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Zhaozhou Bridge

Above the Xiaohe River of Zhao County, Hebei Province, about 15.53 miles from the southeast of Shijiazhuang City, designed and built in the Daye period (605-618 A.D.) of the Sui Dynasty (581-618 A.D.) by renowned constructor Li Chun, Zhaozhou Bridge is the earliest and best-preserved open-spandrel stone arch bridge now in existence. It is also called Anji Bridge, the name bestowed by Emperor Zhezong of the Song Dynasty (1085-1100 A.D.), meaning ensuring people safe lives and aiding people. Designated by the State Council as being among China's foremost protected monuments in 1961, Zhaozhou Bridge was also selected by the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) as the twelfth "milestone of international civil engineering" and a bronze monument was presented by the ASCE.

At present, Zhaozhou Bridge is the center of Zhaozhou Bridge Park which covers an area of 87,000,000 hectares. The first view of the park that jumps to the eye is the archaic door to the mountain. In the park, Zhaozhou Bridge stands out as a shining pearl set among the interspersed pavilions, the green grass and the majestic pines. The bridge is restored, but you can still see the relics of the old bridge, which are "national treasures", in the exhibition room. In addition, there are also showrooms with an introduction to the surrounding environment and culture and a model designed for the expansion of the park in future. If the whim hits you, you can row a boat on the blue-green water; Meanwhile, you can also have a taste of tea, read the legends of Zhaozhou Bridge and get to know the influences of a bridge to the culture of a nation. You can also sit under the pavilions or the trees for comfortable and sweet dreams. Come here and you will find Zhaozhou Bridge Park an ideal scenic spot.

The well-known Zhaozhou Bridge, also known as Anji Bridge or Dashi Bridge, is a large stone-arched bridge located on the Xiaohe River in Zhaozhou County, Hebei Province . It is the largest and oldest stone-arched bridge in the world.

Construction

It took 11 years to complete the bridge -- from the first to the 11th year of the Daye reign (605-616) of the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Bridge designer Li Chun built the Zhaozhou Bridge south of Beijing with a stone arch made of massive limestone wedges reinforced with iron. The innovative main arch of the Zhaozhou Bridge curves to form a shallow arch rather than the half circle preferred by Roman engineers at the time.

Li's creativity and ingenuity in producing such a unique design and structure has won the admiration of many people. The Zhaozhou Bridge predates any comparable development in Europe by several hundred years. 

The Zhaozhou Bridge is 50.82 meters long and 9.6 meters wide; the span of its large stone arch in the middle measures 37.37 meters -- the world's largest arch at the time. There is also a smaller symmetrical arch at each end. This kind of structure not only requires less building materials but also makes sluicing during the flood season much easier. The bridge floor is smooth and flat with passages for pedestrians on both sides, while carriages and  carts can move through the middle. The apex of the arch is fairly high so that boats can also pass through easily. The bridge is ingeniously designed, with a well-proportioned layout, solid structure and a magnificent and attractive outward appearance. Willow branches sway gracefully at both ends of the bridge and, from afar, the inverted image of the arch in the water resembles a rainbow spanning over the Xiaohe River.

With its solid foundation and a grand view, the structure features a completely reasonable design and ingenious construction techniques. The bridge's opening is not shaped like an ordinary semicircle but looks more like a bow, and its surface is even and wide, paying attention to both land and water transportation. This form is called "level arch".

The stone arch was built by vertically juxtaposing 28 arch rings, each 34 cm wide and capable of standing erect by itself, which facilitates the construction work and independent repairs. The large level arch, which exerts great force on the bridge's abutment, was difficult to build. While, the bridge abutment is a small and shallow ordinary rectangle with a thickness of only 1.529 meters and piled up with five layers of stones, the groundwork is made of clay with a low carrying capacity. Such a large, stone-arched bridge, built on such groundwork and with such a small bridge abutment, is rarely seen in the world.

The greatest scientific contribution by the Zhaozhou Bridge is the "open-spandrel bridge." On the two sides of the central arch are four paratactic small arches, which not only expand the water-discharge channel and preserve the stone materials, but also reduce the weight of the bridge and increase the stability of the bridge body. Due to this ingenious architectural design, the Zhaozhou Bridge has withstood numerous floods, eight big earthquakes and the weight of traffic over more than 1,400 years.

Spanning over the Xiaohe River, the bridge looks like a big rainbow. The four small arches along the central arch resemble four huge jade rings. The bridge's balustrades are  beautifully decorated with dragons and other mythical creatures, which suggests that ancient people tried to shelter the structure from floods and other natural disasters.

