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.