CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 14, June 2008


Beijing Underground | China Heritage Quarterly

Beijing Underground

Sang Ye and Geremie R. Barmé

An Invisible City

Travellers to Beijing often visit the famous 'Underground City' (Dixia cheng) at Qian Men just south of Tiananmen Square. When parts of this previously carefully hidden structure were opened to the public, including foreign visitors, in 1981, many thought that they had gained access to one of the secrets of the Chinese capital, for indeed in those underground structures tourists found a warren of facilities. There are still two public access points, with ticket offices, to the Underground City, one at Xi Damochang Hutong at Qian Men, the other at the Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) Park (at present the Qian Men entrance is closed due to construction work in the area). When the Underground City opened in 1981 tickets were ten Chinese cents, or one mao; now they are twenty Renminbi.

Visitors still only ever see a small portion of what is effectively a vast underground bunker. Certainly, they see a few shops and restaurants, but the subterranean complex also includes numerous residential quarters, hotels, a cinema and factories all carefully sequestered in an area originally built in preparation for foreign incursion or even a nuclear attack. Work on the Underground City began in 1969, around the time that the Cultural Revolution was being celebrated for having achieved 'all-round victory' (quanmian shengli). The nationwide political ruction was declared all but over at the conclusion of the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, convened from April Fool's Day 1969. Later chronologies, and the official Party history, would date the end of the movement from the October 1976 coup against the 'Gang of Four', shortly after Mao's death, although the policies of the Cultural Revolution era were only effectively dismantled from December 1978 with the launching of the 'open door and reform' strategy that celebrates its third decade in December 2008.

Construction work on the Underground City continued until 1979. Divided into three distinct zones, it was built at a depth of 8-12 metres and designed to accommodate up to 300,000 people. Some thirty kilometres of underground car and bus tunnels, along with the various subterranean pedestrian paths, connect to bunkers and the subway system at Qian Men, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Beijing Train Station and the Temple of Heaven. The whole system was built primarily by residents of the Qian Men area without the aid of modern excavation equipment. Today, only approximately one kilometre of the thirty-kilometre bunker system is open to the public. The Underground City remains a little-changed and still hidden monument to the labour and ingenuity of the people of Qian Men. Above ground, however, Qian Men itself—its old shops, restaurants, mini factories, offices and residences—has been dramatically transformed in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with many of the original neighbourhoods and non 'heritage' structures, be they dynastic, Republican or later, demolished (see Kelly Layton's essays in China Heritage Quarterly Issue 13, March 2008, and 'Beijing, the City Made Manifest' under Articles in the present issue).

Qian Men's invisible shelters were constructed in the shadow of potential war, specifically an attack by the Soviet Revisionist and/or the American Imperialists. The underground life of Beijing, however, long predates the creation of the bunker city. The the other extensive subterranean network of the Chinese capital, the Beijing Underground Railway (Beijing Dixia Tiedao, or ditie for short), was in contrast originally inspired by the Soviets, but also built in anticipation of war with the international bourgeoisie and US imperialism. Over the decades from the 1950s, the city's underground system grew as the authorities attempted to maintain a felicitous balance between civic and military (as well as security) requirements. As with so many developments in the Chinese capital, the story of the Beijing Underground, even in the short outline that we provide in the following, reflects the vicissitudes of recent Chinese history.

Hidden Envy

Shortly after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, made an official visit to the Soviet Union. During his time in the Soviet capital, Moscow, among other things, he found himself deeply impressed by the city's lavish metro system, the general plan of which was designed by Lazar Kaganovich in the 1930s. Upon returning to Beijing, in March 1950 Mao declared that "Beijing needs to have an underground railway. Many other cities have to build them as well". In September 1953, in its 'Executive Summary Concerning the Draft Plans for the Reconstruction and Expansion of Beijing Municipality' (Guanyu gaijian yu kuojian Beijing Shi guihua cao'an yaodian), the Planning Leadership Group of Beijing recommended that, "In light of the experiences of the Soviet Union and, in particular, in consideration of the needs of our own national security we believe that it is necessary for us to prepare to construct an underground railway network". In November a 1954 report to Party Central the Beijing Municipal Committee requested that the authorities consider the establishment of an underground railway-planning group and to that end invite Soviet experts to China to help oversee the project. A Soviet team arrived in Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government in October of the following year.

