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Going to the wall for history
By Tan Weiyun

Shanghai's city walls resisted Japanese pirates in the Ming Dynasty and Red Guards during the "cultural revolution" but they couldn't withstand progress. Only 11 sections remain, two downtown. Tan Weiyun reports.

Downtown Shanghai was once a compact trading city, surrounded by a grand 5km-long circular wall built in 1553 to protect against raiding Japanese pirates. It measured 10 meters high, 8-9 meters thick in some places and had six land gates and three water gates. It was surrounded by a moat 20 meters wide and 6 meters deep.

It was magnificent.

Only two small sections remain in the old city, now in downtown Huangpu District.

Nine other sections of walls around smaller ancient towns are scattered about Shanghai's suburban districts. Some preservation work has been carried out.

The original old city boundaries are now represented by Renmin Road in the north and Zhonghua Road in the south.

Walls were massive. They had a core of compressed earth and mixed debris, strengthened by binders and surfaced with bricks and stone.

Preserving parts of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) wall has been an uphill battle, pitting preservationists against developers.

The latest section to come to light is at Renmin and Luxiangyuan roads, discovered during a real estate project in 2005. It was almost torn down, but residents protested and city fathers intervened to rescue the wall at the last minute. It's 70 meters long, 4.5 meters high and 1.5 meters thick. It dates back 450 years.

But deciding what to do with a 70-meter-long chunk of rock was a problem.

Last month, the city announced a preservation project that would retain a 20-meter section of the wall either inside or on the grounds of a hotel to be built on site. It will be open to the public without charge. The other 50 meters may be incorporated later. The hotel was not identified.

"Of course, this is not the best solution, but the only way to protect the city wall," says Xue Liyong, an expert member of Shanghai Urban Planning Committee.

The wall was hidden so well in a maternity and child healthcare hospital that it escaped notice until the hospital was relocated to make way for the hotel.

"No one knew about it earlier, including the local cultural relics administration," Xue says. "I vaguely remembered a city wall near the hospital but thought it had already been removed. After all, no one goes to a maternity hospital to check a cultural relic."

2 downtown sections

This "hotel" section is one of only two surviving sections of the wall in the old city.

The other section on Dajing Road is 59.6 meters long and 7.3 meters thick. A Taoist temple stands on the top. Wall and temple have been renovated into major tourist attractions. Mostly Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) masonry is visible.

In the late 19th century, the city's encircling wall impeded traffic and economic development. To demolish it, let it stand or open more thoroughfares was a major issue for the governor at the time, Li Pingshu. He compromised and "opened" four new gates in 1909.

Except for the Dajing Road section, the old walls were dismantled in 1912 by General Chen Qimei, the city's new governor.

This 60-meter-long section was preserved due to the temple atop it. It had been obscured in a neighborhood with households clustered around it and even inside, since it was 7.3 meters thick.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when cultural relics were destroyed, the wall area was turned over to families. Some burrowed inside and many of its stones were used to build houses.

"One of my friends used to live inside the wall," Xue from the urban planning committe says. "It was very good shelter, warm in winter and cool in summer."

The impregnable wall survived the political movement because Red Guards could not demolish it - only the military had the canons and dynamite to do so.

In the 1980s, those households were relocated and that section of the wall was rebuilt and restored.

But the other section of the city wall in the maternity hospital grounds was hidden until the hospital was relocated seven years ago.

"These two parts are of great value because they are the only remnants in the downtown area and they give us a clear picture of how old Shanghai looked in ancient days," Xue says.

9 suburban sections

According to the city's committee of cultural relics, Shanghai has nine other sections of walls built around towns in Fengxian, Jinshan and Baoshan districts and in Pudong New Area.

In 1557 villagers built the city wall in Chuansha Town in today's Pudong in just three months.

It was 2,000 meters in circumference and 9.3 meters high, featuring 12 archery platforms and a pavilion to kuixing (saint of imperial examinations) on the southeastern corner. Its moat was 40 meters wide and five meters deep.

Because of wars and conflicts, only 80 meters remained by 1987 when a Hong Kong businessman contributed HK$250,000 (US$32,223 today) for its preservation.

In 2010 the local government restored the wall, its pavilion and weapons platforms and cleared the moat.

In Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, Pudong New Area, an ancient wall stands among high-rises.

Built in 1576 to resist Japanese pirates, it encircled Baoshan town running 1,750 meters in circumferenc and standing 8.7 meters high.

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