Nanjing: Intermittent Capital

Full Article + 354 Photos


Nanjing (formerly called “Nanking” in western parlance) is the capital of and largest urban area in Jiansu Province. The Nanjing urban area straddles the Yangtze River (Chiang Jiang) , however nearly all of the urban area is on the south or east bank of, which curves from north to west at Nanjing (Slides 1-4).

Like Nanjing, the province straddles the Yangtze River and the Yangtze River Delta for all but the last few miles toward its mouth. Like the province of Jiangsu, Shanghai also straddles the Yangtze River. Nanjing is 190 miles (300 kilometers) west of Shanghai, 750 miles (1,400 kilometers) south of Beijing, 700 miles (1,100 kilometers north of the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou and Hong Kong) and 300 miles (500 kilometers) east of Wuhan.


Nanjing means “south capital” and the city served as China’s capital during much of the republican period (1912 to 1949) and under some historical dynasties. The urban area is located on relatively flat land, though there are hill and small mountains in the area, including the Purple Mountain (Zhong Shan), which is just to the east of Nanjing’s core. Urbanization now surrounds Purple Mountain, which rises more than 1,100 feet (350 meters) above the urban area.

The Nanjing urban area has nearly 3.2 million people and is expected to increase to 4.0 million by 2025. The urban area is one of China’s least dense, covering 330 square miles (855 square kilometers), for a population density of 9,600 per square mile (3,700 per square kilometer). Overall, Nanjing is nearly as sparsely populated as a Western European urban area, principally because of the new, expansive residential and commercial development that has occurred in recent decades.

Even more than other urban areas in China, densities are highly variable in Nanjing. Core districts (qus) are somewhat less dense than in some other large urban areas. The most dense is Gulou Qu, at more than 65,000 per square mile (25,000 per square mile). This compares to nearly 110,000 per square mile (40,000 per square kilometer) in Shanghai, 85,000 per square mile (33,000 per square kilometer) in Shenyang and 80,000 per square mile in Beijing (30,000 per square kilometer. However, it is in the fringe areas that Nanjing reveals its less dense character. Large sections outside the urban area of 30 years ago are very low density, with large condominium projects and industrial estates that are widely spread.


Airport access to is by Nanjing Lukou International Airport, which is located approximately 20 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of the core. The new CRH fast train from Shanghai station takes slightly more than two hours. Nanjing is also connected to the rest of the nation by the modern “7918” expressway system, which radiates in six directions from Nanjing’s freeway ring road. Six toll expressways connect Nanjing to Shanghai and Suzhou to the east, Wuhan and Hefei to the west, Beijing to the north, Hangzhou to the southeast, Nantong to the east and Wuhu to the south.

By 2006, the 7918 expressway system had reached 27,000 miles by the end of 2006 (45,000 kilometers) and will eventually exceed the United States interstate highway system in length.


Old Nanjing is surrounded by what is reportedly the longest city wall still standing in the world. The wall is approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) long and encloses approximately 17 square miles (44 square kilometers). The wall was completed in the 15th century, at which time the population (inside the wall) was approximately 500,000. There is a moat to the outside of the wall, except where Xianwu Lake provides the moat.

The Core: Unlike some river urban areas, the core of Nanjing is not on the river. Nanjing’s core is located 3 miles (5 kilometers) east of the Yangtze and to the southwest of Xianwu Lake (Slides 5-170). The core of Nanjing is enclosed by the city wall. The main intersection in the central business district is Xinjieko. The tallest skyscrapers tend to be in the core, somewhat more in a concentrated pattern than is usual for a Chinese urban area. There are a number of buildings of 45 to 55 stories in the core. Currently, the tallest building is the New Century Plaza Tower (Slides 32 & 84), at 52 floors and 840 feet (255 meters). This building is just to the east of Xinjieko and sits across a central plaza from the Presidential Palace. There is a Carrefour hypermarket under the park.

