The first landmark visitors will encounter in Xi'an is the ancient city wall, which stretches round the old city. The northern side runs parallel to the railway. Xi'an was originally a walled city, and even today the wall is considered a landmark dividing the city into the inner part and the outer part. The city wall is massive - tall, long and thick. The South Gate and North Gate are the two main entrances to the inner city. The city itself is neatly arranged along the city wall.
Xi'an City Wall
Why was the Xi'an City Wall built?
Xi'an City Wall was erected in the 14th century Ming Dynasty, under the regime of
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. When Zhu Yuanzhang captured Huizhou, long before the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, he was admonished by a hermit named Zhu Sheng, who told him to "build high walls, store abundant provisions and take your time in proclaiming yourself emperor."
This advice Zhu Yuanzhang heeded. Once the whole country was unified, he sent orders to the local governments to build city walls on a large scale. Zhu assured that "out of all the mountains and rivers in the world, the area of Central Qin is the most strongly fortified and strategically impregnable." The current city wall is an enhancement of the old Tang Dynasty structure, as a result of the emperor's wall building campaign.
Xi'an City Wall
The Structure of the City Wall
The first city wall of Xi'an was built of earth, rammed layer upon layer. The base layer was made of earth, quick lime, and glutinous rice extract, tamped together. It made the wall extremely strong and firm. Later, the wall was totally enclosed with bricks. A moat, wide and deep, ran around the city. Over the moat, there used to be a huge drawbridge, which would cut off the way in and out of the city, once lifted.
Xi'an's city wall, after its enlargement in the Ming Dynasty, stands 12 meters high. It is 12-14 meters across the top, 15-18 meters thick at bottom, and 13.7 kilometers in length.
There is a rampart every 120 meters (394 feet). The ramparts are towers that extend out from the main wall. The ramparts were built to allow soldiers to see enemies trying to climb the wall. The distance between the ramparts is within the range of arrows fired from either side. This allowed soldiers to protect the entire wall without exposing themselves to the enemy. There are altogether 98 ramparts; each has a sentry building on top of it.
The 5 Important Gates
The gates of the city wall were the only way to go into and out of town. Therefore, these gates were important strategic points, which the feudal rulers racked their brains to try to defend.
In Xi'an's case, the north, south, east and west gates (there are 18 gates along Xi'an City Wall.), each consist of three towers: the gate tower, which holds the drawbridge, the narrow tower and the main tower. The gate tower stands proud of the wall. It is used to lift and lower the drawbridge. The narrow tower is in the middle. Its inner walls have square windows to shoot arrows from. The main tower is the innermost one, ande forms the entrance to the city.
1. South Gate
Being the most ancient one, the South Gate was built in the beginning of Sui Dynasty (582 AD) and called Anshang Gate. It was called South Gate when the new imperial city was built by Han Jiansuo and renamed Yongning (Permanent Peace) Gate in Ming Dynasty. Today it is noted for its closeness to its original condition as compared to all the old city gates, but an arrow tower has been at its side. Every day cars, pedestrians and bicycles are going through the gate.
2. Zhuque Gate
Before the Zhuque (Red Sparrow) Gate, the main entrance of the Tang Forbidden City is the famous Zhuque Avenue, the Avenue des Champs Elysees of the ancient Xi'an, where the emperors of Sui and Tang often held various parades and ceremonies here thousands of years ago.
The remains of the Gate were rediscovered in 1985 when the city wall of Ming Dynasty was opened. The depict of the gate in the literature works of Sui and Tang were testified by the unearthed site. As described, the gate was truly imposing and built by huge block of marbles and engraved with plenty of imaginative and pretty patterns. The new gate we see today was actually built in 1986 precisely according to its original look.
Biking on Xi'an City Wall
3. Hanguang Gate
The Hanguang Gate is in the west wing of the southern face of the imperial city. At the end of Tang where Han Jiansuo built the new city, the middle and west entries were closed down and only the east entry was left untouched. When the North Song Dynasty (960-1127) came a couple of centuries later, the east entry was also blocked out. In 1984 the ancient city wall was restored, and the Hanguang Gate relics was rediscovered whose doors, pillars and foundation were made of granitic rocks.
4. West Gate
The West Gate, originally the central gate in the west wing of the Tang Forbidden City, was preserved after the construction of the new Forbidden City by Han Jiansuo at the end of Tang Dynasty (618-907). It was moved southward and renamed Anding (Safe and Stable) when the city wall was expanded in Ming Dynasty.
5. Wenchang Gate
The Wenchang Gate (Prosperity of Learning) in the south of the Forest of Stone Tablets Museum was rebuilt in 1986. On the top of the wall, there stands the Pavilion of Kuixin (Star of Chief), which is the only non-military establishment of the ancient city wall.
Kuixin, or Star of Chief, is also called Kuisu and among the 24 constellations. In ancient China, Kuixin was deemed to be in charge of learning and scholarship so people respectfully called him Wenqu Star or Wenchang Star. If somebody was chosen by his red brush, he would be a Zhuangyuan, or a Number One Scholar.
In the past, the Pavilion or Shrine of Kuixin were widely built and worshipped in the Temple of Confucius and schools. Inside the pavilion, tourists can see the typical image of Kuixin, or the Star of Chief: slovenly, sot-like, staggering, wearing messy hairs and big whiskers, holding a brush and a wine gourd. Therefore the city gate near the Pavilion of Kuixin is named Wenchang, or the prosperity of learning.
The narrow tower and the main tower are connected by tunnels, in which soldiers could be stationed. From the tunnels there are also horse passages leading to the top of the wall. There are gradually ascending steps, made so that it was easy for war horses to ascend and descend. There are all together 11 horse passages around the city.
A tunnel under Xi'an City Wall
A watch tower is located on each of the four corners of the wall. The one at the southwestern corner is round, probably after the model of the imperial city wall of the Tang Dynasty, but the other three are square-shaped. On top of the watch towers there is a corner rampart, higher and larger than the ordinary ramparts. This shows the strategic importance of the corners of the city wall in war times.
Along the outer crest of the city wall there are crenellations or battlements. Under each of the 5,984 crenels there is a square hole, from which arrows were shot and watch was kept. The lower, inner walls are called parapets. They were used to prevent soldiers from falling off the wall, when traveling back and forth.
How to Get There?
Take bus nos. 12, 184, 193, 600, 603 and get off at Nanmenli (南门里) stop.
Or bus nos. 11, 239 and get off at Nanmenwai (南门外) stop.
(South Gate) 8:00-24:00
(The rest Gates) 8:00-19:00 from May to October; 8:00-18:00 from November to April
1. It is highly recommended to rent a bicycle and bike on the Ancient City Wall. A lap of the city wall is 13.7 km (8.5 miles). There is a car rental spot in the East, West, South and North Gate.
2. The best time to tour Xi’an City Wall is late afternoon, when there are few visitors and the ancient wall gives out special charms in the setting sun.