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Tunnel Visions
An ancient underground military fortress
Text by Zi Mo



Intertwining tunnels create a subterranean labyrinth. CFP      Sharpened sticks wait at the bottom of a booby trap. IC

Many viewers of the film Tunnel War were captivated by scenes depicting Chinese soldiers defending a village from invading Japanese troops through skillful use of a network of tunnels. In fact, the use of tunnels during war can be traced back centuries in China. The earliest recorded instance was pulled off in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) cave in Shuidong Valley in Lingwu City, northwestern China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which is also considered the best-preserved and most complete ancient military defense network along the Great Wall.

The artificial cave was chiseled in the cliffs along a 3-kilometer valley, with one end in Hongshan Fort, which was built in 1503. The fort, with a circumference of 1,200 meters, has partially collapsed, but the surviving city walls and towers testify to its past magnificence. According to Wang Huimin, a researcher with the Ningxia Archeology Institute, cavalries from nomadic tribes such as the Tartars and Oirats often rode across the Ming Dynasty’s northwestern border to plunder local residents. The cave emerged as part of a scientific, comprehensive defense network, along with the Great Wall and its accompanying fortresses, that effectively thwarted invasions by nomadic tribes through utilizing local landforms such as valleys and earthen mounds.

When it was first discovered, the historic cave had already partially collapsed after centuries of weathering, and people only knew of a few holes in the cliffs. For a long time, the cave was used by locals to store grain until local authorities began the first archeological excavation in 2006.

After years of cleaning and digging, 2,000 meters of tunnels through the cave are now open to tourists. Estimates put the open section at only a quarter of the cave’s total tunnels.

Visiting tourists often gasp when entering the subterranean labyrinth. The intertwining tunnels and caverns enabled troops to effectively hide and ambush the enemy during wartime, and were used as barracks during peace time. The cave is protected by many booby-trapped holes with sharp spikes or horns waiting at the bottom. Typically, a tunnel is two meters high and one meter wide, allowing only a single person to pass at a time. For this reason, with a good position at the end of a corridor, a single soldier could defend against an entire legion of invaders.




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