City Gates, Ancient and Modern

Everywhere you go in China you see walls and gates; around courtyard homes; around factories; around government buildings; around schools; around university campuses that comprise ten city blocks and house 50,000 people; around high-rise housing estates.  It seems that every community in China is a gated community.

In an insider/outsider culture such as this, walls and gates play a very important function. Without them how is it possible to delineate outside from inside; outsider from insider; them from us; good from bad?

Historically, all Chinese towns and cities were surrounded by walls.  This was true until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when almost all of them were torn down in an effort to modernize and rid Chinese culture of all that was old. The walls in a few cities, such as Xi’an and Pingyao somehow survived and have now become popular tourist destinations. In other places, there are only preserved remnants of the former walls that stood guard over the towns.

When I worked in Zhengzhou in the mid-1980’s I remember visiting a mound of dirt that was said to be a remnant of a wall that dated back 3500 years!

The wall surrounding Beijing (built during the Ming Dynasty) was torn down in the late 1950’s to make way for what is today’s 2nd Ring Road and the #2 subway line. Only one piece of the wall remains today – a section that runs east to west from Dongbianmen to Chongwenmen. It has recently been restored and now provides a lovely setting for a city park.

Of the dozen or so gates that used to mark the entrance into the city, only 3 remain. The tower at Dongbianmen used to mark the southeast corner of the Inner City, and was known by locals as the Fox Tower. This tower features prominently in the murder mystery “Midnight in Peking” by Paul French.  The other remaining gates are at Qianmen (on the south end of Tiananmen Square) and Deshengmen, along the north 2nd ring road.

So modern-day Chinese cities no longer have walls and gates, right? Well, not so fast.

Last month, when Noel and I did a fair amount of our travelling around Sichuan by car, I began to notice something.  Every time we approached a city or town, there was a toll booth where we had to stop and fork over some cash. When we left the city we forked over some more cash. Nearly every major road that leads into a Chinese city has a toll booth.

It struck me that these toll booths are the city gates of today — different form, same function.

Here are two photos of the Huili city gates, ancient and modern:



Note: the sign above this toll booth says “Huili Pomegranate, World Pomegranate.” Obviously, Huili pomegranates are famous all over the world.

Did you know that?

Sandals Theme Song

The temps are supposed to be in the mid 70's today, so against all local common sense and conventional wisdom, I intend to step into my sandals and hit the streets.

Here again, is my sandals theme song (to the tune of the old Sunday School song, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus:"

I have decided to wear my sandals; (3x)
No turning back, no turning back.

The sun before me, the stares behind me; (3x)
No turning back, no turning back.

Though grannies scold me, still I will wear them; (3x)
No turning back, not turning back.

Though colleagues snicker, I will ignore them; (3x)
No turning back, no turning back.

I have decided to wear my sandals; (3x)
No turning back, not turning back.

Of course, when I return home from my outing this afternoon, I will have to put my wool socks back on, don my sweatshirt and down vest, and turn on the space heater.

Related Posts:


I'm Tempted

It's the Calandar, Stupid

Still Wearing My Sandals




1907 – The Bell Begins its Journey

Even though we are now on opposite sides of the ocean, Noel and I are busily trying to track down more information about the church bells we found in Sichuan Province last month. Because of the fairly detailed inscription on the Yibin bell, it has yielded more leads.

As I wrote in a previous post, we know the bell was presented to the First Baptist Church in Coffeyville, Kansas, by a W.S. Upham and we know that he was a prominant merchant in the town in the 1880’s.

Through a phone call to the First Baptist Church in Coffeyville, and some subsequent Googling, Noel was able to learn that Willard S. Upham and his wife (and other Upham relatives) were charter members of the church when it was founded in October of 1884.

The first property owned by the congregation was donated by the estate of Willard’s mother, Emma. She and her husband had been missionaries to the Cherokee Nation.

In 1886, W.S. Upham donated the bell to be hung in the newly-constructed church building.

In 1906, the church approved a plan to construct a new building on the same site; the cornerstone of that building was laid in 1907.

It seems, then, that 1907 (or perhaps 1906, depending on when construction actually began) is the year that the bell began its journey to western China.What that route was, and who made the decision to send it is still unkown.

The church in Coffeyville doesn’t have any records indicating that they sent the bell to China, or had any connection to China missions, for that matter.

We’re probably going to have to go to the American Baptist Mission archives for that.

We know that this bell can ring….if only we could get it to talk!



Hell Money

Wednesday (April 4) is Qing Ming Jie, or Grave Sweeping Festival in China.  It’s sort of like Memorial Day in the US, but with more religious overtones.  On this day, Chinese are supposed to tend to the graves of the ancestors.  This is done out of much more than respect, but as a way of actually caring for and looking after the departed ancestors.

In traditional Chinese folk religion, the deceased enter the realm of the spirits, and continue to exert influence and control on the living.  In other words, they’re still there.  And in a Confucian society, people have an obligation to not only worship, but look after the spirits of the deceased.  One motivation is the duty-driven notion of filial piety, that each generation venerates and cares for the generation above it.  Another is a bit more pragmatic.  Since these spirits have powers, it’s best to stay on their good side by caring for them and their graves.

Besides tending to the graves of the ancestors, Chinese traditionally use this day to send the deceased things they might need in the afterlife, but that apparently are not available.  Money, of course is the main thing.  So on this day, the living burn paper money that will be carried to the after world in the smoke and ashes.  But since no one actually wants to burn real money, there is special “hell money” that is sold in the days and weeks preceding the festival.  Hell money vendors suddenly appear everywhere.  In modern times, it’s not just money that is sent, but other things the ancestors might need as well, such as paper cars, paper bank books, paper villas, all of which are burned on the streets in the evening.

In the evening the street corners all over town will light up as people will make small fires to burn the hell money and things to send to their ancestors.

It’s an interesting contrast to the upcoming Fuhuo Jie, or “Return to Life Festival” that will be celebrated on April 8.

(Note: this is a re-post of a blog from several years ago)

Here is an interesting article from the Economist about a phenomenon related to this festival called “ghost brides.” Tomb-sweeping and Body-snatching