Structure(s) near the Wall - Beacon Tower & Signaling Platform :
Introduction to the Structures that make up the Great Wall of China :
The Great Wall of China today is known worldwide as a huge defense system, usually thought of as a nearly impenetrable and continuous wall manned by masses of soldiers. In reality however, it was not always quite that magnificent.
Construction on the Great Wall of China began as early as the 7Th Century B.C. in a time known as the "Sping and Autumn Period". In this period of Chinese History, although officially central powers were still intact and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty held sway over the Han peoples realm, in reality the Zhou State was increasingly frought with internal strife resulting in the forming of several states (kingly realms) within. One of these states vying for power and influence was the State of Chu, a rather militaristic state situated in south and central China.
It is the State of Chu which is known to have built a large square (fortified) city, a first walled defense, which today is taken as the first beginning of a "Great Wall of China".
As the military successes of Chu piled and smaller neighboring states were absorbed into the Chu Realm, the policy of building walls was extended across this growing Kingdom and in due time real defensive walls were created in strategic points. That is, as turmoil in China continued, the Zhou Dynasty (1121 B.C. - 255 B.C.) finally terminated flinging the already fragmented realm into its next painfull episode marked down as the "Warring States Period".
- Structures of the Great Wall of China of the Ming Dynasty -
Great Wall of China
China Report - Map of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty
Satellite image of China and North-East Asia, with a super-imposed schematic Map of the location and Path of the Great Wall as constructed during the Reign of the Ming Dynasty. Included for reference are City names, geographical features of landscape, Names and locations of Passes on the Great Wall of China.
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A Beacon Tower was building used to deliver military information by producing smoke or by lighting a fire. The fuel that was often used to make the smoke was Wolf Dung (feces), which when dried produced an especially thick visible smoke. Soldiers were organized in order to collect the dung. Due to the whole process involved the Beacon Towers were also known as Wolf-Smoke Towers.
In the very earliest history of the Great Wall of China, in the time of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty in the 8Th Century B.C., the Wall was not in any way continuous and thus the Zhou depended heavily on Beacon Towers for their defense. The towers themselves had little fighting chance against a large army, but by using signals that worked over long distances, the Zhou remarkably improved their response time and military effectiveness against roaming bands of "barbarian" cavalry.
As time progressed and capabilities evolved, the Beacon Tower was developed in form and shape until it lost the potential for further improvement. This process can be followed by studying and visiting the various beacon towers erected in the Qin and following Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), roughly between the 3rd Century B.C. and the 3rd Century A.D. Some of the still remain, eroding away in remote regions.
Many centuries later, during the successful Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.) , borders eventually shifted far beyond the Great Wall of China, which was then slowly neglected until its gates crumpled. In the last century of the Tang Era no construction work nor proper maintenance was done on the Great Wall itself, however the construction of Beacon Towers still progressed. Especially helpful to give warning over long distances and for communications purposes and guidance along major roads (and passes), the Beacon Towers formed much of the active backbone of the Great Wall of China, and in fact the entire Imperial Machine a that time. The Great Wall not so much served to keep out, but to control and when necessary keep in.
The watchtowers, visible wherever one went within the border lands, represented the power and presence of the Empire. It made the lands feel Chinese and that gave a reassuring feeling.
As with all structures along the Great Wall, the construction, use of and management of the Beacon Towers was fully preplanned and worked out in detail. Naturally, the communications followed a standard procedure that was the same in principle for every tower along the entire length of the Wall.
The last time the Great Wall was rebuilt and expanded was well after the final demise of the Tang Dynasty (in 907 A.D.) and a subsequent massive invasion and occupation by a Foreign Peoples. More than a hundred years after their invasion these people, the Mongolians and associated tribes, were throw out by the Han Chinese, thus establishing the Ming Dynasty and igniting a new phase of construction along the Great Wall of China. In the following period, between 1368 AD and 1644 AD, a now paranoid Han Chinese Nation managed to construct a Great Wall that was nearly continuous in its defenses and more solid and massive than any seen before.
