Zhang­bei: Walls Built by Six Dy­nas­ties

-Walls Built by Six Dy­nas­ties

China Scenic - - Contents - By Tang Yue

To the north of Bei­jing there is a grass­land that has been a mag­net for the schol­ars of the Great Wall. In this re­mote cor­ner of Zhang­bei County, the Great Wall is more than a wall – it is a labyrinth of wall rem­nants from six dif­fer­ent eras.

To the north of Bei­jing there is a spot of grass­land that has been a mag­net for the schol­ars of the Great Wall. In this re­mote cor­ner of Zhang­bei County, the Great Wall is more than a wall—it is a labyrinth of wall rem­nants from six dif­fer­ent eras and a ver­i­ta­ble open-sky mu­seum of the her­itage of the Great Wall of China.

The drive out of the cap­i­tal on the Bei­jing-ti­bet High­way takes you into the moun­tains. The fur­ther you drive, the closer the moun­tains creep up to the high­way, which, without you notic­ing, is steadily climb­ing up. Sud­denly, at the sign for Zhangji­akou (a his­toric town and now a city out­side Bei­jing) I re­al­ized that the alti­tude was al­ready al­most 1,400 me­ters.

The county of Zhang­bei is lo­cated north of Zhangji­akou, as its name sug­gests (“bei” means “north” in Chi­nese)—it is one of the coun­ties tucked away in the north of Zhangji­akou. I have for a long time wanted to come to Zhang­bei. I like to rum­mage through his­toric texts, and I had dis­cov­ered, in an old book, that a place called “Gate into In­fin­ity” was lo­cated here, as well as a great number of fas­ci­nat­ing an­cient ru­ins. All that stirred up my in­ter­est to come and in­ves­ti­gate.

Gate into In­fin­ity

Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Qiao Yu, a scholar of Zhang­bei Great Wall, the his­tory of Gate into In­fin­ity can be traced back to 475 BC, to the time when it was built by Zhao Xiangzi, the founder of the State of Zhao, one of the seven war­ring states. Dur­ing this era, the State of Zhao was threat­ened from three sides by no­madic peo­ple. In or­der to counter this threat, Zhao Xiangzi set up this fortress on the north­ern bor­der.

A mem­ber of the Great Wall So­ci­ety of China and an ex­pert on Zhang­bei Wall, Mr. Hu Ming, has pro­duced a great deal of work on the ques­tion of Gate into In­fin­ity. He reck­ons that in this rather grand name, the “in­fin­ity” part refers to the grand ambitions of Zhao Xiangzi as to the fu­ture size of his realm, while “gate” sim­ply re­flects the fact that this lo­ca­tion was the gate­way to the State of Zhao from the north.

Some schol­ars, how­ever, are of an opin­ion that “into in­fin­ity” im­plies that the in­hab­i­tants of the State of Zhao saw the north­ern steppes as a dreaded, hos­tile wild er ness.Ziz hit ongji an, or Com­pre­hen­sive mir­ror in aid of gov­er­nance pub­lished in 1084 dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty, tells us that: “To the north of the Cen­tral Plains, stretches, for count­less kilo­me­ters, an in­fin­ity of des­o­late empti­ness and desert.” Zhang­bei, is a demarcation line be­tween two worlds —the fer­tile lands of the Cen­tral Plains and the deserts to the north, and this could also have been the rea­son for its name.

In fact, Zhang­bei is a nat­u­ral bound­ary, a moun­tain­ous ridge that rises up as a bulge, stretch­ing

on the east- west axis on the bor­der be­tween He­bei’s Wan­quan County and Zhang­bei County. Here Yin­shan and Yan­shan ranges meet and merge to­gether, form­ing a bar­rier. This kind of moun­tain range is known in Chi­nese as “ba” (坝) , a char­ac­ter that is also used in the world for “dam”, per­fectly sum­ming up the ge­og­ra­phy of such moun­tains.

Such nat­u­ral bound­ary can be ei­ther a hin­drance or a bless­ing to peo­ple. For Zhao Xiangzi, who al­ways had mil­i­tary mat­ters in mind, hav­ing found such a spe­cial lo­ca­tion on the north­ern bound­ary of his king­dom was very much the lat­ter, and so this is where the Gate into In­fin­ity was founded.

