“First Pass Under Heaven”: The Shanhai Pass

Discover the starting point of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall by the sea

"Old Dragon's Head" at Shanhai Pass by Jianwangde Xingsheshijie / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The First Pass of the Great Wall

Shanhai Pass was one of the most important passes of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644 A.D.).  Because it was built on the road leading to Beijing, it became a major strategic passage and communication hub between North China and Northeast China. For this reason, the ancients praised it as the “First Pass Under Heaven.”

Jiaoshan Great Wall by Heidelberg Design / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

There's a saying to describe the spectacular Shanhai Pass: Heaven gifted Shanhai Pass with sea and mountains; leaning on the Yanshan Mountains and bordering the Bohai Sea, Hebei and Liao are in this boundary. The saying evokes Shanhai Pass's grandeur.

In 1381, Xu Da, General of the Ming Dynasty built the pass here. As the defensive fort is located between mountains and the sea, it is called Shanhai Pass (“Mountain and Sea Pass”). There is only a narrow passage of less than 8 kilometers between the mountains and the sea, with the fortress of Shanhai Pass standing in the center. As the old saying goes, “If just one man guards the pass, ten thousand are unable to get through.”

Shanhai Pass by XM Yang / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Shanhai Pass Fortress Tower

The tower on the east gate of Shanhai Pass fortress is the landmark building. The tower, built on top of the wall, overlooks the plains around it. Hanging above the tower's gate there hangs a plaque that reads "The First Pass under Heaven". It was written by Xiao Xian, a famous calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty. 

Shanhai Pass has a circumference of about 4 kilometers, and the whole fortress is connected to the Great Wall. Standing on the ancient walls of Shanhai Pass and looking north, you can clearly see the majestic shape of Jiaoshan Great Wall, and to the south you may be able to make out the blue of the sea.

Shanhai Pass at sunset by Jianwangde Xingsheshijie / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The Gates and Towers

On the north and south sides of the tower with the plaque stand three other towers. There are also buildings such as a barbican outside the gate on which the tower with the plaque is located. The ancient fortress is open on all sides. The north, south, east, and west gates are still intact today. Tall towers were originally built on the four gates. Over the years, they were destroyed by either war or natural disasters, and only the Zhendong Gate tower remains. 

山海关镇东门 by 健忘的行摄世界 / 图虫创意Simatai Great Wall

The east gate of Shanhai Pass – the most important of the fortress gates – looks out towards the area beyond the pass. Buildings form four layers of protection.

Located in the middle of the rectangular base platform, the tower gate is a huge brick arch standing 12 meters high. The tower is 13 meters high, 20 meters wide, and 11 meters deep. It is a two-story building with a brick and wood structure and a traditional Chinese roof with double eaves. There are gates on the west side of the upper tower, and 68 arrow slits look out on the other three sides, usually covered by shutters.

"Old Dragon's Head" at Shanhai Pass by Jianwangde Xingsheshijie / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

"Old Dragon's Head"

Shanhai Pass brings together the essence of thousands of miles of the Great Wall. The Old Dragon's Head is the place where the Great Wall meets the sea. The Old Dragon's Head and Jiaoshan Great Wall face each other from a distance, proudly looking across at each other between mountains and sea.

Jiaoshan Great Wall by Heidelberg Design / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Mount Jiaoshan

Mount Jiaoshan is in the north of Shanhai Pass, with towering peaks and steep cliffs. The "Eight Scenes of Shanhai Pass" include "Rain and sun falling on the mountain temple; the red sun rises as if held by a lotus," the wonderful "Qixian Buddha Light," and many other beautiful vistas, all of which have rich cultural connotations.

"Old Dragon's Head" at Shanhai Pass by Jianwangde Xingsheshijie / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Outside the four gates of Shanhai Pass, there is a small square-shaped fortification whose walls are the same height as Shanhai Pass’s. The fortification is like an urn, hence its name, Wengcheng, which means The Urn Fort. The role of Wengcheng was to strengthen the defensive capabilities of the fortress.

Wengcheng Gate and the main fortress gate are set perpendicular to each other. Outside Wengcheng, a closed circular fortress was built and was called Luocheng. 


A trench was dug around Shanhai Pass, and the river water was diverted to form an artificial moat that acted as a barrier to the fortress. The moat outside Shanhai Pass is about 6 meters deep and 15 meters wide. 

山海关镇东门 by 健忘的行摄世界 / 图虫创意Simatai Great Wall

After the establishment of the Ming Dynasty, Shanhai Pass became the first place to be constantly invaded by the last remaining members of the Yuan Dynasty in the northeast. Without the Great Wall defense system, the Ming Army would have been at a serious disadvantage, which is why the Great Wall was built so robustly in Shanhai Pass.

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