Somewhat north of Xinjieko, there is an 89 story tower (1,500 feet and 460 meters) under construction, the Nanjing Greenland Financial Complex (Slides 63, 68, 69, 76, 77, 127), which will be the tallest in the urban area. It will also exceed the height of America’s tallest building, the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Like virtually all large Chinese urban areas, substantial office building development has occurred in recent decades, at the same time that there are many residential buildings. These include new condominium towers as well as the seemingly standard six to nine story bay-windowed apartment buildings that date back at least to the 1970s (see “Housing,” below). There are also a number of enclosed shopping centers.

Hunan Road is a popular restaurant area, located to the north of the principal concentration of office buildings (Slides 56, 59-62).

There are a number of public buildings built during the years that Nanjing was the national capital, under the Nationalist republic. The most significant is the Presidential Palace. In addition, the Zhou Enlai Museum is located near the Presidential Palace (Slide 80). Zhou Enlai was China’s premier from 1949 to 1976 and second in command to Mao Zedong. The museum includes two of Zhou’s cars, including a 1941 Buick and a Chrysler (Slides 81, 82). It is said that Zhou Enlai’s favor for Buicks led to that General Motors brand being the first and principal one manufactured in China.

Most of the streets of the core are lined with trees, which appear to be maple, from the shape of their leaves. Local people refer to them as “French trees,” however they look just like the maples that dominate so much of the middle of the United States and Canada (Slides 9, 10, 12 and others).

The railway station is located outside the city wall, across Xianwu Lake to the northeast of the core (Slide 107).

Core: Nanjing Massacre International Safety Zone: Nanjing was the site of the “Rape of Nanking,” which occurred when the Japanese army invaded the city in December of 1937 and continued until February of 1938. This is described in a The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang. She reports that “more than 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were systematically raped, tortured and murdered.” It is estimated that approximately one-half of the population left in the city at the invasion died. The events are also chronicled in a 2007 movie, Nanking.

During this time, perhaps as many as 300,000 people were saved in what was called the “International Safety Zone,” which was established by resident westerners, including missionaries and businessmen. The zone’s southeast corner was at the city’s present core, Xinjieko and covered 2.15 square miles (Slides 38-62). The leader was a German, John Rabe, who was also a member of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. Rabe and the others persuaded the Japanese to respect the zone, though there were reportedly frequent unauthorized incursions that resulted in rape, death and abduction. Virtually all of the area has since been redeveloped and looks no different from the rest of the core of Nanjing. Hunan Road is in the International Safety Zone.

There is a memorial hall dedicated to the Nanjing Massacre, located outside the wall, in the southern area (outside of the International Safety Zone).

North of the River and the Yangtze Bridge: Nanjing has one of the oldest bridges over the Yangtze River, Nanjing Yangtze Bridge Number 1. This bridge, with approaches is more than 4 miles (7 kilometers) long. The top deck has four road traffic lanes and has bus stops just to the outside of the statues that mark the river bank at each end of the span. The lower deck has two tracks for trains (Slides 171-176, 187-207).

Like Yangtze Bridge Number 1 in Wuhan, Nanjing Bridge Number 1 has good pedestrian access and is recommended for walking. Chairman Mao Zedong was pleased to swim across the Yangtze at Wuhan. I was sufficiently pleased to walk across the bridge there and was determined to again cross the Yangtze on foot in Nanjing. There are now other crossings of the Yangtze in Nanjing, but they are freeways and not pedestrian friendly.

The bridge leads to the north and west bank portions of the urban area, which are developing rapidly. This area includes substantial commercial and industrial activity, many large condominium developments and some single family (villa) housing (Slides 177-185, 208). It is also evident that former agricultural and rural housing uses are being displaced by urbanization (Slides 183-184)

Southern Area: There is considerable older development to the south of the city wall. But most of the southern area development is relatively new. Metro line 1, the only line open at this point, serves the southern area, and ends at the Olympic Stadium, which is one of a number of such facilities built around China for the 2008 Olympics.

