Turtle in a Jar

Last weekend I took a final trip to Nanjing with Aaron. We used the opportunity to buy some souvenirs at what I think is the best market in China and to see some of the sites we hadn’t seen on our previous two Nanjing adventures in November and December.

The China Gate


Overlooking the three courtyards and inner gates of the China Gate from the top of the main front gate.

The title of this post comes from our first stop, the Zhonghua Gate built in the fourteenth century during the reign of the first Ming emperor. This gate was designed to put the enemy in a tough spot like “a turtle in a jar” as it said on one of the signs. The gate is ingenious and a great defensive structure.

Composed of four sections of walls and gates, this south entrance to Nanjing is an imposing structure built with one thing in mind, deter the enemy and if that doesn’t work destroy them before they get into the city. The first section is the main gate through the actual city wall except this gate is nearly three times as thick as the rest of the wall. If the enemy breaks through the gate, there is a long dark tunnel to get through with surprises of its own before reaching three more walls.

In the tunnel are two small entrances to two more tunnels on either side, which could hold up to 3,000 soldiers ready to storm into the main tunnel behind or in the midst of the intruders. At the end of the tunnel is the first of three courtyards surrounded by high walls that would have been stalked with archers and other means of deterrents like heavy rocks for dropping.

Nanjing Zhonghua Gate tunnelThis gate is hugeZhonghuamen hidden army tunnels in Nanjingview of a Nanjing neighborhood from the wall by the Zhonghua Gate

gates at the Zhonghuamen in Nanjing

A series of gates at the Zhonghua Gate in Nanjing set up to trap intruders like a turtle in a jar.

Each of the courtyards has a gate in the middle. The design for the fortress basically trapped the intruding army into four areas of combat, three of which were basically pits for slaughter. They would divide the sections with heavy stone slabs at each gate thus trapping the invaders like turtles in a jar or more appropriately with the archers above like fish in a barrel.

Not only is the structure, engineering and strategy impressive but it is a cool place to visit too. You can walk through the tunnels and up on the walls. With ivy growing over the walls it is pretty cool looking too. There are small exhibitions about the gate, Nanjing and other things in some upstairs corridors and a bonsai garden in the middle courtyard.

If you really want to get into it, you can even pay a few Reminbi to shoot a quiver of arrows at a small archery range in the first courtyard.

The Drum Tower

Nanjing Drum Tower

The Nanjing Drum Tower

Having walked passed it several times to get where we were staying and to go to church on all of our trips to Nanjing, we figured we should stop in for a visit at the old drum tower.  Most ancient Chinese cities have a drum and bell tower for telling time and making important announcements. Nanjing’s bell tower was destroyed but the drum tower still stands on a roundabout in a lovely little park.

The top structure with the actual drums has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the last several hundred years, but the base or pedestal of the tower has survived from the original. One can climb up to get views of the nearby skyscrapers. In two of the corridors of the base there were art exhibitions to peruse for free.

The Presidential Palace

Dr. Sun Yatsen

Dr. Sun Yatsen, revered by all as the father of modern China, in front of his offices from his short presidency.

Most non-Chinese people don’t know that Beijing has not always been China’s capitol. In fact, it has moved several times, but Nanjing was a favorite place several times over the last several hundred years. For that reason, Nanjing is full of amazing history covering not just ancient dynasties but also playing a very pivotal role in modern Chinese history and the current relationship with Taiwan.

my favorite garden gate in China at the presidential palace in Nanjing

My favorite garden gate in China at the Presidential Palace in Nanjing. I want a garden entrance like this.

Among the more modern sites is the Presidential Palace, the equivalent to the White House for Nationalist China. The property and some of the buildings have a bit older history, but the most important history is what it saw at the infancy of modern China.

If those walls could talk, the stories told would be fascinating. This is the place where the first modern China was created and where they tried to set it all in motion. Dr. Sun Yatsen lived and worked there and after his death the government of the Republic of China operated from this building. They received foreign heads of state and planned, wrote and revised China’s then constitution that would later be the base for the current Taiwanese government.

Kuomintang leaders met with CCP leaders and eventually it was the site of the “liberation” in 1949 by the new People’s Republic of China People’s Liberation Army. If you’re a Sinophile then this is a must see. So much happened there, and from the few English translations, the role of the short-term Nationalist government is fairly treated as essential and not all bad.

Nanjing Presidential Palacenanjing presidential palace gardenthe front gate of the presidential palace in Nanjing

There are some Qing-style buildings and cool Chinese art deco buildings built in the 1920s. There are also many buildings and gardens to explore. Depending on how much you’re interested in China’s history, plan on anywhere between a day and a few hours to explore the complex. There are exhibitions about the governments, the old constitution and the Five Yuan System, and displays about Sun Yatsen.

Of all of the cities I’ve visited in China, Nanjing is one of the very top. It is for the most part clean and relaxed. The tree-lined streets make it more intimate and the transportation system is decent. I’ve been three times and each time it has been a good experience.

2 responses to “Turtle in a Jar

  1. Wish I had the time to visit those place while I was there. I actually went to the city with a couple of locals because they went to celebrate the birthday of the ccp last year and I got dropped of at a station. Not sure if there are many stations there but the area I was in was a bit down town I think. There wasn’t much to do/see but it was interesting to walk around for a bit. And the streets were very confusing with a lot of dead ends.

    • Sorry to hear your trip to Nanjing wasn’t so great. If it was a big new train station then it was the Nanjing South Train station and that really isn’t near much of the cool stuff to see being outside the city wall and south of the downtown area. That’s the only train station I’ve been to in Nanjing, so I’m not sure what the neighborhoods are like around the others. Thanks for your comments. Hope you have a chance to make it back someday to explore.

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