Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge:
It may just look like a river crossing, but history and imagination flow through the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge’s veins of iron and steel
It may just look like a river crossing, but history and imagination flow through the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge’s veins of iron and steel.
As grand structures go, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge has an unenviable job competing for public attention, and perhaps even affection, with the likes of the Great Wall of China and the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai.
In fact to those ignorant of the bridge’s history it may not seem that remarkable. It was, after all, only the third bridge to be built over the great Yangtze, a couple of dozen bridges in China are longer, and its specifications may otherwise seem modest.
Yet the sum of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge’s importance far exceeds the number of its nuts and bolts, and few other man-made structures built since New China was founded in 1949 can rival it for political significance.
Indeed, for generations of Chinese, the double-decker bridge, whose construction was completed 50 years ago, has become the symbol of a collective memory and national pride. It was the first bridge over the Yangtze designed and built by China without foreign assistance.
For a period it was a must-see for foreign state leaders who visited Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, more than 600 foreign delegates visiting the site between 1968 and 1999.
Because the bridge was opened during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), it has often been linked with that red age. Its link with that era is indelible in the minds of many people, reinforced by the Sovietstyle statues of workers, farmers and soldiers and sculptured waving red flags that adorn the bridge.
The time for more flag waving is now upon us, for the 50th anniversary of the bridge’s opening, and we can be sure that amid the fanfare, the bridge will look better than it has since the day it was inaugurated.
That is thanks to a huge renovation project for which the 4,500-meter-long bridge was totally closed two years ago, after 48 years serving as an artery for the Beijing-Shanghai Railway and as road transport for Nanjing. Its reopening by the end of the year will, of course, coincide with that anniversary.
On the eve of the jubilee Lu Andong, 41, chair professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Nanjing University, is looking forward to arousing people’s collective memories about the bridge and heralding its reopening in unusual ways.
“The bridge itself is just one element in a much larger cultural message,” Lu says. “The physical materials make up a platform that reflect the memories of many Chinese people.”
For the past three years Lu has made it his mission to collect those scattered memories in the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge Memory Project, and they went on public display in Bridge Memories: Exhibition of Artistic Works and Historical Materials of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge at Jiangsu Art Museum last month. The exhibition, sponsored by the China National Arts Fund, will run until December before touring to other metropolises along the Yangtze River such as Wuhan and Chongqing — where the first two bridges over the Yangtze were built.
In the exhibition more than 50 fine art works — canvases, ink-and-washes, woodcut prints, and some more genres — depicting the bridge are on display. Most were created in the 1960s and 1970s, numerous fine art works with the bridge as a theme having been done by students and teachers from fine art schools at the time.
The works typically feature their times, some being paintings that are realistic reflections, but many more including scenes such as chimney jungles or lofty mountains by the river bank, which were then also widely used in publicity posters.
“The bridge is a great achievement of modern Chinese engineering and industrialization,” Lu says.
“Such fictional scenes show optimism about the country’s prosperity and an eagerness to prove how strong the Chinese people are.”
In the earliest years, taking pictures of the bridge was all but prohibited, but that did not stop people decorating household items with paintings of it. Hundreds of such pieces on loan from private collections are on display in the exhibition, including purses, candy boxes, book covers, calendars, radios and even high school graduate certificates.
Lu contrasts the bridge with other political landmarks with national significance including the Tian’anmen Rostrum and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Representations of the bridge, such as pictures on items of everyday use, were ubiquitous, he says, whereas such representations of the Tian’anmen Rostrum and the Great Hall of the People were restricted.
“So everyone’s recognition of it becomes highly personal. When I talk about the bridge the first thing that comes to my mind is not a grandiose national emblem but the stories that people and their families tell.”
In 2014 the railway administration asked Lu to be responsible for renovating the park at the southern end of the bridge. Lu, a Nanjing native, was thus inspired to design a series of projects to look for people’s emotional connections.
“I didn’t want just to create an architectural work and then say, ‘That’s it.’ Protecting history is about much more than looking after built objects. What I wanted as the bridge was being revitalized was the public having a role in that work.”
