Beijing is famous for its city walls, which were built to protect the emperor and people against northern invaders. Connecting these walls were massive gates and each had a special function. The gates were symbols of imperial feudal power and were knocked down in 1950s and today only three gates remain - Qianmen, Deshengmen's watchtower and Yongdingmen.
But the stories behind the gates can help visitors better understand Chinese culture and the history of an imperial city run on strict order and tradition.
Ever since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) some 600 years ago, the gates had different purposes. The emperor's army passed through Deshengmen on its way to war because Desheng was pronounced the same as "winning"; the army used Andingmen (gate of peace) on its return; only the emperor used Zhengyangmen; Xuanwumen was an exit for prison vans; Fuchengmen was used for coal carts, and water carts passed through Xizhimen.
Beijing's old gates even affected the writing of the day. Hook radicals were not used in the character "men" (gate) on the signs above these gates because the emperor was considered a dragon, and a dragon lived in the water and was afraid of hooks.
See map for numbered locations
This was the largest gate and was also called Qianmen (main picture), which still stands today. The Qianmen shopping area has just been renovated and the famous Beijing-based cigarette Daqianmen (Great Front Gate) was also named after this gate.
The 25-m-high gate was built during the early Ming Dynasty. A big watchtower was attached to this gate but because of fire damage was rebuilt several times in 1610, 1780 and 1849. In 1900, foreign invaders destroyed the gate and watchtower. Zhengyangmen was rebuilt again in 1930 and this year received another renovation.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), this central gate was used exclusive by the emperor. He would pass through the gate to make imperial inspection tours or travel to the Temple of Heaven and Xiannongtan (Altar of Creator of Agriculture). Because of its political function, the older generation of Beijingers took it as the symbol of old imperial Beijing.
Chongwenmen (2), Xuanwumen (3)
Chongwenmen (Gate of Exalted Literature) and Xuanwumen (Gate of Universal Prowess) used to flank Qianmen, on the southern walls.
Students who took part in the imperial examinations would enter Beijing through Chongwenmen, while condemned prisoners were dispatched to execution ground through Xuanwumen.
Many wine merchants in southern Beijing usually entered the Inner City through Chongwenmen.
Also, businessmen from southern China had their merchandise examined at Chongwenmen, and paid their taxes at this checkpoint.
The gate tower of Chongwenmen was demolished in 1959, and Xuanwumen was pulled down in 1965.
Andingmen (4) and Deshengmen (5)
Andingmen (Gate of Peace and Stability) and Deshengmen (Gate of Virtue and Victory), which is pictured above, were located on the northern city wall. Besides meaning victory, Andingmen was also known as Shengmen (Life Gate). The emperor passed through this gate and went to Ditan (Temple of the Earth) to pray for good harvests. A Ming emperor had Andingmen and Deshengmen gates built on the newly finished northern city walls.
Dongzhimen (6) and Xizhimen (7)
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, timber transported from southern China by the canal was stored outside Dongzhimen.
Xizhimen was the entrance used by the carts carrying the emperor's drinking water. It also served as a passageway when the Qing emperors and empresses headed to the Garden of Perfect Brightness and the Summer Palace by ship.
In 1900, Qing Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi fled to Xi'an, in Shaanxi province, through this gate when foreign invaders occupied the Forbidden City. Dongzhimen was demolished in 1965 while Xizhimen in the same year.
Jiangguomen (8), Fuxingmen (9) and Hepingmen
Jianguomen (Gate of National Foundation) and Fuxingmen (Gate of Revival) were open on the eastern and western wall of the Inner City. These two city gates had no gate towers and just functioned as entrances.
Towering at the southernmost tip of the city's central axis is Yongdingmen (Gate of Eternal Stability). It was the largest and most important gate of the outer city during the Ming and Qing dynasties and still stands today. In February 1949, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) entered Beijing City through this gate.
Yongdingmen was demolished in 1957 but was rebuilt in 2004 on the original site.
(China Daily 12/13/2008 page5)