The Beacon Towers built in the Ming Dynasty thus are also the most solid beacon towers found along the Walls of various era's. Today, most of the remaining ruins of Beacon Towers date from the Ming Era and the best preserved ones are Ming built towers.
REQUIREMENTS FOR SETTING UP BEACON TOWERS :
Naturally, Beacon Towers has to meet the requirements of war. Not only did they have to be placed in the correct position and be able to withstand assualt, the stationed personel also had to maintain discipline, and be alert and ready to swiftly send signals at any time. To ensure an efficiently working communications sytem along the Great Wall of China, making use of Beacon Towers, they were heavily regulated. To list but a few of the most important requirements.
Construction requirements 1:
Beacon Towers should be placed on mountains or hills, thereby ensuring that they can be seen from a large distance (in this way the signal is carried far).
Historical records show that during the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.) Era, the prescribed distance between two Beacon Towers was about 15 miles. In case there was a mountain or hill in between, this distance should be shortened.
Although the Tang were considered a Golden Era, during their rule no construction and renovation works were performed on the Great Wall of China. During the reign period of Li Shimin, the second Tang Emperor, the work crews that were established in the previous period of the Sui Dynasty were completely withdrawn. Instead, the Tang Strategy was to take war and battle to the enemy, moving far beyond the Wall. This situation however resulted in the continuous build of Beacon Towers, who formed the backbone of the (military) communications system of the Chinese Heartlands during the 300 years of the Dynasty.
Much later, during the Ming Dynasty Era (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) the maximum distance allowed between two watchtowers was remarkably shortened to only around 5 kilometers. In area's with complicated terrain, or especially prone to attack, the distances were even shortened to 4 or even 3 kilometers. The latter situation can be found due East of the Yellow River at Pianguan and LiaonuWan in Shanxi Province, where Beacon Towers seem to be so frequent that even today their eroded remains are difficult to count in number.
Earthen Beacon Towers were built frequently during the Sui Dynasty Era and the following Tang Dynasty Period (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.). However these are scattered throughout the countryside and varied in size from massive bulwarks made of rammed earth (Han Dynasty) to mere platforms a few meters high. Most if not all of these have crumpled to near ground level making them very hard to locate. Others are said to have survived but have been buried by the sands of advancing deserts.
Some Beacon Towers are shaped as massive round cylinders, others are square in design. Beacon Towers often have their own walled enclosures, but many do not. Or at least not today.
Beacon Towers built in some places in some Era's were only a few meters high, the most commonly found Beacon Towers today on the other hand were originally over a dozen meters in height. However, whatever the case, they were solid structures built to last, which is why so many remains can still be found today.
Naturally, the design of Beacon Towers evolved over the times and even in the last period of the construction, the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) the Beacon Towers were not all standardized and uniform
A special kind of Beacon Tower can be found in the extreme West of Gansu Province, well beyond the Fortress of Jiayuguan and the end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.
Near the Jade Gate (Yu Men), a famous Gate (and toll house) along the Silk Road located North-West of the Dunhuang Oasis, one can find the oldest Beacon Towers surviving today.
Building a continuous wall was not technically or economically feasible, however making use of the local terrain and resources the Han managed to establish a very similar thing. In short, by building fortified towns manned by the Military at key points along the sparse rivers and water wells in the region, they dominated use of the most essential resources : water and grass for the horses.
As time passed and defenses were built up across the region (while the Han Empire and influence crept further westward), a string of Beacon Towers was added to connect the fortresses and castles, and serve for the purpose of communications (and control) along the entire way.
This western route out of China would slowly turn into what has become known as the Silk Road, and the Fortresses and defense towers served for some 1500 years or more afterwards. Though the Han Rule ended in 220 A.D., the generations following maintained the upkeep of some of these towers and so, several of them survive as broken ruins to this very day.
