The Zijing Pass: Key to the Great Wall
To the southwest of Beijing, in the steep Taihang Mountains stands a fortress called Zijing Pass. Throughout history, Zijing Pass took the brunt of the attacks by the enemies seeking to breach the Great Wall.
To the southwest of Beijing, in a strategic location in the steep Taihang Mountains stands a fortress called Zijingguan. “Guan”, expressed by a character “关”, in Chinese refers to a pass or fortification built in a strategic point. The Ming statesman and military leader Yu Qian once said: “The Juyong and Zijing passes are the vital artery of the capital… and Zijing is the key, it is here that the invaders strike is likely to meet with success.” The revered official was right— throughout history, Zijingguan took the brunt of the attacks by the cunning enemy seeking to breach the Great Wall.
In the year 1500 a dispatch arrived from the frontier northwest of Beijing, which shocked the capital—the Mongols had suddenly attacked the strategic settlements of Datong and Xuanfu (now Hebei’s Xuanhua), and their fall was all but certain. The imminent loss of these two locations would then allow the Mongols to go down the Rivers Sanggan and Yang and threaten Badaling. The Hongzhi Emperor (reigned1470–1505) immediately declared martial law in Beijing, dispatching large forces to defend the strategic fortifications on the Great Wall— Chaohechuan, Juyongguan and Zijingguan which protected the key mountain passes.
Chaohechuan and Juyongguan and fortifications are located to the northeast and the northwest of Beijing, less than 50 kilometers from the walls of the capital. Situated directly on the pass of the invading Mongols they had to be, of course, defended in numbers. Zijingguan, however, is more than 100 kilometers to the southwest of Beijing, far from the border, effectively in the interior of China. Why would the emperor send troops to protect it?
The answer becomes clear when you look at the geography and the location of Zijing.
Nature’s Great Wall Guarding the West of Beijing
Nowadays Zijingguan is located in the northwest of Yixian County of Hebei Province, in the northern part of the Taihang Mounatains. The Taihang Mountains run from north to south between the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain, and linking up with Yanshan Mountains, they stretch across the junction of the boundaries of Henan, Shanxi and Hebei provinces and the city of Beijing. Most of the range reaches the altitude of over 1,200 meters above sea level, while the North China Plain generally do not exceed 50 meters. One look at a topographic map and you understand that Taihang is a geographic barrier, a natural Great Wall, standing between the North China Plain and the Loess Plateau.
This natural protection, however, is far from ironclad. There are openings between the mountain bodies within the range, with many such passages flanked by precipitous cliffs. In addition, there are deep and narrow canyons carved out by rivers which rise on the Loess Plateau, and then flow to the North China Plain and into the sea. Steep- sided as they may be, these canyons act as passages through the mountains, called by the ancients “xing”, depicted by
a character “陉”.
The precise translation for “陉” or “xing” from Chinese has been given as “a break in a mountain chain”. Taihang Mountains stretch on for a great distance as a vast unbroken whole, and, for this reason, the gaps between the mountains form long, narrow passages. These “xing”, or paths, have been, since the ancient times, used by people to cross the mountains, and eight of such paths, connecting the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain, from south to north, have been considered highly strategic— Zhiguan Path, Taihang Path, Bai Path, Fukou Path, Jing Path, Feihu Path, Puyin Path and Jundu Path. These were also collectively known as “Eight Paths of Taihang”. If you want to control Beijing itself, you must take control of these paths, and so, naturally, the fortifications were built there. Jundu Path, also known as Juyong Path, was protected by the Juyong guan. A little to the south were Feihu Path and Puyin Path where two “guan” were built—daomaguan and then Zijingguan itself.
These three fortresses are the most important ones on the inner Ming Great Wall, and for this reason are called “Three Inner Guan”. What exactly is then the “Inner Wall”? It is common knowledge to the Chinese that to the north of Beijing the Great Wall stretches from the Yalu River in the east to Shanhaiguan to the west. But, if you look to the west of Beijing, starting from Huoyan Mountains at the border between today’s Yanqing and Huairou districts, stretching through Badaling and along the foothills of Taihang Mountains, eventually reaching the Laiyuan County in Hebei and entering Shanxi Province, stands another section of the Great Wall. This system of defensive fortifications started being built in the early Ming, and this is what we now call the Inner Wall.
