Text by Wang Fang Photographs by Wang Lei
Liu Jinchuan is already at the southern old city wall before the sun comes up to warm the northern city of Datong. He will spend the entire morning photographing the scene around him, determined to capture every change of the city on film. He has strictly followed this routine since a maintenance and restoration project for the ancient city wall began two years ago.
In his images, the formerly damaged eastern city wall now appears similar to how it looked after being reconstructed by Ming Dynasty General Xu Da in 1372. It was no small task then or now, but the restoration included all of the wall’s 12 watchtowers, two command platforms, two turrets, an arrow tower, and a crescent-shaped defense base, together totaling 1,800 meters in length. The project marked the largest of its kind since Xu Da last attempted it in the 14th century, and it is just one component of Datong’s plan to preserve all of its ancient urban districts.
Datong was established in 398, and for its first millennium, the city was one of the most important in northern China. Constantly evolving planned urban construction resulted in an organized street layout, which remains mostly intact today. Across the ages, there was no shift in the city’s geographical core, and its northern and southern axes remain the same as they were centuries ago, a rarity amongst surviving ancient Chinese cities. According to the Datong Municipal Administration of Cultural Relics, the city features 1,519 traditional houses, characterized by courtyard residences found along the city’s 156 well-preserved ancient streets, and the earthen foundation of the historical city walls built between dynasties ranging from the Northern Wei (386-534) to the Qing (1644-1911), which is remarkably preserved although many brick sections of the wall and towers no longer stand.
An understanding of the city’s relatively great conditions fueled Mayor Geng Yanbo’s decision to restore the original appearance of the ancient city.