A plan for the Beijing underground was duly drawn up by April 1956 and, two months later, after having viewed a model of the proposed project, the Premier Zhou Enlai suggested that key People's Liberation Army (PLA) leaders (Nie Rongzhen, Gu Mu, Yang Chengwu, Zhang Aiping and Xiao Ke) be consulted. In a report to the Centre entitled 'Questions Related to the Planning of Beijing', Peng Zhen, the mayor of the city, remarked that, "In view of the continued existence of imperialism, an underground railway would [also] serve a crucial air-raid measure". In October that year, with Deng Xiaoping's logistical support, an Underground Railway Preparatory Unit was established and another group of Soviet experts—planners and engineers who had been involved in designing and constructing the Moscow Metro—participated in the next stage of the planning process.

In the early months of 1957, the expert group offered Party Central plans for two slightly different subway systems which differed in terms of the actual route of the main lines, the depth of the tunnels to be dug, as well as the strategic uses of the network. The Soviet experts favoured what is known as Proposal One (with a line stretching from Jianguomen to Wangfu Jing, Tiananmen, Xidan, Fuxing Men/Muxi Di and on to Wuke Song). The virtues of this proposal were that it connected many central government ministries and organs, could satisfy practical transportation needs as well as measures to protect against aerial bombardment. The main drawback was that it did not connect the centre of the city to the Western Hills (in particular the various key state and military facilities at Hongshan Kou, Dong Si Mu, Xiang Hongqi, and so on).

Proposal Two recommended a line from North Temple of Heaven to East Qian Men, Tiananmen, Nan Changjie, Xi'an Men Dajie, Xisi, Chegong Zhuang, Xizhi Men, Xi Yuan and on to the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan), including a further restricted national defence line that could be built to the Party base at Jade Source Mountain (Yuquan Shan) and on to Xiang Hongqi, which would also connect to the important government and military centres in the Western Hills as well as the Western Suburbs Airport. This proposal would see the Party-state compound at the Lake Palaces (Zhongnan Hai) connected to the main rail system as well as with the strategic centres northwest of the city. Given the fact that civilian use of the line would be limited it was not a particularly economically viable option. Nonetheless, the Chinese experts favoured this proposal.

The expert panel advised that regardless of which route was settled on, and whether the tunnels were dug at a depth capable of withstanding a nuclear strike or not, the project would require three years of planning and seven years to construct. In September 1957, the Politburo approved Proposal One and sent a delegation to Moscow in October the following year to undertake further study and analysis of the Soviet system.

Project 401

In October 1958, work began on the project in earnest and, in November, on orders from the Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping the Beijing Underground Railway Engineering Bureau was established under the Ministry of Railways and the Beijing Municipal Committee. In consideration of the sensitivity of its work, it was decided that it would be known as Project 401. In December of that year, Project 401 Headquarters oversaw the digging of test sites at Muxi Di and Gongzhu Fen. A factory for the construction of cement and railway sleepers was imported holus-bolus from the Soviet Union and built in Changping county. Thereafter, with the deepening of the nationwide disaster resulting from the Great Leap Forward, plans to proceed were put on hold.

In February 1960, attempts were made to revive the stalled underground project. However, given the impoverishment of the nation due to the massive dislocation caused by the Great Leap and the unprecedented famine that followed in its wake, there were even heated debates about whether Project 596—the code word for the group overseeing the building of China's atom bomb—should be abandoned. It is not surprising then that the report from Project 401 proposing to proceed with the construction of the Beijing Underground as a matter of national security was ignored. Thereafter, on 1 July 1961, a day marking the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, it was decided that the Beijing Underground would be one of the numerous national engineering projects to be delayed. The following month the Beijing Underground Railway Engineering Bureau was disbanded, although Project 401 was retained, its remaining members being instructed to continue collecting international materials relevant to building a subway system.

As the country recovered from the Great Leap years, and the economically calamitous split with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s, moves were made to restart various forestalled projects. In August 1964, in their 'Report on New Constructions', Li Fuchun and Luo Ruiqing reflected the new strategy to prepare for war with the Soviet Union and remarked that all new national construction projects were to be removed to the 'Third Front' (far inland), the guiding principles of this strategy which was overseen by Deng Xiaoping was that facilities were to be 'dispersed, in the mountains and concealed' (yao fensan, kaoshan, yinbi). The report also recommended as a priority the work on the strategically crucial Beijing Underground, as well as suggesting that work should start on underground systems for Shanghai and Shengyang, capital of Liaoning province. Premier Zhou Enlai supported the report and its recommendations were included in the Third Five-year Plan for the National Economy launched in 1965. However, as the military importance of the underground now overshadowed its civilian use, the project was put under the control of the Beijing Military Region with various relevant groups (the Ministry of Railroads, Beijing Municipality, the Ministry of Public Security, the Engineering Corps of the PLA and the Railroad Military Corps) working together to re-energise what was now called the Leadership Group of Project 401. It formally began operations with the support of Mao Zedong and other Party leaders in May 1965.

