The Tower of The Prince of Teng: Immortalized by a poem

The Tower of The Prince of Teng is a building in the city of Nanchang, (Jiangxi) with nine floors. Was first built in 653 AD, and the tower has been rebuilt each time it was destroyed, a total of 29 times. The present building was rebuilt in 1989 on the original site.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

Contributing Writer
Sun Ying
本刊记者 孙颖
When people speak of China, they will think of the Great Wall; when they speak of Beijing, they will think of Tiananmen Square; likewise, when they speak of Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province, they will think of the Tower of the Prince of Teng known as TéngWángGé.

Though an inland city, Nanchang is bestowed with a great deal of vitality by the dense network of surrounding rivers and lakes. The Tower of the Prince of Teng is well known not just because it is the landmark building of the city, but because it is one of the four famous towers in China. People may wonder why a city far from the political centres in the north would have such a grand imperial building, and what makes people so fascinated is that the tower has been rebuilt each time it was destroyed, a total of 29 times. The answer can be found by tracing back to its origins from over 1000 years ago.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

A building named after the prince of Teng

The Tower of The Prince of Teng
Wang Bo

The wide River Gan flows through the city of Nanchang. Walking along the riverbank and after passing a few blocks, you will arrive in a street embellished in ancient styles where the Tower of the Prince of Teng is located. The street has now become a part of the scenic area, with visitors coming and going in an endless stream. At the entrance, women wearing sunhats are selling souvenirs from their baskets, but these are not postcards or key rings commonly seen in other places, but paper fans with the famous poem The Tower of the Prince of Teng: The Prelude printed on them. It is justifiable to say that it was this poem that made the tower famous in the first place and has enabled it to withstand the passage of time over more than a thousand years.

Behind the gate of the scenic area, the 50-odd-meter tower can be seen standing on the east bank of the River Gan. It was built on a 10-meter-high platform of white marble, with ascending steps leading to its entrance. “This is characteristic of a Chinese tower known as 阁/gé/,” said Ms. Yang Min, an administrative staff at the Tower. “People often use the characters 楼/lóu/ and 阁together, which in fact refer to two different types of buildings. While 楼refers to a multi-storied building habitable on all floors, 阁usually refers to a building on top of a platform, with mainly the upper floors used.”

A native of Nanchang, Ms Yang’s life has revolved around the Tower ever since graduating from university. “This tower is the pride of the Nanchang people,” said she. “I want to learn more about it and let more people know about it.” She provides tour guide service for visitors to the tower every single day and she reads books about the tower in her spare time. Although only a little over 30, she is already a veteran.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

“I have worked as a tour guide for more than ten years. Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors visit the tower. ” When it comes to the history and stories about the tower, she knows each and every detail.

“Towers named after a prince are rare among famous towers in China,” said Yang. The Prince of Teng was named Li Yuanying, a younger brother of Li Shimin, Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. According to historical records, he was mischievous and something of a playboy. Although not a good politician, he was a talented artist, not only good at drawing butterflies but quite knowledgeable about song and dance.

In 649 AD, Li Shimin’s son Li Zhi acceded to the throne. As he didn’t like his uncle Li Yuanying’s unruly way of living, he packed him off to the prefecture of Hongzhou (present-day Nanchang) to take up his official duties. Although Hongzhou was a remote place, far away from the capital city of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), Li Yuanying wasn’t disturbed at all, feasting and wining with his subordinates and performers all day long. One day he came to the bank of the River Gan. Seeing boats sailing on the river with flying gulls and herons passing over; he lost himself in the moment and would return to the same place again and again. In 653 AD, he summoned skilled builders and craftsmen to build a high tower on the bank of the river, so that he would not only have a better view of the beautiful landscape, but would also be able to enjoy singing and dancing performances at the same time. Afterwards, the prince was removed from Hongzhou, but the tower he built, which was named after him remained and became the only existing imperial building in south China.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

Wang Bo and his eternal Prelude

Although the Tower of the Prince of Teng got its name from a prince, its fame can be attributed to another man, Wang Bo, one of the four outstanding poets in the early Tang Dynasty.

