The Strate­gi­cally Crit­i­cal Shan­hai Pass

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Niu Huizi Edited by Scott Bray

Shan­haiguan, known as the “First Pass un­der Heaven” and a “strate­gic ac­cess to the fron­tier,” be­came a for­ti­fied pass and an­cient cul­tural town in 1381.

Shan­haiguan, or Shan­hai Pass, is one of the north-eastern passes of the Ming (1368–1644) Great Wall. Fif­teen kilo­me­tres (km) north­east of Qin­huang­dao City, He­bei Prov­ince, it has been known as the “First Pass un­der Heaven” and a “strate­gic ac­cess to the fron­tier and safe­guard of the cap­i­tal” since an­cient times. More than 600 years ago, Shan­haiguan be­came a for­ti­fied pass and an­cient cul­tural town in 1381.

Pass­ing through Moun­tains and Sea

Ge­o­graph­i­cally, Shan­haiguan (lit. “Moun­tain and Sea Pass”) is in­deed a mil­i­tary fortress wor­thy of its name. The Yan Moun­tains run to the north, along which the Great Wall rises and falls, cre­at­ing a dense ar­ray of bat­tle­ments that dom­i­nate an im­mense field. To the south, a look­out tower looms over the Bo­hai Sea’s vast ex­panse of misty, flow­ing wa­ters. To the east, it faces the Huanxi Range, and its west side is guarded by Shihe River. Its strate­gic po­si­tion amid such nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers was high­lighted early in the Qin Dy­nasty (221–206 BC). How­ever, it was not un­til the early Ming Dy­nasty that Shan­haiguan be­came a for­mi­da­ble pass.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, af­ter the estab­lish­ment of the Ming Dy­nasty, the sur­viv­ing forces of the pre­vi­ous Yuan Dy­nasty (1271–1368) re­treated to the grass­lands north of the Great Wall. They be­gan stag­ing a come­back, hop­ing to re­claim the Cen­tral Plains. In or­der to con­sol­i­date the newly-es­tab­lished Ming regime, Ming Em­peror Zhu Yuanzhang (reign: 1368–1398) ac­cepted a pro­posal by Zhu Sheng (1299–1370) to “build a high wall.” Soon af­ter Zhu Yuanzhang es­tab­lished his ad­min­is­tra­tion, he went all out to build the Great Wall in the north.

Storm-weath­ered Bat­tle­ments of an Old Town

Dur­ing the Ji­a­jing Reign (1507–1567) of the Ming Dy­nasty, the Shan­haiguan Great Wall and its neigh­bour­ing ar­eas were fre­quently un­der at­tack and sub­ject to re­peated ex­ter­nal threats. In 1568, the Ming gov­ern­ment ap­pointed Qi Jiguang (1528– 1588) as lo­cal com­man­der-in-chief guard­ing Jizhou, Yong­ping and Shan­hai.

At the time, the main hos­tile force threat­en­ing the Ming gov­ern­ment was the Tu­men Khan troops who in­vaded Liaodong (a re­gion east of the Liao River). Con­sid­er­ing the over­all sit­u­a­tion, Qi grad­u­ally con­cen­trated gar­ri­son forces around the Shan­haiguan area. In a bit­terly cold win­ter of 1578, the Tu­men Khan cav­alry ap­peared en masse and staged a fierce at­tack on Nan­haikou and Si’eryu Val­ley near Shan­hai Pass. Qi com­manded his troops to re­pel the Mon­go­lian cav­alry, res­cu­ing more than 2,000 men and women who were raided by the Mon­go­lian army. Notic­ing that the win­ter’s frozen sea sur­face in Nan­haikou was ad­van­ta­geous for the Mon­go­lian cav­alry, Qi sent his of­fi­cers to con­struct an off-shore stone wall at Nan­haikou the fol­low­ing year to shore up this de­fen­sive over­sight. In the win­ter fol­low­ing the con­struc­tion of the stone wall, the Tu­men Khan, as ex­pected, led a 40,000-man Mon­go­lian cav­alry unit from Jinchuany­ing (what is now Jinx­ian County, Liaon­ing Prov­ince) to in­vade Liaodong Town. Dis­cov­er­ing their move in ad­vance, Qi dis­patched troops from Shan­haiguan Pass. Qi’s troops con­fronted the Tu­men Khan forces twice, fi­nally forc­ing Tu­men Khan to with­draw hun­dreds of miles away.

The bat­tle lifted the Ming army sta­tioned out­side Shan­hai Pass out of many years of de­feat, and fur­ther strength­ened the union be­tween the de­fence forces of Jizhen Town and Liaodong Town, high­light­ing the im­por­tance of Shan­hai Pass to the mil­i­tary de­fence of the area.