The aim of the Leadership Group, as given in 'The Short-term Plan for the Construction of the Beijing Underground' (Beijing Dixia Tiedao jianshe jinqi guihua fang'an) of January 1965, was articulated in the enumerative language so beloved of the Party bureaucracy. Project 401 was to achieve the 'Five Defends' (wu baowei): that is to 1) defend the motherland; 2) defend Party Central; 3) defend the Central Leadership; 4) defend the socialist capital; and, 5) defend the people of Beijing. The descending order indicated the priorities of the times. Furthermore, it was stipulated that surface construction was to be subordinated to the requirements of subterranean construction (such as the need to demolish certain buildings or houses, or to carry out road closures), transportation needs were subordinated to military requirements (this was in regard to the design and layout of the subway), and time was subordinate to quality, although work was expected to proceed with all haste.

Trial and Error

The construction would be undertaken in three phases. Phase One was to solve: 1) the issue of the leadership 'getting into the caves or entering the mountains' from the Lake Palaces at Zhongnan Hai; 2) rail connections with strategically important north-bound railroads; 3) the speedy transportation of soldiers into Beijing (the aim was to be able to move five divisions into the city in a 24-hour period). Phase Two would see the completion of the ring line along the Second Ring Road of the city, and connection of the Beijing Railway Station to the power plant. Phase Three would see the completion of the connection between Xizhi Men and the Western Hills via the Summer Palace.

Phase One was to be undertaken in the second half of 1965 and finished by 1969. Following this, Phase Two was to be finished by 1971 and Phase Three shortly thereafter. Deng Xiaoping issued a directive that, in Phase One, "The stations should not be built like those of the Moscow Metro. They should be solid and practical, not extravagant". Furthermore, they must be readily disguised to ensure that they would not be evident from the air. Work started on 1 July 1965, with Zhu De, Peng Zhen, Li Xiannian and Luo Ruiqing attending a ceremony at which Deng Xiaoping spoke. With some 40,000 workers devoted to the project, the first section of the western line leading from the Xin Liusuo (the base of operations for Mao Zedong and the Standing Committee of the Central Military Commission at Wanshou Lu between Gongzhu Fen and Wuke Song) was completed in December of that year.

As the system had to be nuclear proof, a test line was constructed at an atomic site at Lop Nor so that a trial could be made using a live atomic weapon. With the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 work on the actual subway system in Beijing was seriously delayed. Although contemporary Chinese propaganda and mainstream opinion would claim that the Cultural Revolution era was a 'ten-year vacuum' (shinian kongbai) during which little apart from political infighting occurred, by mid 1968 the underground walkways and many underground stations had been completed, as had some of the surface station structures. The Ministry of Railways established a Preparatory Group for Underground Railway Transportation so that initial test runs could be undertaken. On 20 September 1969, in time for the 1 October National Day, Phase One was declared ready for operation. It had taken four years and three months (two years longer than originally estimated) and cost 7 billion Renminbi. On 1 October, trial trips from Beijing Railway Station to Pingguo Yuan were allowed, with tickets allocated to various Party-state organisations and politically reliable work units. On 3 November, however, the first of a number of subway fires occurred. As there were no fatalities the incident was not reported to the Centre. In another fire on 11 November two carriages were incinerated on a stretch of track between Wuke Song and Wanshou Lu. In this instance there were three fatalities and over one hundred people were injured. Zhou Enlai ordered the system shut down the following day (although, in reality, the accident had already necessitated the closure). Repair and reconstruction work took six months.

The Beijing Underground was reopened in January 1971. As it was a time when even the usual stringent security measures imposed upon Beijing citizens following 1948 had reached virtually unprecedented levels, passengers required a 'letter of introduction' from their places of work (danwei, or work units) before they could even buy a ticket. The publicly accessible line went from Beijing Train Station to Gongzhu Fen in the west, although the segment to Gu Cheng (Gu Cheng Lu) was opened in November of that year. From the following month, December 1971, after three years of trials and nearly twenty years since Mao Zedong had first directed that Beijing should construct its own subway, the public (who had directly and indirectly paid for the whole enterprise) was finally permitted to ride the capital's underground. Even then, it was still regarded as a trial period during which constant refinement was required, and the system was not formally initiated until March 1981. Phase Two, or what is now referred to as Line Two, which describes the circuit of the old wall around the Inner City (Nei Cheng) of Beijing, now the Second Ring Road, was completed in December 1981, and trials began in May 1983. Following another fire on 18 September that year at the Jishui Tan Station in the northwest of the city, trials were suspended until January 1984. Line Two eventually went into service in September 1984, having cost 11.8 billion Renminbi.