As a matter of fact, Beijing occupies a rather special position in the region, the strategic advantage of which becomes clear very quickly. Located in the northern extremity of the North China Plain, it is shielded on three sides—west, north and east, by Taihang and Yanshan Mountains, while to the south it overlooks the vast, flat expanses of the Central Plains of China. This lay of the land also allows for
effective and convenient transportation—the exit controlled by Juyongguan in the northwest takes you out to the steppes, the Gubeikou and Shanhaiguan in the northeast provide access to the Liaodong Peninsula, the road leading south along the eastern edge of the Taihang Range goes through North China Plain and connects the capital with the basin of the Yangtze. This strategic advantage of being situated on the crossroads of these three great regions allowed Beijing to retain the status of the capital of the unified China for prolonged periods starting from the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).
During the era predating firearms, once a dynasty chose Beijing as its capital, it would immediately realize that Juyongguan is the last natural barrier protecting the capital from the northwest. If it falls, the passage to the city walls would be open to the enemy. To the southwest, Zijingguan is another critical location—if the enemy takes control of it, not only would Beijing be threatened, but also nothing would prevent the enemy from breaking out to the wide, flat expanse of North China Plain, and the whole heartland of China would be under threat. For this reason, the three “guans” mentioned earlier became of utter- most strategic importance. The history has shown that the Turkic nomads and Rouran Khaganate (also known as proto-mongols, or the predecessors of the Mongols) often attacked Hebei via Feihu Path. The Ming rulers built a broken line of defensive walls within what were then the inner borders, with the exit of Feihu Path tucked in on the inside of inside, and the outer walls forming a dumpling-like system of concentric folds. Zijingguan and Daomaguan therefore, allowed the defenders to face counter an attack from two opposite directions, bringing their defensive lines very close to each other. Being very close to Beijing itself, Zijingguan is thus extremely strategic, and it is for this reason that it was awarded an ancient distinction of the title of “Southern Guardian of the Capital”.
Knowing this, we can now fully understand the gravity of the news mentioned at the start of this article: the Mongols, having seized Xuanfu and Datong, could now travel southwards along Yu County’s Huliu River valley and through themselves against Feihu Path. If Zijingguan falls, and, even though the distance to Beijing is over 100 kilometers, the fast-moving cavalry would quickly be able to reach the walls of the capital.
The Lessons of History
Being aware of the importance of Zijingguan, the Ming, since the start of the dynasty and until its demise, carried out, on many occasions, restauration and expansion on the Inner Wall. The scale of Zijingguan that we can observe today is the result of this incessant building, strengthening and improvement work done by the Ming.
The fortifications of Zijingguan include several inner castles. Zhenwu Mountain stands as the center, and the walls of the fortifications link up with the mountain’s sides. These fortifications within fortifications, walls within walls, create a continuous, interlinked defensive system, confusing and disorientating an invading force unfamiliar with the layout of the guan.
The outer wall of Zijingguan has four, East, West, North and South, gates. The South Gate is a triple
one, only after passing through all three can you really get into the guan. The West Gate, known as Yanghe Gate, which originally came with a fortified enclosure extending outside, but this has turned to ruin now. There are four small fortresses linked up to the outer wall, which can be reinforced directly from the Zijingguan. All in all, it is a perfect defensive system.
Ming military thinkers understood the great importance of Zijingguan after painful lessons were learned here in the history.
In the year 1211 Beijing was under the control of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, but its days were numbered —that year the hordes of Genghis Khan attacked from the northwest, defeating the main Jin force that met them in battle. Jin army had taken frightful causalities, and, overawed by the military prowess of the Mongol cavalry, decided to concentrate their forces and hold Juyongguan come what may.
The sturdy defences of Juyongguan held off onslaught after onslaught of the Mongols. Genghis Khan then, leaving some troops behind to keep the defenders engaged, personally led his armies south, and succeeded in taking Zijingguan without much trouble. Having thus broken through into the plains of Hebei, he sent a cavalry force northwards to attack the southern entrance of Juyongguan. Under assault from two sides, the Juyongguan soon fell. The Mongols then surged unimpeded to the walls of Beijing, bringing down the Jin Dynasty. This double error —focusing on the defence of Juyongguan and neglecting the strategic importance of Zijingguan, and having underestimated the range of Mongol cavalry, were two very important reasons for the demise of the Jin.
The same lesson was handed down to the Ming in 1449, who underestimated the enemy and hastily rushed their best troops out of Beijing to Juyongguan and then into the open, beyond the protection of the Great Wall, to engage the Oirat Mongols in battle at Tumu Fortress. It all ended in the same tragedy as it had done for the Jin—that mid-summer day the Ming army was annihilated and Zhengtong Emperor (1427–1464) taken prisoner, triggering the eventual decline of the Ming.
