A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

History or Transport? You Decide!

I blame tripadvisor.com. Why anyone should bother to read some of the tripe it contains remains forever a mystery for me. But they do, and I did, coming across postings such as:

I din't (sic) see many plaques to explain anything but, it is a wall and that is the main thing here / took the opportunity to visit the old city walls. They are not significant as most have been demolished to make way for roads and other developments / It's a nice stroll. The towers make a nice photo op / Once you get to the top of the wall, you can see part of the train station which allowed you to see various types of trains used in China.

I am meeting a friend in a coffee bar near Chongwenmen station and the Ming City Wall Park is only some 200 metres away, so – despite tripadvisor – after three years of prevarication, it seems like a good time to check it out.

The Ming City Wall Relics Park (明城墙遗址公园) has the longest and best preserved section of the city's Ming Dynasty city wall, which was first built nearly 600 years ago, in 1419, the 17th year of Emperor Yongle's reign. It ran for about 40 kilometres; but all that is left now is a section some 1.5 kilometres long, which used to be part of the inner city wall of Beijing. It is the longest section of the city walls remaining.

The Ming city walls stood until the early 1960s when most of the gates and walls were torn down to build the Beijing Subway, which runs underneath where the walls once stood. The subway's inner loop line turned into the Inner City at Chongwenmen to stop at the Beijing Railway Station, and did not need to run beneath a section of the wall at the southeast corner of the Inner City, which is why of the 40 km of the original wall, only this 1.5 km section was spared.

In retrospect, it seems almost criminal when you consider what was done to Beijing’s heritage. But the destruction started well before the 1950s. In fact, when the Beijing circum-city railway was built in 1915, the sight towers at the northeast and southeast corners were dismantled, and the side walls of the guard towers at these corners had arches built as passageways for the trains.

The barbican and sluice gates at Dongshengmen, Andingmen, Chaoyangmen, and Dongzhimen were dismantled for the passage of trains. The barbican at Zhengyangmen was dismantled to ease traffic in the Qianmen area. Numerous arches for trains were cut in the city walls; and the walls of the Imperial city were fully dismantled, except for the south to southwest section. By the end of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), the outer city wall had been completely dismantled and the inner wall was halved in length.

After the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, people felt that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Underground bomb shelters, underground "supply cities", and an underground railway — the Beijing Subway — were commissioned. Work on the metro began on 1 July 1965 and a cut-and-cover construction was utilised, it being the quickest way of constructing the metro at that time. Since demolishing houses and relocating people would have been such a great undertaking, the decision was made to build the metro line where the city walls and moats were located.

If you look at the map of Line 2 of Beijing’s subway system, you can clearly see the path of the destruction from the stations’ names. The first section of walls to be removed was the southern portion of the Inner city wall, Xuanwumen, and Chongwenmen, leaving behind a 23.6-kilometre-long ditch. The second stage began at Beijing Railway Station in the southeast corner of the Inner city and passed through the sites of Jianguomen, Andingmen, Xizhimen, and Fuxingmen. Towers and walls were removed and another 16 kilometre ditch was created. A section of wall near Xibianmen about 100 metres long was used as a storage area for raw materials, and thus was spared from demolition. Another section from Chongwenmen to the guard tower at the southeast corner of the Inner city was spared, because the metro line veers there towards the Beijing Railway Station.

Beginning in 1972, in order to pave the 2nd Ring Road above the Metro, and to serve high-rise apartments and hotels in the Qianmen area, Beijing's eastern, southern, and western moats were converted to sewers and covered over.

What is left of the walls is indeed a sorry sight…

And what is left of them have had to be heavily restored, albeit where possible using original bricks. Some sections look much more authentic than others, though.

The inner city wall was 11.4 metres high and was topped with battlements that rose another 1.9 m. The wall was lined with brick and filled with earth, and was 19.8 m thick at the foundation tapering to 16 m at the top.

Thirteen buttresses, known as Dun Tai, protruded on the outside face of the wall at this location. They were constructed every 80 metres along the wall and allowed archers to fire at attackers from three sides, making it more difficult for the enemy to creep up unawares. Most are basically square, with the sides of the larger ones over 30 metres long. This one here is the largest, with sides of 39 metres.

Although very narrow, the park is delightfully laid out with a winding path bordered with flowering trees including apricot, peach and ginkgo. According to the official blurb, the design of the park aims at classical simplicity, with over 70,000 square metres of lawns, 110,000 flowers, over 400 large trees such as Chinese pines and scholar trees, and over 6,000 shrubs.

Even in late summer, these trees are sporting beautiful pink flowers which set off the wall nicely.

Everywhere there are signs warning visitors not to pass the grass; but I stick to the path and continue passing.

Of course, the park benches are filled, as always, with people sleeping off yet another exciting day in their lives. I’ve never known anywhere like China where sleeping has become a national pastime!

And lest anyone should even consider using the wall to practise their rock climbing skills, there are frequent notices warning them off even thinking about it.

Some notices are somewhat more blunt in their admonitions.

As one approaches the end of the park (walking from west to east, which I find out is by far the better way to explore this attraction) there is a buttress which looks to have been totally restored – so new it could almost have been constructed in the past decade.

And just round the corner, in what is now a car park, is an archway leading in to the guard tower at the southeast corner of the fortifications.

Now, these guard towers were located at the four corners of the Inner city walls. They were all similarly designed in the multi-eaved Xieshanding style, with grey tiles and green glazed edges. The towers were four storeys high and were fitted with 14 arrow slits on each floor. The sides facing the city also had true windows that could be opened for ventilation and light, while the arrow slits were only opened when shooting arrows or cannonballs.

