|The Underground City was built as an air-raid shelter on a massive scale. To build it, almost all the male workers in the district who were over 40 were employed. Across Beijing, over 300,000 people worked on the project. The passageways were only the beginning of the structure. There were hospitals, cafeterias, storage rooms, sleeping quarters, and meeting halls. The main hospital could accomodate 500 patients, and other areas were planned for conversion if the need arose. There were clinics and small hospitals dispersed among the various sections.
There was a movie theater which could hold 300 people, but I don't know where they would have gotten a fresh supply of movies. The propaganda films of the era would have worn thin after awhile. But the theater could be used for concerts and plays, as well.
The main tunnels are eight meters underground, although, in several places, they are several meters deeper. There are 30 kilometers of tunnels under Beijing linking high population districts. Each "pod" had amenities for small groups of people, and it is estimated that 300,000 thousand people could have been accomodated.
Water was no problem, as there is underground water to be had by sinking wells of a few additiional meters. Removal of waste for that many people over a long period of time is more problematic. Nothing of the waste management system was left in the Qianmen site. Air flow was assured by over 2,300 specially designed vents that brought in fresh air through some sort of filtering system. Poison gas and contaminants were prime concerns. Tunnel sections could be closed off from one another should poisin or disease threaten one and the others would remain viable.
Eventually, some of the tunnels were incorporated into the subway system. Once it was clear that war was not an imminent threat, large sections were converted to hotels, shopping areas, roller skating rinks, and warehouses. Many of those areas have since been closed for safety reasons. What happened to the rest is probably a State secret.
This section was opened for tourists in 1979. At first, it may have been limited to foreign tourists, but in 2004 I saw a group from Guangzhou go through - but perhaps they were considered foreigners or had special permission. I only mention this because there are several sites on the Internet which talk about Chinese being excluded from visiting the site. When I went, I went with Chinese friends in both 2004 and 2008. They subsequently took other friends who were Chinese and from Beijing. They had no problem getting in. It was not a big secret, as we walked through the hutong asking directions, the older local residents knew where it was - the younger ones didn't - but that would be expected. Most young people in my town couldn't tell people that we have a Historical Society Museum. I think it is more a lack of advertising. It was hard to find information on it, even for a foreigner, in 2004.
I think that tourist agents had it on their list for people who were particularly interested in history in general or the history of the period. If I had a group which had three days in Beijing, it would not be on the list of places to see. In fact, I had a group that had nine days in Beijing in 2005 and I didn't take them there. There just isn't much there - go down into the subway and you will find a much more impressive engineering feat. If you're interested in modern history, or if you are interested in classical revolutionary art, it's worth a stop. As you will see in the subsequent pictures, throngs of visitors would damage the environment.
Last update: August 2009
© Marilyn Shea, 2009