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 Scenic - - Contents - By Zhang Yichen

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

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