Entering the hall on the ground floor of the tower, people can see the white marble relief carving of Wang Bo. “We cannot speak of the Tower of the Prince of Teng without mentioning Wang Bo,” said Yang Min. Wang Bo was only four years old when the tower was built. Ten years later, it was this teenager who made the tower famous nationwide when he came to the tower for a dinner and wrote Bidding Farewell at the Dinner in the Tower of the Prince of Teng on an Autumn day: The Prelude, which became known more commonly as The Tower of the Prince of Teng: The Prelude.

In the minds of ordinary Chinese, Wang Bo was a talented scholar as well as a child prodigy. Born in the flourishing early Tang Dynasty, this smart boy grew up in a scholarly aristocratic family. He exhibited a sharp mind and extraordinary poetic talent at a very young age. It was said that he was able to write essays when he was six, read the Han Dynasty history The Book of Han when he was nine, and was well versed in the canon of six Chinese classics when he was ten. By the age of 14, he had become very well-known. It was at this age that he demonstrated his poetic talent when, passing through Nanchang on his way to visiting his parents, he attended a banquet held in the Tower of the Prince of Teng by Governor Yan of the Hongzhou Prefecture and there he composed the eternally famous prelude.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

“There is an interesting story about Wang Bo and his Prelude,” said Yang Min. As the story goes, Governor Yan’s motive in throwing this banquet was actually to give his son-in-law an opportunity to show off his literary talent. In order to do so, he ostensibly asked the guests to compose a poem in celebration. Seeing through his real intention, the guests all declined. However, when the writing brush and ink were brought before Wang, he accepted. After contemplating for a little while, he began to write in front of everybody. Displeased at Wang’s lack of modesty, Governor Yan got up, gave his robe a flick, and went outside, instructing his attendant to report to him on what Wang Bo had written. Upon hearing the first line “The former county of Yuzhang, now the new prefecture of Hongzhou,” Governor Yan remarked that it was merely platitudes. Hearing the second line “Its zodiac lying between the Yi and Zhen constellations, and its location connecting the Heng and the Lu Mountains,” the governor became silent. By the time he heard the lines “Rosy evening clouds fly up with a lonely white duck; the autumn water sharing the same colour with the boundless sky”, he let out a gasp: “What a genius! This poem will remain immortal!” However, 13 years later, this tremendously talented young man drowned in the sea on his way down south to visit his parents, ending his short life of 27 years.

With imaginative language and literary brilliance, the poem begins with the description of the geography and topography of Nanchang, portraying the scenery of the Tower of the Prince of Teng and expressing the author’s insights on life, and intermingled with many historical allusions, rendering it one of the truly great works in the history of Chinese literature. It is this prelude that established the reputation of both Wang Bo and the Tower of the Prince of Teng. From then on, the tower’s fame attracted countless men of letters to the site for literary gatherings. Two other poets — Wang Xu and Wang Zhongshu – wrote A Fu to the Tower of the Prince of Teng (fu refers to a type of unrhymed couplets) and A Panegyric on the Tower of the Prince of Teng respectively. A hundred years later, Han Yu, a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty, praised the tower as being “beautifully magnificent, absolutely unique” in his essay An Essay in Memory of the Restoration of the Tower of the Prince of Teng. Today a plaque inscribed with these four words hangs over the entrance to the ground floor of the tower.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

Twenty-nine restorations

Over the past thousand years, the Tower of the Prince of Teng has experienced the succession of several dynasties and withstood the trials of wars and natural disasters. It has not only witnessed the prosperity of peaceful times, but also withstood the devastation of tumultuous years. In the course of its history, it was repeatedly destroyed, but was repeated rebuilt, for a total of 29 times, which is very rare among the famous towers of China. What makes people so fond of this tower?

This question also puzzled Yang Min. “I was a history major when I went to university. The unique history of the Tower of the Prince of Teng being repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt aroused my interest,” said Yang Min. “The tower became famous and has retained its fame all because Wang Bo wrote this prelude of not more than 1000 words. An important feature of famous towers in China is that poems have been written in honour of the buildings, which in turn have gained their popularity from the poems. This also reflects Chinese people’s worship and pursuit of poetic achievement. Similarly, the equally famous Yellow Crane Tower in Hubei is associated with a well-known poem by Cui Hao, the Yueyang Tower in Hunan became famous for Fan Zhongyan’s A Panegyric on the Yueyang Tower, and the Stork Tower in Shanxi can attribute its fame to Ascending the Stork Tower, a five-character quatrain by Wang Zhihuan. These poems, created for the sake of the towers, have bestowed them with prominence and breathed life into the buildings.”