To­day noth­ing re­mains of the struc­tures of the Gate into In­fin­ity. Mr. Hu Ming, dur­ing his sur­veys on ru­ins, mea­sured its width from north to south as 75 me­ters and its length, from east to west, as 102 me­ters, with an alti­tude of 1,638 me­ters above sea level. Ex­ca­va­tions at the site have yielded red and grey pot­tery and other arte­facts.

The for­merly mag­nif­i­cent mil­i­tary fortress may have been erased by time from the sur­face of the grass­lands, but its followers are still stand­ing—the sec­tions of the Great Wall.

The La­bor of Six Dy­nas­ties

Walk­ing around in the re­mote coun­try­side in this part of China you of­ten see pe­cu­liar, rounded mounds. Come close and you see that they con­sist of piles of crushed stone. These are the rem­nants of the an­cient de­fen­sive tur­rets and bea­con tow­ers.

The Ming Great Wall is also known as the Bor­der Wall, namely the sec­tion of the Great Wall that pro­tects the bor­der of the coun­try it­self. If you take a close look, these mounds are con­nected by lines of bro­ken stone frag­ments. This is all that is left of the an­cient walls that once stood here.

Man-made struc­tures are easy to spot in na­ture, and you are quickly able to fig­ure out how the wall once climbed the moun­tain ridges, and where its watch­tow­ers oc­cu­pied com­mand­ing heights. Mr. Qiao Yu, who has ded­i­cated years of his life to study­ing the Ming Great Wall here in Zhang­bei, has this to say about the im­age that the pub­lic has of the Great Wall: “Many peo­ple think that the Ming Great Wall is the cul­mi­na­tion of what the Great Wall is, be­cause they have vis­ited the clas­sic sites of the Great Wall near Bei­jing. That mag­nif­i­cent wall and its beau­ti­ful watch­tow­ers make a deep im­pres­sion on peo­ple, and so they think that this is what the wall is like, but when they come to Zhang­bei, this il­lu­sion is bro­ken, be­cause here there is a lot more than just the wall built dur­ing the Ming.”

Gate into In­fin­ity, as said ear­lier, was a for­ti­fi­ca­tion de­fend­ing the north­ern bor­der, but the Great Wall was born of even older walls. The re­search has shown that the ear­li­est Great Wall might have been a de­scen­dant of the so-called “Link­ing Wall” of the State of Chu (1115–223 BC) that con­nected walled for­ti­fi­ca­tions. More than a cen­tury af­ter Zhao Xiangzi founded the State of Zhao and Gate into In­fin­ity, an­other great states­man took power—king Wul­ing of Zhao. In or­der to de­fend his state against the no­madic Xiongnu, this king sent sol­diers and civil­ian la­bor­ers north to build the wall, which be­came known as Zhao’s Great Wall. Ex­perts did field sur­veys and man­aged to recre­ate the rough out­line of the east­ern sec­tion of Zhao’s Wall: it rose at the alti­tude of 1,667 me­ters to the south of Huanghualiang in Zhang­bei County and fol­lowed the 1,600 me­ters high moun­tain range west­wards ex­tend­ing to­wards the pre­sent- day Shanxi and In­ner Mon­go­lia. One sec­tion of it ran in front of the north­ern part of the ru­ins of Gate into In­fin­ity.

In Huapil­ing Moun­tains in the very south of Zhang­bei County, Mr. Hu Ming dis­cov­ered an­other amaz­ing phe­nom­e­non— three lines of the Great Wall. The first one, the right­most, is two me­ters wide at the base and less than one me­ter high. Built half way up the moun­tain, this Wall was built by the State of Yan (11th cen­tury–222 BC). The sec­ond, cen­tral wall, is situated on the top of the moun­tain ridge. This im­pos­ing, rammed earth struc­ture, com­plete with high bea­con tow­ers made of shards of rock, is a wall of Qin and Han dy­nas­ties (221 BC–220 AD). The left­most wall ex­tends in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from the Qin Wall, run­ning to the west, and this one is from the North­ern Wei Era (386–535 AD).

