Yumen Pass

The "Jade Pass"

By Simatai Great Wall

Dong Yaohui

Yumen Pass by Xia Hongbing / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The traffic gateway

Yumenguan was one of the traffic gateways that led to the Western Regions during the Western Han Dynasty, and the Han Dynasty's most important pass on the Great Wall. Both the southern route and northern routes of the Silk Road had to go through this pass, which therefore played an extremely important role in the transportation, cultural and economic exchanges between China and foreign countries. According to legend, the beautiful jade tribute from Hotan and other places in Western Regions all came through this pass from the Tarim Basin. For this reason, the pass is called Yumenguan (Jade Pass).

Yumen Pass by Doudou Xiaochong / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Yumenguan in ancient poems

There are many Tang poems about Yumenguan. These poems, which have always been loved and praised by people throughout the ages, have made Yumenguan famous. However, historians say that the Yumenguan described by poets is not the Yumeguan of the Han Dynasty, but rather the Yumeguan of the Tang Dynasty.

Great Wall of Han Dynasty at Yumen Pass by Liangshao Visual / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The Mystery of Han Dynasty Yumenguan

During the Han Dynasty, Yumenguan was established in the third year of Yuanfeng (108 BC) during the rule of Emperor Wu, and it experienced three periods of decline and three periods of prosperity from its inception to the Yanguang era of Eastern Han over more than 200 years. During the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, with the frequent wars that took place, the Silk Road gradually declined and Yumenguan was abandoned. 

Great Wall of Han Dynasty by Steven Laoshi / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

During the Tang Dynasty, the route changed, leaving the exact location of the famous and ancient Han Dynasty Yumenguan pass a mystery until today. In the Xinmao year of Daoguang during the Qing Dynasty (1831 AD), Dunhuang County Records clearly noted that "Han Dynasty Yumenguan '' was in the northwest of Dunhuang. Over the past hundred years, Chinese and foreign archaeologists have traveled to the Gobi Desert in order to solve this ancient mystery.

In 1907 and 1915, a Hungarian-British named Sir Aurel Stein inspected the ruins of the beacon towers of the Han Great Wall in Dunhuang twice, and obtained 789 Han wooden slips. Several Han bamboo slips were dug up in an ancient post site less than 90 meters away from Xiaofangpan fortress in the northwest of Dunhuang, one of which was complete with clearly legible characters and the words "commander of Yumen” written on it. 

Great Wall of Han Dynasty at Yumen Pass by Liangshao Visual / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

In 1944, Mr. Xia Nai and Mr. Yue Wenru inspected Xiaofangpan fortress and ruins of beacon towers that were part of the Han Great Wall to the east of Xiaofangpan, and unearthed 38 Han bamboo slips, and one of them says "commander of Yumen Pass, Jiuquan". So far, on the basis of these two Han bamboo slips, many historians have determined that the Yumenguan of the Han Dynasty was located in Xiaofangpan fortress.

Archeologist Chen Mengjia proposed in 1965 that the site of Yumenguan wasn't in Xiaofangpan fortress, but instead must have been located to the west or northwest of it.

Yumen Pass by Cheng Guochao / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

In 1979, the Cultural Relics Team of the Gansu Provincial Museum and Dunhuang County Cultural Center formed a Han Great Wall investigation team. After completing the investigation of 71 beacon tower ruins in Dunhuang County, 1,217 Han bamboo slips were unearthed, many of which were found to contain information about the site of Yumenguan, the commander of the pass and his jurisdiction, and the garrison activities that the High Official of Yumenguan was involved in.

Based on the new discoveries and their investigation of the Great Wall, the investigators proved Mr. Chen Mengjia's inference that Yumenguan is not in Xiaofangpan fortress, and further proposed that the pass was probably located to the west of Maquanwan.


However, the mysterious location of the Han Dynasty's Yumenguan is still inconclusive, and this thousand-year-old mystery will only be solved if new discoveries are made in future archaeological excavations.

Credits: All media
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