Only the southeastern corner guard tower has survived. The northeastern tower was dismantled in 1920 and its platform in 1953. The northwestern tower was destroyed by Russian cannon fire in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion. Its platform was dismantled in 1969. The southwestern corner guard tower was dismantled in 1930 because of a lack of funds for maintenance, and its platform was dismantled in 1969.

This guard tower has now been made into a museum complex, which to my surprise turns out to be well worth the 10RMB entrance fee.

The Southeast Corner Tower was built from 1436 to 1439 and is a major state-protected historical site. Rising 29 m in height, it is the largest corner tower still standing in China. In its day it could house 200 soldiers and has ramps for soldiers and horses. During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the tower was attacked and captured by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

I hand my money over to the smiling lady in the “ticdet office”…

… and study one of the maps which helpfully shows where one is in the overall scheme of things…

I head for the Horse Way – a slope for mounting the city wall on a horse. It originally consisted of large bricks vertically laid one slightly higher than the other. But in 1988 the vertically laid bricks were changed into slab stone staircases in order to let visitors mount the city wall more easily.

From the top, just as the tripadvisor correspondent pointed out, you can get a birds’ eye view of the station and various trains chugging in and out. Hmmm; I try to contain my excitement…

… and move on to the main building on the ramparts which, unlike the lesser buildings around it, isn’t even marked on the map.

I discover that inside is a privately managed, non-profit contemporary art gallery opened in 1991 called the Red Gate Gallery. It is currently showing off an exhibition of crystal resin sculptures.

They’re quite nice in a weird sort of way, and some of the reds and blues are extraordinarily rich in their intensity.

Making one’s way up to the next floor, one comes across an “Exhlbltlon” of Beijing’s City Walls – similar to the one you can see inside Qianmen’s exhibition rooms.

There are loads of historical photographs of many of Beijing’s old gates, together with pictures of social scenes… such as this beheading at an execution site sometime in the Qing dynasty. Xuanwumen was to the west of Zhengyangmen and was the only way of getting to the execution ground at Caishikou. Accordingly it was also known as Xingmeng – Execution Gate.

You can even see one of the swords used to decapitate the unfortunate victims…

All the gates had a double entrance which included a watch tower for defence, just before the main entrance. Each was unique. For instance, the watchtower at Zhengyangmen was 38 metres high, 52 metres wide, and 32 metres deep, constructed on a raised platform 12 metres high. This gate, named "Qianmen", was for the exclusive use of the emperor. It had grey tubed roof tiles with green glazed tiles at the top. The southern side had seven rooms with 52 arrow slits, and the northern side had five rooms with 21 arrow slits. The eastern and western sides each had 21 arrow slits. The other Inner city watchtowers had exterior designs similar to that of Qianmen, with multi-eaved gate towers in the front and a series of five rooms in the back. Both the upper and lower levels of the watchtowers were equipped with arrow slits.

The watchtowers were connected to both the inner walls and outer walls by a structure called a barbican. Each Inner city barbican had a unique design. The barbicans of Dongzhimen or Xizhimen were square; the ones at Zhengyangmen and Deshengmen were rectangular; at Dongbianmen and Xibianmen they were semicircular. Most of the Inner city barbicans had rounded corners, which provided better sight lines and were more difficult to climb or destroy.

This was Zhengyangmen (正陽門 – literally 'Gate of the Righteous Sun'), completed in 1419.
Each Inner city barbican contained a temple, and the barbican at Zhengyangmen had two: Guandimiao in the west and Guanyinmiao in the east. But they were both dismantled during the Cultural Revolution.

And this is a close up of its gate tower.

Here’s a view of Fuchengmenwai in the early 1950s.

Meanwhile, when Xizhimen (西直門 – literally 'Western Upright Gate'), the last gate to remain fully intact, was being dismantled in 1969, they discovered another gate – Heyimen – which had been built during the reign of Yuan Shundi, in 1360.

This is what Xizhimen looked like in the 1920s – a splendid edifice if ever there was one!

They even have a lock from the original Chaoyangmen (朝陽門 or 'Gate that Faces the Sun') which was located at the midpoint of the Inner city eastern wall.

Chaoyangmen was Beijing's "Food Gate", through which many carts carrying staple foods entered the city. The gate was closest to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, and wheat and rice from the south China plains arrived via that route. Much of the food was stored in warehouses just inside Chaoyangmen.

I’m particularly taken with this picture of a camel caravan passing by Guanganmen (廣安門 – 'Gate of Extended Peace') which was located slightly north of the midsection of the western wall.

(I’m afraid that after my Middle Eastern sojourn, I have a soft spot for camels!)

After a good half hour, I make my way outside again.

During the Qing dynasty the Eight Banners (military-administrative organisations of the Manchu) were responsible for garrisoning the city. The Pure Blue Banner was in charge of this section of the city wall and the stone slab preserved here was used to affix the Pure Blue Banner’s flagpole.

There’s also what remains of a cannon, liberally decorated with Chinese characters; but nothing to tell you anything about it.

From the top of these ramparts, you can see what remains of the top of the walls.

There are also three “Pu She” – houses in which the defending solders of the Ming and Qing dynasty stayed when they were on guard duty. These three were “authentically rebuilt” in 1988 according to historical records.

From the Dun Tai one can get a very good idea of the width of the defending wall and how the park has been constructed, hugging right up to it.

And down below there is a beautifully carved rock which sports what looks like a flower arrangement – but to be honest I have no idea as there is nothing to say what it is or what its significance is.

My visit over, I head on up to Jianguomen, home to the Beijing Ancient Observatory, built atop another section of the eastern city wall, to take subway line 2 on my journey home. I guess I will forever see Line 2 in a different light from now on. What would we do without it? But how much more amazing would Beijing be nowadays if such wanton destruction hadn’t been visited on the city by its own government!