In ad­di­tion, in the south of the Zheng­biantai Vil­lage un­der the Zhang­bei County, there are two match­ing rounded plat­forms made by piled up rocks. The south­ern one is a bea­con tower from the Ming Dy­nasty and the north­ern one is far more an­cient, dat­ing back to the Qin-han pe­riod. A quick count tells us that here in Zhang­bei no less than six dy­nas­ties and eras are rep­re­sented—zhao, Yan, Qin, Han,

North­ern Wei and Ming. Some­times gen­tly em­brac­ing, some­times climb­ing on top of each other, the coils of these walls have been here for so long that they have merged into the nat­u­ral ge­og­ra­phy of the place, be­com­ing part of it.

In China, more than 200 coun­ties have rem­nants or parts of the Great Wall within their bound­aries, but none come even close to Zhang­bei County in the richness of this her­itage.

High-build­ing Qin-han Bea­con Tow­ers

Mr. Hu Ming who has walked the breadth and width of Zhang­bei, likes to make it clear that, to him per­son­ally, the most beau­ti­ful wall is not the Ming one, but the one built dur­ing the Qin-han era (221 BC–220 AD). An­cient bea­con tow­ers, re­sem­bling small fortresses, are dot­ted around Huapil­ing Moun­tains, each one has a pro­tec­tive ram­part built to pro­tect the flame of the bea­con. These de­fen­sive for­ti­fi­ca­tions are around 40 me­ters in di­am­e­ter and over 6 me­ters high. Stand­ing on the moun­tains, each one keep­ing a watch on the neigh­bor­ing one, they dis­ap­pear into the hori­zon, a stun­ning sight to be­hold.

Close to the Dong­tan Vil­lage of Zhang­bei, there is a broad road, wide and sturdy. This is, how­ever, not a road, but a kilo­me­ter-long Qin-era earth wall. Its re­mains are 6 me­ters wide at the top, 11 me­ters wide at the base, so you can imag­ine what a grand and pow­er­ful struc­ture it must have orig­i­nally been.

Af­ter the Em­peror Qin Shi Huang ( 259– 210 BC) uni­fied China, he or­dered Gen­eral Meng Tian to lead a force of 300,000 north to cam­paign against the Xiongnu, as well as to mo­bi­lize a large force of la­bor­ers and crafts­men to build a wall as a de­fen­sive mea­sure. Start­ing from this time, the no­mads in the north­ern steppes made life for the im­pe­rial rulers very dif­fi­cult. These horse­men of the grass­lands were raised in the sad­dle, hunt­ing small birds and foxes

with bows and ar­rows as kids, they would all be­come fierce, iron- tough war­riors as adults, and a thorn in China’s side. Chao Cuo (220–154 BC), a great states­man of the Western Han Dy­nasty thought this about the strat­egy be­hind the con­struc­tion of the Great Wall as the means to solve the clash be­tween the war­rior cul­ture of the north­ern no­mads and the need for sta­bil­ity re­quired for the func­tion­ing of set­tled agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety of China’s Cen­tral Plains: “When north­ern bar­bar­ians come to raid our lands, sending troops to re­pel them has no ef­fect, as we do not have enough mil­i­tary power to do so. Con­cen­trat­ing large forces to fight them can­not be done ei­ther, as the no­mads then with­draw on horse­back and van­ish. That hap­pens again and again, and costs the trea­sury a great deal. Agri­cul­ture on the Cen­tral Plains be­comes im­pos­si­ble and peo­ple’s hard­ships are grow­ing more and more se­vere.” Chao Cuo’s opin­ion is sup­ported by mod­ern schol­ars such as Luo Zhi­wen, an ex­pert on the Great Wall—in the era be­fore firearms, the best way to pro­tect the Cen­tral Plains of China from the raids of no­mads was by con­struct­ing the Wall.

No­mads Be­come Farm­ers

The ex­perts on the Great Wall of­ten re­fer to Zhang­bei as a nat­u­ral “mu­seum” of the Great Wall. In Zhang­bei the builders of the Wall not just the agri­cul­tural dy­nas­ties and so­ci­eties, but also states founded by the no­mads, and of these states was the North­ern Wei.

