The Lesser Wall

In Search of the Willow Palisade

There is no such place as Manchuria, but the word still resonates like a bell struck a century before. The region is now more prosaically called dongbei—the northeast—yet its contemporary toponyms sing of its imperial past, when it was the homeland of the Manchu, China’s last dynastic rulers: White Banner township, Princess Tomb City, and a river named Scaly Dragon, for the emperor’s insignia. The names also recall a time when Manchuria’s western steppe was settled by Mongolians—places like Arxan and Numrug and Gorlos—and its eastern forests by Koreans, crossing the Gaya and Bu’erhe rivers. Manchuria was once, too, the destination of Han Chinese exiles, passing through the Great Wall to the “land outside the pale.”

I rent a house at the region’s heart, in a now-verdant rice-farming village named Wasteland. It borders Lonely Outpost, The Dunes, and Zhang’s Smelly Ditch. Mud City is a short walk away, and an hour’s bus ride in the opposite direction sits Ninth Signal Tower, echoing its place on what to me is the most lyrical Manchurian place name of all: the Willow Palisade.

The barrier—called liutiao bian1 in Chinese—once formed a wishbone2 of soil and trees one thousand miles long across the northeast. It divided Mongol, Manchu, and Han Chinese areas of settlement, protected imperial hunting lands, and secured the sable-and-ginseng trade. In 1754, the emperor Qianlong described the barrier in a five-verse poem3 that begins:

West reaching to the Great Wall, east connecting with the sea,
A row of willows forms a line marking the inside and outside.
There is no strategic fortification to guard this border,
Nor construction of walls that exhausts the people.


Yet unlike the Great Wall, little of the palisade remains. Nothing can be seen at Ninth Signal Tower, located near the barrier’s northernmost tip, in central Jilin province. Partly this is because the fence was constructed not of brick, but parallel dirt berms four feet tall, divided by a trench and topped with willow trees, whose branches were often lashed together with rope. And partly this is because the palisade, conceived by the emperor Shunzhi at the start of the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1644, had ceased being maintained as early as a century later, during the reign of his great-grandson, Qianlong, whose successful expansion of Qing territory, coupled with Han migration to the northeast, made the palisade superfluous. By the time the explorers Francis Younghusband and Henry E.M. James visited Manchuria in 1886, they found the barrier had “no more existence at the present day than the Roman Wall. The wooden gateways, or men, are, however, still maintained as Customs barriers, and all traffic passing through them must pay transit dues. Only an occasional mound or row of trees marks the line where the palisade originally stood.”4

The palisade’s physical deterioration is matched by its disappearance from memory today; in part, this is because it was a Manchu, not Han Chinese, artifact. The northeast has China’s highest literacy rates and a trove of museums to its palimpsest past—the remains of the Jin dynasty, a restored synagogue founded by White Russians, a Shinto temple, the home of warlord and Kuomintang officer Zhang Xueliang, and even a shrine to Bill Gates—yet nothing marking the Willow Palisade. Nor does it appear in school textbooks; my writing its characters on classroom blackboards in the northeast is always met with unknowing stares from students and teachers alike, who often ask: Have you been to the Great Wall?

And so, in the spirit of previous explorers, I am sitting on a train chugging northeast from Shenyang to a county called Qingyuan—Origin of the Qing, in search of the not-so-great wall—the lesser, the lowly, the little-known and lovely-named Willow Palisade.

* * *

Train number 7515 is one of those throwbacks to China’s ancient transportation past, a decade ago. The four-number trains promise hard seats, but increasingly empty carriages, as people opt for faster routes. Today I have an entire car to myself, and fill a cup with hot water and instant Marxism—“God’s Favored Coffee,” according to the package’s English caption—and read a booklet sold on the platform titled Intriguing Stories and Strange Affairs. It answers questions such as, “Will our capital be moved from Beijing?” (No); “Did the 1989 Student Protest Movement fail?” (Yes); and “How many people were killed during the Cultural Revolution?” (Lots).

