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The tower at Nanjing was considered to be one of the most beautiful temple towers in all of China. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2012)

The Tower of Nanjing: The Lost Porcelain Pagoda

"The best contrived and noblest structure of all the East," the French mathematician, Le Comte, said when he saw it. Its "many-coloured tiles and bricks were highly glazed, giving the building a gay and beautiful appearance," wrote an enamored American missionary. Both of these 19th century visitors to China were referring to the astonishing Tower of Najing, a wondrous temple that today is gone.

Construction of the Bao'ensi, or "Temple of Gratitude," started in the early 15th century. The Ming Dynasty's Yongle emperor ordered its erection in his capital city of Nanjing which sits on the south bank of the mighty Yangtze River. It is unclear to scholars today if the emperor built the temple to honor both his parents or just his mother. They do know that its construction took seven years. The tower rose from an octagonal base 97 feet (30m) wide and consisted of nine stories with a total height of 260 feet (97m). One visitor reported that there had once been plans to extend the height to 330 feet (101m) by adding four more stories, but they were never realized.

Seven Quick Facts
Name: Bao'ensi which means "Temple of Gratitude."
Height: 260 feet (97m)
Width: 97 feet (30m) at the octagonal base.
Construction: Early in the 15th century.
Destruction: 1856, blown up by Taiping Rebels.
Made of: Porcelain bricks and tiles with carved wood trim.
Other: Served as a Buddhist Temple.

Though the tower was not the tallest pagoda constructed in China, it was widely considered the most beautiful. Rather than being constructed of only wood, the walls of the temple were made of white porcelain bricks that must have glittered in the sunlight. Worked into the porcelain of the walls was a mixture of green, yellow, brown and white glazes in the design of animals, flowers, bamboo, landscapes and Buddhist images.

Design

A visitor climbing the tower would enter the temple through a decorative archway into an octagonal-shaped room illuminated by a dozen oil-burning porcelain lamps. From there he could climb the 190 steps of the spiral staircase through each of temple's levels. As he walked upward, the visitor would pass niches containing Buddhist statues. At each of the tower's progressively narrower stories he would see lanterns and bells hung. One visitor counted 152 bells tinkling in the wind and 140 lamps illuminating the temple at night. Another reported that the woodwork in the temple was "strong, curiously carved and richly painted." At the top the visitor would see a pole running vertically through the final story. As the pole emerged from the roof it turned into a spire. The spire was surrounded by iron rings set above a sphere carved into the shape of a pineapple.

17th Century Copperplate Engraving of the Tower.

The tower quickly became an icon for the city and visitors from the West reported on its beauty when they returned to their homelands. A number of pagoda towers were built in Europe, including one in the Kew Gardens of London, probably inspired by the porcelain tower. Even today, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses a 9-foot-high miniature of a pagoda tower thought to be a replica of the one at Nanjing.

Destruction

Unfortunately, the tower did not survive the 19th century. In 1801 a bolt of lightning hit the tower, destroying the top three stories. These were quickly rebuilt, but in 1853 Taiping Rebels took control of the city. The rebels were Christians and destroyed much of the Buddhist art in the temple along with the interior staircase. The tower was still standing in May of 1854, however, when American sailors visited the city and saw it. It is believed that in 1856 the rebels finally destroyed the tower completely, either to deny its use as an observation post to their enemies or because they had a superstitious fear of it.

Another sketch of the tower.

The tower only exists today in illustrations and museum miniatures. However, in 2010, Wang Jianlin, a Chinese businessman, donated one billion yuan ($156 million) to the city to have the temple rebuilt. So the magnificent pagoda tower may someday once again rise above the ancient city of Nanjing and reflect the morning sun with its glittering porcelain walls.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.