Nanjing's Presidential Palace offers rare insights into China's modern history

Story highlights

  • Nanjing Presidential Palace showcases ancient city's tumultuous history
  • Highlights include former living quarters of Sun Yat-sen, Republic of China's first president

Nanjing, China (CNN)"This would be a rich person's residence today," says Zhou Hong-ling, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Hubui province.

"It's beautiful."
    Hong-ling, visiting Nanjing to learn more about the history she studied in high school, is admiring the private quarters of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China and a key player in the toppling of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
    It's a fitting time to visit.
    November 12, 2016 was the 150th anniversary of Sun's birth.
    Widely recognized as the father of the nation, his beautiful rooms are just one of many intriguing displays inside the Nanjing Presidential Palace, a 120,000-square-meter museum of modern history made up of buildings and sculpted landscapes.

    Diverse architectural styles

    The palace, which dates back over 600 years, showcases the complex past of China's ancient capital.
    Inside, Western-influenced Republican-era architecture seamlessly rolls into the gilded designs of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom era and the gardens and pavilions of China's Imperial eras.
    Some of the main attractions are packed with visitors, like the Qing-style atrium, which was built in 1870.
    A beautiful 600-meter space, it leads to hallways, courtyards and the Western-style quarters used by the Republic of China's Nationalist government (1925-1948).
    There are more secluded corners deep inside the palace.
    Quads, paved strips, pavilions and scenic waterways offer visitors areas to rest and quietly experience the former rulers' habitat.

    Former residents include China's 'Heavenly King'

    Serene as it appears now, the palace has experienced its share of tumult and reconstruction.
    The front gate was destroyed by rebels during the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-1800s, then restored during the Republican years in 1929.
    The palace was later occupied by the People's Liberation Army in 1949. It housed provincial office units until 2000.
    Its overall modest atmosphere is in striking contrast to the extravagance of Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) leader Hong Xiuquan's quarters, where gilded temples and dragon themes abound.
    The self-dubbed "Heavenly King" liked to read and spent a lot of time in his study, which was reconstructed in 2003, a tour guide explains.
    Meeting rooms for Chinese and foreign leaders, private offices for figures such as Republican political leader Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen's nap room have all been preserved and restored for the public to view.

    '1912'

    Outside the gates of the Presidential Palace, vendors sell pins bearing the white sun of the Republic of China flag -- a rare public embrace for the country's former symbol, which today appears on the flag of Taiwan.
    The surrounding neighborhood next to the palace also adds a curious flavor to the city.
    Called 1912 -- the year the Republic of China was established -- this commercial and nightlife district aims to emulate Shanghai's Xintiandi or Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong zones.
    Major foreign chains like Starbucks and KFC have set up shop in historic, brick Republican-era buildings.
    Korean barbecue and pseudo-Italian restaurants advertising pizza and pasta share another building.
    There are also a number of nightclubs with dizzying light displays on their façades.
    Some Chinese restaurants hang a large portrait of Sun at the entrance -- another reminder that the historic figure is a proud face of the area.

    Getting there

    Nanjing Presidential Palace is located at 292 Changjiang Road in the Xuanwu District of Nanjing. Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu, is less than two hours by train from Shanghai.