Yanmenguan

The eleventh of the 15 passes

By Simatai Great Wall

Dong Yaohui

Yanmen Pass by Shanyang Carl / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Legendary Fortress

Yanmenguan was counted among the famous fortresses with strategic significance and is known for some legendary wars. Flicking through all kinds of books that describe the history of Yanmenguan, you will most likely see a tragic depiction of wars. According to the statistics, there have been more than 1,000 wars of various sizes, and more than 140 big battles.

Since the Zhao State of the Warring States period, all dynasties have attached great importance to the defensive position of Yanmenguan. Yanmen County was set up in Zhao State. In the following dynasties including Han, Sui, Five Dynasties and Ten Countries, Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan, and Ming, this place has always been a border gateway that saw fierce conflict as well as integration between the farming and nomadic peoples.

Yanmen Pass at sunset by Fanxing / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Key Geographic Location

Yanmenguan on the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty was located on the Gouzhu Ridge to the north of the ancient city of Daizhou (now Daixian County, Shanxi Province). This area is on the Loess Plateau. To the south is the Luliang Mountain; to the north, the Great Wall secures the inland; to the east is Taihang Mountain; and to the west flows the Yellow River. Situated between the desert in the north and the Central Plains in the south, this place was the heart of the now Shanxi region and the key to the Central Plains.

Yanmen Pass by Mangogogo33 / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Construction of Yanmenguan

Yanmenguan was established as a fortress in the period of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty to prevent the Xiongnu from going south. When it was rebuilt during the Northern Wei Dynasty, it started to be called Yanmenguan. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, it was called Xixing Pass for a certain period, and later the name Yanmenguan was restored. After several generations, the original structure was destroyed. In the seventh year of the Hongwu Emperor’s reign during the Ming Dynasty (1374), the defensive fort was rebuilt on its former site, and the inner Great Wall connection to the fort was also built. The small northern gate is the first gate of Yanmenguan, with a stone plaque that reads "Yanmenguan" inlaid above it. Stone plaques with the words meaning "natural barrier" and "favorable location" on them are also embedded on the gate.

Yanmen Pass by Mangogogo33 / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The wall around the Yanmenguan fortress has a circumference of about 1,000 meters and a height of more than 6 meters. The wall is made of bricks and rammed earth, and the foundation of the wall is made of rocks from the mountains. Due to its long history, the old fortress was seriously damaged and the fortress we see today has been refurbished based on the reconstruction that took place in the Jiajing period of the Ming Dynasty (1521-1566).

Among the three passes along the outer Great Wall, Yanmenguan is the only one that is connected to the main wall. It is surrounded by rolling mountains, criss-crossing ridges and steep valleys and cliffs with lush vegetation. An ancient road winds through the fortress, witnessing countless battles for thousands of years.

Yanmen Pass by Gudude Yingzi / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Unique Defense System

Yanmenguan and two other passes in the west—Ningwuguan and Pianguan—are collectively called the "three outer passes" and have always been known as strong, reliable gateways to the north. The Great Wall sections on the east and west sides of Yanmenguan extend to Fanshi County and Yuanping County in Shanxi respectively. Along the walls were 18 mountain passes. Such a layout played a very important part in the Great Wall’s defense system.

The towering Yanmen Mountain meanders on, and the ancient fortress was built on the steep ridge, making people think of the endless warfare near the border.

Yanmen Pass by Gudude Yingzi / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

During the period of Qin Shi Huang, the army of Qin was stationed in Yanmenguan after chasing the Xiongnu out to the north. Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty, and famous generals such as Wei Qing and Huo Qubing also went to the frontline through Yanmenguan, defeating the Xiongnu many times. Their stories were passed down from generation to generation.

Li Guang, a well-known general of the Western Han Dynasty, fought with the Xiongnu dozens of times when he was the governor of Daijun, Yanmen and Yunzhong. On one occasion, he went out of Yanmenguan to fight and was captured by the Xiongnu. However, he found an opportunity to suddenly jump up and seize a horse, take a bow and shoot the enemy. He then gathered his lost troops, fought the Xiongnu and turned defeat into victory.

Watchtower at Yanmen Pass by Lao Shanhuo / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

There were frequent wars during the Han Dynasty, and countless patriotic men gave their life on the battlefield. These days, outside Yanmenguan, a large number of tombs from the Han Dynasty can still be seen, where people who lived in the Yanmenguan area over more than 400 years–from the Western Han Dynasty to the Eastern Han Dynasty – were buried.

Yanmen Pass by Shanyang Carl / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

If you climb to the top of the Yanmenguan fortress and look around at the vast landscape, you will see the Yanmen Mountain extending on both sides, looking endless. The Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall was built on top of the ridge like a dragon soaring over the mountain. Yanmenguan was close to Pingxingguan, Zijingguan and Daomaguan in the east, and Ningwuguan and Piantouguanin in the west. A little further to the west is the bank of the Yellow River.

The fortress has two gates: an east gate and a west gate, both built with huge bricks. When the geese pass through the clouds, the magnificent scene can easily bring you back to an ancient battlefield and you can almost hear the soldiers’ battle cry.

Yanmen Pass at sunset by Fanxing / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The aged fortress of Yanmenguan stands quiet and alone, observing the changes over thousands of years and welcoming the bustling crowds of the present. In the autumn, when the sky is clear and the clouds are light, you can stand at the pass and see the geese migrating south in formation, a view that the ancient people shared.

Credits: All media
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