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

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WEEKEND LIFE - By WANG KAIHAO in Nan­jing wangkai­hao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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

PHO­TOS BY WANG KAIHAO AND PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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.

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