In the last few days of 1911, Sun Yat-sen was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China. For decades he had struggled against the Qing Dynasty and been exiled on more than one occasion, but finally, in the halls of the Presidential Palace in Nanjing (then known as the Headquarters of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China), Sun would become the first leader of China who was not part of any imperial dynasty.
An admittedly imperfect representation of the swearing-in can be seen in the museum
The location the momentous event had just as much of a fascinating personality as the man himself. Throughout history, this palace was fought over by more aspiring suitors than the hand of the most glamorous prom queen.
One has to wonder what Sun was thinking assumed presidency amid these plush surroundings and dangerous circumstances. The term “provisional” was a more apt a descriptor for the new government than anyone was aware at the time. Soon after the inauguration of the new republic, China would lapse into the Warlord Era, and the palace went more or less unused for 15 years except to quarter for various regional military forces. It wasn’t until 1927, when the Kuomintang reunited China and set up Nanjing as its new capital, that the location became known as the Presidential Palace. The moniker persists today, though the proper name for the site is the China Modern History Museum.
The palace is a grand place to visit and stroll around, and a significantly different experience from China’s most famous palace, the Forbidden City. Where the architecture of the Forbidden City harks back to its centuries-old dynastic heritage, the Presidential Palace feels very much a product of the early 20th century (which made it the ideal pick to house a museum of its era). Visitors can stroll among the old government buildings and see where foreign diplomats negotiated with representatives of the former Nationalist government. Along one side of the facility are lakes and typical Chinese-style pagodas, and history buffs can marvel at both the architecture and the dramatic heritage of the site.
The palace did have a history before the 20th century. A Ming palace, the residence of Prince Han, once stood near the site. It would later become the headquarters of the Christian (well, strange Christians led by a man who thought he was Jesus’s brother) rebels of the short-lived Taiping Rebellion. At the collapse of this rebellion, the Qing Dynasty razed the building in 1864 and rebuilt it as an opulent governor’s mansion for the Viceroy of Liangjiang in the cutting-edge styles of the time, which give the landmark its relatively modern flavor.
A statue of Sun Yatsen in front of what was once the Viceroy of Liangjiang’s mansion
Passing from the Ming to the Qing to the Taipings, destroyed and then built anew by the Qing again, the next phase in the palace’s turbulent life history was its seizure by the Republic of China, after which it changed hands a dizzying number of times in the Warlord Era before the Kuomintang marched back in and took control. There is no prize for guessing who managed to take control next: the Communist Party of China.
This occurred in April of 1949, and the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, relocated their operations to Taiwan. By October of that year, Mao Zedong had declared that Beijing would be the new capital, and henceforth the Presidential Palace in Nanjing was downgraded in importance.
With the improvement in cross-Straits ties, Taiwan-based Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan visited the site in 2005, marking yet another weird historical milestone for the palace. Amid all this history of power changing hands, one has to wonder whether anyone ever truly felt safe residing in a place that witnessed the downfall of multiple would-be leaders.
It does look gorgeous in the rain, though.
Photos by David Dawson