The Beacon Towers built in the Han Dynasty were extremely solid and their materials selected to combine to result in extremely hard surfaces. They were formed in a time-consuming process that mainly consisted of piling mud, reeds and tamarisk twigs, together with stone and sand in a layer by layer fashion and ramming it during and after completion of each layer. Chemical processes within combined with the dryness of the desert resulted in a rock hard structure.
Although building a Beacon Tower was therefor an arduous task, the result was substantial. The foundations and core of the Han Dynasty Era Beacon Towers were large and solid enough to survive through 2000 years of barren desert climate and often can still be seen today.
The Han Dynasty Beacon Tower ruins are scattered along the "Neck of China" a.k.a. the Hexi Corridor. To find them, explore the regions using a satellite image map. Travel to the Hexi Corridor from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang and find the remains of fortresses as well as beacon towers along main roads or otherwise in remote locations.
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Head to Yang Guan Gate, and if possible drive your 4x drive along the base of the mountains. They are very hard to find, even with use of satellite imagery and maps.
Route Map of Xuanzang's "Journey to The West" (India).
Beacon Towers are usually lonely towers, although a sufficient number of them can be found right alongside of the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty. The typical Beacon Tower stood somewhere in a strategic position, preferably on a mountain top - overlooking the entire, yet secluded from its surrounding area.
The Beacon Towers were not merely physically "removed" and remote, they were defended in various ways which made them hard to approach. Few roads led up to their positions, they often had a trench or at least a walled enclosure, with stakes, palisades and various traps such as horse-snares completing it all. Towers were difficult to approach, and dangerous, so as a result the stationed military personal led a fairly secluded life of self sustenance.
As a result, Beacon Towers were not merely towers. During and after their construction, several facilities were added. Frequently, a building was built atop the platform to store either fuel, grain, weapons and bolts. Other tower-top structures were merely shelters for the soldiers to get away from the extreme climate while keeping up the watch.
The enclosure surrounding the Tower was often used as a space to keep the horses, or pen some sheep, goats or
perhaps a pig.
Beacon towers had no stairs leading up to their platforms on any side. Stairs were expressly forbidden in the design. Instead, the soldiers manning the tower relied on rope ladders to climb to the top, or move between platforms if there was more than one level. Needless to say, the rope ladders could easily be pulled up - leaving anyone without a rope or a very long ladder quite powerless to reach the high platform.
NUMBER OF SOLDIERS ON GUARD:
A smaller Beacon Tower was usually guarded by 4 to 7 soldiers, headed by their two officers, the Captain and the Deputy Captain.
The larger Beacon Towers had up to 10 soldiers stationed.
The usual practice was that only one soldier stood guard and at watch upon the top platform of the Beacon Tower. Meanwhile, the others could tend to daily chores such as herding sheep or other life stock, collecting dung and dry straw or reeds to burn for the signals, find fire wood for cooking and of course maintain the tower and defenses around it.
As Beacon Towers were crucially important within the defensive systems of all subsequent Chinese Dynasties all of them had strict sets of rules that governed the life of the men at the Towers. Historical
Google Earth Satellite Image of a typical Ruins of a Beacon Tower in the South of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Any three Beacon Towers, no matter how long the distance between them, must be visible to eachother. In other words, a person standing on one of the Beacon Towers, must be able to see at least two other Beacon Towers. aturally, this was necessary to create an unbroken line of communications.
Construction requirements 3:
Generally, four chimneys and four poles were set up seperately atop the platform of a Beacon Tower. The distance between the chimneys and standing poles had to be quite large, at least a dozen or so meters, in order for soldiers on the next watchtower to see them clearly and seperately.
Construction requirements 4:
Beacon Towers must be linked with the Great Wall of China, as well as with military and administrative headquarters in their assigned region or area. For this reason, Beacon Towers, are built on both the inside and the outside of the Great Wall of China.
