The Xi’an City Wall is a symbol of the city’s ancient past, and constant reminder of days gone by. Stretching 14 kilometers in length and encompassing 36 square kilometers of the city center, the city wall has protected the heart of Xi’an for over 600 years.
History of the Xi’an City Wall
Constructed in 1370 during the Ming Dynasty under the direction of the Hongwu Emperor, the wall was originally composed of rammed earth, constructed over the remnants of the walls of the Tang Imperial Palace. The wall is surrounded by a moat that is 18 meters across, and 6 meters deep. The wall itself measures 12 meters tall and is 15-18 meters wide at its base, tapering to 12-14 meters wide at the top.
Later renovations in the Tang Dynasty would add bricks to the exterior of the wall, and in the Qing Dynasty drainage systems and other modernizing features, such as the nearly 6,000 crenels or firing ports that line the edge of the wall, were added to increase the stability and security of the wall to protect the Shaanxi Provincial capital, forming the city wall that we see today.
While many similar structures were taken down during the revolutionary period, the government of the time decided to rebuild and maintain Xi’an’s city wall to help aid in its defense. Due to Xi’an’s strategic importance in such a turbulent time, the city was able to hold on to its defenses, making it one of the largest and most complete structures of its type in the world.
The primary entrances to the city wall are located to the North, South, East, and West. These gates were specially designed with an inner courtyard, so that any enemy who managed to breach the main gates would walk into a trap, surrounded on all sides by the defenders. Towers erected atop the city wall added increased visibility to spot incoming trouble, as well as stations for archers, and later cannons, to provide support for those defending the gates, should an enemy attempt to take the city.
In the 1930s, most of the population of Xi’an could fit within the City Wall, something that’s hard to imagine today, as the city is home to nearly 12 million people. During the war against Japan, citizens dug into the side of the wall to create bunkers against air bombings, using the protection of the wall even in modern warfare.
What to Do When Visiting
These days, the only fighting that these walls see is tourists arguing while on vacation. The city wall has become a highly-trafficked destination, a must see attraction for those visiting the city. Traversing the City Wall is like traveling back in time, and you will experience views of the city that are hard to find elsewhere.
You can either walk the 14 kilometers around the city wall, which should take you a few hours to complete, or you can rent one of the many bicycles to make the journey a little bit easier. Whether you choose to walk or ride, late afternoon is usually the best time to visit, as Xi’an can top 40 degrees C in the summer. This also give you the opportunity to witness a beautiful Xi’an sunset from the wall.
There are also several different items to see as you go around the city wall, such as replicas of ancient siege equipment and maps with replicas of the downtown area. There are also some subtle points to notice as well. The flag poles that are erected across the city wall change depending on the direction that you are facing, according to the traditional mythological animals meant to represent each direction.
There are also many great photo spots along the city wall, and it is an excellent vantage point for photographing both the City Wall Park and the downtown area. It is especially beautiful around sunset.
City Wall Events
The Xi’an City wall is also host to a few annual events. Every year around the Chinese New Year, the south section of the wall is host to the Lantern Festival, where massive light sculptures are erected to reflect the culture and wonder of Spring Festival tied to the theme of the year. The City Wall is also host to an annual marathon, the aptly title Xi’an City Wall International Marathon. This yearly event sees thousands of participants from all over the world take part in either a 5 kilometer, a 13.7 kilometer, or half marathon race.
If you aren’t around for one of these events, that doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on all the fun. During the high-season, there is a nightly performance that recounts the history of Xi’an and the wall at the South Gate. You will be greeted outside the gate by an army of dancers and soldiers dressed in golden armor, treating you like a foreign dignitary who has come to visit the city. From there you are escorted into the inner courtyard where you will witness a set of highly choreographed dance routines set to music, accompanied by a light show.
The Xi’an City Wall is an ancient structure, an enduring symbol of the past, and a window into times gone by. It definitely a place to see.