Songpan Ancient City

Last updated by bosten at 2017/4/25

The Ancient City of Songpan, frequently referred to in ancient times as the 'Gateway to Western Sichuan', is located in the county of the same name, one of the 13 counties of present-day Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, or Aba Prefecture for short. Aba Prefecture is home to Tibetan, Qiang, and Hui ethnic minority groups, as well as ethnic Han Chinese. The largest population group is the Han Chinese, at about 43%, then the Tibetans at about 37%, the Hui at about 13%, the Qiang at about 7%, with the rest - less than 1% - being composed of ethnic Man, Mongolians, Yi, and Zhuang. Songpan Ancient City (in the following, Songpan for short) makes up a part of the present-day city of Jing'an, which lies about 200 kilometers, as the crow flies, almost due north of the city of Chengdu. Curiously, the four main ethnic groups of Songpan have managed to create a fusion culture, known as Kangba Culture, which is a melding of the four main ethnic cultures: Han, Hui, Qiang and Tibetan.

A Brief History

Songpan was previously named Songzhou, though it had been in existence, possibly under a different name - or no name - for centuries before it was given the name Songzhou. It is often reported that the city has a history of 2300 years, yet those who make this claim - and they are legion! - always conveniently skip to the city's more recent history, when Songpan was established as a county in CE 618 (only about 1400 years ago), during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, and with the city of Songpan as its seat. Though the city of Songzhou became the city of Songpan, the prefecture bearing the name Songzhou continued at least into the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, when Panzhou Prefecture was combined with Songzhou Prefecture.

During the Tang Dynasty period, the city - and prefecture - was the scene of much warring, since the neighboring Tibetans, looking to expand their dominion, constantly made raids upon the inhabitants, who were chiefly of Qiang ethnic origin.  Though the prefecture was under the suzerainty of the Chinese empire at the time (i.e., under the Tang Dynasty), the area corresponding to present-day Tibet Autonomous Region, which is under Chinese suzerainty today, wasn't at the time. Seeking therefore to defend Chinese territory, the Tang Dynasty emperor, Emperor Taizong, stationed a large garrison in the prefecture, since it was impractical to send the occasional expeditionary force to the area, given the great distance, the difficult terrain (this is high mountain terrain, so during winter it would have been an unimaginable ordeal), and given that the Tibetan raids were a continual, off-and-on affair (interestingly, the Tibetans are believed by anthropologists and archeologists to themselves have descended from the Qiang ethnic group, so, if true, they were waging war on their Qiang cousins in Songpan, as it were).

After a certain amount of warring, the Tibetan king, King Songtsen Gampo of the Tubo Kingdom, proposed to Emperor Taizong that the two conclude peace, and that in order to show good faith, the emperor should offer him the hand of a Chinese princess. At first Emperor Taizong refused, but in the end agreed, and Princess Wengcheng, the niece of the emperor, was given in marriage to King Songtsen Gampo. The peace held for the remainder of the king's life, which suggests that the king was pleased with his new wife (he had several of them). As a matter of curiosity, it is said that it was Princess Wengcheng, who was herself a devout Buddhist, who caused the Tibetan king to convert to Buddhism.*

Songpan would become an important stopping-off point on the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, aka the "Silk Road of Southwest China". Though less well known than the famous Silk Road of the silk trade, the ancient route that transported tea and horses (tea from China to points southward, and horses from Tibet, especially (one of the reasons why the Tibetan invaders into the area around Songpan were so successful was precisely because they had horses), to points northward, i.e., into the rest of China) across treacherous mountain terrain was much more daunting a challenge to those whose livelihoods depended on it than the more accessible, and more heavily trafficked silk road routes (there was both a northern and a southern silk road, as well as a later "silk road" route by sea). To learn more about the Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road, click here.

If we fast-forward to the 12th year of Emperor Taizu's reign (CE 1368-1398), the Hongwu Emperor had commissioned General Ding Yu to build a city in the area which would be the administrative center of the new combined prefecture (Panzhou Prefecture was, as indicated, combined with Songzhou Prefecture). The city of Songpan was thus greatly expanded. It was also at this time that the city was fortified with a protective wall, the north gate of which is the best-preserved section. Whether in honor of the city's former name or in honor of the prefecture, the name "Songzhou" is inscribed on this wall.

