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Beijing's Subway System Offers History At Each Stop, Both Above And Below Ground

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For our Summer Travel series, NPR's correspondents all over the world are sending audio postcards of the countries they cover. And today, we go to Beijing, China. There, our correspondent Emily Feng takes us on a ride along Beijing's line 2 subway, which traces an unexpected history.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Beijing subway line 2 is a circle, not a line, actually. And any visitor to Beijing will take it at least once to visit historic sites, like the Confucian temple and perhaps even the NPR Beijing office.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Most of the stops on line 2 have the word men in them. It's Chinese for gate.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: For example, I'm at Chaoyang Gate - or Chaoyangmen - right now, heading towards Jianguomen. Then, there's Chongwenmen, Qianmen, Hepingmen and so on. That's because Beijing subway line 2 traces nearly exactly the loop where the city's Ming dynasty city walls once stood. The history of Beijing is literally traced by line 2's underground footprint.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese). We are now arriving at Jianguomen.

FENG: To learn more about the wall and the subway below it, I head above ground to find Matthew Hu, a Beijing-born historian.

I find Hu in this quiet, leafy Beijing courtyard in the center of the city. He explains what the wall was once like.

MATTHEW HU: Around the city, we have nine city gates for the inner city. The city gate - it's like a mini city itself, so it can accommodate a few hundred people easily.

FENG: Most northern Chinese cities had formidable city walls dating back to the 15th century, like Beijing's, or even older. And each of the gates also has a back story. For example, Andingmen - or the gate of peaceful stability - faces north towards what was then the biggest threat to Beijing.

HU: All the nomads came from the northern Mongolian grassland, and they came down to Beijing.

FENG: So Beijing's military generals always led their troops out of the city through Andingmen, riding north in the hopes they could maintain the peaceful stability of the city. Next, I head to line 2's Qianmen stop to understand how the wall once shaped the lives of the people living around it.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Qianmen meaning, literally, front gate in Chinese, is actually a nickname for the Zhengyangmen, the main gate leading into Beijing. It was home to a vibrant neighborhood of alleyways, or hutongs. Sadly, a lot of these hutongs were torn down before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But the restored gate still remains outside the subway entrance.

So we walk out, and on the right, there's this big ornate, red gate. It's still quite beautiful - red on the bottom, blue on top. And right next to Qianmen lives Shi Zhiguang. He's a Beijing born and bred antiques collector.

SHI ZHIGUANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: My family's been here for 700 years since the Yuan dynasty, Shi says proudly, and he's not budging. For five centuries, the wall regulated the rhythms of Beijing life. Shi remembers his mom saying this.

SHI: (Through interpreter) Come and go with the Beijing city walls. The gates opened at 4 a.m. precisely, with people lining up to get out. And at 5 p.m., they promptly closed.

FENG: A lot of foot traffic passed through Qianmen, so many of the city's best shops crowded there. So did the city's artistic talent. Shi rattles off all the famous Peking opera stars who were born near the gate.

SHI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: In the spring, Shi recalls hunting for crickets on the wall. And in the winter, the wall became a source of warmth, too.

SHI: (Through interpreter) We'd take the yellow clay the wall was made of and roll it into a ball with coal. The loose coal and the clay formed a mass you could burn for heat.

FENG: Today, she still lives in his beloved Qianmen neighborhood, although the wall is gone, and he refuses to take the subway.

SHI: (Through interpreter) Imagine what would happen if the subway collapsed. Good God. The spirits of heaven and earth must be really irritated with all our tunneling.

FENG: The tunneling, and the demise of Shi's beloved wall, started in the 1960s. That's when the Chinese Communist Party's relations with neighboring Soviet Union became tense, and China feared an invasion. So military leaders began planning an extensive underground bunker system to shelter China's leaders and Beijing residents in case of Soviet attack. Zhang Guorui remembers this time. He also lives close to where the city wall once stood.

ZHANG GUORUI: (Through interpreter) We dug our own bunker. We spent days just carting the dirt away. We never did use the bunker, though.

FENG: Engineers soon decided to repurpose bunkers for a subway, and they realized the best place to further excavate would be under the city wall. It was the only place not covered by buildings. But there was one problem - how to dismantle the walls. Zhang says they were huge.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) There were wild trees growing on top of the wall, where it was as wide as the road we're sitting on now. The bricks were so big that I took some back home, hung one on each end of a pole and used it as a dumbbell.

FENG: But the Communist Party quickly found a solution. They called in ordinary people to demolish the wall brick by brick to demonstrate their commitment to the socialist cause and to protect themselves against the Soviets. Here's Hu, the historian.

HU: I think, in a few months' time, the city wall was taken away because people from all walks of life - they were encouraged to do volunteer work. Even primary school students were encouraged to go there.

FENG: Hu has collected some surviving clay bricks torn from the old city walls. They were recycled to build people's homes nearby. He sprays some water on the bricks to bring their inscriptions and colors into greater relief. Each brick has a kiln mark telling you who made it.

HU: For example, this one also has a date. This one is from Jiajing 33. So Jiajing is a very famous Chinese emperor in the Ming dynasty. So 33rd year, which would be 1554.

FENG: And although the walls are no longer there, Hu says its memory lives on below ground, whenever he rides line 2.

HU: I don't really have to look at the map. I know - if I know the direction I'm going, I know which is the next stop. I know all the city gates by heart.

FENG: So if you ever get to ride the Beijing line 2 subway, just know there is way more above the surface than meets the eye.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "AUGUST TWELVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.