 Historical significance

The Zhaozhou Bridge is the oldest stone-arched bridge in China and the oldest open-spandrel bridge in the world. Its two open arches that flank the spandrel reduce the pressure on the spandrel and allow floodwater to pass. The "open-spandrel" technique is a great innovation in the world's history of bridge engineering. Some 1,200 years later, in 1883, the French finally built an open-spandrel bridge across the Yage River, which preceded big-span open-spandrel-bridge construction in Europe. Western scholars admit that the open-spandrel architecture of Zhaozhou Bridge is the predecessor of many modern structures made of reinforced concrete, ushering in a new style in bridge design.

The bridge was technologically the most advanced in the world during the Sui Dynasty. It was a remarkable achievement in the history of ancient Chinese civilization, turning over a new leaf in the annals of bridge construction history.

The techniques employed on ancient Chinese bridges, especially the arched bridge represented by the Zhaozhou Bridge, have provided a foundation for the development of the modern Chinese arched bridge.

The Zhaozhou Bridge is also a wonder of architectural design for its ingenuous design and beautiful decorations. However, it is even more remarkable because it has survived for centuries.

With an eminent position in the history of bridge engineering, the Zhaozhou Bridge was listed by the State Council in China in 1961 as one of the key cultural sites under national protection; it was also designated by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1991 as the 12th milestone in the history of international civil engineering, adding new glamour to China's stone-arched bridges.

 Legend

Over the years, many beautiful folk stories about the Zhaozhou Bridge have prevailed. The following tale is the most famous:

One day, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC), the skilful artisan Lu Ban of the State of Lu arrived on the banks of the Xiaohe River carrying his tools on his back. On the swift waters of the wide river he noticed two small ferryboats transporting passengers back and forth. A crowd of people waited anxiously on the banks -- some with wheelbarrows, others carrying heavy loads on their shoulders; but the ferryboat could only accommodate a small number of people. Suddenly, Lu heard someone say: "If only a bridge could be built over this river!" Hearing this, Lu resolved to build a bridge over Xiaohe River for the people of Zhaozhou.

According to the legend, that very evening, Lu brought back some snow-white stone blocks from the Taihang Mountains and set to work immediately. At daybreak, when the cock crowed, Lu laid the last two stone labs on the bridge. Picking up his tools, Lu went on his way again to see what else he could do for others.

News spread quickly that Lu had built a stone-arched bridge overnight. Town people, as well as villagers from near and far, flocked to the site. The miracle also aroused the interest of Chai Rong, the fairy, and one of the "Eight Immortals ," Zhang Guolao, who wanted to test the strength of this large stone-arched bridge; so, they decided to play a practical joke on Lu.

One night, Zhang Guolao came riding a donkey with two heavy sacks containing the sun and the moon hanging from its back. Then came Chai Rong pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with the five famous mountains. Arriving together at the bridge, they met Lu and asked him whether they could cross the bridge at the same time. Lu replied proudly: "Why, such a solid bridge can surely carry the two of you? Please, go ahead." But, to Lu's astonishment, the bridge began to wobble as soon as the duo set foot on it. Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Lu jumped into the water and, with all his might, propped up half of the bridge. This way, the immortals were able to get across the bridge with their sun, moon and five famous mountains. From then on, the bridge bore the hoof prints of Zhang Guolao's donkey, the dent left by Chai Rong's knee and the grooves left behind by the wheelbarrow. Lu's handprint, where he tried to prop up the bridge, was also permanently embedded in the great structure. Today, the "imprints of the immortals" are still intact, although Lu's handprint is missing due to a partial collapse of the eastern half of the bridge.

Since Lu, Zhang Guolao and Chai Rong did not come from the same period, they could not have possibly met each other. It is also evident that one man could not have built such a large stone structure overnight. The myths and legends, however, are a reflection of the admiration felt by ordinary people for the bridge and the fond memory they cherish towards its builders. In spite of the harsh elements and natural disasters over more than 1,000 years, this large stone-arched bridge still stands tall to this very day.

The sculptures on the bridge, such as the dragons, flowers and etc, are powerful, elegant, vivid and profound, demonstrating the artistic style and the essence of the Sui sculpture. As important as the Eiffel Tower and the Panama Canal, Zhaozhou Bridge is honored as 'the first well-known stone bridge in ancient China.'

Admission Fee: CNY 35 (Apr. 20 to Oct. 20); CNY 30 (Oct. 21 to Apr.19)
Opening Hours: 09:00 to 16:00
Bus Route: Bus 213 at Shijiazhuang railway station
Tourist Bus 2 or 26, 30, 35, 106 of Shijiazhuang City to Nanjiao bus station, minibus to Zhao County at the station


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