Xifengkou: the Underwater Great Wall
In 1975, a dam went up spanning the Luanhe River, a major tributary feeding into a watershed primarily covering the Bashang Plateau, the Yanshan Mountains, and Hebei Plains, and forming a natural boundary dividing Hebei Province’s Kuancheng and Qianxi counties. Built in Panjiakou Village, the dam created the Panjiakou Reservoir which submerged the Xifengkou section of the Great Wall, running along the Luanhe River and the Yanshan Mountains. The author and photographers have returned to this location multiple times since 2007, in an effort to document local reactions and stories surrounding the Xifengkou’s submergence and to better understand the true face of this underwater Great Wall.
Due to its distinct military objectives, the Great Wall is fundamentally comprised of separate segments, with the Xifengkou Great Wall segment (the collective name for Ming-era portions of the Great Wall built from the east of Panjiakou to Xifengkou) having a particularly winding and meandering footprint as it traces the ridgeline of the eastern Yanshan Mountains, running into the Luanhe River and suddenly plunging down into the steep river valley.
Originating along the southwestern edge of the Inner Mongolian Plateau, the Luanhe River is the most important watershed of northeastern Hebei. Upstream, the Luanhe River is slow-moving and marshy, with a wide, shallow riverbed and abundant grazing lands; in its midstream, the river cuts through the Yanshan Mountains and experiences a significant drop in elevation, the gentle current of the upper reaches turning into torrential rapids; finally, having passed through the Yanshan Mountains, the alluvial of the downstream Luanhe gives way to the Hebei Plains, which form one of the most important agricultural regions of Beijing and the surrounding areas.
Following the establishment of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), China’s rulers began large- scale construction of the Great Wall at the Yanshan Mountains. The Ming Great Wall was divided into Nine Garrisons; with the Panjiakou-xifengkou segment of the Wall administered by the Ji Garrison (the ancient fort of Ji was located at what is present-day Santunying, in Qianxi County, Hebei).
Of all the Ming Great Wall sections, the Ji Garrison segment was the most defensively firm and magnificent in appearance. Concurrently, the Luanhe River Basin at the Xifengkou Wall became the most strategically important
military defensive perimeter of Beijing (Ming’s capital), with the Ji segment’s Panjiakou and Xifengkou fortifications located at two critical mountain passes that, at that time, were the primary choke point for forces traversing the border between the Central Plains and Northeast China. From their inception, the fortifications at Xifengkou and Panjiakou were subjected to the ravages of war—as well as unending corrosion by wind and rain— until, finally, the structures were ultimately submerged following creation of the Panjiakou Reservoir.
When I traveled with a friend to conduct interviews at the Panjiakou Reservoir one summer evening in 2007, our local guide, Jia Changyue (Old Jia), invited us to his home, which was actually a simple houseboat comprised of a large floating vessel. The houseboat, having been firmly anchored along a section of the Great Wall, had long been the residence of his family. This section of the Wall is unique in that it forms a path leading directly down into the rear of the houseboat up from the mountain ridge; as it passes the houseboat, the wall segment is nearly level, before it seems to suddenly plunge headlong below the surface of the reservoir—thus forming the “underwater Great Wall” of local fame.
Pointing to the surface of the reservoir, Old Jia informed us that his original house lies resting underwater. Previous generations of the Jia family had lived in Panjiakou Village— named as such because it had been built to support Panjiakou Fort—at the foot of the Great Wall. At the end of the 1970s, hydraulic engineering changed the destiny of Old Jia’s home forever, when a dam was erected about ten kilometers south of the village, cutting off the rapid current of the Luanhe River and causing Panjiakou Village to disappear.
Residents of old Panjiakou Vil-
lage referred to their section of the Great Wall as the “Eight Towers”; “Eight” as the section, beginning at the lowest gateway and ending at a high point, contained a combined total of eight watchtowers. As the principal component of the Great Wall, watchtowers were used to survey enemy troop movements, garrison soldiers, and store provisions. Today, the several watchtowers of Panjiakou have become the hallmark of its “Underwater Great Wall” landscape.
Early the next morning, we set out before daybreak to climb the Great Wall segment behind Old Jia’s home. Upon stepping outside, we began to shiver from the cold air blowing in off the reservoir. The surface of the lake was a crystal clear dark blue, and it is surrounded by three angular mountains, on which standing several watchtowers in their solitude. Built from grey- green clay bricks and piled loess soil, one can feel the firmness of the material even by casually picking up a broken piece of brick. Despite experiencing 500 years exposed to the elements, the lime mortar continues to hold the Wall’s bricks together: though the segment of the Great Wall behind Old Jia’s home is dilapidated, its form remains mostly intact—one can still see many arrow slits watching over the Luanhe River valley below.
The sun began to emerge over the mountains to the east as we climbed to the highest of the watch towers, dusting a gold reflection over the surface of the reservoir, which was filled with net cages brought out by early-rising fishermen. Above and below us, the Great Wall wove in and out of view around the mountain peaks; the Xifengkou and Panjiakou defensive forts were submerged in the valley below, while the Great Wall passes through the reservoir to create an unparalleled spectacle. Here the Great Wall has an appearance of a great dragon who has stuck his head into a crystal palace, as his tail lies coiled around the surrounding mountains. The older villagers retain memories of the “Eight Towers” and the city gate; yet, through a diving photographer’s skilled lens, the remarkable scenery of this section of the great wall has been revealed once more.
Underwater photographer Wu Lixin has similarly held a deep fascination for the underwater Great Wall. Wu has always had a deeper love for exploring the underwater world than land-based scenery; he’s conducted multiple underwater photo shoots since March 2007. I met up with Wu during one such shoot in 2009, following him as he explored the Great Wall underwater.
The many gatehouses and watchtowers of the Xifengkou Great Wall have already been submerged for more than 20 years at this point, so finding detailed resources on the matter can be difficult. Fortunately, Old Jia and other locals were able to recall details of the former Great Wall for us. A photo of Panjiakou
A Remote Sensing Image of Panjiakou Reservoir and Xifengkou Great Wall Area
In 1977, days before the entire dismantling of Panjiakou Village, a village officer asked a photographer to take a panorama photo of his soon-to-vanish hometown.