Haiwang YUAN

The Xi’an city wall. The words read: “The working class must lead all.” PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The Xi’an City Wall is one of the last remaining ancient battlement sites of North China, and one of the largest military defense systems in the world.

The Xi’an City Wall is a major tourist site at the center of Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province in the northcentral part of the country. Xi’an is also the site of the famous terracotta entombed warriors, along with museums, pagodas, and other sites of historical interest. Xi’an has been referred to as China’s eternal city because of its ancient heritage. In the Xi’an area the capitals of the Chinese dynasties from Zhou (1045–256 BCE) to Tang (618–907 CE) were established.

The city wall was first built in the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE) and rebuilt in the third year of the reign of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). It then went through three major renovations. The first took place in 1568 under the supervision of Zhang Zhi, then governor of Shaanxi. The second started in 1781 under the supervision of another Shaanxi governor, Bi Yuan. The last renovation was in 1983 when the Shaanxi government launched its ambitious project to renovate it and restore the parts that had been destroyed. An attractive circular park has been built along the wall, with trees, shrubs, and flowers enhancing the beauty of the traditional Chinese architecture.

The Xi’an City Wall is an imposing presence around the city. Its north side is 3,241 meters (10,633 feet) long; its south side, 3,442 meters (11,291 feet); its east side, 2,590 meters (8,497 feet); and its west side, 2631 meters (8,633 feet). The base is 18 meters (59 feet) wide, tapering to 15 meters (49 feet) at the top, which is as wide as a four-lane superhighway. The wall has a perimeter of 13.74 kilometers (8.5 miles). Originally built of rammed earth, it is now sided with large gray bricks.

A watchtower (jiaolou) sits at each corner of the wall. A rampart (ditai) projects from the top of the wall every 120 meters (394 feet). All together, there are ninety-eight ditai, each having a sentry (dilou) built upon it. A gate opens in each side: Far-Reaching Tranquility (Anyuan) in the north, Eternal Peace (Yongning) in the south, Everlasting Joy (Changle) in the east, and Security and Stability (Anding) in the west. Each gate consists of three gate towers. Central tower (zhenglou) is the inner tower sitting over the main entrance. Lock tower (zhalou) is the outer tower controlling the suspension bridge connecting to the entrance. Arrow tower (jianlou) is a watchtower lying between the other towers. Joining the three towers is an enclosure for defense known as jar city (wengcheng), where soldiers were stationed to guard the gate. From jar city to the top of the wall, there are passages with gradually ascending steps, which allowed war horses to travel up and down. There are altogether eleven horse passages on all sides.

The top of the city wall is paved with three layers of gray bricks. Battlements with a total of 5,984 crenels, or indentations, skirt the outer edge of the wall. Parapets (nü’erqiang) line the inner edge of the wall. While the battlements were used for defense, the parapets served as lookout posts.

“Build high walls and store up provisions” has been an important guiding principle of Chinese monarchs in history. Well known for the construction of the Great Wall, the ancient Chinese built walls around every city. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Xi’an City Wall was one of many surviving city walls, but today it is the only one left in its entirety. The others were demolished to make way for modern traffic.

Now the Xi’an City Wall is not only the pride of the Xi’an citizens but also a mecca for Chinese and foreign tourists. Many festivities and reenactments happen at or on the wall. When President Clinton visited Xi’an in 1998 he was given a royal reception at the wall’s Yongning Gate. The Xi’an City Wall International Marathon has been held yearly since 1993. The wall is popular with hikers, bicyclists, and tai chi practitioners.

Further Reading

Hou, Guangqian, & Huichuan Jing. (1990). Xi’an cheng qiang [Xi’an City Wall]. Xi’an: Shanxi lu you chu ban she [Shanxi Tourism Press].

Shi, Yi, Chonghui Shi, Ruiyong Zhao, & Zhong Cheng. (2005). Zhongguo gu cheng qiang [China’s ancient city walls]. Shantou, China: Shantou hai yang yin xiang chu ban she [Shantou Ocean Sound and Picture Publishing House].

Steinhardt, N. S. (1990). Chinese imperial city planning. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Yu, Maohong, Xuebin Zhang, & Dongping Fang. (1994). Xi’an gu cheng qiang yan jiu: Jian zhu jie gou he kang zhen [Studies of the ancient Xi’an City Wall: Its earthquake-proof structures]. Xian Shi, China: Xi’an jiao tong da xue chu ban she [Xi’an Communications Press].

Lure a tiger out of its mountain.


Diào hǔ lís hān

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Xi’an City Wall. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2498–2500. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Sections of the city wall of Xi’an, originally built of rammed earth, underwent their last renovation in 1983. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Xi’an City Wall (Xī’ān chéngqiáng 西安城墙)|Xī’ān chéngqiáng 西安城墙 (Xi’an City Wall)

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