The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China.
Address: Huairou, China, 101405
Hours: Open today · 7:30AM–5:30PM
UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription: 1987
The Great Wall, one of the greatest wonders of the world, was listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987. Just like a gigantic dragon, it winds up and down across deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus, stretching approximately 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers) from east to west of China.
With a history of more than 2,000 years, some of the Great Wall sections are now in ruins or have disappeared. However, the Great Wall of China is still one of the most appealing attractions all around the world owing to its architectural grandeur and historical significance.
The Original Wall
During the time known as The Warring States Period (476-221 BCE), the different regions of China fought for control of the country during the collapse of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771-226 BCE). One state emerged victorious from this struggle: the state of Qin which is pronounced ‘chin’ and gives China its name. The general who led Qin to victory was Prince Ying Zheng who took the name `Qin Shi Huangti’ (First Emperor) after conquering the other states.
Shi Huangti ordered construction of the Great Wall to consolidate his empire. The seven warring states each had walls along their border for defense, which Shi Huangti destroyed after he took power. As a sign that all of China was now one, the emperor decreed a great wall would be built along the northern border to defend against the mounted warriors of the nomadic Xiongnu of Mongolia; there would be no more walls marking boundaries between separate states in China because there would no longer be any separate states. His wall ran along a line further to the north than the present one, marking what was then the border between China and the Mongolian plains. The wall was constructed by unwilling conscripts and convicts who were sent north under guard from all over China for the purpose. Shi Huangti was not a benevolent ruler and was more interested in his own grandeur than the good of his people. His wall was not regarded by the Chinese people under the Qin Dynasty as a symbol of national pride or unity but as a place where people were sent to labor for the emperor until they died.
History of the Great Wall of China
A defensive wall on the northern border was built and maintained by several dynasties at different times in Chinese history. There have been five major walls:
208 B.C.E. (Qin Dynasty)
It starts from Liaodong (today’s east and south of Liaoning Province) in the east and ends at Lintao (today’s Lintao County in Gansu Province) in the west. The wall was built according to the local conditions and used local materials. Generally speaking, the Qin Wall was made of large pieces of stones. Between the stones, huge amounts of detritus was accumulated and filled in. It measures about 4.4 to 5.5 yards. The steep cliffs were used as natural walls after being chiseled a little. In Gobi area, the wall was built by mixing grit with the local plants such as red willows, reeds, and poplars. In flat plains, the wall was built from pounded yellow earth, layer upon layer. Besides connecting the scattered sections of previous states, Qin Wall was augmented with rather complicated military structures such as blockhouses, barriers, passes and beacon towers.
First century B.C.E. (Han Dynasty)
After Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death, the Qin Dynasty soon came to an end due to mass uprisings. Han Dynasty was then established by Emperor Gaozu, who had the previous wall renovated and reinforced. Later, Emperor Wu of Han constructed the Great Wall in a large scale. He had Yanmenguan Pass restored in 130BC, and the Qin Dynasty Wall renovated in 127BC. In order to protect the Hexi Corridor, he ordered the defensive line between Yongdeng County and Jiuquan in Gansu Province be built in 121BC. The line was extended from Jiuquan to Yumenguan Pass from 111BC to 110BC, and it was further lengthened to Lop Nor in Xinjiang from 104BC to 101BC. The Han Dynasty Wall was not only a defense against northern Huns, but it also protected the ancient Silk Road linking China and the western regions.
Seventh century C.E. (Sui Dynasty)
After the reunification of China, the emperors of the following dynasties — Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), Song (960–1279), and Yuan(1115–1234) — rebuilt, modified, and extended the Great Wall to protect the Chinese Empire from northern invaders. Today, in some areas, two walls built in two different dynasties can be seen running side by side.
1138–1198 (Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period)
1368–1640 (from Hongwu Emperor until Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty)
It is the solidest and most complete one compared with walls in other dynasties. The Ming Dynasty drew the experience from the previous dynasties when they built the wall. More important military fortifications were added to the wall. In flat areas, outside the wall, big wide moats were dug to make approach difficult.
At the interval of 109.4 to 218.7 yards, there located a terrace which protruded from the wall. It was especially designed for close combat. Once enemies were camped outside the wall, soldiers on guard could shoot from the terrace. They could take the advantage of a commanding height to prevent enemies from putting ladders against the wall to attack the city. At certain distances, there was a fortress. It was used for storing up army supplies or stationing troops who controlled a section of the wall nearby and carried out the defense tasks along the wall.
Watch towers were often square in shape and towered above the top of the wall about 13.1 feet. While at places of strategical importance, the watch towers were round and raised high above the wall. They were built for soldiers to live in, to store food and weapons for a long period of time. The Ming Dynasty still raised smoke to warn of dangers. Besides, the boom of cannon was added to strengthen the alarm effect. In ancient times when telephone and wireless communication were not available, this method to transfer the military message was obviously fast. Beacon towers in Ming Wall were also used for ensuring the safety of ambassadors, supplying them with room and board and offering forage for their horses.
Why was the Great Wall built?
The purpose of building it was to protect people and territory from invasion.
The walls, together with beacon towers, passes, fortification, etc. created an elaborate defensive system providing Chinese society with a safe and peaceful environment. During the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period, there were many states, so they built separate sections to prevent invasion by other states. Furthermore, states in the northern part of China built some sections to defend against the northern nomadic tribes. In the Qin Dynasty, the Wall was mainly used to protect the country from nomadic tribes. In the reign of Emperor Wu of Western Han, the Wall played a significant role in protecting the main force as well as being a military base in the wars. Every time the country conquered new territory, the Wall would be extended, so that the local military force would be strengthened. With the help of the Great Wall, the Han Dynasty conquered more and more regions in northwestern China. In the Ming Dynasty, General Qi Jiguang reinforced the sections from Shanhaiguan Pass to Juyongguan Pass by building many watch towers and then trained army based on local landform to defeat invasions.
