Twin gate towers (que) were a characteristic feature of urban and palatial architecture in Chinese cities from the Warring States period onward. Although they initially served the practical military purpose of strengthening the defensive characteristics of gates in the city walls, they rapidly acquired symbolic significance through their association with political power. This article examines the development of twin towers from the Warring States period to the Eastern Han dynasty, showing how their ability to define political or sacred space was adapted to a variety of different social, political, and religious contexts, from city walls and palaces to imperial shrines and tombs. After the First Qin Emperor and Emperor Wu of the Han erected twin towers at the palaces they built in their pursuit of immortality, twin towers also became signifiers of the celestial realm. Finally, in the Eastern Han dynasty, the newly prominent merchant and local gentry classes who rose to assume political and administrative roles in the government adopted the architectural vocabulary of twin towers by constructing smaller-scale stone mimics at their own family tombs, appropriating the imperial prestige of this form to flaunt their social and financial success and construct their own identities as local elites. By examining this long historical development, I show how a functional element of urban architecture could acquire new symbolic meanings as different social and political actors adapted it to serve a wide variety of ends.

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