How the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge changed China forever

Story highlights

  • The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was the first in China built without input from foreign architects
  • The bridge is currently undergoing major repairs
  • Propaganda posters above depict bridge

(CNN)China may be home to both the longest and highest bridges in the world, but neither is as pioneering as the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge.

Built during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution, the double-decked bridge was considered groundbreaking when it was unveiled in 1968. But more importantly to some, it was also the first modern bridge to be designed and built by China without help from foreign architects.
The Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge opened in 1968.
As major repairs get underway ahead of next year's 50th anniversary, the bridge remains a source of pride in Nanjing, China's former capital. A project commissioned by railway officials hopes to secure the bridge's legacy by documenting its history, according to the initiative's head Lu Andong, a professor at Nanjing University's School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
    "The bridge was so important, and it's undoubtedly a symbol of the city," he said. "It is being repaired for transportation and safety purposes, but I would relish the chance to transform the bridge's tower and the affiliated park into places of memory."

    Made in China

    China had initially hoped to build Nanjing's bridge with its communist allies, the USSR. Having already helped construct a crossing at Wuhan (about 280 miles up the river), the Soviets once again offered technical assistance. But soon after construction began in 1960, relations between the two nations soured.
    Wang Shiqing is pictured with railway tickets featuring illustrations of the bridge, part of his vast collection.
    Soviet experts withdrew from the project ahead of the Sino-Soviet split -- the breakdown of relations between the world's largest communist powers from 1960. The bridge was nonetheless completed eight years later. China considered the accomplishment to be a major feat of engineering -- and a propaganda victory.
    At over 5,000 feet long, the bridge carries both cars and trains. Its upper deck is a four-lane highway with sidewalks, while the railway tracks are now part of the Beijing-Shanghai train route.
    "Everybody loves the bridge," said Wang Shiqing, a longtime Nanjing resident who has collected over 1,000 pieces of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge memorabilia. "It's a source of pride, especially for local Nanjing people," he says.

    New beginnings

    As with other notable bridges -- like San Francisco's Golden Gate -- the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge has become a popular suicide spot. However, for Nanjing's residents, it is best known for transforming life in the city.
    Before the bridge was built, people and goods could only cross the river by ferry. Trains passing through the city would have to be disassembled and loaded onto boats in order to continue their journey.
    Upon its completion, the bridge changed the lives of the city's residents."In terms of the function, it made people's lives so much easier," said Wang, who was born the same year the bridge was opened. "It reduced the river crossing time and served as the main artery for north-south transportation."
    The bridge united visual expressions of technology and progress, according to Lu.
    "It is not just infrastructure but a piece of architecture," he said. "The bridge's form expressed speed, penetration and force-flow -- similar to what was seen in Italian futurism. The form of the bridge intends to express an inner flow of forces, as if the structure is merely a pipe of energy."
    But on the ground, the spatial composition of the bridge's towers resorted to traditional architectural language: central access, a processional route and a podium.
    "This design became a canonical case of Chinese modern architecture and was extremely important. This formula had enduring impact."

    A 'pop icon of modernity'

    As well as sculptures of peasants, workers and soldiers, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge also features Mao Zedong quotes and a 230-foot statue of the former leader.
    "The red flags and magnolia decorations are very Chinese," Wang said, referring to the three flag-shaped sculptures found at the top of the bridge's towers.
    This particular design reflects the "Three Red Banners" -- a major propaganda campaign during the Cultural Revolution. The "banners" represented ideologies that called for the construction of a socialist state in China.
    This poster was designed by the Nanjing Great Bridge Workers Creative Group and the Revolutionary Publishing Group of the Shanghai Publication System.
    The bridge often appeared in propaganda posters, which were keen to imply that the structure represented a "great victory of Mao Zedong Thought" (the political theory known outside China as "Maoism"). One such poster featured a quote from Mao: "Chinese people have drive and strength -- we have to reach and overtake levels of advancement across the world."
    Erected during a turbulent time in China's history, the bridge had far-reaching cultural impact, according to Lu.
    "This bridge is one of the most recognized achievements of the Cultural Revolution era," he said. "It is both a political monument and a symbol of technological and historical success. Its image appeared on cups, pencils, shoes, mirrors, cigarettes and bicycles nationwide -- the bridge became a pop icon of modernity."
    The legacy of the bridge also lives on through the people who were named after it. According to Wang, many people in Nanjing named their firstborns Chang Jiang (Chinese for "Yangtze") and their second Da Qiao (which means "big bridge").

    Restoring former glories

    In April 2016 the National Development and Reform Commission, China's state planning body, approved a 27-month program of repairs to the bridge. According to a government report, "safety and durability risks" were key factors in the decision.
    But the structure will be getting a facelift too. A $160.7 million (RMB 1.09 billion) investment will be used to restore some of the iconic statues, including those found on nearby river banks. Sculptures on the bridge will be reinforced, with handrails and piers also undergoing renovations.
    With younger generations less aware of the bridge's historical significance, Lu hopes that the renovations will restore not only the bridge, but the city's interest in it.
    "The older generation obviously takes more pride in the bridge," he said. "It is very important to re-access the memory of the bridge in a creative way, to allow people of all ages to experience and understand the memories of it.
    See gallery above for propaganda illustrations depicting the bridge from posters collected by the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.