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Exploring the culture and history of Jinling

CHEN SHULU | 2018-10-18
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details of a Ming painting named “Thriving Southern Capital,” depicting the prosperity of Nanjing in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)  Photo: FILE


Jinling, today known as Nanjing, is the capital of Jiangsu Province situated at the west end of Ningzhen Mountain along the south of the Yangtze River. In 229, Sun Quan (182–252), the founder of the state of Eastern Wu (222–280), located his capital at Jianye (another ancient name of Nanjing), boosting the economy and culture. Nanjing’s dialect formed from the convergence of Jianghuai Mandarin (one of the Mandarin dialects named after the Yangtze and Huai rivers, spoken in the north of Jiangsu Province and the area around Nanjing) and Wu Chinese (a group of linguistically similar and historically related varieties of Chinese primarily spoken in Zhejiang Province and part of Jiangsu Province). Jinling culture is the set of traditions, customs, languages and knowledge of the people in Nanjing and Zhenjiang.

The cradle of Jinling culture dates back to the “Nanjing Man,” a subspecies of Homo Erectus that lived in China hundreds of thousands of years ago. The culture of Jinling has evolved over a long history, continuing into the civilization of Bei Yin Yang Ying (a Neolithic civilization named after the location of its relics), and then the Hushu civilization of the Bronze Age (its relics were discovered around the Hushu Road in Nanjing). During the periods when Nanjing served as the national capital, large populations, a flourishing economy and widespread trade pushed its civilization to reach intellectual and artistic heights nearly unmatchable in China at the time.


Rivers and mountains
Rivers, lakes and mountains have nursed the rich civilization of the region. The city of Nanjing is situated between the Ningzhen Mountain and the Yangtze River. It is endowed with several small mountains in the urban and suburban areas, such as Bell Mountain (today known as Purple Mountain), Fugui Mountain and Qingliang Mountain. The Qinhuai and the Jinchuan, two branches of the mighty Yangtze River, flow through the city, and the Xuanwu and Mochou Lakes sandwich it in the middle. There is a famous saying in The Analects—“The wise man delights in water and the Good man delights in mountains, for the wise moves while the Good stays still.” Cultivated by water and mountains, it is believed that Jinling culture absorbs the spirits of both the wise and the good, which represent Taoism and Confucianism respectively. Therefore, the essence of Taoism and Confucianism are considered an important part of its character.

Nanjing has served as the capital of various dynasties, kingdoms and the republican government from the 3rd century to 1949, earning itself the title—“Capital of the Six Dynasties” (Eastern Wu, Eastern Jin, Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang and Chen; 222–589). Under political influence, the culture of Jinling had been characterized by central powers and royalty, contributing a style similar to that of Beijing, with many palaces, temples and royal mausoleums built around the city. Unfortunately, only a few of them have survived the wars and recessions of history. In 589, the Sui Dynasty (581–618) annexed the Chen Dynasty (557–589) in the south to reunify China. Nanjing (also called Jiankang at that time), the capital of the Chen, was almost destroyed by the Sui army. Palaces and many parts of the city were torn down and turned into farmland, leaving only remains of buildings on Purple Mountain and the sculptural ensembles in the royal mausoleums.

After the Six Dynasties, Nanjing was also chosen as the national capital of the Southern Tang (937–975), the early Ming (before the Yongle Emperor relocated the capital to Beijing in 1421), the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (founded by the Taiping rebels in the mid-19th century) and the Republic of China (1912–49). There are a few existing cultural relics related to these dynasties, including the South Tang Mausoleums, Chaotian Palace, the Ming Dynasty Palace Site, Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum and Xu Garden. The Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.


Folk customs and arts
Folk customs and arts represent two sides of Jinling culture—the popular versus the refined. Nanjing is at the intersection of the east-west water transport artery and the north-south land transport artery. Frequent communication and trade between the north and the south of China made the city a hub where different customs, thoughts and opinions converged and thrived.
During the Six Dynasties, Nanjing had the grandest celebrations on New Year’s Day and the Lantern Festival. The lantern displays in the city have been prosperous from the Ming Dynasty onward, featuring busy colorful bazaars, small shops and restaurants clustering along the Qinhuai River, and painted boats shuttling to and fro.

The refined side of Jinling culture can be traced from the highly developed culture of the arts. As a cultural center of ancient China that attracted intellectuals from all over the country, Nanjing was a thriving intellectual powerhouse, particularly in the areas of literature, science, education and religion. Xie Lingyun (385–433) and Xie Tiao (464–499), who grew up in the city of Nanjing, were hailed as the progenitors of the Chinese landscape poetry genre (shan shui poetry), featuring allusive, refreshing and complex verses. After moving to Nanjing, the famous Qing writer Wu Jingzi (1701–54) completed his masterpiece, the Unofficial History of the Scholars (Rulin Waishi). The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) composed by Cao Xueqin (c. 1715–63), is one of China’s Four Great Classical Novels. The novel is set in Nanjing and its main female characters were called the Twelve Beauties of Jinling. The renowned musical play and historical drama, The Peach Blossom Fan (Tao Hua Shan), was based on the life of Li Xiangjun (1624–54), a courtesan, singer, and musician living in Nanjing during the Ming Dynasty. Nanjing was also the hometown of the greatest Chinese calligrapher in history, Wang Xizhi (303–361), whose script was known as “graceful as clouds and vigorous as a dashing dragon.” His son, Wang Xianzhi (344–386), was also known for his mastery of Chinese calligraphy.


Feelings for the homeland
Poets gathered in Nanjing and composed poems reminiscent of the city’s luxurious past, and they sighed with profound sorrow and worry about the decline and fall of their homeland. One of the reasons is that the emperors who chose Nanjing as the national capital were often the last emperors of their dynasties. It is said that those emperors indulged in artistic pursuits or entertainment and paid little attention to the governance of the state or potential invaders, finally driving their countries to the brink of destruction. Among the works inspired by Nanjing, “Mooring on the Qinhuai River” by the Tang poet Du Mu (803–852) is an examplar—“The chilly water is shrouded in mist and the sand bathed in moonlight,/ As I moor at night on the Qinhuai River near the taverns./ The singsong girls are ignorant of the tragedy of a lost regime,/ They are still singing the Backyard Flowers beyond the river!” (alluding to “Jade Trees and Backyard Flowers,” a song composed by the last emperor of the Southern Dynasties, which was later considered a bad omen).

Nanjing doesn’t only remind people of the tragedy of losing one’s homeland, it also arouses their love for the country. The city and the areas around it have witnessed numerous forms of resistance in the face of invasion. The military general of the Southern Song Dynasty, Yue Fei (1103–42), led the Southern Song forces and fought against the Jurchen army to protect the city of Nanjing in 1129, defeating them at Niushou Mountain and finally retaking the city. He left a 4,000-meter-long wall on Niushou Mountain, which used to serve as part of the defense during the wars. Today, the wall is an important cultural heritage site of Nanjing, indicating that patriotism plays a key part in the Jinling spirit.


Chen Shulu is a professor at Nanjing Normal University.

(edited by REN GUANHONG)