Archaeological travel guide to the 600-year-old city wall built by the Ming dynasty to defend the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an.
Name: Xi’an City Wall
Where: Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Location: 34.25065, 108.94703
Description: The Xi’an City Wall is a Ming dynasty-era fortification surrounding the core of China’s ancient capital city.
Getting there: The Xi’an City Wall surrounds the central city and is easily walkable from most tourist areas.
Cost: Bike rentals are 45 CNY / 8 USD (90 CNY / 14 USD for tandem bikes) per hour plus a 200 CNY / 30 USD deposit.
There are many ancient cities and historical monuments in China. Although the Great Wall attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, there are numerous other attractions to visit. The Great Wall isn’t even the only wall of note; the city of Xi’an has a fantastic city fortification as well.
The 14th-century Xi’an City Wall in Shaanxi is one of the only entirely preserved city walls in modern China. It stretches around the Xi’an city center for over eight miles and is a Chinese National Historical and Cultural Unit. The wall attracts many visitors who bike and walk along its length.
This article will overview the 2000+ year history of this important city’s fortifications – its development and significance through the many Chinese dynasties, my own experience visiting, and the information you need to see it for yourself.
The Story of the Xi’an City Wall
The Xi’an City Wall is significant as one of China’s oldest monuments and largest city walls. Located in Shaanxi, the Xi’an City Wall has been standing for over six hundred years through multiple dynasties and conflicts.
Made to withstand time and war, the wall has lasted to become one of China’s only remaining complete city walls.
A Brief History of Xi’an and its Fortifications
The area that would become modern Xi’an first became a prominent city as Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty following a series of conquests by Qin Shi Huang to unify China in 221 BCE. From Xianyang, he centralized power through the vast region and even built his own pyramid tomb and Terracotta Army nearby.
Following Qin’s 15-year reign, its successor, the Han dynasty, moved the city slightly south toward the modern location of Xi’an. Naming their capital Chang’an, this became the enduring name for most of the city’s history through the next 2000 years.
Still, the Han dynasty’s Chang’an was slightly north of its modern city center. Later, during the Sui and Tang dynasties, Chang’an moved its center to the location where the current fortifications are located. Particularly during the Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xi’an) experienced an explosion of growth as both the imperial capital of China and the terminus of a newly-embraced Silk Road.
This brought in multitudes of outside knowledge, goods, and influences that led to Chang’an growing to be the largest city in the world for most of the Tang dynasty’s rule. This was reflected in the city’s fortifications, which covered over 5 times more area than the modern fortifications from the later Ming dynasty.
Following the fall of the Tang dynasty, Chang’an (Xi’an) lost its status as the capital of China for any future dynasty. The next dynasties, Song and Yuan initially placed their capitals in the locations of modern Kaifeng and Beijing, respectively. As such, Xi’an never reclaimed its former glory or status. However, it was revived into an important center during the Ming dynasty.
The Ming Dynasty City Wall of Xi’an
The Xi’an City Wall seen today was built in 1370 by Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. Soon after he conquered the city, a sage named Zhu Sheng warned him that for his empire to survive, he needed to build a strong wall around the city and large storage areas for a potential siege.
The Emperor heeded the sage’s advice and built an enormous complete city wall. Zhu Yuanzhang wanted a wall that would outlast him, and he succeeded with the Xi’an city wall. His dynasty lasted almost three centuries, and the wall he built around his imperial city lasts to this day.
Xi’an was the first imperial city of the Ming dynasty and remained an imperial city through the Ming, Sui, and Tang dynasties. It is located in the Shaanxi province, at the end of the ancient Silk Road. The city was vital for trading and culture and was protected by its great city wall.
The Xi’an City Wall Today
The Ming dynasty city wall that surrounds central Xi’an remains one of China’s largest and most complete city walls. It wraps nearly 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) around the city center of Xi’an. The wall is made of brick over dirt and has towers in all the corners and gates, complete with guard houses and parapets.
All four of the main gates are available to visit for most of the day, with the south gate being the most open. The south entrance is open from 8am to midnight. Visitors can access several of the other eighteen gates, but not all of them.