Out the window, the landscape reads like a run-on sentence of tilled fields ending in smokestack exclamation points. Once the train passes Fushun—home to one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines—the air clears, revealing a sharp blue autumn sky, piles of dried corn stalks, and hills shrouded in pine. In his 1754 poem, Qianlong notes how the northeastern forests supplied the barrier:

The wood supply in the mountains is inexhaustible;
A fence of trees was thus planted to prevent people from trespassing.
Shengjing,5 Jilin, each are divided;
The Mongol rulers, whom can they be severe with now?


The Palisade’s dimensions didn’t offer much defense, nor did its gates, which numbered twenty-one across its length, or one every fifty miles. The gates doubled as courier stations and transport corridors, topped by a modest wooden tower (not as elaborate as city gates). They were surrounded by fields and their staff had time to farm when work checking travel documents and parcels was slow. Though no modern map marks the route of palisade’s remains, one can trace it by looking for villages ending in “gate” (men) such as Ying’emen, which I guess as the best place to begin my journey, since it is located in a Manchu Autonomous County named Qingyuan—“origin of the Qing.”

Even during the Qing Dynasty, whose emperors added Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, southern Yunnan, and Xinjiang to China’s territory, Manchu domination over the northeast eroded. The “seal and prohibit” policy barring migration of Han Chinese to the Manchu homeland was often rescinded or not enforced during times of famine and a need for seasonal laborers; by the 1800s the largest concentration of Manchu lived in Beijing. Today, only 10 percent of the northeast’s 110 million people are Manchu.6 Many live in clusters such as Qingyuan, population 100,000.

It is the type of town where you arrive and think, “Oh shit,” as the train pulls away, leaving you alone on the platform. The station is a relic of Japanese occupation of the area for coal mining; its curving art-deco façade, colored robin’s-egg-blue, looks like a toy left behind. The taxis waiting on the small apron out front do not have meters; there isn’t a bus stop, or traffic light, in sight. I make my living traveling in China and know that when I don’t know what to do, ceasing movement will present someone who does. There are no noodle shops to wait in here, so I stand in place.

In less than a minute, a beefy, ruddy-cheeked man emerges from his Wholesale Tobacco/Alcohol/Sweets/Tea shop. My brain is already responding to the expected questions by rote—American, first arrived in ‘95, writer, I make less than you—when instead the man announces, “Today is a good day to get married. Yesterday was for funerals, today is for celebration.”

No crowd gathers; aside from me and the man, named Li Changchun, no one else seems to inhabit Qingyuan. A thick gold chain girds Mr. Li’s neck the way a felling chain hugs a redwood. He smokes Lesser Panda cigarettes. He smells like pine tar. The lapel of his blue sport coat is adorned with a pin of Mao Zedong. Mr. Li is a Manchu—he proudly flourishes his identity card to prove it—and is the first person I’ve ever met who doesn’t flinch when I mention the Willow Palisade.

En’e,” he says, northeastern dialect for sure. “I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, but I know the village you mean, Ying’emen. I’ll take you.”

I like Li Changchun.

He finds a driver—asleep on a mahjong table—who takes us to the village, and a low brick house. “The oldest woman in the county lives here. We’ll ask her,” Mr. Li says. We enter a house without knocking and learn that the oldest woman in Qingyuan county is in the hospital. Sitting up in bed when we enter her room a woman named Yu Huifang expresses no surprise at her late-night visitors. She says, “Seventy years ago you could see the palisade here. Now it’s gone; the trees were chopped down for firewood, and the moat was used for planting. It’s all eroded now. No trace exists.”

Legend has it that the dynasty’s founding father, Nurhaci (an orphan, adopted by a great Ming general), was born in Qingyuan. The old woman knows that story, but “no one cares about Qing history, after all.” She lays herself back in bed, and closes her eyes, then adds we should ask a man named Liu Liangjun. “He wrote a book about it.” Research in China is horizontal—one person passes you on to the next, like knots joining rope. It is dark now, and after rounds of Heaven Lake-brand beer, Mr. Li and I part until morning.

The town’s curbs are illuminated by open fires; today is the Manchu ghost festival, requiring the names of the departed to be said aloud, and spending money sent to the other side via flame. “It’s a way of remembering their spirit, to let them know you still care,” a woman tells me, before asking if I can find her a husband. “Single men leave Qingyuan to find work.”

