The City Gates

Water is a great boundary – especially if it is surrounded by locks, gates and tall city walls.

Pan Men

The Eight City Gates of Suzhou were surrounded by a moat, which fed into a complex system of water and land gates to protect the city.

The Water Gate

One of the only ancient cities to use both land and water gates, Suzhou had its boundaries clearly marked and defined by rammed earth walls built along the carefully marked boundaries of the planned city.

Each of the gates were situated in cardinal directions. The Chang Gate, to the north-west, was constructed to capture Changhe,  the wind of heaven, which was to flow to the south-east gate of the Earth.

Chang Men. This Wiki commons photo shows the Chang Gate much as it looked like when we were there last week – shame about the battery charger 🙂

The Gate of Earth was sometimes called the Snake Gate – scholars speculate this maybe to indicate an intention to thwart any would be invastion by a southern state, whose totem was Snake. The southern state of Yue, in response, built their own city gate, the Gate of Thunder. Yinong Xu, in his penultimate book about ancient town planning, says

“The elaborated symbolic implications carried by the city gates must not be interpreted as primarily concerned with practical matters with some cosmic significance added,  nor should they be seen as superstitious expressions of the king’s political ambitions, for the king’s ambitions or actions where themselves expected to follow the pattern of the universe and thus be in harmonious correspondence with the cosmic order”. (Xu, p52)

Names were as important as solid defenses.

盘门 Pan Men is said by some to mean “jar gate” yet the original character  盤

has the meaning of a coiling dragon. The complex layout of the gate, with waterways winding through, is said to look like a coiling dragon.

Waterways inside the Pan Gate.


Cang Ling Ting and Pan Men 305

These boundaries, of course, were originally constructed for military reasons. Yet not only did the boundaries need to be solid and secure defences, they needed to have names which reflected their purpose and connection to heaven. Indeed, as there was seen to be no dichotomy between heaven and earth, and the city was planned to represent heaven, the cosmological defences of the city – epitomised by the placement and naming of the gates – was seen to be just as important as the number of times rammed earth was compressed to build the physical walls.  Stone blocks were laid as foundations, with rubble stone compressed with rammed earth and seperated by thin bamboo stems as the building blocks. All dimensions of blocks and the finished wall – width, height, length – needed to be in accordance with cosmic measurement as codified by an ancient text. ( Even in 500 BC, when Suzhou was first built, the Zhou dynasty’s codifications in the Zhou Li were already some half a millennia older).

Qu Yuan, a poet from the Chu state from which Suzhou’s founder Wuzixu fled before he planned King Helu’s town, wrote

I asked the Gate Keeper of the High God to open the Gate of Heaven

But he leant against the Changhe and eyed me churlishly.


Yinong Xu’s “The Chinese City in Space and Time” is the most definitive study of the planning, construction and history to be found. Much of the information in this post comes from this text.