Why is there an underground city beneath Beijing?

Chairman Mao and former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during happier times between China and the USSR in 1958.
AFP/Getty Images

After the land grab following World War II, a vast sea of communist red splashed across Eastern Europe, all the way to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. When China joined the fray after Mao Tse-tung's communist revolution in 1949, Eura­sia was almost completely communist. The USSR's engagement in the Cold War against the U.S. captured the world's attention from 1947 to 1991, when the Soviet Union crumbled. While the tension between the Soviets and Americans never escalated into an armed conflict, the same can't be said for tensions between China and the USSR.

It stands to reason that under communist control, neighboring China and the USSR would get along like the United States and Canada -- bordering nations with a shared vision of government. This wasn't the case.


The two states fought over borders beginning in the 17th century during the reigns of the Romanoff czars and the Ming Dynasty. These tensions continued into the mid-20th century and finally boiled over into armed conflict in the spring of 1969. At the helm were Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and China's Chairman Mao. While 4,500 miles (7,242 km) of the Sino-Soviet border between the nations were under dispute, it was a tiny island in the Ussuri River along ­China's eastern border with the USSR that led to bloodshed.

­The Chinese attacked a Soviet border patrol boat in March 1969, leaving 24 Soviets dead. Throughout the ensuing spring, other armed border skirmishes broke out. One conflict in 1969 left 800 Chinese dead in a battle in which the Soviets unleashed aircraft, tanks and missiles and lost just 60 of their own soldiers [source: American University]. After this undeniable victory, the Soviets issued veiled threats of further violence should any more border disputes arise.

Mao Tse-tung appears to have taken the Soviet threats seriously. That same year, an emergency evacuation­ plan was hatched in the case of a Soviet invasion of China's capital, Beijing. About 60 percent of the population was to run to the hills if the Soviet tanks rolled into town. But what of the other 40 percent? They had another place to hide. Read the next page to find out where.


Beijing's Underground Hideout

One of the never-used apartments in Beijing's underground city.
Forrest Anderson/Liaison/Getty Images

With the Soviets breathing down his country's metaphorical neck, Chairman Mao ordered the construction of a vast underground city to serve as a shelter during an invasion, air raid or nuclear war.

This was no minor undertaking. In the late 1960s, the population of Beijing reached 7.5 million residents [source: CPIRC]. In short order, the residents of the capital city were put to work excavating their enormous air raid shelter. Most of the digging was done by hand, and the work was shared by adults and schoolchildren alike. This communal venture fit nicely into Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution -- a massive campaign to support the communist movement and thwart counterrevolutionary ideas. From 1969 to 1979, the people of Beijing focused their attention underground.


When the Dixia Cheng (underground city) was completed, it was capable of housing 300,000 people for about four months [source: Time]. Between 26 to 60 feet (8 to 18 m) beneath the city, tunnels stretch about 18 miles (approximately 30 km) in length and spread over a more than 52 square mile area (85 square km) [source: Zhiyong]. Ancient city gates throughout the city were recycled into construction material for the tunnels. Secret entrances aboveground were located in shops, homes and parks around Beijing. A map of the tunnels drawn using a fluorescent medium to render it invisible to the naked (Soviet) eye was found on the wall of one of these shops [source: Lonely Planet].

The massive bomb shelter complex was never used for its intended purpose. Had the occasion arisen, the Beijing residents who made it underground wouldn't have died easily. The Dixia Cheng is outfitted with ventilation shafts that resist fallout from nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons. In addition to the safety provided by the depth of the tunnels, the complex is outfitted with bomb shelters. Other chambers in auxiliary tunnels held grain, weapons and other supplies. The underground city also has sites for growing sunless crops like mushrooms and areas prepared for well drilling [source: Zhiyong].

Subterranean dwellers wouldn't have died of boredom, either. Classrooms were constructed for the children living in the underground city, and amenities found aboveground like a movie theater, barber shops, restaurants and a roller skating rink were all awaiting the flood of Beijingers seeking shelter underground from Soviet bombs.

After the USSR disintegrated, and Beijing was no longer under the threat of attack, the underground city lost its purpose. Its existence faded into obscurity and conjecture. In 2000, the Dixia Cheng found new life as a tourist destination (it's inexplicably not open to Chinese visitors). Most of the complex is shut off; a mere fraction of it is open to tours, and some businesses have set up shop in the open areas. A few air raid shelters are now hostels for thrifty travelers. Urban explorers' unsanctioned investigations of the untouched portions of the tunnels have yielded reports of a labyrinth frozen in time: posters of Chairman Mao still adorning walls of rooms where bunk beds stand silently [source: CNN].

As the 2008 Olympics approached, Beijing officials reinvigorated districts in the city. This included tearing down some of the shops that housed the most well-known entrances to the underground city. Some are fearful that the Dixia Cheng will be lost forever: Without entrances and the luminescent map to show the way, Beijing's Dixia Cheng may return to its shroud of secrecy.

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  • Jiang, Steven. "Beijing journal: an underground 'parallel universe.'" CNN. February 1, 2008. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/01/30/oly.journal1/index.html
  • Kuo, Kaiser. "The other forbidden city." Time. November 21, 2001. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,185440,00.html
  • "Beijing." CPIRC. 1999. http://www.cpirc.org.cn/en/30Province1999-Beijing.htm
  • "Beijing Underground City." Lonely Planet. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/worldguide/china/beijing/sights/4719?list=true
  • "Beijing's underground city." China.org. http://www.china.org.cn/english/travel/125961.htm
  • "Ming Dynasty." Minnesota State University Mankato. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/china/later_imperial_china/ming.html
  • "The Sino-Soviet Amur conflict of the 1960s. (Khrushchev vs. Mao Tse-tung." American University. http://www.american.edu/ted/ice/3sinosov.htm