Xu Da was born 1332 in Zhongli village of Haozhou city in Fengyang county of Anhui Province, the same village as the famous Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor.
Xu Da was to live in "interesting" times. China was ravaged by occupation, draught, famine and rebellion.
Warlords around the Yangtze River were battling for local supremacy while at the same time fencing off attempts to quell the unrest by the ruling Yuan dynasty.
Xu Da had already been playing warlike games with Zhu Yuanzhang when they were boys in the same village. Little did they know at the time that this would become their fate in life.
in a modern city
As one of Zhu Yuanzhang's most loyal and best military leaders Xu Da led many of the crucial campaigns against the local warlords in the decade of 1357-67.
He captured all the key cities in central-east China including the final warlord capital of Suzhou, the surrender of which signaled the end of the Yangtze battles.
on general's back
over 620 years old
Together with Ming general Zhang Yuzhong, Xu Da shared the military leadership in the subsequent northern campaign against the Mongolian Yuan rulers' armies, the final push to oust the unpopular foe.
How did Xu Da earn his esteem?
Xu Da was an excellent general and a loyal servant of the emperor.
But that was not the only reason why he was held in high esteem by Zhu Yuanzhang.
Contrary to many of his fellow generals, Xu was able to enforce a strict discipline on his soldiers. Under penalty of death, they were not allowed to loot, rape and otherwise mistreat the inhabitants of the cities that had been captured.
This discipline was vital since other cities yet to be conquered would resist far less if they knew they could expect clemency.
It was even Xu Da, who personally led the Ming armies in the successful final battle for the Yuan capital of Dadu. He took the capital on 14 September 1368, after which Zhu Yuanzhang promptly renamed it Beiping, meaning "peace in the north". This city is one and the same as Beijing, today's capital of China.
"Beiping" would remain just another city in the north of the empire until the third Ming Yongle Emperor made it capital again, when he moved the court from Nanjing in the early 15th century.
Moat and (left) remains of city wall at Andingmen
excavated and built by Xu Da in 1370-71
Unknown to most, it was Xu Da who in 1370-71 had the new northern Beijing city wall erected almost one mile to the south of the original Yuan wall. No longer a capital, the excess land was no longer needed and the more southern wall was easier to defend.
The Great Wall at Shanhaiguan
In 1379, not too long after Zhu had expelled the last Mongolian Yuan troops from China proper, he issued a royal edict ordering Xu Da and Zhu's military counselor, Liu Bowen, to find a suitable place for defense fortifications at a pass to the north of Beijing.
Bohai Sea front right and
mountain rear left
with full stop
This was one of Zhu's master plans to keep the Yuan troops from reentering China. Xu and Liu were ordered to complete the project within two years.
They immediately traveled to the northern border and soon located an excellent spot where a wall could start by the Bohai Sea and connect up to mountains in the north.
The Great Wall meets Bohai Sea
Not only was the location excellent for defense purposes but the mild climate and fertile countryside also made it a great place to live.
Back in their barracks they drafted the master plan and sent it back to the emperor for approval, which was granted.
It took one year and eight months to complete the project. The two leaders complemented each other well. Xu was an excellent leader and Liu possessed the engineering skills. The latter designed the wall within a wall concept. Walls connected to walls and watch towers ensured easy communication in case of attack.
Success is dangerous !!
But the story of Shanhaiguan doesn't end there. Returning from the audience with the emperor Liu Bowen told Xu that he would now be leaving for good. Surprised, Xu asked why the urgency?
Liu explained that the emperor was known for sharing adversities with his vassals but rarely shared success with others; Xu's and Li's lives were therefore inevitably now in grave danger.
To stay safe he urged Xu Da never to leave the Emperor's side; moreover, Xu should send his son to Shanhaiguan where he could be safe, lead a pleasant life and not die in battle.
Xu took the advice and sent his son to settle at the Shanhaiguan Pass where he indeed survived later purges by the emperor. His son's descendants later built a temple at Shanhaiguan in Xu Da's memory. Xu Da himself ensured to stay close to the emperor and died from natural causes.
Liu Bowen left the court without further notice and as far as we know he lived a frugal and happy life beyond the reach of the wrath of the emperor.
When they returned to the emperor he was pleased that Xu and Liu had not named the fortification as that had not been part of the imperial decree.
Liu suggested a name which would reflect that the fortification stretched from mountains in the north to the sea in the south.
Horse with attendant
Taking the cue, Zhu Yuanzhang named it Shanhaiguan (Mountain and Sea Pass).
Xu's and Liu's masterpiece was made so robust that large parts of it has survived till today.
In fact, Shanhaiguan -also known as "The First Pass Under Heaven "- is a highly popular tourist destination for Chinese and foreigners alike.
Shanhaiguan is the eastern end of The Great Wall and can be reached by car in 3-4 hours from Beijing. Start very early in the morning for a one day trip!