My room’s television scrolls the local classifieds, scored by alto sax: a Liberation truck for sale, bags of homemade fried-spiced peanuts. A government notice urges viewers to “despise counterfeit money; cherish the people’s money,” and then begins a series of personal ads:

“Man, 76, divorced, 1.67m., own a house with heat. No burdens. Looking for a woman 76 or younger. Beauty doesn’t matter. I spend all my time loving you!”
“Woman, 43, healthy, tender and warm, graduated middle school. Seeking a man aged 62 or younger.”
“Woman, 53, 1.55m, retired, responsible, good quality, no burdens. Wants to watch sunset with you tonight.”


Outside, the fires flicker, then die.

* * *

Michael Meyer

The historian does not own a copy of his book, and so he takes us to the middle school. “They have one there,” Liu Liangjun says. “It’s only 65 pages, but it tells the old tales.” He is shorter than Li Changchun and wearing a white polo shirt tucked into highly-buckled blue slacks, with a graying, overgrown crew cut that suggests electrocution. His eyes are shielded by the oversized tinted glasses Manchu scholars wear in contemporary soap operas.

We arrive at the school to find the head teacher out back, hoeing a row of onions. In fluent English he wonders if I know what the school used to be. “A temple,” I guess, correctly, even though the single-story building looks new. He shows me a remaining corner of the temple’s foundation and switches to Chinese, concluding the temple’s story with, “Cultural Revolution.”

The teacher, Li Changchun, and I follow the historian out the gate to the dirt road wide enough for a single, corn-stalk-laden tractor to pass. His book has gone missing in the school and so he will show us the story. We walk past a gap-toothed, unpainted wooden fence to an embankment that looks ten feet high. The historian points to a stubby, leafless willow trunk and nods. No plaque marks the spot. The Willow Palisade.

The remains of this gate at Ying’emen sit on the eastern flank of the barrier, which ran 700 miles from present-day Kaiyuan city to the terminus of the Yalu River border with North Korea, erected to demarcate the imperial hunting grounds—equal in size to the state of Maine—from the area where Han Chinese were allowed to settle. In the third verse of his poem, Qianlong writes:

Like the fence that is seventy li long,
The Hunting Reserve exceeds several times its confines.
In our erection of borders and regulation of people, ancient ways are preserved,
As it is enough simply to tie a rope to indicate prohibition.


Liaoning province has a long tradition of wall-building, dating back over 2000 years to the Warring States, Qin, and Han dynasties. Along this side, the palisade made use of existing Ming-era stone-and-mud walls, elms, and wooden stakes. The explorer Henry E.M. James wrote that the barrier “consisted of long lines of wooden chevaux-de-frise, in the shape of St. Andrew’s crosses, and made it difficult for men, and especially for cavalry, to pass.”

The school’s headmaster joins us, interrupting the historian. “This area is ripe for tourism!” he says, pointing to the near distance. “You see the dip in the hills where the Willow Palisade came down? There’s a lake up there, where we can add tents and picnic areas, and then rebuild the Willow Palisade. It’s so easy—just plant trees. I’m telling you, it’s so easy. Think about it. It’s willow trees! It won’t cost much, it’s just trees. But the local leaders won’t listen to me.”

Our group paces back to the school, and across the street to the village’s only restaurant, whose entrance is bordered by a stack of drying corn cobs topped with three amputated dog paws. The historian is quiet, the headmaster is talking (trees, easy, cheap, trees), and Li Changchun is opening bottles of Heaven Lake. A policeman in uniform joins us and says he knows the location of Qingyuan Manchu Autonomous County’s best artifact. “It’s in my basement.”

We cross the street to the police station and are led down the steps to the boiler room by a hunchback grasping a large iron key ring. He turns the lock with a skeleton key and tugs at the metal door. On the dirt floor sits a rusting bell, as tall as a dwarf. We finger its inscriptions. “Welcome to our museum,” the officer says theatrically. “That’s all that remains of our Qing dynasty.”

* * *

There is no such place as Manchuria, but still the name resonates. The term sounds gauche today because of Manchukuo, the de facto colony created in the northeast by occupying Japan in 1932. Called Manzhouguo (满洲国) in Chinese, it means “the Manchu State,” a regime nominally headed by Puyi, China’s last emperor, and is designated the Manchu Puppet State (伪满洲国) today.

