The Yümen Guan (Jade Gate)

Click on thumbnails to enlarge them

Stein writes at some length about the care with which strategic locations were chosen for the watch towers and walls defending Dunhuang. An excellent example can be seen in the area around the Jade Gate and beyond it to the West. To reach the Jade Gate today requires driving for several hours northwest of Dunhuang across the gravel surface of the desert, where on a clear day mountains can be seen in the distance both north and south, but the monotony of the immediate surroundings is broken only by the occasional tuft of brushy vegetation.

While the Great Wall extended to the Jade Gate itself, as this map shows, the line of defenses extended beyond in a string of watch towers on the high ground and terraces overlooking a broad, and largely swampy river valley, beyond which to the north were the mountains. The line extended at least to the point where the swamp widened and formed an impassible barrier to access from the west. Stein's photo of one of these towers near the western end of this line shows its strategic placement at the top of a steep promontory and with another tower within sight on the distant terrace in the center of the photo.

The towers would vary in size, some as much as twenty feet square and as lofty as 30-40 feet. As the accompanying diagram shows, in some cases rooms were built adjoining the towers, although normally their size would have been inadequate to provide housing for the full complement of soldiers. The construction in some cases (especially with the taller towers) was of sun-dried brick, but most commonly the Han fortifications were built of layers of packed earth, separated by reed mats or tamarisk branches. In one case Stein describes, additional support was provided:

The watch-tower, built entirely of regular courses of hard clay about four inches thick, with thin layers of tamarisk branches laid between them, still rose to over twenty-two feet. In order to give additional cohesion to the solid base measuring about twenty feet square, numerous wooden posts had been set in it vertically, and their ends were sticking out on the top. The wall once guarded by the tower had passed to the north of it, with a bastion-like projection at about six yards' distance.... (Stein, II, p. 50)

While the fortifications took advantage of the twists and turns of the terrain, on the high ground beginning at the Jade Gate the wall itself can be seen extending eastward (parallel to the valley and mountains) in an absolutely straight line. It is very unlike what we normally see in the familiar pictures of the Great Wall in eastern China--instead of masonry and crenellated towers, that in the west is constructed of the familiar local materials. Stein observed intact sections of it as long as 250 yards and seven feet high.

Here the particular method of construction could be studied with ease. Layers of fascines, six inched thick, made up of mixed tamarisk twigs and reeds, alternated with strata three to four inches thick of coarse clay and gravel...I counted eight double layers of fascines and stamped clay. I noticed that the reeds generally prevailed in a thin streak on the top of the tamarisk brushwood. this suggested that they had been specially inserted there in order to prepare a more level surface for the succeeding stratum of clay and gravel. It seemed to me highly probable that these latter layers had been regularly stamped, the water for the purpose being brought probably from the nearest lagoon.

The salts contained everywhere in the soil and water, and attested in the wall itself...had given to the strange wall thus constructed a quasi-petrified consistency...The thickness of the wall measured close on seven feet across the top...

As I looked at the wall here rising before me still solid and with almost vertical faces, I could not help being struck by the skill with which the old Chinese engineers had improvised their rampart. Across an extensive desert area, bare of all resources, and of water in particular, it must have been a difficult task to construct a wall so solid as this, upon which even modern field artillery would make but little impression. The materials to which they had recourse, though of little apparent strength, were particularly well adapted to the local conditions. I doubt whether any others within practicable reach could have stood better the stress of two thousand years and the constant onset of eroding forces....(pp. 64-65).

Stein was also very curious about stacks of the same brushwood, layered with some gravel and dirt, which were spaced somewhat apart from some of the watch towers. He finally concluded that these may have been pre-prepared signalling pyres, judging from the fact that some of them had burned and left only fragments.

To see the topography and for further material on what appears to have been the area of the main command and supply center of the Yumen Guan and presumably the location of the "gate" itself, click here.

A few kilometers to the east of this stretch of wall can be seen today a fort, whose construction is typical for the Han fortifications in the region. The size of the structure is impressive; the thick walls, tapering at the top, are constructed of tamped earth strengthened by regular rows of branches, visible now because the outer layer of mud plaster has sloughed off. Looking northwest from the fort shows the ridges overlooking the relatively lush valley, with a now dry alkiline lake, and the mountains off on the right. Clearly the choice of the fort's location took into account the grazing needs for horses and the proximity of a water supply.


Another few kilometers to the east, just below a watch tower on a promontory, is an even more impressive Han-era building. Here is some of Stein's description:

...I moved camp to the large ruin, which when we first passed it...had struck me by its palace-like dimensions...My reconnaissances has since shown that htis huge structure...with a much-decayed watch-tower rising on the plateau edge immediately south of it, lay actually on the line of the Limes as well as on the old caravan route. An expanse of lakelets and impassable marsh land , some four miles long and two across, stretched on its north side and rendered defence by a wall quite unnecessary...

The building with its enclosing walls presented the imposing length of over 550 feet...It consisted mainly of three big halls, each 139 feet long and 48.5 feet wide...Their walls, five and a half feet thick and constructed of solid layers of stamped clay about three inches in thickness, rose on a terrace of hard clay which had been cut away to within ten feet or so of the outer wall faces to form a natural base. As the latter stood fully fifteen feet above the low-lying ground occupied by the enclosure, and as the walls of the halls...still rose in parts to twenty-five feet or more, the height of the whole ruin was impressive... (Stein, II, pp. 127-128)

Stein puzzled some over the purpose of the building, which seems to have lacked windows and had watch towers at the four corners. The evidence of the wooden strips he discovered, with their Chinese inscriptions dating from as early as 52 BCE, led him to the the conclusion it was a "supply-store" for this area of the fortifications:

One among [the documents] is an issue order for grain signed by three officiallys specifically named as in charge of the granary. Another is still more significant, because it is an acknowledgement for a large consignment of corn [read: grain] delivered from a specified area of cultivation in the Tun-huang oasis, evidently as its contribution towards commissariat requirements of the border. Elsewhere, again, we find an order for twenty suits of a particular sort of clothing such as a military magazine might store.

The advantages of an advanced base of supply on this desert border, both for the troops which guarded it and for the expeditions, missions, and caravans which passed along it, must be obvious to any one familiar with the difficulties of moving large bodies of men over such ground...In those days [of the Han] the great magazine must have seen busy scenes, and quarters for guards and administrative personnel, no doubt, existed near it.... (Stein, II, p. 130)

Back to Dunhuang

To learn about the soldiers' life along the military frontier, click here.

© 1999 Daniel C. Waugh