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This photo taken from the Vietnamese side of the pass.

In centuries past, on each side of the boder of the 鎮南關 Zhènnánguān, South Holding Frontier Pass was a formal ritual terrace. On the north side of the border it was named 照德臺 Zhàodétái Radiating Virtue Terrace, and on the south side 仰德臺 Yǎngdétái Revering Virtue Terrace, in conformance to the supremacy of China. No traces of these terraces remain.

鎮南關 Zhènnánguān translates to South Holding Frontier Post, or South Pressing Pass. This name was the old Chinese name for the pass. Its purpose, in the eyes of the Chinese, for 2000 years, was to press down the barbarian south. Now its name has been changed to the politically correct Friendship Pass. First built in the Han Dynasty during General Ma Yuan's pacification campaign in the years 40-43 BC. (Over the centuries it has had other names; 雞陵關 Jilingguan, 雍雞關 Yongjiguan, 界首關 Jieshouguan, 大南關 Dananguan, 鎮夷關 Zhenyiguan, and 建國後改睦南關 Jianguo Gaimunnanguan.

During the Ming Dynasty a Vietnamese envoy Le Quy Don wrote an essay commemorating the rebuilding of the Zhennanguan by a Chinese official, (Record of the Renovation of the Great South Holding Pass” (重修鎮南大關記, Trung tu Tram Nam dai quan ky/Chongxiu Zhennan daguan ji)


According to the Rites of Zhou, Keepers of Security were in charge of repairing citadels, city walls, moats and waterways, as well as planting trees along ditches to firm them up, while those who garrisoned these points did so in accordance with the law. Then there was the Director of Defense Works who examined a map of the Nine Regions to learn where the points of obstruction were among the mountains, forests, rivers and swamps, and then cleared these obstructions by opening up routes. Within the Kingdom he established the five canals and five roads, and lined them with trees to firm them up. All of these routes had people defending them. The principle of establishing defenses at strategic locations was taken this seriously.

Guangxi and [the land of] Viet are in the Southern Domain. Densely packed with mountains, it has Yao and Tong [i.e. minority] peoples living scattered about the area. It is a strategic region, yet only has one pass—the South Holding Pass. Bordered on the south by Giao Chi/Jiaozhi, it is known as a strategic point. It is where Ma Xinxi’s [i.e. Ma Vien’s/Ma Yuan’s] bronze pillars were. The land is flat and open. There are no high mountains or deep forests that can serve as protective obstacles. All that this area can rely upon is this one pass.

The Kingdom’s moral sway is enormous. [The people of] all lands are [the Emperor’s] servants. The various peoples from the four directions all knock at the gates of border passes, so that the inner and outer constitute a single entity. The Calm South is particularly obedient. Therefore, the pass went for a long time without being repaired, and became more dilapidated with each passing day. Tribute envoys knock at this gate and cross this route each year. Although strengthening defenses is not an urgent matter for a sagely era, it is still important that the pass look majestic and that the border be secure. What is more, it was feared that commoners from the Inner Land might surreptitiously cross the border and harass people in the vassal domain. This, of course, is not Our Kingdom’s intent in embracing men from afar. Therefore, it was imperative to repair the pass. Civilian and military officials came and began preparing for the construction project.

The current Surveillance Commissioner of Guangxi, the Honorable Gan, was at that time Prefect of Taiping prefecture, and concurrently, in charge of affairs in Nanning prefecture as well. He noted that in Nanning there was a tax on betel nut, to the sum of 1,800 taels of silver, which was levied in addition to the standard taxes. He generously stated that “Since the pass is on land which is in the jurisdiction of Taiping prefecture, and since the pass is in disrepair, I am willing to allocate this extra money for the purpose of repairing the pass.” He then formally requested and received permission to do so. Following this he assembled workers who began the project in the second lunar month of the third year of the Yongzheng reign [1725], and finished the following winter. Now with its fortified wall standing tall, its towers capped with winged roofs, and its sentry box and barracks both orderly and solemn, when one looks to the south it is like the two bronze pillars standing tall and firm. It is truly the greatest sight under the southern skies.

In regard to the affairs of the Kingdom, one only worries that those entrusted with carrying out tasks do not have a sincere heart. If one does not have a sincere heart then even should they work together with others, they still cannot complete a task. A person with a sincere heart though, even should he work alone, he can still complete any task with ease. The Honorable Gan is truly a wise and virtuous man! The Honorable Gan’s name is Rulaisa. He is from Fengxin county in Jiangxi province. He gained prominence by becoming a presented scholar. Wherever he has served he has gained a repAs I was preparing to journey to the North, the Honorable Gan visited me and requested that I write a record [of the renovation of the pass]. I have therefore recounted these events and praised the Honorable Gan in order to urge those in the future to not forsake these accomplishments.

Gan has a reputation for being able and incorruptible. As a secretary of the Ministry of Personnel he was appointed Prefect of Taiping prefecture. Not long later he was promoted to Vice Commissioner of Zuojiang circuit. All of his promotions, up to the present, have been executed by the Sagely Son of Heaven himself. One can therefore only guess at the great tasks with which he will be entrusted in the future.

It is also appropriate that I also mention the other officials who contributed to this project – the Governor-general of the Two Guangs [i.e. Guangdong and Guangxi], Kong Yuxun, the Provincial Military Commander of Guangxi, Han Liangfu, and the Regional Commander of Zuojiang, Liang Yongxi.

(Translation by Liam Kelley from his book The Bronze Pillars)

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