The area closer to the city wall contains a large number of new high-rise condominium developments, each with multiple buildings. This type of development continues well to the south, where becomes much more sparse. There are also a large number of manufacturing facilities. It is in this area that the physical expanse of Nanjing’s urbanization is most obvious. Overall, the density of population and development in this area is far below that of the rest of the urban area.

One new villa development is named “Rotorua Town,” after the New Zealand volcanic resort town.

Eastern Area: The eastern area is a mixture of older and newer condominium developments. Generally the newer developments do not appear to be as desirable as in the southern area. Much of the eastern area is also in the process of being converted from rural living to urbanization (Slides 297-302). The eastern area also has a number of commercial developments that resemble the strip malls of western nations.

Western Area: The western area is to the west of the city wall and extends to the east bank of the Yangtze River. This area has many high quality high rise condominium developments. There are also a number of the standardized, older apartment buildings (see “Housing,” below), with industrial activities toward the river.

Northern Area: The northern area (east and south of the Yangtze River) has virtually all types of residential land uses. More significantly, the northern area is home to the urban area’s heaviest industries.

Small Businesses: As is the case in virtually all Chinese urban areas, many major streets are lined by small businesses (Slides 52, 213, 214, 316)

Industry: Nanjing has a number of large industrial parks, generally with exceptionally wide streets, often 8 lanes (Slides 226, 229, 276, 295).

Housing: China has been successful in housing its large urban population, which includes the registered population --- people with the right to live in a particular urban area --- and the unregistered, or floating population. The unregistered population is legally permitted to live in the urban area only temporarily, but the reality is that they have become a permanent fixture, staffing the many growing businesses.

Classic Apartment Housing: In Nanjing, as in other Chinese urban areas, there are many “classic” multi-unit residential buildings (Slides Below), located throughout the older parts of the urban area. These were originally built by the government and made available, generally as rentals to households. We are told that many of these units have been sold. The “classic” buildings are up to ten floors. Most of the units have bay windows and are fairly attractive given that they were built as public or social housing and are aging. It is unclear when these were built. They appear to date at least to the late 1970s and perhaps even before. Much of the older parts of Chinese urban areas are covered by these “classic” buildings, which are spaced close together within urban blocks.

Classic Apartment Housing Slides: 45, 49, 51, 53, 64, 86-89, 103-105, 214

Newer Condominium Developments: As throughout China, an increasing number of Nanjing households are moving into the newer, privately developed condominiums, most of which are at least 20 floors and often exceed 30 floors. A large number of high-rise residential buildings are under construction. These buildings are being developed in virtually every part of the urban area and often a number of near-duplicate buildings constitute a development (Slides ###).

Newer Condominium Development Slides: 6, 74, 95, 98, 114, 177-178, 181-182, 184-185, 210-212, 215-220, 223, 225, 227, 228, 230, 232-242, 233-252, 257-257, 283, 287-288, 291-292, 304-309, 311, 315, 325-327, 331-333

Older Housing: Toward the south end of the core, near the south wall, there is an area of older, perhaps sub-standard housing that is typical of the prerevolutionary era (Slides 151-169). The houses tend to be one or two floors and attached. The streets are far too small for motor vehicles. However, the area is clean and safe (as is all of urban China). There is also an area of similar housing near the Presidential Palace (Slides 91-92)

The Absence of Shanty Towns: In all of our travels in China, which now cover more than 15 urban areas, virtually no “shanty towns” nor informal housing has been seen. Even the sub-standard housing area near the south gate (above) is by no means a shanty town. The lack of “shanty towns” is unusual for a developing nation. Nations that are rated as much more affluent, such as Mexico and Brazil have significant shanty towns, which cannot be missed in traveling through the urban areas. Moreover, China has every bit as big an urban housing challenge, since the strong movement of people from the rural areas to the urban areas continues. China will add more urban residents in the next quarter century than the population of the United States (more than 360 million).