Structure of Great Wall
The wall had a height of seven or eight meters, reaching in some places ten, with a width of seven meters at the base and six at the crest.
Basically, the structure consisted of a long wall of compacted clay and sand covered with several brick walls that made it very tough.
The most used technique for the realization of the walls was to make a wooden skeleton was filled with soil layers, one over another. Allowed to dry and the frame was removed, leaving solid earth walls. Some stretches of land that was mixed with stones and covered with bricks.
If you build up the wall a meter thick and five meters high with bricks, stones, and earth of the Great Wall, the wall would give more of a world tour.
Much of the Wall is reputed to be the largest cemetery in the world. Approximately 10 million workers died in its construction.
There was great consternation when the first Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei, revealed that in fact could not see the Great Wall from space during your trip in its manned space capsule in 2003, a fact that was stated at that time.
The Great Wall stretches from near the Korean border in the small town of Chau-Hai-Kuan, a short distance from Beijing and near the Bohai Sea, to the Gobi Desert in Yang Kuan. It extends from Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuguan in the west. Across six provinces and autonomous regions and municipality in northern China: Hebei, Beijing, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi and Gansu, adapting to the different locations of their long journey, following the course of the rivers instead of building a bridge over them and adapt to the contours of mountains and valleys in its path.
Great Wall Building Materials
Stone, Soil, Sand, Brick
Most of the (restored) Great Wall sections we see today were built with bricks and cut stone blocks/slabs. Where bricks and blocks weren’t available, tamped earth, uncut stones, wood, and even reeds were used as local materials.
Wood was used for forts and as an auxiliary material. Where local timber wasn’t enough, they had it delivered in.
Stone Great Wall Sections
In mountain areas, workers quarried stone to build the Great Wall. Using the mountains themselves as footings, the outer layer of the Great Wall was built with stone blocks and filled with uncut stone and anything else available.
Soil Great Wall Sections
On the plains, Great Wall workers made use of local soil and rammed it into compact layers. Jiayuguan’s Great Wall section in west China was mainly built with dusty loess soil — “the most erodible soil on the planet”. It’s amazing that sections 2,000 years old still remain mostly intact!
Sand doesn’t stick together, so how could a wall be built with sand? Sand was used as a fill material between the reed and willow layers.
West China around Dunhuang is the desert. Innovative builders there made use of reeds and willow brought in from rivers and oases to build a strong wall. Jade Gate Pass (Yumenguan) Great Wall Fort was built with 20-cm layers of sand and reed, an impressive 9 meters high.
Brick Great Wall Sections
The Ming Dynasty Great Wall was mostly built with bricks. To build a strong wall with bricks, they used lime mortar. Workers built brick and cement factories with local materials near the wall.
Animal Use — doubtless fact and doubtful legend
Doubtless, horses/oxen and carts were used in the flatter areas for transporting materials, and camels were used in the deserts for long distances.
There is a doubtful legend that when Badaling’s Great Wall section was built on the steep mountains, workers used goats to deliver the materials. Goats are renowned for being good at “climbing”, so it’s said people tied bricks on goats’ horns and made them carry them up the steep mountains.
Facts About Great Wall of China
- While the Great Wall of China is not one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is typically included in the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World.
- In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the Great Wall of China on its list of the world’s great national and historical sites.
- That the Great Wall is a single, continuous wall built all at once is a myth. In reality, the wall is a discontinuous network of wall segments built by various dynasties to protect China’s northern boundary.
- During its construction, the Great Wall of China was called “the longest cemetery on earth” because so many people died building it. Reportedly, it cost the lives of more than one million people.
- The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world.
- As early as the seventh century B.C., a number of smaller walls that served as fortifications and watch towers had been built in China. Initially, each state (Chu, Qi, Wei, Han, Zhao, Yan, and Qin) that would be united in the first Chinese empire had its own individual wall.
- The length of all Chinese defense walls built over the last 2,000 years is approximately 31,070 miles (50,000 km). Earth’s circumference is 24,854 miles (40,000 km).
- The earliest extensive walls were built by Qin Shi Huang (260-210 B.C.) of the Qin dynasty, who first unified China and is most famous for the standing terracotta army left to guard his tomb. It is from the Qin (pronounced “chin”) dynasty which the modern word “China” is derived. Little of those earliest walls remain.
- Because the Great Wall was discontinuous, Mongol invaders led by Genghis Khan (“universal ruler”) had no problem going around the wall and they subsequently conquered most of northern China between A.D. 1211 and 1223. They ruled all of China until 1368 when the Ming defeated the Mongols.
- The dynasties in China after the Qin which seriously added to and rebuilt the Great Wall were the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Sui (A.D. 581-618), Jin (115-1234) and, most famously, the Ming (1368-1644). What survives today are the stone and brick walls predominately from the Ming dynasty.
- According to legend, a helpful dragon traced out the course of the Great Wall of China for the workforce. The builders subsequently followed the tracks of the dragon.
- A popular legend about the Great Wall of China is the story of Meng Jiang Nu, a wife of a farmer who was forced to work on the wall during the Qin Dynasty. When she heard her husband had died while working the wall, she wept until the wall collapsed, revealing his bones so she could bury them.
- At one time, family members of those who died working on the Great Wall of China would carry a coffin on top of which was a caged white rooster. The rooster’s crowing was supposed to keep the spirit of the dead person awake until they crossed the Wall; otherwise, the family feared the spirit would escape and wander forever along the Wall.
- The Great Wall of China is also known as the wanli changcheng or “Long Wall of 10,000.”