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Society & Culture

Nanjing and China’s Path to Modernity: A History Abridged

May 28, 2019
  • Vasilis Trigkas

    Visiting Assistant Professor, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University

Nanjing has been the city of the counterfactuals and of alternative histories. Throughout China’s history, Nanjing has stood as a dynastic capital, a capital of the divine rebels, a republican capital, and now the epicenter of China’s semiconductor industry

In 1352 in Nanjing, Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant of humble origins, rose up to liberate China from Mongolian oppression and founded the Ming dynasty. The Ming dynasty is one of China's most celebrated dynasties because it unleashed a new golden age of national strength and modernization for the Chinese civilization. Nanjing served as China's capital until Zhu Yuanzhang’s fourth son, Zhu Di, murdered the incumbent emperor at the time, Emperor Jianwen. Zhu Di then usurped the throne and transferred the capital to his northern power base in Beijing in 1403. 

Four centuries later in 1850, Nanjing became the basis of Hong Xiuquan’s divine Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.  The Christian-Han conflict against the ‘Manchu-devils’ shook China to its foundations. Some estimates say that there were as many as 30 million casualties. The Taiping rebellion still puzzles anthropologists and political scientists alike; How could Zheng Guofan- a Confucian scholar of Han origin and a provincial Hunannese patriot– save the Manchus and in the process massacre millions of his own Han people? The Qing dynasty valued a strong civilization over a racially or ethnically homogenous state, and in this way, the Han Chinese that converted to Christianity were seen as "un-Chinese" compared to the Confucian-Manchurians. 

To be sure, Zhen Guofan's tactical brilliance had its limitations during the final years of the Taiping rebellion, and it was the British and the French that acted as the ultimate strategic arbiters. Mistrusting the Taiping’s unwavering commitment to the unequal treaties which had opened up the vast Chinese market, the French and British opted for stability and took their gunboats to the side of the faltering Qing. Soon after, the heavenly palace in Nanjing came crashing down in flames as it had some centuries earlier when Zhu Di entered the city triumphant. 

The Qing dynasty survived the ‘rage of heaven’ yet as Japan’s Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi foresaw at the time the dynastic balance that has defined the Chinese civilization since the epoch of the Yellow emperor was damaged and the intervention of the Europeans only helped to prolong the chaotic interregnum: ‘The upheaval would be all the more violent and all the more protracted for having been so long and unduly postponed.’ Japan was later to contribute to the prolonged chaos. It took a century for the new China and the new dynasty of the CPC to rise amidst an atrocious invasion by Imperial Japan. Nanjing stands as a symbol of imperial Japanese barbarity. 

From 1927 to 1949 (with the exception of 1937-46 when the capital moved to Chongqing), Nanjing also served as the capital of the Republic of China. It is in Nanjing where the first president of the Republic of China, the great modernizer Dr. Sun Yat-sen, rests in peace, on the same green mountain where Empreror Zhu’s tomb is also located. The patriot that liberated China from the Mongols stands next to the great statesman that took the Chinese civilization to the 20th Century, on the hills of the lake where the green in abundant and the red is scarce, as Li Qingzhao would say, one of China’s most significant female poets. 

In the summer of 1842, it was in Nanjing that the first of the unequal treaties between China and the imperial powers were signed, ceding Hong Kong for 100 years. This incident still haunts the Chinese and for the past century has shaped their absolutist understanding of national sovereignty and national security. This is also clearly seen in modern Nanjing and the colossal state support to the development of next generation microprocessors industry which is by its nature dual use in commerce and military applications.

China’s state-led technological expansion does not go unnoticed in the United States. Washington sees China’s rising technological primacy to be potentially destabilizing for the US-led security order in East Asia. A middle path for both China and the US where the fruits of technologies are shared and scientific communities can defy the arbitrary demands of the state would be highly advisable. China could start with a revision of its national security law and allow workers to oppose dual use civil – military funding contract in civil corporations. After all Nanjing serves as a reminder of the apocalyptic pain of strategic bombing and the technological efficiency of war machines. 

To be sure, today at the centenary of the May 4th movement modern Nanjing stands as a symbol of China’s rejuvenation and of its tumultuous struggle with modernization. Today in Nanjing there is no captive king nor is there a courtesan to sing in ignorance at night by the river Qinghuai[i]. A prosperous China with the world’s second largest military budget and a solid nuclear deterrent can feel secure that Western gunboats will not coerce it into a new unequal treaty. It can thus engage genuinely with the world as a sovereign great power with great responsibility.

[i] Referring to the poem “Moored on River Qinhuai at Night” composed by Du Mu (杜牧) of the late Tang dynasty. Qinhuai river is the branch of Yangtze river flowing through Nanjing.  


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