Gateway to China

Six hundred years ago the Chinese built a great fortress to mark the edge of their Empire and to prevent attacks by foreign invaders. This was Jiayuguan, the  “First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven” (天下第一雄关).

The inner fortress at Jiayuguan seen from the east

The inner fortress at Jiayuguan seen from the east

In 1368 the Han Chinese drove out their Mongol overlords and founded the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). They immediately set about arranging the defences of the empire so that they would not be threatened by foreign invaders again*. In 1372 the first Ming Emperor, Hongwu, ordered the building of a new fortress and rebuilding of a section of the Great Wall in order to block the main way into China from the North West.

The Great Wall here was built 600 hundred years ago and is showing its age

The Great Wall here was built 600 hundred years ago and is showing its age

The Hexi Corridor runs through the Gobi desert in Western Gansu Province and is the only easily travelable route between high mountain ranges. All the traffic along the Silk Roads and all invading armies passed along this way. The new fortress was built at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor, at its Western-most end. The fortress became known as Jiayu Pass or Jiayuguan. (To Chinese the word pass in this context refers both to the pass between the mountains and to the gateway that people had to “pass” through.)

The Western entrance from the desert. Literally the "Gateway into China"!

The Western entrance from the desert. Literally the “Gateway into China”

After the fort was built, all traffic along the Silk Route for hundreds of years had to pass through Jiayuguan and it marked the absolute edge of China. Even when the later Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912) extended its control into what is now Xinjiang to the West, Jiayuguan still marked the edge of China proper, being the limit of civil administration, with everything beyond being controlled by a military governor.

The fort's interior buildings have largely been rebuilt

The fort’s interior buildings have largely been rebuilt

The fortress today is the most complete existing example of a large-scale Ming fortification, though it has been subject to considerable restoration.

View of the fort in 1875 by the Russian photographer Adolf Erazmovich Boiarskii

View of the fort in 1875 by the Russian photographer Adolf Erazmovich Boiarskii

*In 1644, another group of foreigners would invade, this time from the North-East and would set up the Manchu Qing dynasty.

 

Boiarskii image courtesy of the World Digital Library

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Gateway to China

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s