Shanhaiguan Great Wall of China

Shan Hai Guan 060

Shan Hai Guan 060 by 若昔难得. Sourced via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License.

Shanhaiguan - The First Pass Under Heaven, is traditionally considered the start of the Great Wall of China. It was here that the Great Wall first reached the sea at the Gulf of Bohai giving it another name as The Dragon's Head. The Shanhai pass is located about 50km northeast of Beijing, in Hebei province, on the border with Liaoning province. It was one of the most important fortresses on the Great Wall. Even after the Qing dynasty extended China's borders well north of the wall, the Shanhaiguan remained a significant marker between China proper and the lands of Manchura beyond.

Shanhaiguan has long marked the northeast frontier of China. Fortifications were build here as early as the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 to 577) as well as in the Tang Dynasty. North of the wall here was controlled by a succession of dynasties and nomadic people. These include the Goguryeo who covered the area of present day Liaoning, Jilin and most of Korea, the Göktürks who occupied much of today's Mongolia, Northern China and far to the west, and later the Khitan or Liao who controlled today's Liaoning, Jilin, much of Mongolia and other northern districts of China. The site was important because of the geography, having the Yan range of mountains extend close to the sea, creating a narrow pass between the two. Thus giving the pass its name, Shanhaiguan, which literally translates as, "Mountain Sea Pass." The pass fell from importance during the Jin and Yuan dynasties as the same dynasty controlled both sides of the pass throughout that time.

With the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the expulsion of the Mongolian rulers of China, the country became inward looking. Ming dynasty China was for Han Chinese people only. The Ming started construction of the Great Wall of China that we are familiar with today. A key part of the wall was to be the eastern end at Shanhaiguan. Work began on the wall here in 1381 under the direction of General Xu Da.

Later, the General Qi Jiguang further fortified the site. He constructed a military city around Shanhaiguan with four forts at the north, south, east and west corners of the site. Thus Shanhaiguan became one of the most strongly fortified sites in all of China.

With the coming of the 17th century, the land to the north and east of Shanhaiguan came under the control of the new regional power - the Manchu. They founded the Later Jin and then the Qing dynasties. The Shanhaiguan as the frontier between Ming China and Qing Manchuria. The fortifications at this time were frequently garrisoned with 40,000 or more troops. In 1643, the Manchu Qing Emperor Huang Taiji attacked the Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan. He was successful through a flanking maneuver which took his armies west of the heavily guarded shanhaiguan, to a lesser pas in the Yan mountains. Though successful in breaching the Great Wall's defenses, Huang Taiji did not press on into Ming China. Just one year later, Huang Taiji died suddenly, possibly from a stroke. He was succeeded by his five year old son with his brother Dorgon installed as regent for the new immature child emperor.

The next year, it was Ming China's turn to be thrown into disarray. A major uprising, lead by Li Zicheng was gaining ground rapidly. Most of the troops guarding the northern defenses were withdrawn to help defend Beijing from this internal threat. In April 25, 1644, Li Zicheng's forces took the capital Beijing, and the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide. Thus the once great Ming dynasty came to an end.

Despite the loss of their emperor, many of the Ming soldiers and generals continued their resistance against Li Zicheng. Prominent among them was General Wu Sangui, who at that time was in command over Shanhaiguan. Some stories tell of a love triangle between General Wu San gui, Li Zicheng and the concubine Chen Yuanyuan as the motivation for his actions. Whither this is true or not, Wu Sangui made a deal with the Manchu to assist him in defeating Li Zicheng. Wu opened the gates of Shanhaiguan and let the Manchu armies into China.

Li Zicheng sent his armies north against General Wu Sangui. However the combined Ming and Manchu armies proved to much for him and he was defeated at the battle of Shanhaiguan on May 28, 1644. Li Zicheng fled back to Beijing where he was besieged by the Manchu armies. Li had himself hurriedly proclaimed emperor before quitting the capital. The Manchu then walked into Beijing and set themselves up as the new emperors of a new Qing Dynasty that covered all of China, Manchuria and Mongolia.

During the Qing dynasty and into the 20th century, the Great Wall of China ceased to serve any defensive function and fell into ruin. However, Shanhaiguan's forts continued to be of importance. It was referred to as the Key to the Capitals. The pass was the scene of several other conflicts including the Boxer rebellion and the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Republican and warlord periods of the early 20th century, the Japanese occupation during World War II and during the Second Chinese Civil War.

Shanhaiguan is a rectangular structure with a perimeter of about 4 kilometres. The walls are 14 metres high and 7 metres thick. Around the east, south and north sides runs a wide and deep moat. Drawbridges over the moat allow access to the fortification. In the middle of the fortifications stands a bell tower. There are gates in the walls on all four sides. These are Zhendong (East), Ying'en (West), Wangyang (South), and Weiyuan (North).  Only the east gate survives today. On a board over this gate are the words, "第一关天下," which mean, "First Pass Under Heaven." It is this gate that faces to the outside of the Great Wall. The Shanhaiguan site is open to the public from 8:10am until 4pm daily. Entry costs 40 yuan peak season and 35 yuan off peak.

About 5km southeast of the main fort, the Great Wall of China reaches the sea. Here stands a smaller fort of about 1km perimeter. This is the Old Dragon's Head or Laolongtou. A small section of wall juts out from this fort into the sea and finishes with a wall watch tower at its end. During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the eight allied foreign powers troops passed through Shanhaiguan. They destroyed the Laolongtou. The site was reconstructed in 1984. The area around here is also a popular tourist site for its sandy beach and water sports. Entry to this site costs 50 yuan. It can be accessed by bus No.25.

To the north of Shanhaiguan fortress, about 2.5 km, the Great Wall of China climbs over the Jiaoshan mountain. This is the first mountain on the Great Wall. This section of the wall is open to tourists. It is typically much less crowded by tourists than other Great Wall locations near Beijing. The wall climbs steeply up the mountain. It includes several watchtowers. The wall here has be heavily restored, however it is possible to go beyond the restored section and view the wall in it's original dilapidated state. Entry to Jiaoshan Mountain Scenic Area costs 30 yuan including cable car.

Also nearby Shanhaiguan are other tourist attractions and historic sites including Temple of Mengjiangnu, the Jiaoshan Mountain, the Changshoushan Mountain (Longevity Mountain), the Yansaihu Lake. and Shanhaiguan Great Wall Museum. 

Map showing location of Shanhaiguan Great Wall of China

Above: Location of Shanhaiguan Great Wall of China in Qinhuangdao, Hebei, China