In the spring of 1584, in view of the in­creas­ing mil­i­tary im­por­tance of Shan­hai Pass, the area was fur­ther for­ti­fied. Spar­ing no ex­pense, the Ming gov­ern­ment con­structed the Luocheng Tower on the out­skirts of the East Gate, the main gate to the town of Shan­haiguan, and built the Muy­ing Tower and the Linlü Tower along the east and south walls of the East Gate, re­spec­tively. That win­ter, out of the blue the Mon­go­lian cav­alry, cross­ing the Dagu Road junc­tion, ap­peared on the Huanxi Range one kilo­me­tre from Shan­haiguan Town. The Ming army guard­ing Shan­hai Pass de­cided to rush in and re­pulse the in­vaders, sep­a­rately am­bush­ing the Mon­gols north and south of Liang­shui Pass. Mean­while, Vice Gen­eral Wang Shoudao and other of­fi­cers de­fended the East Gate with its newly built Luocheng Tower and the walls on both sides of Muy­ing Tower and Linlü Tower. Fail­ing to take the city de­spite their re­peated at­tempts, the Mon­go­lian cav­alry turned to Han­men Pass, Liang­shui Pass and Nan­haikou, where they were all re­pelled.

Dur­ing his gar­ri­son of Jizhen Town, es­pe­cially of Shan­hai Pass, Qi Jiguang made huge ex­ploits in turn­ing the town and the Shan­haiguan Great Wall into a wall of de­fence in its truest sense. He paved the way for es­tab­lish­ing the Shan­haiguan Great Wall as a shield to the cap­i­tal, de­fended Liaodong and guarded the cru­cial JizhenLiao­dong Pass un­til it even­tu­ally be­came the key to the safety of the state.

Con­quer­ing the Pass

Hav­ing en­coun­tered ex­tended tur­moil both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, the Ming Dy­nasty was even­tu­ally worn out. Dur­ing the late Ming pe­riod, Wu San­gui was com­man­der-in-chief of the Shan­hai Pass gar­ri­son. When the army lead by Li Zicheng (1606-1645, Chi­nese rebel leader who over­threw the Ming Dy­nasty) marched into Bei­jing, the im­pe­rial court was fall­ing apart and in a state of chaos. Pan­icked, Em­peror Chongzhen (reign 1627–1644) gave up the only de­fen­sive area out­side Shan­hai Pass, and hur­riedly ti­tled Wu San­gui as Pingxi Bo (“Prince Who Paci­fies the West”). Wu was then or­dered to aban­don Ningyuan and re­turn to Bei­jing as fast as pos­si­ble to pro­tect the throne. Af­ter lead­ing Ningyuan sol­diers and civil­ians to re­treat into Shan­hai Pass, Wu rushed to Bei­jing, lead­ing his army to “pro­tect the throne.” Yet when the army ar­rived at Fen­grun (roughly halfway to the cap­i­tal), Wu learned that Em­peror Chongzhen had com­mit­ted sui­cide. Know­ing that the Ming Dy­nasty was des­tined to col­lapse, his only re­course was to re­turn to Shan­hai Pass and make a new plan of ac­tion.

By the time Wu re­turned to Shan­hai Pass, it was al­ready un­der a two-pronged at­tack from the Dashun Farm­ers’ Army and the Qing Army. Both Li Zicheng and Huang Taiji (1592-1643, first Qing em­peror) val­ued Wu’s mil­i­tary power. Keenly aware of the strate­gic po­si­tion Shan­haiguan Great Wall held as a piv­otal line of de­fence, they both sought to win Wu over. Af­ter weigh­ing each of­fer, Wu fi­nally de­cided to sup­port the new Dashun regime. How­ever, an un­fore­seen in­ci­dent would change fate. On his way to meet Li Zicheng, Wu learned that his fa­ther in Bei­jing was ex­torted and tor­tured by the in­sur­gents who cap­tured the city, and his beloved con­cu­bine Chen Yuanyuan was ab­ducted by Gen­eral Liu Zong­min, one of Li Zicheng’s sub­or­di­nates. Boil­ing with anger, he turned around and led his army back to Shan­hai Pass and took back its de­fence from mil­i­tary com­man­der Tang Tong. There, he vowed him­self an en­emy of the Dashun regime es­tab­lished by Li Zicheng. Af­ter the fa­mous Bat­tle of Shan­hai Pass, the im­preg­nable pass was conquered overnight, de­priv­ing the Shan­haiguan Great Wall of its role as “an im­preg­nable pass that sep­a­rates in­land and out­land, the pre­cip­i­tous ter­rain that shields Chang’an from dan­ger.”

As a bar­rier be­tween Jizhen and Liaodong, the Shan­haiguan Great Wall was built to con­sol­i­date Ming ter­ri­tory. But in the end, it led to the sur­ren­der of tens of thou­sands of miles of in­land ter­ri­tory due to Wu San­gui. No doubt this was be­yond even Xu Da’s (1332–1385) wildest imag­i­na­tion when he es­tab­lished the gar­ri­son at the pass, not to speak of other he­roes such as Qi Jiguang when they guarded the Shan­haiguan Great Wall. Yet his­tory ruth­lessly turned that page that sum­mer more than 360 years ago.

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