City Wall of Nanjing: the Longest Remaining City Wall in China

Nanjing is one of the few cities in China that still have old city walls. The City Wall of Nanjing, built around the ancient city of Nanjing during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), is the longest remaining city wall in China. It is a constant reminder of its former glories, and today it remains in good condition and has been well preserved.

City Wall of Nanjing-1


The City Wall of Nanjing was designed by Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (1368-1398) after he founded the Ming Dynasty and established Nanjing as the capital 600 years ago. It is made up of four parts – from the outside first there is Outer City, Inner City, Imperial City and Palace City. The City Wall we can see today is mainly the relic of the Inner City.

In expanding the walls, it appears the Hongwu Emperor intended initially to simply add a bulge to the existing walls and encompass the new city to the east. The main north gate would have been the Drum Tower. However, it was decided to bring Lion Hill to the northwest into the city defences for strategic reasons, and this almost doubled the area the walls would encompass. In addition to the original walls of stone and brick, an outer wall was built along the river and to the south as an additional defensive measure. Old maps show that there were close to twenty gates in this rammed earth wall. This outer wall is now long gone, but the names of the gates survive as local place names. Part of the wall on the south shore of Xuanwu Lake was built on the foundations of the old Stone City walls from the Six Dynasties period, and reused many of the bricks from that old wall.

City Wall of Nanjing-2


The construction of Ming Dynasty City Wall commenced in 1366 and completed in 1386, taking 21 years to complete. There were 200,000 laborers and craftsmen involved in the construction. They were recruited from Jiangsu, Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan provinces. 350 million bricks were made for the wall, and each of the bricks is 40cm long, 20cm wide and 10cm thick. Each brick had stamped on it the place it came from, the overseer’s name, the brick-maker’s name and sometimes the date. This was to ensure that the bricks were well made, and if they broke, they had to be replaced. Many of these stamps remain intact. The entire project cost six million ounces of gold, and one-third of the cost was donated by Shen Wansan, a man of wealth from south of the Yangtze River.

The city wall was completed in four phases: The first phase of the project was to build an imperial palace and rebuild the city wall of the Southern Tang Dynasty (1366-1367); the second phase of the project was to extend the old city wall of Yingtian Prefecture to the bank of the Yangtze River (from 1369-73) and then to start construction of a new city wall; the third phase was to build three city gate castles and 10 other city gates as well; the fourth phase was to continue the outer wall construction (from 1380-86).

When the city wall was completed, the unique inner construction meandered for 35.3km while the outer wall spanned more than 60km. Now, the existing length of the wall is 23.7 km. The average height of the wall varies from 14 to 26 meters. The wall foundation is 14 meters wide. The top of the wall varies from 4 to 9 meters in width. The interior and exterior of the wall are made of bricks with gravel, clay and broken bricks rammed between them.

Originally, 13 gates were built on the City Wall of Nanjing. Zhonghua Gate, originally known as Jubao Gate, is the largest castle-style gate among the 13 ancient gates. Zhonghua Gate has four rows of gates, making it almost impregnable, and could house a garrison of 3,000 soldiers in vaults in the front gate building. When walking through, observe the trough in either wall of the second gate, which held a vast stone gate that could be lowered into place.

City Wall of Nanjing-3


Different from ancient city walls in Beijing and Xi’an, the layout of the City Wall of Nanjing is irregular, an exception to the usual square format of these times. The walls were built for military needs and they made full use of the city’s unique terrain, as the city was at the foot of a mountain—a natural barrier to control the commanding elevation with the river as its natural city moat. Because of this, the 60-square-kilometre Nanjing city became strategically located and difficult to reach. On top of the outer wall were 13,616 crenellations, or battlements, for defenders of the city to observe the enemy or dodge arrows. Opposite it was the parapet wall used as a balustrade to keep the defenders and horses safe.

City Wall of Nanjing-4

The wall was carefully designed with a special drainage system to withstand flooding. Aside the top wall there are stone sluices to drain rain and near the wall’s foundation there are further outlets. When it rains, water flows off the top and into drains at the foot of the wall, which empty into the city’s moat.

City Wall of Nanjing-5


Today the 600-year-old city wall of Nanjing still stands. Most of the foundations used granite, rectangle stones or limestone. The walls were packed layer by layer with broken bricks, gravel and yellow earth. All the brickwork joints were poured with mixed lime, water in which glutinous rice had been cooked, and tung oil because the coagulated mixture was very strong. That’s why the city wall has stood for a long time. Standing on the wall, you will see tall ancient trees under your feet.

City Wall of Nanjing-6

Travel Tips:

Recommended attractions of the Ming Dynasty City Wall of Nanjing include Taicheng City, Zhonghua Gate, Yuejiang Tower, and Dongshui Pass (Dongshuiguan).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.