In September the same year, the Oirat leader, Esen Taishi, having failed to get ransom for his royal prisoner, led his troops to Beijing. His intention was not to attack Juyongguan, but to go the long way
around and take Zijingguan instead. Because the defending force had already been destroyed at Tumu Fortress, the Ming rushed 16,000 infantries and 5,000 cavalry to relieve Zijingguan, but they were too late. Before this Ming force could arrive, the Mongols launched the assault against the outnumbered defenders and Zijingguan fell.
After having sacked Zijingguan, the Oirat took just two days to reach Beijing, where their armies amassed outside the Xizhimen, the western gate of the city. Yu Qian (1398–1457), in charge of the defence of the city hastily put together an army. Reinforced by the city’s inhabitants, ready to die protecting their homes, the defenders won a great victory. Yu Qian, commenting on the outcome, said: “Priorities must be thoroughly thought through when it comes to military matters. Juyongguan and Zijingguan are both vital for the defence of Beijing. However, people tend to think that the brunt of the attack of the invader shall inevitably fall on Juyongguan, and so they make its defence a priority. They fail to realize that the probability of an invader sacking Juyongguan is three out of ten, while that of an assailant army taking Zijingguan is seven out of ten…for this reason, when defending Beijing, we must defend Zijingguan as well.”
It is true that Zijingguan is further away from Beijing than Juyongguan, but the invaders played an effective psychological trick on the defenders—using the Ming’s obstinacy to concentrate their forces at Juyongguan, and taking a long detour and sacking the weaker Zijingguan first.
There was another weakness of the Ming- era Zijingguan—there were too many interconnecting roads around the fortress and it was very easy to become outflanked and surrounded. For this reason, having defeated the Mongols, the Ming mobilized troops and civilians in order to strengthen the defences of Zijingguan, constructing walls, setting up fortifications on mountain roads, blocking up all the trails and mountain passes using timber and rocks, and excavating defensive moats, all to obstruct the passage of the enemy.
The work on strengthening the defences of Zijingguan continued. In the year 1522, the Ming constructed more than 900 turrets, towers, walls and
moats at the Juyongguan, Zijingguan and Daomagian. In 1546 they further added, at the same locations, 600 li (one li is 500 meters) of walls and built over 100 fortifications at mountain passes.
The military installations at the north and south sides of the Zijingguan were also gradually boosted. In 1553 in what is today called Baoding in Hebei, Zhenbaozhen Garrison was built. In Chinese people refer to the Ming Wall as “Four Garrisons and Three Guans”, and these refer to the defensive installations that surround Beijing—liaodongzhen Garrison, Ji Garrison, Changzhen Garrison and Zhenbaozhen Garrison, plus the three guans— Juyongguan, Zijingguan and Shanhaiguan.
This incessant strengthening of the wall defences was in reality a manifestation of the continuing decline of the military capability of the Ming. The fast-moving Mongol cavalry could leave Datong in Shanxi at dawn and besiege the walls of Zijingguan before nightfall, with Ming utterly powerless to impede their advance. The only thing the Ming could do was to build even higher walls and deeper moats in hope that this would keep the invaders at bay.
This made the Ming to feverishly build the Great Wall all over Northern China. During the reign of Longqing Emperor (reigned 1567–1572), Tan Lun ( prominent statesman and military leader) and Qi Jiguang (an official who had achieved great success fighting Japanese pirates) introduced a new concept to the defensive line of Jizheng Garrison, which stretched from Juyongguan to Shanhaiguan—hollow defensive turrets, which boosted considerably the defensive capability of the wall.
In the following years, during the reign of Wanli Emperor, more than 10,000 zhang (one zhang is equivalent to approximately 1 meter and 33 centimeters) of the wall were added at Zhenbaozhen Garrison. The 1576 Chronicles off our garrisons andthreepasses tell us exactly how much of the Great Wall was built in the vicinity of Zijingguan: “...amounting to 26,529 zhang in total, or over 80 kilometers. ” This frenzy of Wall-building was driven by the same fear as other defensive measures such as digging moats and blocking up mountain passes. The Ming was anxious to avoid a repeat of the disaster like the one that befell their army at Tumu Fortress, and did everything they could to prevent an invader taking a roundabout route and attacking Zijingguan from the south.
Zijingguan has withstood centuries of warfare, storms and winds, battering away at its walls and turrets. The mighty guan has stood up to all of these, and is still here to this day, a living witness of millennia of history, a giant for whom the sound of battle swords, the screams of the wounded and the braying of war horses must feel as if it all happened a mere moment ago.
