The Most Wondrous Section of the Ming Great Wall
China’s Hebei Province boasts the most comprehensive and representative collection of the Great Wall sections, with walls constructed by several dynasties that ruled China, from the Warring States Period (475–221 BC) through the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
China’s Hebei Province boasts the most comprehensive and representative collection of the Great Wall sections. The history of fierce conflict between agricultural civilization and nomadic cultures led to incomparable strength and beauty of the Great Wall.
In the eyes of many photographers, the best parts of China’s Great Wall are found in Hebei. As Yang Yueluan, one of the photographers who seem the most intrepid in scouring Hebei’s sections of the Great Wall, told me: “In my opinion, Hebei has the best Great Wall in the country. Most of the Great Wall sections we see today are from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall sections, the best are located in Jizhou ( present-day Ji County, Tianjin), Changping, and Zhenbao garrisons. Why are they the best? First, they are relatively well preserved; second, their design and construction are very refined; third, their blending into natural environmental surroundings are unparalleled. These Great Wall sections are primarily located in Hebei. Further, of these three sections, the most beautiful part is surely at Jizhou.”
During the Ming Dynasty, the Jizhou Garrison (often referred to simply as the Ji Garrison) was one of the so-called Nine Garrisons, a series of strategic fortifications established along sections of the Great Wall in China’s northern frontier region during the reign of Hongzhi Emperor (the 9th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, reigning from 1488–1505). During the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (11th emperor of the Ming Dynasty, reigning from 1522–1566), the Changping and Zhenbao garrisons were added in northwest Beijing (capital of Ming); further, during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (13th Ming emperor, reigning from1573–1619) the Shanhai and Lintao garrisons were divided out from the Ji and Guyuan garrisons, respectively. China’s so-called “the postcard of Great Wall”—badaling—was also administered by the Ji Garrison during the Ming Dynasty.
The Ji Garrison encompasses an area spanning from the Shanhai Pass in Hebei to the Sihaiye Pass (in present-day Yanqing County, Beijing) northeast to Juyong Pass, and includes the Xifengkou, Gubeikou, Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall. The Ji Garrison Great Wall roughly follows the Yanshan Mountains, and is a total of 660 kilometers in length. Dong Yaohui, Vice Chairman of the Great Wall Society of China, states “The Ming Great Wall is China’s largest, most stable, and most majestic Great Wall; further, the Ji Garrison is the most stable and intact segment of the Ming Great Wall.”
Zheng Shaozong, a researcher at the Cultural Relics Institute of Hebei Province, holds a similar view: “During the Ming Dynasty, the most critical portion of the Great Wall was in the Ji Garrison of Hebei. The Ji Garrison Great Wall is quite tall, and has more than a dozen of architectural features including watchtowers, beacon towers, defensive barriers, and cannon positions, passes and emplacements; it also had many different types of fortifications with features including fortresses, roads, passes, barracks, strongholds, and all manner of strong city walls. The Ji Garrison formed one of the most impregnable defense system in the history of the Great Wall.”
Construction of the Great Wall more or less continued nonstop throughout the reigns of almost all 16 Ming emperors. During the reign of the Longqing Emperor (the 13th Ming emperor, 1567–1572), construction of the Great Wall reached its most frenzied apex with the appointment of General Qi Jiguang as Commander-in-chief of the Ji Garrison. During this time, the Great Wall was built to be not only extremely strong, but also beautiful. To this day, when one visits or photographs this section of the Great Wall, its seamless integration with the surrounding topography and vegetation is as readily apparent as its defensive strength.
If, by chance, one has grown weary of the immense and imposing scale of the Great Wall, one can visit the Zijingguan section of the wall in Yixian County of Hebei, where another side of the wall can be appreciated—its beautiful allure. Zijingguan’s fortress is located atop Zijing Mountain, which gets its name from the blanket of Chinese redbud trees covering its surface (“Zijing” is the Chinese name for this tree). Every spring, the mountain and its surrounding areas are blanketed in beautiful vermillion hues as the redbud trees blossom, and the air fills with a fragrant scent. This is the Great Wall at its most paradisiacal.
