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Article featured in Beijing This Month, February 2003
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Renewal of Ming Dynasty City Wall


ne of Beijing's most precious historical heritages, the 15th-century Ming city wall around the south-east corner of the old inner-city enclosure, is being restored to its original glory by skilled artisans. The section being renewed starts from the east corner tower of Dongbianmen and finishes at Chongwenmen to the west.

Its new look is the more significant in that it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1960s, when the city started to build the Second Ring Road. By luck rather than official decree, this section of the wall remained untouched and largely out of public view while houses and apartment blocks mushroomed all around. Its survival was marred only by the removal of some of its bricks by local residents who used them at their own homes.

Now Beijing Municipal Government has made a crucial planning decision in ordering restoration of this 1.5-kilometer section of the wall and turning the area it encloses into an open park. The now-completed first phase of this project, freeing up an area of 150,000 square meters, was opened last September 28.

All old high-rises and small houses around the wall have been demolished, and more than 2,600 families relocated. Sixteen factories and other companies have also moved out, along with dozens of shops. An extra bonus to these relocations was the rapid reappearance of about 200,000 bricks from the original city wall, handed in by those who had taken them under a government "donation" scheme.

Naturally enough, workers currently reconstructing the wall were delighted to return these original bricks to the structure. The bad news is an estimate that a further two million are still needed to complete the section now being worked on.

As described in a 17th century report sent to Rome by Jesuits in Beijing, kilns in Linqing, Shandong Province, had to produce 1.2 million bricks every year as stock for the repair of the Beijing wall and its court. And at the beginning of the 17th century, Italian missionary Matteo Ricci recorded that the wall was so strongly fortified on both sides that it was impossible to surmount. He noted that soldiers were on guard in barricades atop the wall to keep a close watch on whoever approached the city, and that "man-made stones" (bricks) were stocked in a communications trench. He described these as "another powerful weapon ready to be thrown out any time when needed".

At that time, wall maintenance was carefully controlled by a specially appointed team. Ricci also found that if some of the bricks "fall off or are removed on purpose by people", new bricks were put on immediately.

Such was the strength and stature of the Beijing wall that it challenged the reputation of its famous counterpart in ancient Babylon. Certainly the Beijing wall was much stronger than the basically mud-and-rock built wall of biblical fame.

The wall of Beijing's inner city, also known as the Tartar City, was originally about 24 kilometers in length. The outer wall to the city, also called Chinese City, was 16 meters in width, while the imperial city's wall was about 10 meters wide. The wall enclosing the Forbidden City still stands today, spanning 1,006 meters from south to north, and 786 meters from east to west. Thus the area of the Forbidden City is 72 hectares.
If each of Beijing's city walls were connected, the result would be around 50 kilometers. This distance was far in excess of, and certainly more advanced in construction than, the city walls that existed in the Yuan Dynasty as described by legendary Italian traveler Marco Polo in his Marco Polo Travelogue in 1275. Kublai Khan had also constructed a grand city wall.

Marco Polo, originally a Venetian merchant, said the Yuan city wall was made from rammed earth, except for its white stone parapets. But when Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), designed the city in 1419, he referred to the Mongol design and retrieved some construction materials of the old city wall.
This enormous project turned Beijing into a huge fortress, with only the wall visible from outside. Life inside the city remained unknown and mysterious, and forbidden to westerners until Matteo Ricci arrived in 1601 and wrote of what he saw.

The wall described by Ricci was just the inner city structure, the most important and grandest of all because of its length of 41.26 Chinese li (20.63 kilometers), its height of 41 feet (12.5 meters), its base width of 62 feet (18.90 meters) and its highest point of 50 feet (15.25 meters), the whole forming an irregular rectangle. It was built upon two rows of one-meter-high stone bases, with its central ground-level troughs filled with a mixture of materials, including pebbles and debris. Its bricks were solidly and accurately laid, beautifully pointed with mortar lines to ensure a smooth, strong and visually pleasing piece of architecture.

As history records, Beijing's city wall survived numerous attacks and bombardments because of its high level of maintenance and supervision. Its decline began in the summer of 1900, when the Allied Force of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing from Tianjin. The Powers finally entered the city through a breach in the wall at Donghianmen, caused by a bombardment of shells. This in turn triggered the gradual falling apart of the Ming city wall. Later, China's modernization and social progress became further enemies to the wall.

Only the photos taken at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century can today confirm the past glory this great architectural wonder. The current restoration work represents both an heroic undertaking of great importance within the context of the city's modernization. Wang Changsheng, director of the Dongbianmen Historical Cultural Relics Protection Office, says a further two years are needed to complete the whole city wall project. "To stick to the original Ming city wall, we will use only the old bricks collected from Beijing citizens, and the same kind of mortar -not cement -that was used in the past," he said.