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All the Emperor’s Mén

The cosmic and mundane functions of gates on Beijing’s lost city wall


The ancient Chinese are well-known for city planning. Marco Polo, on reaching the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) capital 大都 (Dàdū, literally “great capital”) in the 13th century, marveled at how the place looked “just like a chessboard”: “all its sides equal, streets so straight and broad that one can see from one end to the other of them, that from each gate one can see the opposite one.”

Stroll around most cities above a certain size and age in China, and you’ll find a bewildering number of spots containing the character 门 (mén), for 城门 (chéngmén), referring to gates on the walls that encircled all Chinese prefectural cities and many towns and villages. This is true even of cities better known for wall-to-wall traffic and no men in sight to escape from, like Dadu itself, these days known as Beijing.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) fortifications that once protected Beijing were destroyed in the 1950s for reasons that are still being debated today—either as a way to build roads by displacing the least amount of residents, or because it inconvenienced traffic and looked too “feudal” for a growing modern capital. Famed architect Liang Sicheng (梁思成), son of Chinese revolutionary Liang Qichao (梁启超), fought with Beijing’s pro-demolition deputy mayor over the this issue and reportedly told him, “in 50 years, history will prove that you were wrong, I was right”.



Apart from several small sections that survive, notably at the Ming Dynasty City Wall Relics Park (明城墙遗址公园) and Beijing Ancient Observatory (北京古观象台), there are only old photographs and the multitude of men names to remind us of this lost history. Line 2 of the Beijing Subway follows the outline of the original 24km “inner wall” of the Ming almost exactly, before a southern extension was built in the 1500s. Eleven of Line 2’s 18 stations are called “something-men.” Each gate has a cosmological significance and a special use—take a look and we’ll let you decide at the end if Liang was right.


Martial arts, literature and death: Chongwenmen and Xuanwumen

Just like Marco Polo claimed to have seen across the city from one gate to the opposite, Beijing’s Ming walls’ significance are also best explained in pairs. Chongwenmen (崇文门) and Xuanwumen’s (宣武门) names were given in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) and mean “literary worship” and “martial declaration”. Their sit on the left and right side of Zhengyangmen (正阳门), the main entrance used by the emperor in the south-center of the wall, in accordance with the Chinese proverb 左文右武 (zuǒ wén yòu wǔ , left literary, right martial). This phrase figuratively means “well-roundedness,” as both martial and literary officials were deemed important to a good government and would sit on the left and right sides of the emperor.

In imperial times, Chongwenmen was the gate where the tax offices were located. Shipments of alcohol to the city also entered here to be taxed. The gate is also known for Jingzhong Temple (精忠庙) nearby that once had kneeling statues of China’s archetypical evil chancellor, Qin Hui (秦桧), and his wife, who schemed against war hero Yue Fei (岳飞) back in the 12th century and sold the country to the invading Jurchens. While not as famous as the kneeling statues outside of Yue Fei’s Tomb (岳飞墓) in Hangzhou (where it used to be tradition for visitors to spit on them), the Chongwenmen statues can now be seen at the National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆).

Xuanwumen, known as “death gate,” was the gate that every convict sentenced to death must pass their last journey out of Beijing to the execution grounds at 菜市口 (Càishìkǒu, “vegetable market entrance”). The words carved above the archway are said to have been 后悔迟 (hòuhuǐchí), literally “too late to regret.” Caishikou was also one of the most vibrant commercial areas of old Beijing. We have to imagine that the executions drew quite the crowd.

Convicts sentenced to death passed this gate at Xuanwumen on the way to the execution grounds.

Convicts sentenced to death passed this gate at Xuanwumen on the way to the execution grounds [Sina]


War and peace: Deshengmen and Andingmen

Standing just opposite the city from Chongwenmen and Xuanwumen, the purposes of these two gates were intertwined. 德胜门 (Déshèngmén), in the northwest of the city, means “gate of virtuous victory,” and was where imperial troops departed to fight wars. 安定门 (Āndìngmén) the “gate of peace and stability,” was the gate through which the troops returned. But, day to day, Andingmen was the passage for the city’s human waste to the dung heaps right outside.

