Nanjing, situated in the Yangtze River Delta, is the capital city of Jiangsu province and an important land and water transportation hub in China. Once the capital of the Six Dynasties, Nanjing ranks as one of the "four great ancient capitals" in China together with Xi’an, Luoyang, and Beijing.
As early as 6,000 years ago in the Neolithic era, primitive villages appeared in present-day Nanjing. In the Three States period (220–280), Sun Quan (182–252), the ruler of the Wu state (222–280), established his capital there, and in so doing turned what had been a county in the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties into an imperial capital city. Several ensuing dynasties also chose Nanjing as their capital. Legend has it that Zhuge Liang (181–234), the eminent strategist of Shu (221–263) in the Three States period, thought highly of Nanjing’s geographical features. He said that with the Zhongshan Mountain coiled in the east like a dragon and Stone Mountain crouching in the west like a tiger, Nanjing was the most ideal site for a national capital.
Embraced by two mountains, Nanjing was easy to defend and difficult to attack, and the open terrain between the mountains was suitable for the construction of a large city. In addition, the city closely adjoined the Yangtze River to the north and west, which functioned as a natural barrier against military threats from northern China. From the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220) to the Western Jin dynasty (265–316), many people from the Central Plain migrated south to escape the ravages of war. These people provided an ample work force and brought with them advanced technologies. Thus Jiangnan, the southern region of the lower Yangtze River, eventually replaced the Central Plain as the economic center of China.
During the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420), Nanjing (then known as Jiankang) developed into a spectacular capital city with as many as 3,500 palaces and halls, including the Jiankang Imperial Palace. In the Six Dynasties, fancy wine shops and brothels were densely clustered on both sides of the Qinhuai River in what was the most prosperous part of Nanjing. This was the area where dignitaries were entertained and nobles attended banquets and composed poetry. On the south side of the river were the residential quarters of the aristocratic Wang and Xie families—this area, called Wuyi (Black Robe) Lane, later became synonymous with prominence and prosperity.
After the Sui dynasty (581–618) unified China in 589, Emperor Wen (r. 581–604) ordered the complete destruction of the city of Jiankang to prevent enemies from taking the southern region of the lower Yangtze River. It was not until the early tenth century that Nanjing was rebuilt. Surveying the ruined capital of the Six Dynasties, literati of the Sui and Tang (618–907) dynasties recalled its past glory and composed many melancholic poems. Nanjing had become the perennial trope of nostalgic poetry.
As early as 226, a transport route from Nanjing to the South China Sea had been opened and ships could reach as far as Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Many international commercial, artistic, religious, and technological exchanges were conducted along this maritime Silk Road. As the center for Buddhism in southern China during the Six Dynasties, Nanjing made a huge contribution to the spread of this religion.
Xiao Yan, the first emperor of the Southern Liang dynasty (502–557), known as Emperor Wu (r. 502–549), was a devout Buddhist who led a simple and rigorous personal life. He not only actively advocated Buddhism, but made four attempts to take monastic orders at Tongtai Temple. To redeem the emperor, his courtiers made huge donations to the temple.
Thanks to a prosperous and secure metropolitan life, ancient Nanjing enjoyed a high level of culture in terms of literature, history, philosophy, religion, as well as painting and music. It was on the bank of the Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing that Xiao Tong, the crown prince (posthumously named Crown Prince Zhaoming, 501–531) of Emperor Wu of Liang, compiled the well-known Zhaoming wenxuan (Zhaoming’s selections of refined literature).
Among the numerous renowned historical sites and scenic attractions in Nanjing, there are Qixia Temple, the Thousand-Buddha Cliff on Qixia Mountain, the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum—tomb of Emperor Taizu (Zhu Yuanzhang, r. 1368–1398, 1328–1398) of the Ming and his Empress Ma (1332–1382), the Confucius Temple (an ancient academic institute), the Jiangnan Imperial Examination Hall on the northern bank of the Qinhuai River, the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum which was completed in 1931, and the beautiful Xuanwu Lake. All of these are considered must-see places of interest for tourists. Every year, millions of people visit the Memorial Hall built to commemorate the victims in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 and ponder the tragic catastrophe of the War of Resistance Against Japan.