That road into Shoubaozhuang is guarded 24 hours a day by two uniformed guards and partially barred by an accordion gate that closes tight at 11 p.m. each night. Until 6 a.m. the next day, the residents are sealed in. Only those with passes are allowed to come and go, their movements recorded by a video camera stationed over the entrance.
Gated communities for the rich are of course nothing new in China. Dividing an entire city into walled wards to keep the population under control is also not new. Charles Benn describes the system in the Tang.1
The function of ward walls was to provide internal security by preventing the movement of people. The law clearly asserted the principle. Ninety blows with a thick rod was the punishment for climbing over ward walls. Each of a ward’s roads terminated in gates that a headman, who was in charge of affairs within the ward, barred at dusk. As the sun went down in Changan, a tattoo of 400 beats on a drum signaled the closing of palace gates and a second, of 600 beats, the closing of ward and city gates. The length of the tattoos gave people ample time to return to their dwellings before the ward gates closed. In the predawn hours drummers beat another tattoo of 3,000 beats that was the signal for opening the gates. Each of the avenues also had drums that sounded at curfew. The law forbade citizens to travel on the main thoroughfares of the cities outside the wards during curfew, but it did not restrict their nocturnal movements within the wards. The statute, however, permitted public commissioners bearing official documents, as well as marriage processions, to use the avenues and streets after curfew. In both cases they had to obtain a permit from the county government first. It also allowed private citizens who needed to find a doctor or procure medicine for the treatment of the ill to travel, as well as those who needed to leave their ward to announce a death. However, they had to have a certificate issued by the ward headman. Anyone else found wandering outside the wards during the night by the Gold Bird Guard was subject to twenty blows of the thin rod. In 808, however, the throne had a eunuch who got drunk and violated the curfew beaten to death. The emperor also demoted the officer in charge of the Gold Bird Guard and banished him from the capital.
Sadly for the Tang rulers weakening government power after the An Lushan rebellion and then the greater commercialization and fluidity of society made it impossible to keep up the system. In the Song and after the system of gated wards could not be re-imposed. The current Chinese government, however, is at least making an effort at restoring the glory of the Tang.
the system of urban wards goes back at least to the Han. ↩