Archive for January, 2016

Porcelain Pagoda

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

In the 1650s, the Dutch traveler and writer Johan Nieuhof journeyed from Canton to Peking, and his report – published in 1665 – contained 150 illustrations that educated and enlightened Western Europeans about that far off land. One of those drawings was of a Porcelain Tower in Nanking – a structure that subsequently made it quite often onto lists of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World.’ The tower was designed as part of a Bao’en Buddhist temple, but was not actually built until early in the 15th Century (at the same time that Zheng He was sailing the seas for the Ming emperor; see seven postings below).

Nieuhof’s Porcelain Pagoda

One British account at the time of the Treaty of Nanking (1842) found the tower “bright with many-coloured porcelain, which throws off a glittering light like the reflected rays from gems; it is in perfect preservation.” Unfortunately, however, fourteen years later the Buddhist temple and pagoda were gone, destroyed by Christian rebels during the Taiping civil war.

It had certainly captured the imagination of Westerners, as is evident in Longfellow’s poem Keramos:

Porcelain arch at the Nanjing Museum

It captured our imagination as well, and so we made a couple of local jaunts to check things out. The first visit was to the Nanjing Museum, to see remaining relics of the original tower. The museum has recently undergone a major four-year renovation, and the tower’s archway is certainly a highlight of a really superb museum experience. The following weekend we headed over to the brand new Porcelain Tower Relics Park, which had opened just a few days before. A cultural center and modern-day pagoda have been built on the original temple site, with a $150+ million contribution by the Chinese property & shopping mall developer Wang Jianlin (billionaire chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group). We were able to climb up five stories of the new pagoda… it’s still so new, the inner portions of the four upper stories have not yet been completed.

Today’s pagoda

I had a couple of long-time friends join me on these excursions, as my cousin Bryan and his wife Mary were visiting Nanjing over the holidays. Bryan and Mary have retired in Northern Ireland (where Mary grew up), and Bryan is much more than a cousin – he was my college roommate back in the late 1960s, so we go back a long, long ways! Bryan is a big guy with a distinctive white beard…. and he created quite a commotion everywhere we travelled in Nanjing, especially dressed in red at this time of year. One Chinese youngster on the metro stood wide-eyed, convinced that he had actually met the “Christmas person” (i.e., Santa Claus)…. and Bryan’s Nanjing visit has now been well documented in dozens & dozens of Chinese WeChat photos & videos.

With ‘Christmas person’ Bryan & Mary