The ques­tion is, why did the no­madic horse­men known as Xian­bei, the founders of the North­ern Wei, be­came Wall-builders af­ter they took con­trol of the Cen­tral Plains?

The Tuoba clan of the Xian­bei, who orig­i­nally in­hab­ited where is now Nen and Hei­long river basins, first mi­grated to the north of the Gobi Desert. In the year 386 AD, the Tuoba started re­fer­ring to them-

selves as the “Wei”, in the year 398 AD they moved their cap­i­tal to Pingcheng (mod­ern-day Da­tong in Shanxi), uni­fy­ing a large area of North­ern China. Which one of all the Zhang­bei’s Walls was built by the Wei? Mr. Hu Ming men­tions a vil­lage called Dong­fangzi, which has the re­mains of walls from five dif­fer­ent dy­nas­ties. Be­low a sec­tion of the Ming Wall, there is clear rem­nant of a ramped earth wall, and the lower sec­tion of, it, made of earth and rock shards, must be the North­ern Wei Wall.

This wall was built in or­der to keep at bay an arch­en­emy of the North­ern Wei.

In fact, when the dy­nasty was born, it had an enemy in the north of China, an­other no­madic clan— the Rouran Kha­ganate. “The farm­ers liv­ing to the south of Zhang­bei suf­fered from the raids by the Rouran ev­ery year.” Says Mr. Hu. “The North­ern Wei built the wall pre­cisely in or­der to pre­vent the steppe no­mads, the Rouran, to in­vade the agri­cul­tural lands of the Cen­tral Plains.”

Zhang­bei is a nat­u­ral bound­ary be­tween the Mon­go­lian Plateau and the low­lands of north­ern China. No mat­ter which state may con­trol this land, it can­not change the fact that it is the bound­ary be­tween the no­madic cul­ture of the steppes and the agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety of the Cen­tral Plains. Once the horse­men of Xian­bei set­tled down as agri­cul­tur­ists on the Cen­tral Plains, they im­me­di­ately took con­trol of the routes that lead south from the steppes. In other words, the peo­ple born on horse­back com­pletely changed their way of life and think­ing, as an adap­ta­tion to their new en­vi­ron­ment.

The war be­tween the North­ern Wei and the Rouran is not the only ex­am­ple of con­flict be­tween two no­madic war­rior cul­tures. The fe­ro­cious war fought be­tween the Jurchen and the Mon­gols in Zhang­bei

had long last­ing con­se­quences in Chi­nese his­tory. The Jin Dy­nasty (1115–1234) founded by the no­madic Jurchen once con­trol huge swathes of ter­ri­tory from the south of the Great Wall to the deserts in the north. But the arrogant Jin was not overly wor­ried about their own north­ern flank.

At that time Zhang­bei was the hin­ter­land of the Jin Dy­nasty and Zhang­bei did not, ac­tu­ally, have a wall built by the

Jin. How­ever, the Jin did build mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions with a func­tion sim­i­lar to that of the Great Wall— the Jin Moat. This sys­tem of trenches of vary­ing depths, in­ter­spersed with for­ti­fied gar­risons is to­day of­fi­cially rec­og­nized as part of the Great Wall de­fen­sive line. More­over, the lo­ca­tion where it was built, the north of Zhang­bei, is very close to the heart­land of the In­ner Mon­go­lian Plateau. The peo­ple it was meant to keep out were the new power that

emerged on the steppes—the Mon­gols.

The Mon­gol Em­pire was founded in 1206 by Genghis Khan. Fiver years later, he per­son­ally led a vast army from the north of the deserts, ar­riv­ing in March in the north­west­ern ter­ri­to­ries of the Jin – to­days’ Zhang­bei.

How­ever, dur­ing this time, it was not an even match. Apart from the de­ci­sive ad­van­tage in mil­i­tary strength, the Jin also had the Jin Moat, and on top of that, the dif­fi­cult ter­rain in the north of the Jin gave them the up­per edge. The Jin court felt se­cure.

