The Zhengyangmen gate (today known as “Qianmen” gatehouse) and it’s archery tower are all that remains of the old Tartar wall gates that surrounded Beijing. UPDATE: Actually, that is not completely true. There are a couple of archery towers left elsewhere, and one of the other gates was rebuilt in 2007. This is, however, the only original gate, and it has its original companion archery tower to boot.
The Removal of Almost All of Beijing’s Gates
After most of the Tartar wall and gates was demolished by the Communist government in the late 1960s to make room for the subway, this was the only gatehouse spared. While the southeast corner and archery tower of the Tartar were retained, this is the only gatehouse with companion archery tower that remained. These are to our advantage, as the pair are truly treasures to visit.
While I don’t have any evidence of what the government officials were thinking when they chose to preserve these gate structures, here are two reasons why I think they were saved.
Major Southern Gates Had Special Prominence
In Feng Shui philosophy, the practical of placing buildings and objects to use the natural harmony of nature, the South direction is very important. Emperors oriented their building projects to take advantage of these “nature forces” to keep them in harmony with heaven and earth.
They believed that they should have a mountain on their north side, and a wide open area on the south side. Typically, in keeping with this “harmony”, the south gate was the gate through which the emperor would leave and enter the city. Thus, the south gate naturally got extra prominence.
The Emperor’s Ceremonial Connection to the Temple of Heaven
The major temple complex, called the Temple of Heaven, contains 2 major temples. This complex contains both the Temple of Good Harvest and the actual Temple of Heaven, and is located due south of these gates. While there are other temples in Beijing, these temples were very high on the list of importance. Each received separate 3 day visits from the emperor each year in which he performs ceremonies on behalf of himself and the Chinese people.
These gates also straddle the “Meredian” line, an Imperial path going from north to south directly through Beijing. This is the path that the Emperor would take to the temple complex.
Because of this connection to this worship center, these south gates took on even more importance than the south gates of other major Chinese cites.
So, Why the Two Towers Arrangement?
The typical design of such an important city gate would be to have an official gate set in the city wall, with a smaller defense archery tower further outside the city wall. This arrangement is known as a barbican in the western world. The two gates were connected by a walled courtyard with gates in those sidewalls to allow normal traffic in and out the city.
We are very fortunate that both the archery tower gate and the “Zhengyangmen” gate were preserved. The archery tower itself is closed to the public, but the Zhengyangmen tower is open as a Beijing history exhibit.
What to Expect in the Zhengyangmen Gatehouse?
The ceremonial gate is brightly painted with that wonderful intricate eave and roof details common in Beijing. Just a little stud of the old Tartar wall remains on each side of the gatehouse, giving you a feel for its height and construction.
At the time of my visit in 2011, the entrance fee to the gatehouse on top of the wall was 20RMB (approximately $3.20 USD). Talk about bang for your American buck!
This gets you entrance up the stairs to the top of the Tartar wall. From there, you can enter the first exhibit floor.
Outside Wall Level
At the wall level, you can get an excellent view of the surrounding city. Walk around all sides of the gatehouse and see 360 degrees of Beijing from an elevated platform.
Those poor tourists on the ground are certainly missing out by skipping this view.
Experience a great downward view of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, directly north. If fact, I would consider this the best photographic spot for Mao’s memorial. Several other prominent buildings are visible, including the historic Qianmen train station to the southeast.
Walking out to the edge of the Tartar wall stubs lets you snap an excellent picture of the gatehouse’s elaborately painted wooden structure. This is also an excellent location to take closer images of the tower’s outside detail.
If you want to sit for a bit and observe the activity of Beijing from a high point, there are concrete tables and benches on the wall stubs. Bring some munchies and enjoy the view.
On the first and second exhibition floors, you can see the exhibits of the history of the city of Beijing. From the founding to its use as capital of the Yuan Dynasty to it’s promotion as Imperial capital under the Ming emperor in the 1400s, history is laid out.
Since its founding by Kublai Khan, Beijing has been known by many names: Khanbaliq (Great Residence of the Khan), Cambaluc (as Marco Polo referred to it), Daidu (Mongol common name), Dàdū or Ta-Tu (Chinese names meaning “great capital” or “grand capital”), Peking or Pekin (Romanized versions), Beiping (early Ming Dynasty, and Republic period), and Beijing (later Ming and Qing Dynasties, and present day). All of its time periods are covered in these exhibits.
One of its special exhibits is a scale model of Imperial Beijing as it existed during the Qing Dynasty. In addition, there are many maps, photographs, and texts to see. An audio headset can be rented to enjoy the prepared audio text for the displays.
You can even buy a really neat set of Beijing old photograph playing cards like I did.
“Prayer Ribbon” Level
On the third floor, the Chinese have a place to hang “prayer ribbons” I call them that as I am not sure of their purpose. It is obviously a hallowed place for many Chinese.
These are not like the Buddhist prayer flags that you see flapping in the wind, but are red streamers hung inside in the still air of the top level. On my next trip to Beijing, I will try to get a deeper understanding of their purpose.
Quite unlike the exhibit levels below, it is a hushed atmosphere. There are no prepared tourist displays here to see, but you can observe the hundreds of “prayer ribbons” that are hanging in stillness.
My Personal Connection to the Zhengyangmen Gatehouse
This gatehouse was something that I was glad to find “accessible” to tourists. Mr. Brian, my guide, was surprised that I wanted to see this, as it is not one of the major Beijing sights that most tourists arrange to explore. As it was not part of my tour package, we squeezed it into my schedule for that day, and I paid the entrance fees myself.
The Marine unit photos from the two Beijing related books by Chester M Biggs, Jr. showed photos of the US Marine Legation Guard in formation on the Tartar wall. They used the Zhengyangmen Gatehouse as the backdrop for their formation pictures. Actually, in their day, the gate and gatehouse were referred to as the “Chien Men Gate”.
Because Chester was an inspiration friend of mine, and he had actually been in one of those pictures, I wanted to “walk” where he had walked, and “see” from where he had seen. I am very happy that I was able to accomplish that.
Enjoy the Zhengyangmen Gatehouse and its accompanying archery tower. Explore a big piece of Beijing history that most tourists bypass.
Share with your friends. Comment and let me know what you think.
Visit +Kenny Edwards on Google+.