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Dead medium: Dead media: Fire Signals and Horse Post on the Great Wall of China
From: Bruce Sterling
Source(s): Source: Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China by M.

Aurel Stein

Macmillan and Company, Limited St. Martin's Street, London

915.84 St34r v.2 Main Library University of Texas at


Volume II, Chapter LXIII, page 152, "System of Fire


"There can be no doubt that the main duty of the

detachments echeloned along the *Limes* was to provide

guards for the watch-towers who would give timely alarm by

signals to the rest of the line in case of the approach of

raiders. The numerous wooden slips which accurately

register the time and other details of fire signals

received, or else refer to arrangements made for lighting

them, would alone suffice to prove that this means of

optical telegraphy was in regular use along the border.

"But the abundant information from early Chinese

texts collected by M. Chavannes shows that the system of

fire signalling was known and practiced along the

frontiers of the Empire long before the time of the Hans.

The distinction which those texts indicate between signal

fires visible at night and smoke signals intended for use

by day is distinctly mentioned in one of the records on

wood. In another, neglect to transmit such a signal

received from one side of the line by immediately lighting

a fire in turn is acknowledged as a grievous delinquency.

"We are not informed by our records as to any devices

by which such fire signals could be varied to convey more

definite news along the guarded line. But since later

texts quoted by M. Chavannes refer to a method marking the

relative strength of the attacking force by corresponding

repetition of the fire signals, it is likely that similar

devices were practiced in Han times.

"We read elsewhere that General Ma Cheng, when

reorganizing the defences of the northern border in 38-43

A.D., placed the fire-signal stations ten Li or about two

and a half miles apart; and this accords remarkably with

the average distances observed from tower to tower on the

earlier Tun-huang *Limes,* due allowance being made for

the varying configuration of the ground.

"No doubt such a system of optic telegraphy was

insufficient to assure the rapid communication of warnings

at all times or for the communication of important

particulars. Hence the need for mounted messengers

repeatedly mentioned in the records, who by relays of

horses kept ready at the stations could cover distances at

great speed. The presence of such mounts was in fact

attested by the plentiful horse-dung we found at each

tower, however confined the accommodation near it.

"A piece of ancient Chinese poetry which M. Chavannes

translates, though referring to a part of the border much

farther east, gives so graphic a picture of such a scene

that I cannot refrain from quoting it:

"'Every ten Li a horse starts; every five Li a whip

is raised high; a military order of the Protector-General

of the Trans-Frontier regions has arrived with news that

the Huns were besieging Chiu-ch'uan; but just then the

snow-flakes were falling on the halls along which the

barrier stretches, and the signal fires could raise no