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?