The pailou, also known as paifang, is an archway of a memorial or decorative nature. It could be made of wood, brick or stone, with or without glazed tiles, often carrying some inscriptions on the middle beam. The normal places where such archways stood were thoroughfare crossroads, shrines and temples, government offices, bridges, parks, tombs and mausoleumns, and they generally carried inscriptions to propagate certain moral principles or to extol government achievements. The pailou could also serve as the facade of a shop to prettify its entrance and attract customers. Many a pailou was erected to praise the "lofty virtues' of certain individuals in the locality. Fettered by the feudal ethical code, many widowed women refrained from remarriage just in the hope to have "pailou of chastity" built for them when they reached a ripe old age.
According to relevant records, there used to be some 57 archways in old Beijing. Among the well-known ones were one each at the crossroads of Dongdan and Xidan, four each at Dongsi and Xisi, one at Qianmen and a couple standing astride Chang'anjie, the main street running east-west in front of Tian'anmen. Nearly all of these have been taken apart or moved elsewhere.
A well-preserved pailou is the one in front of the main entrance to the Summer Palace Park. Built 200 years ago, it is composed of four columns forming three arches and carrying on top seven roofed ornamental units. Inscribed in front and at the back are two Chinese classical characters each, succinctly summing up the beauty of the hill and the lake in the park. Painted on it amidst rich colour are 176 golden dragons and 36 golden phoenixes, giving the visitor a foretaste of the sumptuous splendour that he is going to witness.
Among the pailou of imperial mausoleums, the best-known is the great archway standing at the southern end of the grounds of Beijing's Ming Tombs, the first structure that the visitor will see. A pailou of 6 columns, 5 arches and 11 superstructures, it is built entirely of white marble, and its stone columns are engraved with dragons, lions, unicorns and other mythical animals to display the power and dignity of the imperial house. Majestic and simple, it measures 28.86 metres wide and stands 14 metres high in the middle, one of the greatest of its kind in the country.
In the city proper of Beijing, a few other ancient archways have survived down to this day. There is a glaze-tiled pailou of 3 arches and 7 superstructures in Shenlujie Street, Chaoyang District. Not far from the Lama Temple (Yonghegong), in the side street of the ancient Imperial College (Guozijian), two pailou have been renovated recently and are shining with new lustre.