The defense system of Zijingguan circled around inside Zhenwu Mountain. With Zhenwu as the center, four fortifications faced in four directions. On the north bank of the Juma River, which functioned as Zijingguan’s natural moat, another smaller fortress was set up for sending reinforcements if Zijingguan was attacked. Today, the Juma River, its old companion, is now on the verge of drying up. Perhaps nothing last forever as time passes by.
Map of the Zijingguan Fortress N r ve Ri ma Ju Xiaojin Castle Jumariver Zhenwu Mountain M o u n t a i n R oa ds Reference: First Pass in the South of the Capital by Zhang Hongyin, Sun Gang
Along the northern side of the majestic Taihang Mountains, there are three passes (or“guan”): Juyong, Zijing and Daoma, guarding the vital passages across the Taihang—jundu, Feihu and Puyin. Historically, enemies repeatedly threatened Beijing and eventually broke through the Zijingguan rather than the seemingly more dangerous Juyongguan. So, during the Ming Dynasty, defenders of Beijing prepared themselves based on three possible invasion routes (the dashed lines in the map). Dushibao Xinghe Garrison Xinghe Garrison Ancient name Zhangbei Zhangbei Today’s name Chongli District Longmen Garrison Invading route Three Inner Passes Chicheng Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Zhangjiakou Geyubao Xuanfu Xuanhua Yongning Sihaizhi Miyun Reservoir Hebei Province Guanting Reservoir Baoanzhou Zhuolu County Ju n du P a th Yanghe Huailai County Yanggao County r Rive Juyong Pass gan Sang Datong Fu Datong Yangyuan County Capital Yon gdin g Beijing Tongzhou District Yuzhou Ri ve r Yu County Guangling County Beijing Mashuikou F e i h u P a t h Liangxiang Hunyuanzhou r ve Ri Hunyuan County a m Ju Langfang Guangchang County Gu’an County Lingqiu County Zijing Pass Tianjin Laiyuan County Shanxi Province Yizhou Puyin Path Chajian Range Yi County Bazhou Thethree“Inner Passes” of the Ming Dynasty Daoma Pass
At the northeastern part of today’s Laiyuan County in the Shanxi, there is a range on which the Wulonggou Section of the Great Wall was built. Steep mountain slopes enhanced the defensibility of the Great Wall, yet the range in the photo appears to be not steep enough for adequate protection. Thus, defenders increased the density of watchtowers to better defend the area. Today’s Zijingguan Fortress after several repairs.
Through the partly-collapsed arched door, we can see in the distance the walls of Baishishan, winding along the mountain range like a dragon.
The walls of Baishishan belong to the Zijingguan section of the Great Wall. Some of the towers were deliberately constructed on rocks hanging above the cliffs to increase the difficulty of attack. Photo/ Wang Ximing
Since the 13th century, the Mongols rose on the steppe became a formidable power on the historical stage. Having swept over Eastern, Central and Western Asia, and even part of the Europe, the swift Mongol cavalry conquered an incredibly vast territory and founded a mighty, contiguous land empire. Even though the Ming Dynasty managed to drive the Mongols back to the northern steppes, the newly founded regime had to find a way to keep the threat away from the Central Plains; thus, building the Great Wall became the only choice. Wars between the Mongols and the Jin Dynasty Hunyuan Lingqiu County Yezhu Range Yanggao County Hunyuan County Shanxi Province n gga San Yuzhou County Yu County Guangling County Feihu Hebei Province Rouyuan Zhangbei Yangyuan County Feihuyu Laiyuan County Daomaguan Zhangjiakou Xuande Xuanhua r Rive Dexing Fu Zijingguan Rouyuan Zhangbei Hebei Province Chongli District Huailai County Zhuolu County Yizhou Yi County Chicheng Guantingreservoir Juyongguan Beijing Liangxiang Zhongdu Gu’an County Legends Today’s provincial boundary Ancient name Today’s name Beijing Attacking route of Mongols
This map shows us the bitter lesson learned by the Jurchen people, founders of the mighty Jin Dynasty. When Beijing, the Empire’s capital, was threatened by the unstoppable Mongol cavalry, the Jurchen panicked and concentrated all their troops at Juyongguan, leaving Zijingguan in the southwest nearly unguarded. In the end, that became the very place through which Genghis Khan’s troops broke into Beijing, bringing doom to the Jin Dynasty.
> Translation by Pavel Toropov Walking among the remnants of Zijingguan, one finds that the once carefully maintained walls are now covered with weeds and patched mosses. Far away on the rolling ridge of the Zijing Mountain, the Great Wall protecting the pass fades into the dense trees. Who can imagine that, centuries ago, these collapsed buildings were the last protectors standing between Beijing’s southwest and the nomadic enemies.