Beacon Towers on the inside of the Great Wall link the Great
Wall with local Castles (Block Cities), or Garrisson Towns (Fortress Cities) that were built near the wall. Other towers inside the Wall helped maintain connections with the "Hsien", the regional (civilian) administrative headquarters.
Beacon Towers that are built on the outside of the Great Wall can be divided into two or three types.
First of all, there were advanced Beacon Towers, which were set at long distances well in front of the main line of defense. These "singular" towers, served as early warning towers that could give far advanced warnings in case of impending invasion. This type of Tower often looks different in build and structure as the ones found near the Great Wall of China. The advanced towers then, were often linked with the Great Wall by a string of subsequent towers scattered along hillsides and mountain tops, which could carry the signal to City or Great Wall.
The most common type of Beacon Tower however is built just outside of the Wall or in direct line of sight of it. These are usually large circular or square towers, which were surrounded by a defensive wall and had a deep (usually waterfilled) trench around it. These watchtowers can be found all along the line of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall of China in North Shanxi Province and in Shaanxi Province. They were the main communications stations of the Great Wall of China of the Time.
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records from the Han Era (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) show that soldiers at Beacon Towers were not allowed to leave their post without strict written permission. Those who did so, would be severly punished.
Ming Dynasty Era (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.) records stipulate that soldiers should be loyal to their post, stand guard vigilantly and provide alarm promptly. Being vigilant could pay off in more than one way.
Due to the usual remote and advanced location of the towers, survival of a large scale incursion by barbarian raiders was by no means guaranteed. Since the soldiers were not allowed their station, under any circumstance, their only hope was to give off alarm as early as possible, and then await the reinforcements. If reinforcements came in time and in sufficient numbers to save the defenders of the Tower, the soldier who raised the alarm would be given due commendations. That, and his personal survival.
On the other hand, if soldiers raised the larm too late and thus cuased unncessary casualties, then he would be reprimanded. In the worst case, he might be send off for slave labor.
Apart from these very general guidelines, it is known that the
A mock-up Han Dynasty Era Fortress due West of Dunhuang giving an idea of what a Garrison Fortress Town (Block City) looked like in the early centuries of the Silk Road.
watchtowers had their own prescribed disciplines. Just as with the watchtowers along the Great Wall, they were expected to stock up on provisions and ammunition, in some places enough to last through a siege of 4 months.
METHODS OF RAISING THE ALARM :
As described, the initial alarm was based upon visual sighting, usually or by the soldier standing atop the platform. Hints of an approaching army could be found in an appearing dust cloud on the horizon, or perhaps the rising of smoke from a raided farm or village in the valley down below. Other less direct methods involved the help of refugees or farmers heading down the road in front of a large invading force. If need be, the tower could send out a horseman to scout and see.
Once a sighting was confirmed, a warning signal must be sent out to all towers in the vicinity and then beyond to the cities and fortresses.
The methods of creating smoke or fire were clearly stipulated to the soldiers under each successive Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty Era (618 A.D - 907 A.D.) the rules stated that each morning and upon nightfall each day a fire should be lit in order to communicate the security situation at that particular tower. In this way, no tower could be neutralized by the enemy without the other towers knowing of it and/or getting suspicious. Naturally, to raise a fire at those times, a heap of firewood would have to be piled high upon the tower platform each day. It was an ongoing thing.
In order to communicate the advance of an enemy army, additional smoke signals were divided. The process was laborious, but in practice quite simple.
Whenever the advance of an invading enemy was learned off, the soldiers should immediately light two fires atop the platform.
In case the enemy was very near and the advancing horsemen could be visually sighted, the soldiers would proceed to light a 3rd fire upon the platform. Thus, upon enemy attack, huge fires would light up as strings upon the mountain tops spreading alarm before the enemy. When the fires on the horizon grew bigger, the enemy was closing.
A third fire-signal procedure was used whenever the enemy retreated.