Villas: Single family (villa) housing is located in developments in every sector of the urban area. Generally, these developments are highly secured and it is generally not possible to obtain photographs except from the outside or satellite photographs (Slides 208, 265, 268, 277, 354).


Nanjing is well served by high-quality roads. The urban area has very wide streets, which is typical of China. There is a ring road, built to freeway standards. The ring road is a toll facility and built to freeway standards. Most public transport ridership in Nanjing is by bus. Like many Chinese urban areas, Nanjing is expanding its Metro.


Nanjing is one of the principal urban areas on the Yangtze River Delta, which includes Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou, Ningbo and a number of smaller urban areas. The Yangtze Delta is one of China’s two “mega-regions,” --- areas of adjacent large metropolitan areas. The other is the Pearl River Delta, with a somewhat smaller population but much higher population density (see Rental Car Tour: Pearl River Delta Overflight).


In Taiyuan and most Chinese urban areas, the largest and most comprehensive bookstores are a part of the Xinhua Bookstore chain, which is owned by the government. Xinhua bookstores generally have the best assortment of local and regional maps and include a small selection of English language books. Any one serious about touring China or Chinese urban areas will need good, detailed maps and they are generally available only in Chinese. However, there is no difficulty in developing a touring route to see an urban area using a Chinese map.


The local food is superb. My rule in China is to never frequent a restaurant that takes credit cards. That way, there is a good chance of getting genuine local food. The experience is a happy one, though language difficulties make it virtually impossible to enunciate any recommendations. There are, along all business streets in the urban areas of China, a plethora of good local restaurants. Ordering can be difficult, since few such establishments have menus in English (though rather more than have Mandarin menus in Western Europe or the United States). Moreover, given the humble status of these restaurants --- low prices, good food, they will not be found in any of the tour guides.

It is recommended, however, that tap water be avoided. The hotels provide bottled water. Generally, bottled water should be relied on in all but the most affluent nations. This is my unfortunate advice after having contracted “Montezuma’s Revenge” on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.


China has one of the world’s most advanced air transport systems and has built many new airports. The new Beijing Terminal 3 and the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport are among the most impressive in the world. Other large and medium sized urban areas also have new airport terminals, such as Chengdu, Wuhan, Xi’an, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Taiyuan and a new terminal is under construction at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai.

Passenger rail is a very inexpensive and comfortable way to travel, especially over shorter distances. China has developed the fastest intercity train in the world, which operates between Tianjin and Beijing. It reaches nearly 220 miles per hour (350 kilometers per hour). Rail travel is very inexpensive. For example, second class travel between Hangzhou and Shanghai has an approximately cost of $15.

China has developed the world’s second longest freeway system, but it is largely inaccessible to foreign drivers because China has not ratified the international driver’s license treaty. When and if they do, anticipate a rental car tour covering thousands of miles of Chinese intercity freeway.


Analysts are often confused by the “city” (“shi” or 市 in Chinese) terminology used in China. Most (if not all) Chinese urban areas are contained within a single city (“shi”). While Chinese “cities” are municipalities, they are far different from municipalities in the western world, by virtue of their geographical size and vast rural territories. A better rendering of the Chinese word “shi” would be region.

Within the municipality or shi is the “shixiaqu” (市辖区), which encompasses the urban districts (referred to as “qu”). Much of some urban districts is actually rural, especially those on the periphery of the urban area.

These cities or regions routinely include large areas of agricultural land, which keeps their density relatively low and leads publishers and analysts to report density data that is so low that it belies a complete misunderstanding of urban geography. For example, the largest municipality in the world is Chongqing, which has more than 30,000,000 people. Its land area is more than 30,000 square miles (more than 80,000 square kilometers) --- nearly as large as Austria or the state of Indiana. The urban area of Chongqing, however has a far more modest population of 3,000,000