As Yang Yueluan tells me, “the Great Wall actually has many ornate carvings, it’s actually a work of art— but this aspect of the Wall is often overlooked. From the beauty of these carvings, one can ascertain the motives of the Wall’s builders.”
Of course, the marvelous features of the Hebei Great Wall do not end there, and the variety found in the Hebei sections of the Great Wall is second to none. For example, aside from the oft-remarked nature of its construction atop towering mountain ridges, one should also note the sections that span across rivers, such as Jiumenkou, the so-called “underwater Great Wall”: Xifengkou, and “the Great Wall standing
in the sea”: the Laolongtou of the Shanhai Pass.
The Ming Great Wall in Hebei, in particular the Ji Garrison Great Wall, was built in an especially grand and majestic fashion as it was seen as a representation of the power of the entire nation. Mountains of silver were spent on its construction, ensuring that its structure was outstanding firm and solid. During the Ming Dynasty, the Ji Garrison represented especially a critical and strategic location, the most critical of the Nine Garrisons, as it directly defended the capital. Thus the imperial court did not shy away from throwing immense amounts of manpower and money into its construction.
As Dong Yaohui states, “the Ming Great Wall was not only a vast undertaking from an engineering perspective, but also represented major development in materials, technology, and defensive capability.” Historian Ray Huang calculated that for every kilometer of Great Wall constructed, the Ming Dynasty
spent an average of 7,700 liang of silver (one liang was equal to 50 grams), and up to as much as 31,500 liang . In total, the Ming constructed approximately 6,300 kilometers of the Wall, meaning the dynasty spent at least 48.5 million liang in total. Aside from construction of the Great Wall itself, conducting military battles meant spending yet more money—funding, maintaining, and operating the more than a dozen military garrisons in northern China required annual expenditures of more than eight million liang .
From the era of Prime Minister Zhang Juzheng (a famous high-level cabinet official of the Longqing Emperor period who, between 1572 and 1582 brought the empire to its zenith through government, economic, social, and military reforms) one may deduce that the imperial court took in, on average, only four million liang each year. Upon Zhang’s death in 1582, the Ming’s financial situation began to continuously worsen. By 1583, the Ming Dynasty’s trea- sury had reached a financial deficit of more than 2.3 million liang. Thus, construction of the Great Wall represented a serious burden for the dynasty, which could only be mitigated through ceaseless taxation and selling official positions. By the late Ming era, official government positions were being bought and sold like cabbage at a market, prices were established and the positions were traded freely.
Did the Ming have any choice but to suffer through these awkward circumstances? It is unlikely. As remnants of the former Yuan Dynasty remained a threat, it was the constant nightmare of all Ming emperors that the Mongols would once again conquer and eliminate the Han Chinese government. It seemed that there was no better alternative for dealing with this threat than the construction of the Great Wall. For this reason, the Yongle Emperor (the third Ming emperor, reigning from 1402–1424) moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing (closer to the northern
threat) and strengthened the city’s defenses against the Mongols.
It can be said that the Ming Dynasty spared no effort in planning and constructing the Great Wall: the wall was built high atop mountain ridges to seal potential passes; it was build deep in canyons and valleys for the same reason. Only be establishing fortified positions in inaccessible terrain could a relatively small military hope to rebuff attacks from a foe with superior numbers.
In fact, the Ming did get a return on their massive investment: the defensive fortifications of the Shanhai Pass, built of brick and packed earth on a foundation of stone, proved not only successful in repelling enemy attacks, but also in inspiring awe in those who saw them. Though the Great Wall lost its effectiveness and fell into disuse following the Qing Dynasty, it has maintained its cultural impact as a wellspring of historical and cultural knowledge through the present day.
Under the vast starry sky, Dushikou Great Wall stands in silence, watching the lights of Beijing to the south. Located in Chicheng County, Hebei, Dushikou was a strategic pass of importance during the Ming Dynasty, known as“the throat of Shanggu (meaning present-day Xuanhua District in Hebei), the right arm of Beijing.” Photo/ Chen Haiying
One July morning, after a rain, the Jinshanling Great Wall is shrouded in fog, taking you into the celestial world. The ethereal mist and the firm brick wall forms a sharp and sensual contrast of tangibility and intangibility. Photo/ Yu Yuntian