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Function, cultural connotations of city walls

Author  :  FU QINGYUAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-09-26


Ancient City Walls of China

Author: Yang Guoqing

Publisher: Jiangsu People’s Publishing LTD.

City walls represent an important milestone in the evolution of human civilization. Karl Marx divided the human community into three main epochs: the stages of savagery, barbarism and civilization. Engels marked the emergence of city walls as the boundary between the age of barbarism and civilization. He wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that the emergence of towering walls around new fortified cities happened for a reason: their foundations were deeply rooted in the grave of the clan system while their towers had already reached the age of civilization. In this sense, city walls had become a symbol of human civilization.

Why did people build city walls? How did city walls function? What were the impacts of city walls on humans? Why did people finally stop building city walls? What is the significance of people rebuilding city walls in modern times? These questions come down to one issue, that is, the relationship between city walls and humans, and this is what the ancient city walls in China represent. There are four aspects to this: first, the origin and development of city walls and the end of their original functions; second, the relationship between city walls and weapons; third, the relationship between city walls and cities; the relationship between city walls, economic circumstances and people’s livelihoods. Yang’s Ancient City Walls of China answers these questions and interprets the history of ancient cities with illustrations of the pictures and the words engraved on the walls. 

Yang analyzed more than 400 city walls of various sizes and levels of sophistication in China, including the Great Wall. Seen from the depictions of ancient cities collected in the book, we know that whatever the walls look like, they have specific locations and scope to form ancient cities. The diverse aerial views of ancient city walls were delicately designed by the architects: some were designed according to conventional architectural ideas, some were determined by the geographical features, and others were endowed with cultural and aesthetic interests.

China was one of the first countries to construct city walls. Throughout history, almost all regions had city walls of different types and sizes. In general, ancient city walls in China demonstrated a dynamic development path characterized by the intervention of “life:” some of the city walls had an extensive time span, but the location of the city varied little; some city walls existed for only a brief period of time and the city was devoured by dust or removed several times; some city walls were gradually expanded to show the footprint of the city’s growth. 

In their 6,000 years of history, city walls guaranteed security for the rulers and the public in ancient China. The primary function of city walls was defense. They were also a symbol of power. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient city walls were regarded as symbols of political power since the Shang and Zhou dynasties at the latest. Through the language of architecture, ruling political ideology manifested itself in the form of city walls.

Editor: Yu Hui

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