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

It is not difficult to imagine that the Tower of the Prince of Teng was reduced to nothing but rubble each time it was destroyed. However, The Tower of the Prince of Teng: The Prelude has formed an eternal towering image in people’s minds. The tower, which “rises above clouds” and “stands over the ground”, caught the imagination of many generations of Chinese, compelling them to come again and again to look for the tower and attempt its physical restoration. “In different dynasties the Tower of the Prince of Teng was different in terms of its location and style,” said Yang Min. And each time it reflected the way people of the time perceived it.

The present tower was rebuilt in 1989, just 100 meters from its original site, in the architectural style of the Song Dynasty, which is along the same line as the Tang Dynasty. It was designed and constructed according to the Draft Plan of the Tower of the Prince of Teng to Be Restored in Nanchang drawn by the wellknown architects Liang Sicheng and Mo Zongjiang. Viewed from the outside, the present tower has three floors. In fact its inside is comprised of six floors, housing a statue of Wang Bo, a tablet inscribed with his Prelude, and a painting entitled A Hundred Butterflies and Flowers among other things. On the top floor there is a mini stage where musical instruments such as a set of chime bells, the mounted drum and the Chinese zither se are on display. Every day, players in ancient costumes put on six short shows of music and dance. The curtain of the stage opens slowly as classical music is played; dancers move gracefully, bringing the audience back to the scenes in which the Prince of Teng banqueted, sang and danced in the high tower on the riverbank, in which Wang Bo wrote the eternally famous poem in one sitting, and in which literati throughout history visit the tower to write their eulogies. It is also bound to remind people of their eternal aspirations and dreams hidden deep in their hearts.

The Tower of The Prince of Teng

The four famous ancient towers of China

Thte Tower of The Prince of Teng

The Tower of the Prince of Teng

Located on the east bank of the Gan River in Nanchang, Jiangxi, this tower is the only existent imperial building in southern China. First built in the Tang Dynasty, it was named after the Prince of Teng who rst commissioned its construction; he was the younger brother of the Tang Emperor Taizong. The tower became famous because of the poem The Tower of the Prince of Teng: The Prelude by Wang Bo of the early Tang Dynasty. The tower has undergone 29 destructions and restorations in its history. The current tower, built in 1989, stands only a hundred meters from its original site

The Yellow Crane Tower

The Yellow Crane Tower

Located on the south bank of the Yangtze River in Wuhan, Hubei, the tower was allegedly first built in 223 AD. The current tower was built in 1984. Its popularity rests with the poem by the Tang poet Cui Hao, which contains the two famous lines: “The ancients already gone on the back of yellow cranes;/ This place is left with the empty Yellow Crane Tower ”.

The Yueyang Tower

The Yueyang Tower

Located in Yueyang, Hunan, and first built in about 220 AD, the Yueyang Tower stands next to the Dongting Lake. It has been held in high regards since ancient times: “The Dongting Lake is peerless among the world’s waters;/ The Yueyang Tower is peerless among the world’s buildings.” Its reputation was further enhanced by the famous Panegyric on the Yueyang Tower written by Fan Zhongyan, a great politician and poet in the Northern Song Dynasty. The present Yueyang Tower, rebuilt in 1879, has the largest helmet-shaped roof in China.

The Stork Tower

The Stork Tower

Located on the east bank of the Yellow River in Yongji, Shanxi, the Stork Tower got its name from the storks that perch on its roof. First built in the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–580 AD), it has a spectacular shape and ingenious structure, which has been praised by many scholars and men of letters in their eternally famous poems, of which the best known is Ascending the Stork Tower written by Wang Zhihuan, a great poet in the Tang Dynasty. The present tower was built in 2002 in imitation of the Tang style. Some people argue that the four famous towers should include the Penglai Tower in Shandong or the Yuewang Tower in Sichuan.


Confucius Institute Magazine 28

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 28. Volume V. September 2013.

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