Work on the link between the lines at Xizhi Men planned for Phase Two and Phase Three began in 1969. The 12.4 kilometre extension from Xizhi Men to the north of the Summer Palace and on to the Western Hills was finished by PLA engineering units in June 1973 (it is now known as Line Four). At the same time work on another important and, at the time, equally restricted line was completed. This is the line that which extends eastwards from Chegong Zhuang (a station on the western flank of Line Two) through Guan Yuan, along with the various subterranean structures at Guan Yuan. The completion date was fixed so that representatives at the Tenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, held on 24-28 August 1973, would be able to attend meetings in the underground conference centre at Guan Yuan (reports of the conference give the impression that it was actually held in the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen).

Pyongyang Intermezzo

For many years people in Beijing have spoken about the long delays involved in the construction of the city's underground during the 1960s and 70s. Apart from not-inconsiderable disruptions caused by local politics, China's material and logistical support for the building of the fraternal metro of Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, was also a factor.

Plans to construct the Pyongyang Metro were launched in 1966 and they involved Soviet designers, Chinese engineers from Project 401, Czech electrical engineers and carriage builders from German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

In keeping with the general North Korean strategy to exploit the disharmony between the Soviet Union and China, both countries were involved in the initial planning process. The Korean leaders wanted to build a subway that featured stations as luxurious as those of Moscow, but at a depth that would ensure their strategic advantage during a possible future war. The train tunnels were to be the deepest in the world, and were eventually dug at a depth of 110 metres, although in some cases they are 200 metres under ground. While the Beijing underground stations are noteworthy for their Spartan proletarian style, those in Pyongyang have large murals and elaborate bas-reliefs, as well as marble columns. As the Sungni (胜利), Kwangmyong (光明), Puhung (复兴) and Yonggwang (荣光) stations are open to foreign visitors, they also feature gold-leaf decorations.

The Korean authorities felt unconstrained in building such a lavishly designed and improbably deep subway system because the design and materials for the project, from digging equipment, to rolling stock, specialised materials, electrical generators, communications equipment, escalators, sealing doors, and so on and so forth, were provided gratis by their socialist brethren.

Work on Pyongyang's two metro lines began in March 1968. The 10.5-kilometre Hyoksin Line was completed in September 1973, although it was not in full operation until 1987. The authorities were able to claim they had beaten the Seoul Subway to completion (it opened in August 1974) even though only seven kilometres of the line were actually finished. Initially, it did not connect up to Pyongyang Rail Station because a tunnel collapse at the Ponghwa (烽火) Station in 1971, which killed over 100 people, severely hampered progress on the project. The 12-kilometre Choellima Line officially opened in September 1975, and was in full use from 1985.

Mao Zedong had declared that the Chinese should make a priority of helping their Korean comrades complete their subway system. The Chinese were involved with the initial planning phase of the project but, from the autumn of 1966, they withdrew support because the Koreans sided with the Soviet Union in criticising the Cultural Revolution. Among other things, Pyongyang made oblique attacks on Mao when it denounced Chinese national chauvinism and remarked that the Chinese had been complicit in the death of Korean comrades during the Anti-Japanese War. Beijing responded by critiquing 'Khrushchev's disciples' (Kim Il Song).

By the time construction work on the Pyongyang Metro was underway in 1968 Sino-Korean tensions eased when the Koreans decided no longer to take sides in the Sino-Soviet split. During an official visit to Beijing, Kim Il Song offered Mao what was in effect an apology and remarked that, like Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, he preferred not to become involved in the domestic dispute between the two elder brothers of world socialism. Beijing responded by once more becoming more actively engaged in the building of the Pyongyang Metro while, not surprisingly, the Soviets increasingly lost interest in the project. As the material contributions of the Soviet Union and their Eastern Bloc supporters dwindled China found that it had to take up the not inconsiderable slack. They now had to provide all of the expertise, equipment and personnel training previously so generously sponsored by the Soviet camp.

