Zhangbei: Walls Built by Six Dynasties
-Walls Built by Six Dynasties
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
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
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.