J is for Jade Gate

The Remains of the Jade Gate, photo from Silk Road Tours.

Border control. That’s what we would call the Jade Gate today, a series of fortress and structures that guarded the pass from northern China to the entire west. The Silk Road in the northeastern part of Asia slid between the stark Taklamakan Desert , one of the harshest in the world, and the ridge of Tien Shan mountains. As the road skirted this harsh climate for 600 miles, it dropped down through a “bottleneck” into a beautiful and fertile countryside. Xi’an, the end or beginning of the road depending your point of view, was right on the other side.

Yumenguang, Jade Gate, the bottleneck of the Silk Road. Map courtesy of Aurel Stein.

Yumen Pass

It was called jade because jade, the product, passed through going to and from China. The royals wore jade in their tombs. Today, a lot of the jade comes out of Myanmar and the mines in the south traversing north; in 150 BCE, there were a lot of options to push it through circulation, but the northern Chinese emperors surely wanted it.

Yet there were raiders to prey on the caravans, though they also would have had to hide in the desert or the mountains. And if they wanted to pour into China, they had to pass through this relatively small place, big enough for large raiding parties perhaps, but not a massive army.

The Han dynasty emperors built some barricades and placed guards along the barricades, as well as compelling the travelers to pass through the gate.

Yumen guan 玉門關 are derived from: yu 玉 = ‘jade’ + men 門 = ‘gate’, ‘door’;  guan 關 = ‘frontier-passes’.

Tourists going to Jade Gate today, photo from Trip Bucket.

The frontier pass mean “high alert,” a pass that needed guarding, rather than an ordinary aperture through the mountains. There was also a city named Yumen 200 miles away and another gate: the Yang guan further south. Yang meaning, sunny, south. There was also, nearby an ordinary pass called Wild Goose pass. But the Jade Gate was the one most highly traveled and famous, maybe even for the name.

If you look at tourist sites photos of the immediate surrounding area, you see mountains off in the distance, but it doesn’t feel like much of a forced pass. But the view today is missing one big piece. The Great Wall.

Remnants of the original original wall

The Original Great Wall

The stone wall that most travelers walk on today, which sways across the hills, was built just a few centuries ago. The original great wall that was intended to protect China from raiders was done as far back as 700 BCE. It was made from rammed earth and wood. As civilizations, including China, developed more sophisticated weaponry of siege engines and gunpowder, the wall’s advantages would have been nullified. During Chinese civil wars where there were multiple empires and warring kingdoms, the wall would have been under supported, so the wall of the original Jade Gate would not have thrived.

Historical development of the wall, wikipedia.

Ibn Battutah (see yesterday’s “I” post) heard of the wall when he came in around 1346. He said it was 60 days travel, which suggests he didn’t see it, and he suggested it might have been mentioned as a legend in the Koran, something built to protect people from the savages of Gog and Magog. Thus, it’s likely he didn’t see it and that the remnants remaining in that century were pretty minimal, which is why the Ming dynasty rebuilt it a couple hundred years later.

The Great Wall and the Jade Gate, wikipedia.

All in all, China was behind a wall of mountains as well as a smaller wall built by humans. But they wanted goods to pass back and forth safely. Hence, a gate with border guards makes perfect sense.

The gate nowadays is crumbling, and the wall gone in this part of the world. But imagination can conjure a Jade Gate still lives on. So a game called Guild Wars built its own Jade Gate for the interwebs. Guild Wars is an MMPORPG– a massive multi-player online role-playing game–say that three times fast! it’s always being attacked by the Speakers and the Brotherhood, to wit (courtesy of the Guild Wars Wiki):

Officer Nomi:What’s going on out there? Is that the Brotherhood?
Officer Yahn:Yes, and the Speakers.
Officer Nomi:What are they doing?
Officer Yahn:Moving in on the gate. Get it locked down—now!

I know this sounds fanciful, but you can imagine a group of Xiong Nu, the predecessors of other great horseback armies, the first to be great archers. approaching in a cloud. They might indeed by “moving in on the gate.”

It is no more fanciful than the half dozen tourist websites extolling the virtues of visiting the Jade Gate, all of which say that “in the early Han dynasty, the western border was ceaselessly invaded by Huns.”

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