The 10-meter-high wall stretches 6½ kilometers and encompasses an area of some 9 square kilometers. Its giant blue bricks, held together with the help of a mortar made of sticky rice, lime and Chinese wood oil, weigh 30 kilograms each, and measure 50cm X 25cm X 12cm. In spite of the odd mortar ingredients, the brick wall has stood up well to the wear and tear of nature, though the ravages of war have been less kind to the wall. While it took only 5 years to complete the wall, it took several more years to complete the construction of the expanded city within the walls. The wall's gates were particularly distinctive, with various engravings of animals such as horses, cranes and deer, though only the north gate remains in a well-preserved state (in all, there were originally 7 arched stone gates).

Songpan Ancient City Today

Songpan consists of an exterior city and an interior city. The exterior city is rectangular in shape, while the interior city is roughly triangular. Of the 7 arched stone gates, only two are placed along the outer walls of the city, the remainder belong to the walls of the inner city. The walls themselves are very thick, being composed of a massive, stone-and-mud interior portion, while the exterior portion consists of the aforementioned giant blue bricks, which were applied after the mud of the interior wall had dried.

The gates are made of large stone slabs which were framed on top with wood beams into which various motifs were carved, including not only animals (deer, horses, cranes), but also lotus plants and depictions of skies replete with clouds. These adornments continued not only during the Ming Dynasty, but also into the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. The scale of this ancient city and the attention to detail of its gates is testimony to the important role played by the city during the Ming and Qing Dynasties especially, but as we also know, the city played an important role in the region dating from the arrival of the first soldiers who were garrisoned here during the reign of Emperor Taizu.

Songpan is one of the most famous historical cities in Sichuan Province, a fact that the government of the PRC realized toward the end of the last century, having decided to place the ancient city under provincial protection, whereafter restorations were undertaken and an asphalt road was constructed from Chengdu to Songpan, in anticipation of the tourist traffic that would result.

Folk Customs

As indicated above, the Kangba Culture folk customs of Songpan reflect the unique amalgam of Han-Chinese, Hui, Qiang and Tibetan cultures. The influx of Han Chinese to the area was initially in response to the need to safeguard a distant outpost of the empire that was under threat, namely, under threat from Tibetan invaders. Later the Hui, who are the descendants of Arabic and Persian merchants who arrived in China during the 7th century (the Silk Road changed the course of history in many ways), who mainly occupy present-day Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, situated just north of Gansu Province, came into the area (Gansu borders Sichuan to the north). Today, members of the Hui ethnic group, not unlike the many other ethnic groups of China, reside in cities and villages throughout China.

Culinary/ Herbal-Medicine Specialties

These include: ducks, chicken, sticky rice pancakes with potatoes, Chinese caterpillar fungus (a herbal medicine), Thunberg fritillary bulbs (also a herbal medicine), and local mineral water.


The Temple Fair is held at Zharu Temple on every fifth of January of the Chinese lunar calendar. In addition, the Mamei Fair is a grand religious ceremony held at Zharu Temple each year in May.


* The religion of Tibet at the time (of King Songtsen Gampo of the Tubo Kingdom) was what is termed "Pre-Bön", since the religion that came to be known as the Bön religion combined elements of the Pre-Bön religion and elements of Buddhism, just as the Buddhism that eventually emerged in Tibet, in competition with the Bön religion, combined elements of the Pre-Bön religion. The Pre-Bön religion had itself undergone a transformation in the early part of the first millennium CE from a simple shamanistic religion centered around the notion of animism (the belief that all things, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit - eg., the Native Americans, or "Indians", practice animism), which also involved animal (and perhaps human?) sacrifices as a way to drive out evil, beckon rain, cure a sick individual, etc., to a more sophisticated belief system which invested godly powers in the king. It was no longer the shaman, or witch-doctor, who acted as a go-between, or interpreter, between man and the spirit-world, but the king (somewhat reminiscent of what would happen in Europe a millennium later vis-à-vis Christianity!)

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How to Get There?

By Road: The asphalted highway between Chengdu and Songpan, which officially opened in 1998, is 320 kilometers in length. There is a bus that services the route (see below). The ring road from Jiuzhaigou to Songpan was opened in 1999. The road from Chuanzhu Temple to Huanglong (a neighboring tourist site) is still under construction. In winter, it is forbidden for private individuals to drive to Huanglong, due to the high elevation and the heavy snows. Instead, visitors can take a special tour bus to Songpan - and to Huanglong - from the Ximen Bus Station in Chengdu, which operates year round.

By Train: You can take a train to Jiangyou (alternatively, you can also take a bus to Jiangyou), then take a bus to Songpan and/or to Huanglong.

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