The Brick Story

No, not the one about the lady on the airplane and the guy with a cigar. That’s from about 1960. This one is about 600 years older than that.


Jiayuguan or Jiayu Pass is the first pass at the west end of the Great Wall of China, near the city of Jiayuguan in Gansu province. It has also been called “Jiayuguan Pass”; however, this form is tautological since “guan” means “pass” in Chinese. Along with Juyongguan and Shanhaiguan, it is one of the main passes of the Great Wall. Construction began sometime around 1372.

Among the passes on the Great Wall, Jiayuguan is the most intact surviving ancient military building. The pass is also known by the name the “First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven” (天下第一雄关), which is not to be confused with the “First Pass under Heaven” (天下第一关), a name for Shanhaiguan at the east end of the Great Wall near Qinhuangdao, Hebei.

There is a famous legend regarding the building of this amazing monument. I have heard two versions, so I present them both here:

  1. A fabulous legend recounts the meticulous planning involved in the construction of the pass. According to legend, when Jiayuguan was being planned, the official in charge asked the designer to estimate the exact number of bricks required and the designer gave him a number (99999). The official questioned his judgment, asking him if that would be enough, so the designer added one brick. When Jiayuguan was finished, there was one brick left over, which was placed loose on one of the gates where it remains today.
  2. During the Ming dynasty, a talented architect named Yi Kaizhan was tasked to build this important outpost and finishing point for the Ming dynasty’s monumental construction effort. After finishing his plans, Yi announced that it would take exactly 99, 999 bricks to build the Jiayuguan structure, no more and no less. Yi’s supervisor thought that Yi was too arrogant and worried that any miscalculation on Yi’s part could reach the ears of the emporer with serious consequences, so he threatened that if Yi’s calculations were off, Yi and all of the workers would be punished. When construction was completed, there was one brick left over and the supervisor delightedly prepared to punish Yi for his arrogance. However, quick-witted Yi immediately told him that this extra brick had been placed by some supernatural being during the night to guard Jiayuguan and prevent its collapse, and that even the tiniest movement would cause the collapse of the entire outpost. The surpervisor, unwilling to take the risk, let the brick stay and was unable to punish Yi , and so the brick remains to this day.

Regardless of which legend has merit, the brick is there for all to see:


“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
-Robert Louis Stevenson

The Old Wolf has spoken.

9 responses to “The Brick Story

  1. Then there’s my version:

    “Oh [untranslatable], I dropped a brick and it landed on that tiny ledge down there.”
    “You gonna go get it?”
    “Not me. You’re welcome to.”
    “Yeah, right. Don’t tell anyone, maybe no one will notice.”


    “Captain, some [untranslatable] dropped a brick on that tiny ledge. Should I have someone remove it?”
    “I’m not risking anyone’s life just to get a brick. Just let it go.”


    “About that brick…”
    “Stop bugging me about that [untranslatable] brick!”
    “But people keep asking about it.”
    “Let them. There are more important things.”
    “But High Muckymuck wants it gone.”
    “Just make up some cockamamie legend about it. He’ll believe anything.”

  2. First, learn the meaning of the word “legend.” I compared numerous sources when posting this, so my information, as presented, is accurate. Legends are passed on as amusing stories, not as a guarantee of historical accuracy.

    Second, don’t be an arrogant dickbag. Nobody cares how much you know, or don’t. If you have information to add, you might just pass it on as an FYI, with appropriate source documentation (which you did not provide), in which case I might just have said, “Oh wow, I missed that,” and made an appropriate edit. Instead, you chose to leave a condescending message telling me what I should or should not be doing, as if you were some expert on a) China or b) blogging.

    Third, I usually delete snarky comments like this before anyone ever sees them, but I’m leaving this one up here as a monument to your thermonuclear douchebaggery. The world deserves to know you in all your glory.

  3. Thank you for this post. I first heard this story years ago on the Discovery Times Channel in 2005.

    I am looking for an image of the fort and the brick, any chance I could get permission to use yours posted here? I will give you credit and direct those I present to, to your web page.

    I am a small businessman in Instructional Design and will be using this story to illustrate the concept of artisan quality. Your image would work perfect until I get to Jiayuguan to capture my own image. I am also considering a small publication for iBooks.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    John M.

    • John, unfortunately these images are not mine, but rather found on the internet. Were they mine you would be welcome to use them on my account, but I have no idea who the original photographer was. The net being what it is, sharing often goes many levels deep.

  4. Pingback: Chinesische Mauer - Legenden, Mythen und der neue Trailer zu The Great Wall | Teilzeithelden - Rollenspiel-, LARP- und Phantastikmagazin

  5. Pingback: How To Deal With Leftover Construction Materials | Pinoy Builders

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