“Manchuria,” however, is not a colonial term. It predates the Japanese invasion, appearing in the official name of the Communist Party’s regional branch office, its publications (such as the Manchurian Laborer), and propaganda, until the organization was crushed in 1937. The largest map-printer of the Republican era marked the region as “Manchuria” in Chinese, though the majority of maps labeled it the “Three Eastern Provinces,” a former imperial term reflecting the fact that when the Manchu crossed the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan to conquer Beijing, they did not know their homeland was northeast of the capital, not just east.

That error was pointed out by the Jesuit geographers who compiled the region’s first atlas in 1717. Maps at this time were for the court’s eyes only, but some did make their way out. Previously dubbed “Tartary,”7 the northeast was now marked Manshu on Japanese translations and on versions that appeared in Paris as legend ancien pays des Mantcheou qui ont conquit la Chine. London editions shortened that to The Manchew.8 By the early nineteenth century, “Manchuria” (and Mandshuria and Mantchooria) appeared in American atlases and Chinese maps, entering common, and often romanticized, usage.

The Qing court used the name too, of course, to remind Manchus of their status as occupiers and that their homeland was a separate space. Ironically, this notion fueled Japan’s argument to the League of Nations that it did not “invent” Manchuria. As evidence, it presented historic maps, Qianlong’s poems, and other markers to prove to the League’s visiting Lytton Commission that the region had historically been separate from China.

Given its history, it is not surprising, then, to find place names of a modern poetry throughout the region: towns whose colonial names have been changed to The East is Red, Eternal Spring, Big Celebration. I was lost in search of the Willow Palisade’s western flank; the gate names no longer appeared on maps, and the few accounts I found on Chinese blogs suggested the wall had long eroded. This section followed the Liao River, terminating near Shanhaiguan, the Great Wall pass that led to Beijing. By the mid-eighteenth century, the emperor no longer maintained the palisade gates as before; imperial strategy for the region had shifted from reserving Manchuria for the Manchu to filling the region with Chinese to ward off Russian encroachment over the Amur River into China’s northeast. This section of the barrier, bordering the Mongol steppe, had been made of parallel levees five feet high topped with willows, sometimes bordered by a moat, as Qianlong describes in his poem’s penultimate verse:

I spurred my horse to the east along the Palisade;
It was so low I could have jumped over and so spread out I could have crossed it.
The deer go back and forth and can sometimes be caught outside;
Building it is the same as not having built it.


* * *

The map said Xinmin—New Citizen—and the town seemed small enough to assume that, on arrival, someone would step forward and tell me what I was looking for. But after a two-hour bus ride northwest from Shenyang, I am marooned at a station the size of a regional airport. It is larger than the station I have departed from, fronted with glass and fake flowers, ringed by tarmac, and while everyone inside is friendly and engaging in the northeastern way—offering sunflower seeds and pine cones (for the seeds), asking if I have kids, stabbing at cell phones and making inquiries—no one has heard of the Willow Palisade.

I ask a teller at the Agricultural Bank and a clerk at the Great Northeast Medicine Store. A gruff man in a camouflage jacket says my beard is beautiful. The sky is high and piercingly blue, saturating everything and highlighting the white moon fattening toward Mid-Autumn Festival. That feeling of open space and empty landscapes returns, and I am reminded of how much I love traveling this part of China. A bus pulls up, and the driver asks if I’m the guy who was inquiring about the old Mongolian border. I sit up front for the full view.

I have been up since five, and bouncing along a two-lane road lulls me to sleep. The driver wakes me an hour later in Zhangwu town, saying, “This is the old border.” Another bus station, also large, also new. An old man wanders up and I know he’s the one. “The Willow Palisade? En’e, that’s 30 kilometers back on the road you just arrived on. Get off at the blue road signs.”

An hour later, the same bus driver stops at the blue signs stretching over the road—“This is the only blue sign, brother”—and I get off. The bus pulls away. The sun is high now, and sweat runs down the back of my neck. All is silent, save for the patch of sunflowers rustling in the breeze. Their blossomed heads bow toward a strip of white sand that runs soft and hot through my fingers. It feels like a dry riverbed. The blue sign reads: If you encounter troubles when doing business in Zhangwu, call 6949006.

