The Zi­jing Pass: Key to the Great Wall

China Scenic - - Contents - By Sun Jing­guo

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.

Photo/ Chen Xi­ao­hong

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

Photo/ Li Shaobai

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.

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