In this case, the soldiers upon the tower were expected to light but one fire upon the platform. After it was lit well and provided sufficient smoke, the fire was quickly put out and lit again a short time later. Repeating this several times over sent out the signal that peace, at least locally, seemed to be returning.
When during the later centuries of the Ming Dynasty iron canons and smaller bronze guns started to be produced in China (with the help of Portuguese and their Jesuit Priests at the Ming Court in Beijing) an entirely new method of signaling became available. Not only could be made use of fire (light) and smoke signals, the sound of canons traveled far and wide and could be made useful for signaling as well. Hence, starting in the later periods of the Ming Dynasty a new set of rules for sending signals combining smoke signals and the sound of cannon (or Gun) became the standard.
In the new arrangement one fire lit in the night sky (or a smoke trail in day time) plus the sound of one roaring gun shot meant that a small number of enemies, between 1 and a hundred were approaching.
Two fires lit atop 1 platform plus two canon shots fired in short succession meant that the enemy numbered around 500.
When an even larger army was approaching, three fires and gun shots from a beacon tower signaled 1000, 4 fires alight and an equal number of shots signaled over 5000 men. The most alarming signals of all was to see all five fires set alight atop the tower meaning that over 10.000 men were approaching and wholesale slaughter was about to ensue. While the Beacon Blazed overhead and the series of guns shots echoed through the valleys, everyone near who was not in the military would take flight or cower down in fear awaiting destiny.
Response to a given signal was virtually ensured, especially during the Ming Dynasty period. When only one fire was lit and one gunshot rang out, matters might be dealt with on a local basis. Yet, even this one signal would be carried along by other towers down to local County Headquarters and the main City or Town of the Region.
When the smoke and sound signals were double, the signal and message were set to travel all the way to the Imperial Capital itself. In this way incursions triggered an alarm signal that traveled via towers to various points, and from there were relayed by various other means, therefor never having the alarm not come through to the intended destination. While local military garrisons were sure to make a quick response, even small scale invasion would be noted in the Capital where one could then set to work on planning strategy and counter-operations. Usually, this meant the appointment of a General to lead refreshment troops down to crush the invaders in a convincing counter-offensive.
MESSAGE DELIVERY BY SIGNAL AND COURIER :
In crucial times of War the message system had to be unfailing at all times. This was easily said but especially in ancient times not an easy task to achieve. As described above, the Beacon Towers formed an ingenious solution to the problem of sending messages speedily across large distances. Especially fire beacons could be seen far and wide in a clear night sky. However, under bad weather conditions the smoke signals and even the light from the fire-beacon might be blotted out, overwhelmed by snow, hail, a sand-storm or simply a very misty day.
In case of such circumstances, an alert message would be carried out from the watchtower by a soldier riding on horse-back riding, of course, at break neck speed.
In ancient times the delivery of messages by courier was known as "courier's delivery through the post road", It was the first method of signal sending and message delivery recorded in Chinese military history. As archeological finds have revealed, the horse borne messenger came into being as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. - 1046 B.C.) and before that runners were used to relay messengers across distances.
The Beacon Tower system functioned very well, especially as an early warning system. However, throughout the centuries the experience learned that the Beacon Tower system was unable to relay detailed or complicated information. For this very reason, the horse borne rider remained in function throughout the Empire and in the border area's.
During the advent of the brief Sui Dynasty (589 A.D. - 618 A. D.), a period when the Grand Canal was expanded and construction on the Great Wall of China taken up once more, overall social and military organization underwent a thorough revision.
Signifying the utter importance of the accurate and fast relaying of messages for the maintenance of the Sui Empire, in the year 581 A.D. (before the Dynasty was fully established) it was decided that the entire "postal messenger system" should be placed directly under the responsibility of the "Board of War" (I.e. a "Ministry of War", with Generals and Advisors situated at the Court of the Emperor and directly advising to him in person.). Crucially, the messenger system would remain the direct matters of the Board of War until the very end of the Qing Dynasty in 1910 / 1911 A.D.