The result was what many people in Beijing have remarked upon: the building of the Pyongyang Metro delayed the completion of the Beijing Underground. The most important aspect of the delays resulted from the provision of train carriages originally ordered from factories in Changchun, Jilin province, for Beijing that were instead provided to Pyongyang (the Koreans still maintain that these carriages, four-car formations known as DK4, were built in Korea, although German rolling stock has also been used since 1998). Other equipment, including communications technology and control systems, as well as escalators and specially constructed doors for the railway stations were all allocated to the Korean comrades in preference to Beijing. Given the extraordinary depth of the Pyongyang Metro lines, escalators were of particular importance. When, in 1972, Beijing announced the successful completion of the country's first locally built escalator they were actually celebrating the installation of the escalators in the Pyongyang Metro (although, as we have noted in the main text of this article, one for the use of foreign visitors did find its way to the Chinese Military Museum).—Sang Ye with GRB.

From Lake Palaces to Necropolis

Subterranean works related to the Lake Palaces are known as Project 519. This construction project was initiated in 1970 with some 4000 workers deployed to build a series of underground communications links, meeting halls, offices and residences for Party and state leaders and functionaries underneath the surface structures of the Lake Palaces. Built much like the public underground railway this link extends from the Lake Palaces south to the Great Hall of the People and on to Heping Men Station. The tunnel was built for vehicular transportation although, as tracks are embedded in the roadway, railway carriages can also be deployed if necessary. This network links northwards to Chang Qiao, near military headquarters, and is known as the National Defence Line. It continues on to Guan Yuan and further afield.

Guan Yuan, which is now home to the Guan Yuan Youth and Children Activities Centre (Guan Yuan Shaonian Ertong Zhongxin), was the site of two substantial princely mansions during the Qing dynasty (see 'Hidden Mansions' in the Features section of this issue). In the mid 1960s, Zhou Enlai opined that "the Chairman [Mao] has never enjoyed any luxury during his life", and suggested that "we should build him a residence outside the Lake Palaces". In response to this, three extensive residential buildings with a swimming pool, spacious gardens, a theatre, and other amenities were designed and constructed at Guan Yuan, which itself was surrounded by an imposing wall (still extant) that had a hidden gallery around which guards could patrol the perimeter of this Centre away from the Centre. As the project was undertaken at a time of heightened vigilance, a network of large conference halls, offices and living quarters was built deep underground in case of an attack on the socialist capital. By the time the project was completed Mao had become enamoured of Liu Villa (Liu Zhuang) on West Lake in the southern city of Hangzhou and had little interest in this new Beijing residence. The original underground conference hall that could accommodate 500 was expanded from 1968 when the Central Office of the Party requisitioned the place. This office ordered the building of further surface structures for offices and meetings and added a new subterranean congress hall that could seat 2500 people (used in 1973 for the Tenth Party Congress). A short railroad connects Guan Yuan to Chegong Zhuang. More practical, however, is the underground roadway that links Guan Yuan to Chang Qiao, Di'an Mennei (the offices of the PLA Logistics Department) and the Lake Palaces.

In 1977, during the construction of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square, Project 519 was further connected to the lower levels of the memorial hall and Heping Men Station. To the northwest it connects to Tiananmen West Station on what is now Line One of the Beijing Underground system. Following Mao's demise on 9 September 1976, his body was initially stored in Project 519 after which it was transferred to Guan Yuan before eventually being installed in the memorial hall (see also 'A Beijing That Isn't (Part 1)' under Features in this issue).

Mao's corpse was not the only VIP to travel underground in Beijing during the 1970s. Both Kim Il Song and Richard Nixon visited the Chinese Military Museum far to the west of Central Beijing by underground and used the dedicated station built there which featured the only escalator in the city at the time (see 'Pyongyang Intermezzo' above). Railway carriages for state guest are maintained with special crews at Beijing Station.

In 2003, the Beijing railway system began further expansion to include surface rail lines. Accordingly, the name of the Beijing Underground Transportation Company was changed to reflect this new reality. It is now called the Beijing Rail Transportation Company (Beijing guidao jiaotong gongsi).


Archives of the Beijing Underground Railway Transportation Company.

Materials related to the history of the Construction of the Beijing Underground, Beijing Archives.

Beijing Underground Railway Company, ed., Yanshende guiji—Beijing Ditie sanshinian jinian zhengwen ji, (unofficial publication).

Liu Mu, Dangdai Beijingde gonggong jiaotong, Beijing: Dandai Zhongguo Chubanshe, 2008.

Oral history interviews undertaken in June 2008 with various participants in Project 401 and Project 519.