During my initial China experience in July 1987, I was fascinated with the scenes beyond the windows of my train from Mongolia to Beijing as we headed through a mostly dry Shanxi landscape, broken by stretches of an earthen Great Wall. It was there I first saw the remains of walled towns, which instantly fascinated me because we did not have them back in my native Scotland.
Years later I would discover they were fortress settlements set up over 1,000 years ago to help protect China’s northern borders. Throughout China’s extensive and turbulent history, military defense was an important factor in city design and structure. My travels would show me that walled towns were in fact very common throughout much of the country, with the Ming and Qing periods seeing prolific wall building in China.
I simply loved visiting walled towns, marveling at the construction of the walls before climbing up their often broad tops to peer over the battlements at the ancient streets below. Some such as Xi’an still have grand walls enclosing an historic core, while others may have surviving gate towers as reminders of former glories. More often the clue to long-gone walls would be names including a suffix such as “-men”. Qianmen, for example, was the Front Gate on Beijing’s Ming Dynasty Inner City walls.
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