In the Tang Dynasty Era (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.) military instructions to officials governing the border regions stipulated that Commanders or responsible officials who received an alert message (from a first Beacon Tower) must subsequently write out a report and send this to the Capital forthwith using the messenger route. In this way the speedy method of the Beacon Tower was combined with the more detailed and helpful hand-delivered report improving the reliability and use for the Commanders and the Emperor.
A scene of Guards being alerted by a local citizen (Guandi Temple, Jiayuguan UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site).
A fighting scene depicting horsemen in battle in the Deserts of the West (Guandi Temple, Jiayuguan UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site).
an utter War of attrition. It was in this lengthy and painful episode in Chinese History that the first real defensive Walls evolved, both as a marking of the borders between neighboring states and often as defensive walls hoping to exclude a hostile army.
Thus, the first "Walls of China" were built by the States of Chu and its smaller and frightened northern neighbor Qi. Some of the ruins of these very early walls can stil be found in south Hebei Province, Shandong Province and south Shanxi Province.
Subsequently, all walls previously built were united in the short but influential Rule of the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. - 207 B.C.), who united not only China (all Chinese States) but embarked upon the unprecendented building of walls, uniting all defensive walls built previously during the Warring States Period into one giant structure. This Wall built on orders of Emperor Qin is described to have been "10.000 Li" long (which should be taken as symbolic for "very long") stretching between southern Gansu Province in the West all the way to Pyongyang on the Korean Peninsula in the East and it was the first version of what is today understood as the Great Wall of China.
Construction of the Great Wall of China continued with intermittence for the next two millennia, being undertaken during the succesful Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 221 A.D), the Western- and Eastern Jin Dynasties (265 A.D. - 420 A.D.), the Northern Wei Dynasty (Also known as Tuoba Wei)(386 A.D. - 534 A.D.), the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 A.D. - 577 A.D.), the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557 A.D. - 581 A.D.), the Sui Dynasty (589 A.D. - 618 A.D.), the Liao Dynasty (Khitan Empire - 907 A.D. - 1125 A.D.), the Jin Dynasty (1115 A.D. - 1234 A.D.) and finally the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.).
By the time of the Ming Dynasty the Great Wall had finally evolved into its most solid, most effective and most impressive form stretching across no less than 15 Chinese Provinces and comprising a total of 50 thousand li, around 25.000 kilometers of Wall. It was an is one of the greatest cultural and architectural achievements in all of human history.
The Great Wall of China in the Ming Dynasty was a "10.000 Li" (very long) long defense line, composed of the main element of a defensive wall in combination with other structures such as entrenchements and moats, fortifications and double walls, pass cities, block cities and castles plus watchtowers and beacon towers.
Model depcitions of various structures found along the Great Wall of China of the Ming Dynasty. From Left to Right: the Wall, Pass Gates, a watchtower and four types of Beacon Towers (at Great Wall Museum of Jiayuguan UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site).
in design. Altogether this leads to today's situation in which a collection of Beacon Tower designs can be found scattered throughout the Provinces.
Not infrequently it is hard to distinguish between the ruins of a watchtower and the ruins of a beacon tower. The best indicators of which is which today is size, then remaining height, the position of the ruins, and the existence of a walled enclosure (either square, semi-circular or cicular).
In general, any Beacon Tower and therefor its ruins is bigger and higher than a watchtower of the Great Wall. Secondly, watchtowers usually are connected to or part of the wall. Very few watchtowers stand alone (even today), whereas Beacon Towers usually stand alone though in Shanxi Province and some parts of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region they are frequently included in between of watchtowers as part of the Wall. Last but not least, when there is a walled enclosure surrounding the Tower, this is never a watchtower of the Great Wall. It is a Beacon Tower or something else entirely, such as the ruins of a small Castle with a Tower.