What hap­pened then was not what the Jin ex­pected. The de­fen­sive line of Jin Moat was quickly breached. Hav­ing been in­formed that the Mon­gol army had bro­ken through into Zhang­bei, the Jin only then ur­gently dis­patched troops to pro­tect the for­ti­fied in­stal­la­tions around the Wusha Fortress (now the ru­ins in the north­west of Zhang­bei). In July that same year Genghis Khan’s van­guard launched a sud­den at­tack on Wusha Fortress, which the Jin proved pow­er­less to de­fend, leav­ing Zhang­bei to the Mon­gols. Al­low­ing just a brief respite af­ter the bat­tle Genghis Khan sent troops to Yehu Moun­tains.

Yehu Moun­tains are very close to Zhao’s Gate into In­fin­ity, and both war­ring sides must have been aware of its sig­nif­i­cance.

Ac­cord­ing to The­his­to­ryof theyuan , the Jin gam­bled, putting all the eggs in one bas­ket, amass­ing 300,000 troops at Yehu Moun­tains, which was more than three times the number of men the Mon­gols had. How­ever, The­his­to­ry­ofjin gave this out­come: “...here the crack troops of the Jin were an­ni­hi­lated in their en­tirety.” From this mo­ment, the col­lapse of the Jin was cer­tain.

Rise of Zhangji­akou: A Trad­ing Hub

The tri­umph of the bat­tle of Yehu Moun­tains was glo­ri­fied by the Mon­go­lian rulers of the Yuan Dy­nasty that they es­tab­lished. Start­ing from the reign of Kublai Khan in 1260, ev­ery Mon­go­lian ruler, when trav­el­ling from the sum­mer cap­i­tal Shangdu (to­day’s Blue Ban­ner of Xilin Gol, In­ner Mon­go­lia) to Dadu (to­day’s Bei­jing), the ac­tual cap­i­tal, would al­ways go via Zhang­bei. The third Yuan Em­peror even built an­other cap­i­tal—zhongdu as the cen­tral cap­i­tal, here.

How­ever, not even 100 years later, Dadu was taken by Ming troops and what was left of the Mon­gol forces re­turned to their north­ern steppes. Zhang­bei be­came, yet again, a front­line of de­fence again north­ern no­mads—in other words, the Great Wall started to be built again.

The Ming Wall was as splen­did as one of its pre­de­ces­sors, the Qin Wall, but, as the build­ing tech­nol­ogy ad­vanced, the brick­lay­ing tech­nique started to be ap­plied in the con­struc­tion, with bricks used out­side rammed earth. In the ru­ins of the Wall in Zhang­bei the frag­ments of these bricks are a com­mon find.

Gen­er­ally the walls of Ming Great Wall in Zhang­bei run straight, and, in or­der to make the de­fen­sive line as short as pos­si­ble, the lo­cal stone blocks were used dur­ing con­struc­tion, per­haps us­ing the ma­te­ri­als ob­tained from strip­ping down pre-ming

Walls. The watch­tow­ers of the Ming Wall were not as grand as the Qin ones, but the Ming ones were more densely con­cen­trated, and ev­ery one had a plat­form for troops. The cen­ter of the Ming gov­ern­ment— Bei­jing, was fur­ther north than those of most pre­ced­ing dy­nas­ties, and Zhang­bei be­came the hub for the many roads lead­ing south­wards from the steppe, and for this rea­son its im­por­tance sud­denly rose greatly.

The Zhangji­akou sec­tion of the Ming Great Wall (at that time it was part of the de­fences of Xuanfu Gar­ri­son) started be­ing built as the Ming em­barked on the process of build­ing a coun­try. The con­struc­tion never stopped, but most of the records about the build­ing of the Wall came from the time of the reign of Chenghua Em­peror (1464–1487). Yu Zi­jun, the mil­i­tary com­man­der of Da­tong and Xuanfu at that time, pe­ti­tioned the court to build de­fense walls at Xuanfu, start­ing from Dushi (pre­sent-day Dushikou Town in He­bei) in the north of Zhang­bei to Chaigou (pre­sent day Chaigoubao in Huai’an County of He­bei) in the south­west.

