The municipal government of Nanjing, capital of east China’s Jiangsu province, has gone into damage control this week after work began on a commercial development on top of the city’s centuries-old imperial palace.

Built in the fourteenth century when Nanjing was proclaimed the capital of the newly founded Ming dynasty (1368-1644), local authorities’ cavalier attitude toward the ancient historical site’s preservation has inspired waves of vitriol online.

Site of Ming palace. Photo: Sina.
Site of Ming palace. Photo: Sina.
Site of Ming palace. Photo: Sina.

On Thursday evening, Nanjing’s bureau of historical relics finally broke the silence, insisting that archaeological surveys had indeed been carried out on the future site of “China Aviation Science and Technology City” but never revealed to the public.

The surveys, they said, proved that there were no sites of archaeological interest within the development area.

Although the palace fell into disrepair after the dynasty’s third emperor usurped the throne and relocated the capital to Beijing, Nanjing retains its diminished status as a “reserve capital” until the ascension of the Manchu Qing government, who gradually took apart and re-purposed most of the old structure.

Ming palace ruins elsewhere in Nanjing. Photo: Wikicommons.
Ming palace ruins elsewhere in Nanjing. Photo: Wikicommons.

Despite their fall from glory, however, the Ming ruins have remained an important link to the city’s past.

When Nanjing became the national capital once again after revolution unseated the Qing, it was to draw a link between Sun Yat-sen’s new Republic and the last dynasty to have ethnic Chinese ruling over China.

Nanjing’s proud past fell into contention yet again when Mao Zedong’s Communists took the country in 1949, moving the capital up to Beijing yet again.

Determined to ensure the status of their capital, the new government took deliberate measures to weaken Nanjing, such as dismantling the internationally regarded Central University so that it could not rival Peking and Tsinghua universities in Beijing.

As Reform and Opening Up swept the country in the 1980s, Nanjing was the first Chinese city to adopt its own municipal flag – until Beijing, wary of this display of local identity and the threat it could pose to national unity, banned the use of local flags in 1997.

Flag of Nanjing, 1986-97. Photo: Wikicommons.

From 1986 to 1997, Nanjing’s municipal flag featured one of the city’s Ming dynasty gates and likeness of one of the “spirit way” sculptures that grace the mausoleum to the first Ming emperor.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others