The south gate is the main gate to visit and has the most tourist attractions, food booths, and tour rental facilities. To travel along the wall, tourists can rent bicycles or electric golf carts. Many choose to walk around the wall and take in its sights and history.
The tourist attractions at the wall include daily warrior parade performances–these happen several times a day at the south entrance for free.
Aside from the ground-level recreational areas around the gates and moat, many events are held atop the wall. These include the Xian Art Festival of Ancient Culture, which showcases lantern shows on the wall, and the Xian City Wall International Marathon, where participants race on the top of the wall.
Restoration of the Xi’an City Wall
The Xi’an City Wall was restored in the sixteenth century when bricks fortified the wall. Initially, the wall was built of packed dirt and rice starch. Since its first restoration, the wall’s base has remained the same (except for the southeast tower, which unfortunately burned down in the 1920s).
The subsequent extensive restoration kept the central portion of the wall the same but updated many of the fortifications. It was in the late 18th century. Parapets and turrets were added and other restorations to the bricks from several hundred years earlier. Since this restoration, the wall looks essentially the same.
The final restorations were completed in 1983 by the Chinese government. The wall was designated a National Historical and Cultural Unit and was nominated to become a World Heritage Site. The Xi’an City Wall isn’t officially a World Heritage Site, but it attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Architecture of the Xi’an City Wall
The Xi’an City Wall is 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) long and 11.89 meters (39 feet) tall. It’s 11.89 meters (39 feet) wide at the top and 16.46 meters (54 feet) wide at the bottom. The parapets go around the outside of the wall to keep out potential intruders, with openings for bows and arrows.
When Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang first built the Xi’an city wall, he equipped it with watchtowers, drawbridges, and a large moat.
There are four main gates in the city wall, but eighteen overall. The main gates face the cardinal directions, and each has a gate tower, a central tower, and a narrow tower. The gate tower lifts and closes the gate, and the narrow tower is for defense.
The central tower opens into the city and is connected by tunnels to the defense tower.
The Xi’an City Wall has even more giant towers on the four corners. Corners are generally weaker in battle, so adding the buildings was a defensive strategy to strengthen the rest of the wall. These towers are also equipped with extra fortifications and armories.
Xi’an City Wall Atlas
The Xi’an wall is one of China’s oldest city walls and a complete example of a fourteenth-century city wall. It was built by an emperor at the beginning of his dynasty and made to last throughout the centuries. The Xi’an City Wall is a worthy destination for visitors from all over the world.
Map of the Xi’an City Wall
My Visit to the Xi’an City Wall
Xi’an had been one of the Chinese cities topping my list to see since I’d arrived in China over a year before. The city served as one of the most important historic cities in the country and as the capital at many points. It was also central to many important and iconic historic monuments including the Han dynasty pyramid tombs and the Terracotta Army.
Arriving at the Xi’an City Wall Southern Gate
For the most part, the historic center of Xi’an is largely walkable, although there are taxis and a subway system for those in a hurry. From our hostel, Ida and I walked south past the city’s central bell tower toward the southern gate, historically called Yongningmen (永宁门) or “Forever Peaceful Gate”.
Here, there is a subway entrance and a public square with stairs leading up to the top of the city wall. We stopped at a cafe set up on the interior side of the wall before heading up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs and the center of the southern side of the wall is the Archery Tower with a large walkway around it that gives great views in every direction. This includes a view of the Wild Goose Pagodas to the south of the city center.
Biking the Xi’an City Wall
Perhaps one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences I had while in China was the opportunity to bike around the Xi’an City Wall. Back on the main level of the wall’s concourse is a shop that rents bikes to tourists for 45 CNY / 8 USD (90 CNY / 14 USD for tandem bikes) per hour plus a 200 CNY / 30 USD deposit.
After selecting our bikes, we began riding toward the east, circling the wall in a counterclockwise direction.
