Jiao Zhibing is 70 years old. He’s spent his entire life in a tiny village called Jiaozhuanghu (焦庄户). As a child, he handled missives and reconnaissance for liberation fighters. Today though, carrying wood-carved grenades and a red-tasseled spear everywhere he goes, he’s a living tourist attraction.
Between 1943 and 1948, China was in turmoil. The Japanese were invading, and the country was in the grips of civil war. This village — situated just an hour from downtown Beijing — found itself besieged from all sides, and realized they had to come up with a plan. Their solution: tunnels. Lots of them. A mad maze of 23km between houses, sheds, shacks, and even to neighboring villages. They were covered by bales of hay, trap doors, curtains. Just imagine the potential: escape, ambush, sabotage, all of it in the heart of Shunyi!
“The Japanese attacked the village many times,” Jiao said. “Sometimes they came every two or three months.” According to the village museum, there were over 150 battles here. Battles where locals would rush into the tunnels, and lure the invaders or Nationalists into devious booby traps.
But in the 1940s, Jiao wasn’t even a teenager. He wasn’t able to fight. A member of the Children’s Corps, he just delivered mail, acted as a local guide, and kept watch for suspicious characters. “Only the soldiers could carry real weapons,” he said, “so to protect ourselves, we were armed with red-tasseled spears.”
But alongside all that escape, ambush and sabotage, I could help picturing all the post-war thrills the tunnels held. Y’know what I mean? Nudge nudge…
“Ah, that, that… well, that might have happened.” Jiao chuckled to himself, clearly remembering an anecdote. “Even now, who can say there aren’t boys and girls inside the tunnels? Even during the war, youngsters might have gone into the tunnels when they were courting. I guess that happened. After the war, life was relatively peaceful and that happened a lot. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard about it.”
“I did some naughty things, myself. You know, in the gap between wars, the situation was better. In the slow farming season, we children often played inside the tunnels. A group of us, three to five boys, would go into the tunnels at night. We’d find a tunnel which led to a neighbors’ house, and knock at the covering board. They’d jump from their beds. ‘Who is it?!’ We’d laugh, and then go into another neighbor’s tunnel, knocking at their covering board again.” Ring the bell and run like hell, tunnel-warfare-style!
Sadly, most of them have since been filled in, with soil. “The tunnels used to be everywhere,” he told me, “stretching under the whole village, for miles and miles.”
But with the years came collapses. “The rains damaged them, with landslide and casualties. Even rats dug holes through them. It was impossible to keep the original structure.” So they walled up a short stretch — 650m — in concrete. And today, you can join the busloads of schoolchildren, and explore what remains.
As we left, though, the taxi driver laughed that we’d come so far. “Tunnels are everywhere in this area,” he said. “Under that field, under that one. Everywhere. There’s even one, a very long one, that goes all the way from zhongnanhai where the politicians live, into the mountains.”
He saw me furiously scribbling. “Don’t write this down! It’s very secret. Don’t say I told you about this tunnel, okay?” I promised not to name him. Then he glanced down at my pen again, and looked up, with surprise on his face. “You can use your left hand to write?”
Special thanks to Chloe Chen for helping me with the interviews and translation!