Beijing city fortifications

The Beijing city fortifications were walls with series of towers and gates constructed in the city of Beijing, China in the early 1400s until they were partially demolished in 1965 for the construction of the 2nd Ring Road and Line 2 of the Beijing Subway. The original walls were preserved in the southeastern part of the city, just south of the Beijing railway station. The entire perimeter of the Inner and Outer city walls stretched for approximately 60 kilometres (37 mi).

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Fortifications of Beijing city

Beijing was the capital of China for the majority of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, as well as a secondary capital to the Liao and Jin Dynasties. As such, the city required an extensive fortification system around the Forbidden City, the Imperial City, the Inner city, and the Outer city. Fortifications included gate towers, gates, archways, watchtowers, barbicans, barbican towers, barbican gates, barbican archways, sluice gates, sluice gate towers, enemy sighting towers, corner guard towers, and a moat system. It had the most extensive defense system in Imperial China.

After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing’s fortifications were gradually dismantled. The Forbidden City has remained largely intact, becoming the Palace Museum. Some fortifications remain intact, including Tiananmen, the gate tower and watchtower at Zhengyangmen, the watchtower at Deshengmen, the southeastern corner guard tower, and a section of the Inner city wall near Chongwenmen. The latter two components now form the Ming City Wall Relics Park. None of the Outer city remains intact. Yongdingmen was completely reconstructed in 2004.

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Map of Beijing (1912) showing the walls of the inner and Outer city and the Forbidden City and remnants of the Yuan dynasty walls
The fortification system of Dadu. The Jin dynasty city of Zhongdu was located to the southwest. The area covered by the Ming-era Beijing is outlined in grey.

The city of Dadu, the forerunner of Beijing in the Ming and Qing dynasties, was built in 1264 by the Yuan Dynasty. Dadu’s design followed several rules from the book Rites of Zhou: “nine vertical axes, nine horizontal axes;” “palaces in the front, markets in the rear;” “ancestral worship to the left, god worship to the right.” It was broad in scale, strict in planning and execution, and complete in equipment.

Dadu had 11 city gates. The eastern, southern, and western sides had three gates per side, and the northern wall had two gates. The three eastern gates, from north to south, were called Guangximen (光熙门), Chongrenmen (崇仁门), and Qihuamen (齐化门). The three western gates, from north to south, were called Suqingmen (肃清门), Heyimen (和义门), and Pingzemen (平则门). The three southern gates, from west to east, were called Shunchengmen (顺承门), Lizhengmen (丽正门), and Wenmingmen (文明门). The two northern gates, from west to east, were called Jiandemen (健德门) and Anzhenmen (安贞门).

In August 1368 General Xu Da of the Ming dynasty captured the city. The last Yuan emperor, Emperor Shun, escaped from the city without defending it, and thus the city sustained no damage.[1] Xu Da decided that Dadu’s fortification system was too large to defend during a siege, so he ordered the city’s northern walls rebuilt 2.8 kilometres (1.7 mi) to the south of the original location. This construction pre-empted the planned northern expansion of the city. The new wall was constructed with an extra layer of bricks, further strengthening the city’s defenses.[2]

The original northern walls were abandoned after 1372, but were still used as a secondary defense during the Ming dynasty. During the rebellion of An Da, there were some Ming troops stationed at those gates. Only a small part of the northern and western sections of the Dadu city walls remain, as well as parts of the moat system in those areas. The southern half of the rammed earth wall of the barbican at Suqingmen is also still visible today.

In 1370 Hongwu Emperor granted to his fourth son, Zhu Di (later Yongle Emperor), the title of King of the Yan dependency, with his capital at Beiping (present-day Beijing). In 1379 the new palace was completed, and Zhu Di moved in the following year.

In 1403 Zhu Di changed the name of the city from Beiping (“northern peace”) to Beijing (“northern capital”). In 1406 he began planning a move of his capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Beijing was then merely the capital of Zhu Di’s dependent kingdom of Yan, and did not have very extensive fortifications. Extensive expansion and reconstruction work would be needed to meet the defence requirements of the new capital for it to withstand the sporadic Mongol incursions from the north. This marked the beginning of the construction of the Ming sections of Beijing’s fortifications, parts of which still exist today.

Construction work on the Xinei (“inner west”) began in 1406, upon the foundations of the Yan King’s Palace. It was finished the following year. In 1409 Jianshouling was completed at Mount Tianshou in the Changping District. Construction work began in 1416 on the Forbidden City complex, in a style that imitated the original Nanjing Imperial Palace. The Forbidden City’s halls, palaces, and pavilions, such as Taimiao, Ancestor Hall, Mount Wansui, Taiye Lake, residences of the Ten Kings, residences of the imperial princes, residences of the officials and the Drum and Bell Towers were built at this time. The southern city walls were moved south by 0.8 kilometres (0.50 mi) to allow more space for the future Imperial City complex. In 1421 the capital of Ming Dynasty China was officially moved from Nanjing (“southern capital”) to Beijing (“northern capital”). The Temple of Heaven, the Temple of Earth and Xiannong Temple were built in what was then the southern suburbs. Some sources indicate that the central axis of the city was moved eastwards to subdue the previous dynasty’s Qi (new Qi comes from the east, where the sun rises daily).[3]

A second expansion of the city occurred between 1436 and 1445, on the orders of Emperor Ying of the Ming dynasty. Major works included the addition of an extra layer of bricks on the interior side of the city walls, creating the southern end at Taiye Lake, construction of gate towers, barbicans and watchtowers at nine major city gates, construction of the four corner guard towers, setting up a Paifang on the outside of each major city gate and replacing wooden moat bridges with stone bridges. Sluices were built under the bridges and revetments of stone and brick were added to the embankment of the moat.

The newly expanded city wall and moat system was 45 lis (22.5 kilometres (14.0 mi)) around the perimeter, providing formidable defence. The Imperial Tombs were built on the outskirts of the city. Changping city, a supply city, interior sections of the Great Wall and other distant fortifications were built for the protection of Beijing during a siege.

The city faced many invasions from the Mongols. In 1476 construction of an outer city was proposed. In 1553, a large rectangular outer city wall and moat system was completed to the south of the original city, forming a shape similar to the “凸” character. This defensive perimeter was maintained for nearly 400 years.

The wall and moat defense system was retained unchanged by the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) however, the Imperial city was completely redesigned. Many houses that had been used as residences by Ming dynasty inner cabinet officials were converted into housing for commoners, as were many imperial official’s offices, servant’s quarters, warehouses, and hay storage barns. The Han Chinese were forced to live in the Outer city or outside the city, as the Inner city residences became exclusively homes for the Eight BannersManchus related to the emperor. Additional housing was built in the Inner city for imperial relatives, along with Buddhist temples of the Gelug sect. The “Three Mounts Five Gardens” park in the western suburbs was also built at this time.

When the British first arrived Beijing during the Qing Dynasty, they recorded the four parts of city on newspaper as: Chinese City (Outer City), Tartar City (Inner City), Imperial City and Forbidden City.

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