So he rejected any proposal to simply build a memorial hall or to work with a real estate developer to give the project a commercial dimension.
That in turn led to a forensic research of archives as he and his team pieced together a thorough, wide-ranging history of the bridge’s construction. The exhibition includes original wooden models that were used to make bridge railings.
Images of key landmarks from all over China are used as relief decorations on the railings. It used to be said that “With one visit to the bridge you get to take a tour of the whole country.”
The wooden models come from what had been regarded as junk in an old warehouse. Lu’s team also interviewed hundreds of bridge builders, Nanjingers, artists and others for more information.
He found an interview with a veteran soldier who once guarded the bridge particularly moving.
“They didn’t have barracks at first and had to live on an iron boat. As wind howled at night there was loud clanging and he could not sleep. They were very poor living conditions, but when he mimicked that sound — and it was most unpleasant — the thing that really resonated with me was his pride.”
Now Lu plans to publish those tales through an online database.
“People will be able to bask in the warmth of those stories about the bridge and at the same time show respect for history.”
In the bridge park project he has designed several “best spots to take pictures”. Each will be decorated with numerous old family photos with the bridge as the background that he has collected over the past few years.
Memories can thus be passed on, he says, and officials archives related to the bridge will also be made public.
Many people are warming to Lu’s ideas, and on Sept 9 last year bridge renovation was even halted by railway administration to let Lu run riot with his imagination and that of others.
Twenty groups of people were invited to perform on the bridge, each having three minutes on stage to express their affection for the structure in talent shows or by telling stories.
“Lu’s project has renewed the life of this city’s public space,” says Liu Shengming, deputy Party chief of the Nanjing section administration of the Shanghai Railway Bureau.
“It connects physical space and intangible emotions and gives new meaning to the Yangtze River Bridge.”
For Lu, someone with strong emotional attachments to his hometown, seeing new blood flow through the bridge’s veins of iron and steel is a dream come true.
Lu returned to China to work at Nanjing University in 2012 after spending 11 years abroad. He studied architecture at Cambridge University before going on to become a research associate there and then spent a year at the Dessau Institute of Architecture in Germany. He has led many research projects on historical constructions in the Yangtze River Delta.
Living overseas has given him an international perspective from which to explain the Nanjing Bridge to the world, he says.
Last year he took an exhibition to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, putting old items related to the bridge into transparent boxes. Last month he also showcased such historical thinking through another exhibition at the London Design Biennale.
The London exhibits will be moved to the bridge park on Saturday and will be displayed in a huge steel frame — once used to train workers renovating the bridge — to create a new experience for nostalgic Nanjingers.
This suggests that thinking outside the frame is needed not only in explaining the bridge to the world, but in re-explaining it to people in Nanjing, too.
Lu says the southern bridgehead tower will be used as a “vertical fine art gallery” in the future and the first floor will be turned into an exhibition hall on history of the bridge.
He recently launched a painting competition for children in Nanjing in which they can use their unstrained imagination to portray the bridge, and the winning works will be among the first to be displayed in the gallery.
“As the serious image of the bridge as a political icon fades, its historical, cultural and humanistic values linger on,” Lu says.
“Why can’t we make it soft and warm?”
People from those born in the 1930s to those born this century took part in all the art projects over the years, says Xu Huiquan, director of Jiangsu Fine Art Museum.
“That proves the bridge continues to be an important spiritual landmark and holder for our aesthetics, which have been tested by history.”
Today, more than 60 bridges, including those being built, span the Yangtze River. In Nanjing alone there are five. As with high-speed rail, China is leading the world in building large bridges, and Xu reckons that a 50-year old bridge in Nanjing can take some of the credit for that.
“It was from when the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was built that we began to have all these achievements.”
The bridge is a great achievement of modern Chinese engineering and industrialization”
Lu Andong chair professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at Nanjing University
Clockwise from top: The bridgehead towers with sculptured waving red flags; an exhibition on the bridge aroused Nanjingers’ nostalgic mood; the design blueprint of the vertical fine art gallery inside the southern bridgehead tower; a park below the bridge will be turned into an artistic space.