Aside from the idea that you’re riding atop a massive 600-year-old structure, perhaps the most interesting part of the experience is the contrast between the sight on your right (inner wall) and left (outer wall). While the inner city is certainly full of modern construction (including its own center-city Walmart), it is noticeably of a smaller scale with lower buildings and narrow streets.
Outside the wall and moat is the more standard modern Chinese cityscape with wider roads and ubiquitous skyscrapers.
One thing of note—it is not a smooth ride. While this should not surprise anyone considering that you’re riding over massive bricks held together by centuries-old mortar, it is a very bumpy ride at times.
Throughout the ride, different sections of the city stand out. One of the most interesting, in my opinion, was the Shuyuanmen Culture Street along the southern wall, which is built in the style of a medieval Chinese neighborhood. Another is the golden-capped Guangren Temple 广仁寺 located in the northwest corner of the Old City.
Also along the wall were numerous people taking part in photoshoots, from the amateur tourist with an oversized camera to professional wedding shoots in full historic replica clothing.
Overall, the ride around the wall took us around 1.5 hours while taking periodic breaks to take in the views. Despite being a popular tourist attraction, this remains one of the most unique and interesting things I’ve done while travelling and I would recommend it to any visitor to Xi’an.
After returning the bikes, we returned to ground level near the Shuyuanmen Culture Street to grab some local Shaanxi food, including one of my local favorites — yangrou paomo (羊肉泡馍), a mutton soup with crumbled flatbread in it.
How to Get to the Xi’an City Wall
GPS Coordinates: 34.25065, 108.94703
The city of Xi’an is well connected by air and rail and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Playing a role similar to St. Louis in the U.S., Xi’an serves as a historic gateway to western China for those along the densely populated eastern coast of the country.
Most tourists to Xi’an will stay in the historic center, within the city walls. This makes accessing the city wall relatively easy, as you’ll never be more than a 15-20 minute walk from one of the four main gates. Any of these four main gates will have kiosks that rent bikes to tourists for 45 CNY / 8 USD (90 CNY / 14 USD for tandem bikes) per hour plus a 200 CNY / 30 USD deposit.
Outside the wall, the roads are more modern and lined with skyscrapers. This is also where most of the museums and other scattered historical sites are located. Among these outside the wall, the Big and Small Wild Goose Pagodas on the south side and the Daming Palace Park on the north side are well worth visiting.
Han dynasty 汉朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 202 BCE – 220 CE. Han doctrine was characterized by economic prosperity through outside trade via the Silk Road creating the earliest sense of a single Chinese “Han” identity.
Ming dynasty 大明
The ruling dynasty of China from 1368-1644 CE. Ming doctrine was characterized by isolationist policies and focus on internal matters and expansion.
Qin dynasty 秦朝
Chinese dynasty established in 221 BCE by Qin Shi Huang after conquering and united all rival Chinese states. Modern China derives its name from this dynasty, which is significant for being the first unified Chinese state. The Qin dynasty lasted until 206 BCE and was soon succeeded by the Han dynasty.
Qin Shi Huang 秦始皇
The “First Emperor” of China who created the Qin dynasty by conquering all rival Chinese states and unifying China for the first time in 221 BCE.
Tang dynasty 唐朝
The ruling dynasty of China from 618-907 CE, which embraced trade with the outside world and was accepting of foreign ideologies.
A buried army of ceramic soldiers, horses, and chariots excavated near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.
Yuan dynasty 大元
The ruling dynasty of China from 1271-1368 CE. Yuan was founded after the Mongol conquest of China and continued expansion of their territory.
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- Gavin. “Xi’an City Wall.” X’ian City Wall: Top 3 Things to Do and Travel Info (with Pictures), China Highlights, 14 Aug. 2023, www.chinahighlights.com/xian/attraction/ancient-city-wall.htm.
- Man, John. The Great Wall: The Extraordinary History of China’s Wonder of the World. Bantam Press, 2008.
- “Xi’an City Wall.” Edited by Catherine He, Xi’an City Wall: Facts, History, Bike Ride, Opening Hours, Fee, TravelChinaGuide, 6 May 2023, www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/citywall.htm.