It’s an option. I walk along the sand, past the sunflowers, along an embankment, until I hear the staccato bursts of a tractor that appears from behind a bend of corn stalks. A farmer named Feng stops the Taisan T-25 and, typically for Manchuria, does not ask where I am from, only what I’m up to.

“You’re standing on the Willow Palisade,” he says. “This was the moat, or part of the river, and that embankment of earth there was the barrier.” He climbs down and leads me into the green stalks covering it now. “This over here is all broad beans, and this”—he says, tearing a handful of roots from the fragrant loam—“is just peanuts.”

On the back of the tractor I bounce along the palisade’s remains. Mr. Feng brings me back to the road and points to a gully on the other side. “Didn’t you see the marker there?”

I am looking at a pile of trash, but Mr. Feng is off our ride and walking down over soggy ground. He stops at a toppled white granite plaque.

“This is the second one the government put here. The first one? It went missing.” He laughs and adds, “You understand, it was stolen. It’s good stone.”

The new stele was not properly set and lies face down covered by weeds. The inscription identifies this section of the western Willow Palisade and the road as running through the former gate that separated Mongol from Manchu lands. Another tractor stops, and then a car, and now there are five of us standing in water, starting at the stone, and I am wishing a plaque could be erected here bearing the last stanza of Qianlong’s poem, which resonates despite his intention:

In so far as the idea exists and the framework is there, there is no need to elaborate;
The methods of predecessors are preserved by descendants
When there are secure fortifications it is peaceful [
qing] for ten thousand years:
How can this be dependent on these insignificant willows?


After the men leave, it is an hour in the hot sun on the side of the road, caked in dirt, waiting for a bus, and I am happy to stand there, filling an empty water bottle with sand. A truck laden with watermelons shudders to a halt after seeing me (screech rumble exhaling air brakes), and the driver gets out of his cab and walks back along the shoulder. He says I look like an American and asks about Obama and the economy, and how short our history is compared to theirs, and what do watermelons sell for in the States. It is a conversation I could be having anywhere in China, but we are completely alone, surrounded by sunflowers, peanuts, and dragonflies, listening to different frequencies. “This is the Willow Palisade,” I say with pride, and the driver replies, “The what?”

  1. 柳条边
  2. Its shape also resembles the character for person, 人, striding forward.
  3. “The Qianlong Emperor’s Authoritative Poem on the Willow Palisade.” This and most facts on the Palisade come from “The Willow Palisade,” by Richard L. Edmonds. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 69, No. 4 (December, 1979) pp. 599-621.
  4. From The Long White Mountain, or a Journey in Manchuria, H.E.M James, 1888. The book is an entertaining, if exacting, account of their 3,113.3-mile trip. Younghusband would soon be visiting the other end of the Qing empire, laying siege to Tibet in the name of the British crown.
  5. Today’s Shenyang; Shengjing (Rising Capital), once the seat of Manchu power, is the direct translation from Mukden, from the Manchu word mukdembi (arise), which is how Western tales and maps recorded it.
  6. The word “Manchu” is a neologism. Historian Pamela Crossley explains in her book The Manchus: “Strictly speaking, there were no Manchus before 1635, which was the year the nascent Qing empire announced that a large portion of its followers would be known by a new national name.” The Jurchen people who founded the dynasty created the Manchu language, culture, and identity at the same time their state institutionalized it. The terms makes even less sense in contemporary Chinese—满族 or manzu—means not Manchu, but the “Man ethnicity.” Crossley also notes that while the Manchu are portrayed as hapless in contemporary accounts, their empire—in addition to doubling the size of China with the addition of Xinjiang alone—compares favorably with the land empires of their time, such as the Romonavs, Ottomans, and Moguls. Also when Qianlong composed his ode to the Willow Palisade and northeast pacification in 1754, Britain and France began the Seven Year’s War (French-Indian War) involving their Canadian and American colonies.
  7. Used in English for the first time by Chaucer, and applied thereafter to peoples from Turkey to Siberia. Hence the “Tartar City” instead of “Imperial City” on old maps of Beijing in English.
  8. My summary of Manchuria’s etymology comes from Mark Elliot’s page-turner, “The Limits of Tartary: Manchuria in Imperial and National Geographies.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 59, No. 3 (August, 2000), pp. 604-646.