the pagoda. Additionally, glazes were mixed into the bricks, thus giving them colors – green, yellow, and brown, which were manifested in the form of flora, fauna, and landscapes. Buddhist imagery is also said to have adorned the structure.
An excavated portion of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) doorway of the now destroyed Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, built during the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD). (Prof. Gary Lee Todd/CC BY SA 4.0)
Resurrecting a Precious Tower
Unfortunately, Yongle’s Porcelain Tower is no longer in existence. In 1853, Nanjing was captured by the Taiping rebels, Chinese Christian millenarians who were at war with the Qing Dynasty. It is recorded that the pagoda was still standing in the following year, though in 1856, it was completely destroyed by the rebels, either to avoid it from being used by the enemy as an observation point, or out of superstition.
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In 2008, a number of Buddhist relics were unearthed by archaeologists excavating at the ruins of the Porcelain Pagoda. In 2010, a donation of 1 billion yuan (which is about 150 million USD) was allegedly donated by Wang Jianlin, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, for the Porcelain Heritage Park project.
The result is the reconstruction of the original pagoda in steel and glass. In addition to the tower, the Porcelain heritage Park also includes a futuristic Buddhist-theme museum. The park has been open to the public since 2015.
Reconstructed Porcelain Tower. (Whisper of the Heart/CC BY SA 4.0)
Top Image: The Porcelain Tower. Source: StóriTómas/CC BY SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren
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