Ronald G. KNAPP

The two-level bridge spanning the Yangzi River at Nanjing, an engineering marvel built and designed entirely by the Chinese, symbolizes the country’s independent spirit and its pride in accomplishment. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Yangzi (Chang) River Bridge at Nanjing is comprised of a 6.7-kilometer train deck topped by a 4.5-kilometer car deck. The bridge, completed in 1968, was a massive feat of engineering and the first to be built entirely by the Chinese; it has been a crucial element of north–south transportation as well as a source of national pride ever since.

Over the past two decades, engineers throughout the world have heralded China’s construction of daringly innovative bridges that seem to defy engineering principles. Old China hands recall the pride that accompanied the completion in 1968 of the first bridge to span the Yangzi (Chang) River at Nanjing. Not only had Western engineers doubted that a major bridge could span the river at this location, many believed that China was not capable of designing any large-scale bridge without the assistance of foreign engineers. In the 1950s, preliminary design efforts were carried out with the assistance of Soviet engineers to build a monumental bridge at Nanjing, but it appeared that the sudden withdrawal of Soviet technical experts in 1960 following the Sino-Soviet rift would abort any possibility of building such a bridge. Instead, Chinese engineers worked feverishly to overcome this perceived lack of confidence by reconceptualizing the project. Completed at the end of 1968, the Yangzi River Bridge at Nanjing became the first highway and railway bridge designed and constructed by the Chinese without outside engineering assistance. Until the completion of this bridge, it was necessary for trains and trucks to be ferried across the river, requiring some two hours of time and effort.

Among the challenges in building a bridge at this site were the fact that the bedrock in the river was some 72 meters below the surface and the river banks were low. High piers were necessary to lift the decks of the bridge so as not to impede boat traffic along China’s principal artery of water-borne transport. Although the river itself is only 1.5 kilometers wide in this area, the long and gradual approaches necessary for rail traffic along two lines necessitated a 6.7-kilometer structure, while the four-lane highway portion needed a 4.5-kilometers span. Nine piers embedded in the river’s channel support eighteen steel trusses, each of which is160 meters long.

For more than forty years the bridge has been an important destination for tourists visiting Nanjing. At the base of the southern approaches is an extensive park with access via elevators to a high observation platform. Constructed during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the bridge was adorned with the slogans of Chairman Mao in his own calligraphy as well as oversized statues and relief carvings of peasants, workers, and soldiers. Mao Yisheng, one of China’s most prominent first-generation structural engineers and designer of bridges, stated that the building of the “Great Bridge…tested and advanced the skill of Chinese bridge builders, and stimulated the growth of many industries connected with bridge building, including steel, cement, structural parts, and construction machinery.” Today, some fifty bridges span the Yangzi, but none symbolize the independence of spirit and accomplishment as clearly or as much as the Yangzi River Bridge at Nanjing.

Further Reading

Knapp, R. G. (2008). Chinese bridges: Living architecture from China’s past. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.

Mao Yisheng ???. (Ed.) (1986). Zhongguo gu qiao jishu shi ??????? [A technological history of ancient Chinese bridges]. Beijing: Beijing chubanshe ?????.

Source: Knapp, Ronald G.. (2009). Yangzi (Chang) River Bridge at Nanjing. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2557–2558. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Yangzi (Chang) River Bridge at Nanjing (Nánj?ng Cháng Ji?ng Dàqiáo ??????)|Nánj?ng Cháng Ji?ng Dàqiáo ?????? (Yangzi (Chang) River Bridge at Nanjing)

Download the PDF of this article