The con­flict be­tween the Ming and the Mon­gols who have by then re­treated back to their north­ern steppes, had dragged on for many years, with both sides suf­fer­ing de­feats and cel­e­brat­ing vic­to­ries. To en­sure their se­cu­rity, the Ming closed the north­ern bor­der. How­ever, by that time the Mon­gols power has been grow­ing, not only mil­i­tar­ily, but also eco­nom­i­cally, and their so­ci­ety was grad­u­ally be­com­ing richer. They now had a great de­mand for the prod­ucts made in the Cen­tral Plains and pressed for bor­der trade to be opened at Da­tong and Zhangji­akou. The Mon­gols went as far as dis­patch­ing troops to Bei­jing to force the Ming to agree to trade.

The trade smoothed out to a great ex­tent, and the con­flict be­tween the Han and the Mon­gols, and

Zhangji­akou be­came one of the lo­ca­tions opened to busi­ness. Not wast­ing such an op­por­tu­nity, Zhangji­akou rapidly evolved into a north-south trade hub, be­com­ing the only large city in the north­west of He­bei. Noth­ing, how­ever, re­sists the tides of time, and Zhang­bei, once vi­tal to the ex­is­tence of the na­tion, slowly van­ished from pub­lic con­scious­ness.

Dy­nasty af­ter dy­nasty built Great Walls here in Zhang­bei. The rem­nants of these walls are now packed so tightly that it is hard to dis­tin­guish one from an­other. The schol­ars of the Great Wall, how­ever, are pa­tiently un­tan­gling them, dis­cov­er­ing their se­crets, un­cov­er­ing knowl­edge and facts built over mil­len­nia of war, peace, trade, and yet more war.

Dur­ing the War­ring States Pe­riod more than 2000 years ago, Zhao Xiangzi, the founder of the Zhao State, set up a ma­jes­tic fortress—the Gate into In­fin­ity in to­day’s Zhang­bei. The fortress was buried un­der the sand of time and a replica based on his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture now stands in its orig­i­nal place.

At the ru­ins of the Gate into In­fin­ity, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­earthed some relics, such as pieces of pot­tery and bronze spears. The spears prove that the Gate was built for mil­i­tary pur­poses. Photo/ Hu Ming

With ru­ins of Great Walls built dur­ing dif­fer­ent dy­nas­ties, Zhang­bei has been hailed as“the Great Wall Mu­seum.” But how do we de­ter­mine the ex­act time pe­riod when a ruin was built? Ba­si­cally, ar­chae­ol­o­gists use his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences to stan­dard­ize fea­tures. For ex­am­ple, be­fore the Qin Dy­nasty, most Great Walls were prim­i­tive ones, sim­ply walls of rammed earth or of piled rocks and gravel, just like the ruin of the Zhao Great Wall.

Dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty, de­fend­ers started to re­in­force the rammed earth and stone walls with more solid bricks. The photos show us the in­ner part of the Ming Walls built with rel­a­tively crude rocks and earth. We can­not see the outer bricks be­cause they are more dif­fi­cult to pre­serve; dur­ing pe­ri­ods of war, the outer lay­ers were first to be dam­aged.

Vil­lagers here grow crops and raise live­stock, such as sheep and cows. Tak­ing a rest be­side the ru­ins of the Great Wall, the vil­lagers and their lifestyle vividly show us why the Great Wall was once“the bor­der be­tween agri­cul­tural and no­madic civ­i­liza­tions.”photo/ Yuan Yuqin

Illustration/ Pan Wenge

This oil paint­ing de­picts the de­ci­sive bat­tle be­tween the main forces of the Jurchen Jin Dy­nasty and Mon­gols led by Genghis Khan that took place at Yehu Moun­tain, near Zhang­bei. Af­ter a crush­ing de­feat, the Jin Dy­nasty’s fall was doomed.

Huo­chong (hand can­nons) un­earthed at Tu­bianba near Zhang­bei. Photo/ Hu Ming

Photo/ Yuan Yuqin

Dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty, the Great Wall with­stood, with its scarred body, waves of shock from the north­ern no­mads, which made it the most mar­velous mil­i­tary con­struc­tion in an­cient China. For­got­ten in the wilder­ness, this lonely ruin of a Great Wall tower marks the end of the cold weapon era, and also the re­tire­ment of these former bor­der pro­tec­tors.

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