Porcelain Tower of Nanjing

Nanjing, China, out on the banks of the Yangtze.

The people of China called it Bao'ensi, the "Temple of Gratitude." European visitors who beheld the structure called it the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing and labeled it one of the wonders of the world. But warfare and subsequent destruction overtook it in the 19th century, and this remarkable structure was almost lost to history, virtually forgotten by the world.

Still, for many people who had known the tower firsthand, it was a sublimely elegant example of a Buddhist pagoda. "The best contrived and noblest structure of all the East," wrote Le Comte, the French mathematician who had made a visit to China in the early 19th century.

From an octagonal base about 97 feet in diameter, the tower's nine stories rose pyramidally to a height of about 260 feet. According to information obtained by an American missionary who journeyed to Nanjing in 1852, the original plan for the tower had called for 13 stories and a total height of about 330 feet. Although those ambitious dimensions were never realized, the smaller size made little difference, because size was not what made the structure so memorable for visitors.

The brilliant white porcelain bricks that faced the tower were what made it so unforgettable. By day, the bricks glittered in the sun, and at night they were illuminated by perhaps as many as 140 lamps hanging around the exterior of the pagoda. Worked into the porcelain panels were colorful stoneware tiles with green, yellow, white, and brown glazes forming images of animals, landscapes, flowers, and bamboo.

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