The Strategically Critical Shanhai Pass
Shanhaiguan, known as the “First Pass under Heaven” and a “strategic access to the frontier,” became a fortified pass and ancient cultural town in 1381.
Shanhaiguan, or Shanhai Pass, is one of the north-eastern passes of the Ming (1368–1644) Great Wall. Fifteen kilometres (km) northeast of Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, it has been known as the “First Pass under Heaven” and a “strategic access to the frontier and safeguard of the capital” since ancient times. More than 600 years ago, Shanhaiguan became a fortified pass and ancient cultural town in 1381.
Passing through Mountains and Sea
Geographically, Shanhaiguan (lit. “Mountain and Sea Pass”) is indeed a military fortress worthy of its name. The Yan Mountains run to the north, along which the Great Wall rises and falls, creating a dense array of battlements that dominate an immense field. To the south, a lookout tower looms over the Bohai Sea’s vast expanse of misty, flowing waters. To the east, it faces the Huanxi Range, and its west side is guarded by Shihe River. Its strategic position amid such natural barriers was highlighted early in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). However, it was not until the early Ming Dynasty that Shanhaiguan became a formidable pass.
According to historical records, after the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, the surviving forces of the previous Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) retreated to the grasslands north of the Great Wall. They began staging a comeback, hoping to reclaim the Central Plains. In order to consolidate the newly-established Ming regime, Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (reign: 1368–1398) accepted a proposal by Zhu Sheng (1299–1370) to “build a high wall.” Soon after Zhu Yuanzhang established his administration, he went all out to build the Great Wall in the north.
Storm-weathered Battlements of an Old Town
During the Jiajing Reign (1507–1567) of the Ming Dynasty, the Shanhaiguan Great Wall and its neighbouring areas were frequently under attack and subject to repeated external threats. In 1568, the Ming government appointed Qi Jiguang (1528– 1588) as local commander-in-chief guarding Jizhou, Yongping and Shanhai.
At the time, the main hostile force threatening the Ming government was the Tumen Khan troops who invaded Liaodong (a region east of the Liao River). Considering the overall situation, Qi gradually concentrated garrison forces around the Shanhaiguan area. In a bitterly cold winter of 1578, the Tumen Khan cavalry appeared en masse and staged a fierce attack on Nanhaikou and Si’eryu Valley near Shanhai Pass. Qi commanded his troops to repel the Mongolian cavalry, rescuing more than 2,000 men and women who were raided by the Mongolian army. Noticing that the winter’s frozen sea surface in Nanhaikou was advantageous for the Mongolian cavalry, Qi sent his officers to construct an off-shore stone wall at Nanhaikou the following year to shore up this defensive oversight. In the winter following the construction of the stone wall, the Tumen Khan, as expected, led a 40,000-man Mongolian cavalry unit from Jinchuanying (what is now Jinxian County, Liaoning Province) to invade Liaodong Town. Discovering their move in advance, Qi dispatched troops from Shanhaiguan Pass. Qi’s troops confronted the Tumen Khan forces twice, finally forcing Tumen Khan to withdraw hundreds of miles away.
The battle lifted the Ming army stationed outside Shanhai Pass out of many years of defeat, and further strengthened the union between the defence forces of Jizhen Town and Liaodong Town, highlighting the importance of Shanhai Pass to the military defence of the area.
In the spring of 1584, in view of the increasing military importance of Shanhai Pass, the area was further fortified. Sparing no expense, the Ming government constructed the Luocheng Tower on the outskirts of the East Gate, the main gate to the town of Shanhaiguan, and built the Muying Tower and the Linlü Tower along the east and south walls of the East Gate, respectively. That winter, out of the blue the Mongolian cavalry, crossing the Dagu Road junction, appeared on the Huanxi Range one kilometre from Shanhaiguan Town. The Ming army guarding Shanhai Pass decided to rush in and repulse the invaders, separately ambushing the Mongols north and south of Liangshui Pass. Meanwhile, Vice General Wang Shoudao and other officers defended the East Gate with its newly built Luocheng Tower and the walls on both sides of Muying Tower and Linlü Tower. Failing to take the city despite their repeated attempts, the Mongolian cavalry turned to Hanmen Pass, Liangshui Pass and Nanhaikou, where they were all repelled.
During his garrison of Jizhen Town, especially of Shanhai Pass, Qi Jiguang made huge exploits in turning the town and the Shanhaiguan Great Wall into a wall of defence in its truest sense. He paved the way for establishing the Shanhaiguan Great Wall as a shield to the capital, defended Liaodong and guarded the crucial JizhenLiaodong Pass until it eventually became the key to the safety of the state.
Conquering the Pass
Having encountered extended turmoil both internal and external, the Ming Dynasty was eventually worn out. During the late Ming period, Wu Sangui was commander-in-chief of the Shanhai Pass garrison. When the army lead by Li Zicheng (1606-1645, Chinese rebel leader who overthrew the Ming Dynasty) marched into Beijing, the imperial court was falling apart and in a state of chaos. Panicked, Emperor Chongzhen (reign 1627–1644) gave up the only defensive area outside Shanhai Pass, and hurriedly titled Wu Sangui as Pingxi Bo (“Prince Who Pacifies the West”). Wu was then ordered to abandon Ningyuan and return to Beijing as fast as possible to protect the throne. After leading Ningyuan soldiers and civilians to retreat into Shanhai Pass, Wu rushed to Beijing, leading his army to “protect the throne.” Yet when the army arrived at Fengrun (roughly halfway to the capital), Wu learned that Emperor Chongzhen had committed suicide. Knowing that the Ming Dynasty was destined to collapse, his only recourse was to return to Shanhai Pass and make a new plan of action.
By the time Wu returned to Shanhai Pass, it was already under a two-pronged attack from the Dashun Farmers’ Army and the Qing Army. Both Li Zicheng and Huang Taiji (1592-1643, first Qing emperor) valued Wu’s military power. Keenly aware of the strategic position Shanhaiguan Great Wall held as a pivotal line of defence, they both sought to win Wu over. After weighing each offer, Wu finally decided to support the new Dashun regime. However, an unforeseen incident would change fate. On his way to meet Li Zicheng, Wu learned that his father in Beijing was extorted and tortured by the insurgents who captured the city, and his beloved concubine Chen Yuanyuan was abducted by General Liu Zongmin, one of Li Zicheng’s subordinates. Boiling with anger, he turned around and led his army back to Shanhai Pass and took back its defence from military commander Tang Tong. There, he vowed himself an enemy of the Dashun regime established by Li Zicheng. After the famous Battle of Shanhai Pass, the impregnable pass was conquered overnight, depriving the Shanhaiguan Great Wall of its role as “an impregnable pass that separates inland and outland, the precipitous terrain that shields Chang’an from danger.”
As a barrier between Jizhen and Liaodong, the Shanhaiguan Great Wall was built to consolidate Ming territory. But in the end, it led to the surrender of tens of thousands of miles of inland territory due to Wu Sangui. No doubt this was beyond even Xu Da’s (1332–1385) wildest imagination when he established the garrison at the pass, not to speak of other heroes such as Qi Jiguang when they guarded the Shanhaiguan Great Wall. Yet history ruthlessly turned that page that summer more than 360 years ago.