The Shanhaiguan Pass
Shanhaiguan is the first pass at the eastern end of the Great Wall. As its name (Shanhai meaning mountain and sea) suggests, it stands against Yanshan Mountain and overlooks the Bohai Sea. The pass was easy to defend but hard to attack; it therefore served as an important defense line for the Ming capital. In the early Ming Dynasty, Shanhaiguan town was an important route for travelers and merchants. During wars, the gate of the town would be firmly closed, while in more peaceful times the gate was opened wide, with people and carriages thronging in and out.
Over 600 years ago when the Ming overthrew the Yuan Dynasty, the remaining Yuan forces retreated north, continuing its clashes with the Ming army. Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, therefore sent his general Xu Da to reinforce the Great Wall. Xu built Shanhaiguan in 1381, due to its strategic location between Beijing and Shenyang being of tremendous military import.
Shanhaiguan town is a square, with gates on each side. The eastern one is the best preserved, and a board with the inscription “First Pass under Heaven,” which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, hangs over it. The eastern and western walls of the town are themselves part of the Great Wall.
Shanhaiguan is an elaborately designed and heavily fortified pass. Barbicans were built outside the town encircling the four gates, offering it extra protection. When encountering invasion, defenders could launch converging attacks from three sides outside the city gate. Outside the barbicans there are other constructions, forming a multilayered defense system.
As the Great Wall is often compared to a huge dragon, the towering construction at its eastern end that juts into the sea is aptly nicknamed the “Old Dragon’s Head.” In the area are Ming barracks, drill grounds and a temple for the God of Sea, among other sites of historical interest.
About four kilometers east of Shanhaiguan, the Temple of Lady Mengjiang rises with its red walls and gray tiles on Phoenix Mountain. The temple was built to commemorate the heroine for her loyalty to her husband, who died building the Great Wall, and her courage in rebelling against injustice. It was first built before the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and renovated during the Ming Dynasty.
About three kilometers north of Shanhaiguan is Jiaoshan (Horn) Mountain, its highest peak standing at 519 meters. It is the first mountain that the Great Wall passes through, and is also referred to as the horns of this stone dragon. On the mountain stands the centuries-old temple of Qixian (shelter for the virtuous and erudite) – a summer resort for literati during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is believed to be a cradle of Shanhaiguan culture, which features a syncretism of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and chivalry.