The Nanjing River Bridge Gets a Facelift for its 50th Anniversary

Two years ago, in the fall of 2016, the Nanjing River Bridge (南京长江大桥) was closed for extensive renovations. The first Chinese-constructed bridge across the Yangtze river, when it opened in December 1968 it was extolled as an example of China’s “spirit of self-reliance” (自立根生). Its opening was also the high point of the rustication program of “sent down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, and former zhiqing with whom I have worked over the years have commented on the significance of the bridge in the developmental imaginary of the revolutionary China of their youth.

So, it is no surprise that the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge would get a facelift in anticipation of its 50th anniversary—and the 40th anniversary of the reform period. These days there is also the added significance of “red nostalgia” among older Chinese, a resurgent patriotism among the young, and the leadership of Xi Jinping—himself a former sent down youth and someone who certianly seems to support a patriotic reading of the sacrifices of the past.

The bridge had been in a state of great disrepair—neglected while Nanjing built many other new, modern bridges across the river—so I was happy to see it finally getting some attention. It was fun to visit the bridge just days after its opening, joining many hundreds of people walking up the long approach to the bridge and enjoying the freshly-painted surfaces. I immediately noticed that all of the graffiti carved on the railings had been covered up and smoothed away. Also the addition of all new surveillance equipment and guard towers likely mean that like other approaches to the urban core of Nanjing, everything will be recorded. Of course this also means that the bridge’s former fame as a major suicide destination is likely to change.

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“Proletarians of the World Unite!”

I have always loved the Nanjing River Bridge as it harkens back to a time when architectural achievements were more than just utilitarian things—they were sculptural and iconic. While Nanjing’s other bridges are just bridges, this bridge is a symbol of its time—part bridge, part memorial. Seeing the multi-national and multi-ethnic statuary representing people’s of the world and reading “Proletarians of the World Unite!” on one protest banner, one can’t help but be confronted by the very different global vision of the past. Admittedly one that Xi Jinping is reviving in his Belt and Road Initiative with a contemporary twist.

Similarly, it was interesting to see images of industry (and industrial pollution!) that could be contemporary juxtaposed with Maoist iconography (rising suns and sunflowers) and images of Red Guard youth marching at the Beijing Railway station.

I was disappointed that the viewing platforms on either side of the bridge were closed and that there was no longer any way to go straight down the bridge’s towers to the exhibition spaces on the ground level. I had hoped to compare the interior renovations to my earlier visits in 2006, 1998 and 1992, but those areas were closed and off limits from the bridge deck.

Walking along the top of the bridge, however, I was most impressed with the large number of Cultural Revolution-age couples, many no doubt former “sent down youth” who stood taking photos of themselves at the top.

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A couple from the Cultural Revolution generation take a photo on the newly-reopened bridge. Nanjing, December 30, 2018.

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