The arrow tower at Deshengmen had the good luck to be located slightly farther north than Andingmen’s, thus not in the way of traffic. One of the only parts of the wall to escape demolition, it looms today like a fortress over the Deshengmen Bus Terminal. It’s open to the public, so you, too, can experience being under siege by the ceaselessly circling Great Wall tour buses and touts below (the view is nice too). The Beijing Ancient Coin Museum (北京古钱币博物馆) is located on the lower level.

Camels by the wall



Two corner gates: Dongzhimen and Xizhimen

Two other former gates are also better known today as traffic hubs. 西直门(Xīzhímén, Western Straight Gate), the city’s second largest gate, was located at the northwestern corner and was the gate through which the emperor’s water supply got delivered—he liked it fresh from the Northwestern Hills. A large piece of white jade hung above the gate with markings that resembled water. 东直门 (Dōngzhímén, Eastern Straight Gate), located at the northeastern corner, was the entrance for the city’s wood and tile supplies. It was also the entrance preferred by beggars, petty criminals, the poor and commoners in general due to the presence of a lively market just outside.


Two side gates: Chaoyangmen and Fuchengmen

朝阳门 (Cháoyángmén, Sun-Facing Gate) was, naturally, the eastern gate on the city wall. This was the entrance of the city’s grain supplies and a grain symbol was supposedly carved in rock above the gate. Notice today that a number of streets and alleyways inside Chaoyangmen have the character 仓 (cāng, granary) in them (海运仓 hǎiyùncāng, 南门仓 nánméncāng). It was also the busiest of all gates in the city for shipping goods, as it was closest to the terminus of the Grand Canal (大运河, Dàyùnhé) in today’s Tongzhou District. 阜成门 (Fùchéngmén, Gate Ensuring Prosperity and Peace) stood directly opposite Chaoyangmen on the west side was the gate for transporting coal. A plum blossom was carved about the archway as plum (梅 méi) and coal (煤 méi) are homophones.


Zhengyangmen (Qianmen)

正阳门 (Zhèngyángmén, “Essence of Yang” or “Essence of the Sun Gate”) or 前门 (Qíanmén, Front Gate) is the south-center gate and largest gate of the city. It’s also the odd gate out: there is no opposite gate on the north side, possibly because the emperor’s back is in that direction. As the embodiment of the essence of 阳 (yáng), the emperor’s throne, the palace and the city (and in fact, most people’s houses) all faced South. The lack of a north-center also makes for a total of nine gates, an auspicious number reserved the emperor. This can be seen on China’s various nine-dragon walls and nine dragons on the emperor’s robe.



Given its symbolism, it’s not a surprise that Zhengyangmen was the gate taken by the emperor’s “dragon carriage”. Commoners could not use the central archway but had to enter through the two side doors. Otherwise, though, Zhengyangmen was the place to be in ancient times for all kinds of public gathering and gossip until this role was later taken over by Tian’anmen. Both Zhengyangmen’s arrow tower and gate are still standing, open to the public along with a museum explaining the history of the city wall. It lies on the same central axis of Beijing as Tian’anmen, the Forbidden City, and the Drum and Bell Towers.


Not really gates: Jianguomen and Fuxingmen

These were not gates on the Ming and Qing city walls, but simply archways opened on the wall made due to increased traffic demands in the Republican era, which explains their nationalistic names: 建国门 (Jìanguómén, Gate of Nation-Building) and 复兴门 (Fùxīngmén,Gate of Reviving Prosperity). They are not considered “true” city gates due to the lack of garrison towers still got memorialized by subway. Fuxingmen is considered Beijing’s “Financial Street” (金融街 Jīnróng Jīe) while Jianguomen is the home of various government offices and is sometimes known as a scene of a massive shoot-out between police and a mass shooter in Beijing in 1994, called the Jianguomen Incident.


Also not a real gate: Tian’anmen

If you made it this far, you are probably wondering—wait a minute, Tian’anmen must be the most famous men of all, so where is it on the list? The answer is that the cosmology of Chinese city planning is by far more complicated than it looks, and Beijing actually had multiple sets of walls within walls enclosing ever more exclusive parts of the city. Men it may be, Tian’anmen was not part of the Beijing city wall but a gate on an inner inner city reserved for the residences and gardens of the emperor and court, which inside of which the innest innermost inner city—the Forbidden City itself.

There you have it—the mystery of the city’s vanished men. This hopefully gives you some food for thought on your next commute, because no matter if you agree with knocking down the walls or not, you can’t deny that the planners were right about the traffic.


Master image via sina.com

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