Great Wall of China

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(CC) Photo: Eugene Wei
A section of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China, known to the Chinese as The Long Wall of 10,000 Li (Pinyin: Wànlǐ Chángchéng) is emblematic of China. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a history which dates back over 2500 years. It is now a major tourist attraction in China with sections of the wall being restored for this purpose - especially near Beijing. The total length of the wall is unknown. Its size, age, complexity and general state of disrepair mean that new sections of wall are still being identified and some sections may yet await discovery. In its last incarnation, during the Ming Dynasty, the wall reached its zenith in building quality and length measuring 5,650 km and crossing 17 provinces in North and Central China.


(CC) Photo: Steve Webel
The summer and the two 'Golden week' holiday's of May and October see the most visitors to the Great Wall, but the winter gives the site a quality that most tourists miss out on.

The principle of building large walls to protect regions of territory in China can be traced back to the Chunqui (722-481 B.C.) and the following Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.). These were times when several large dynasties competed for control over what would later become China. The conflicts between these rival kingdoms explains why such defensive walls were built. One such example is the wall built in 408 B.C. to defend the Wei kingdom form their aggressive Qin neighbours. A large number of walls were build by each of the Qin, Zhou and Yan kingdoms throughout the 3rd century B.C. to defend against peoples from the north and also to protect themselves form each other. The Qin, under the leadership of Emperor Shi Huang in 220 B.C., unified China into a single state. The Emperor directed further wall construction to defend the north of his new empire. Rather than the mammoth single construction feat that is often portrayed, this project was more like joining the dots, connecting together and repairing the existing walls to make a unified defensive line. The patchwork of pre-existing walls stretched form the region of Ordos in the west to Liaoning in the east. The Qin filled in the gaps and extended the line of the wall westward form the Huanghe valley as far as Lanzhou. In total, 2000 Km of wall was constructed during the Qin Dynasty's short rule and employed 300,000 men in the process.

The Qin were overthrown and replaced by the Han in 206 B.C. They continued the building of the wall. By the reign of Emperor Wudi (140-87 B.C.), the wall have expanded to cover 6,000 km. Its western end was Dunhuang and the eastern end reached the Bohai Sea. The wall served to defend against aggression form the northern tribes: In particular the Xiongnu Empire. Large numbers of people were displaced and relocated within the frontier areas. Building and maintenance of the wall ended with the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. Over the next four hundred years, there were only sporadic resurgences in wall construction and maintenance. One example is a 1,000 Km stretch of wall built by the Northern Wei dynasty in 423 CE. Other lesser additions were made throughout the 6th Century.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) China was strong economically and militarily. There was no need for the wall. Successive dynasties allowed the wall to crumble and it became forgotten. This would prove to be faulty.

Even during the centuries when the wall was not being physically maintained, it remained a powerful cultural symbol. In a Chinese book of maps produced around 1100 CE, the northern border was often represented by a picture of a wall.[1]

The Mongols to the north became unified under the leadership of Genghis Khan. The Mongol empire expanded south into China, founding the Yuan dynasty. By the time of Kublai Khan, the third Emperor of the Yuan dynasty, all of China was under Mongol control. So was most of the rest of Asia. Kublai Khan's empire stretched all the way to the middle east and even into eastern parts of Europe. There was no need for a great wall.

Revolution against the Mongol aliens saw the Yuan dynasty overthrown and the beginning of the Ming dynasty. The Ming Emperors restarted the process of wall building. Never again were the northern people to be able to control china. This Ming wall is the Great Wall we are all familiar with today. It was 5,650 km long and to a large extent, stone built with crenelations. The top of the wall had road way along which troops and messengers could travel. Strong points in the defence and also shelter for the garrisons stationed on the wall was provided by 25,000 towers. A further 15,000 outposts provided defence in depth and advanced warning of trouble. At key mountain passes, river fords and near cities, fortresses were built on the wall to further increase the defensive strength. The wall was a expensive undertaking and similarly expensive to maintain. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty the wall had been rationalised. The most important and most vulnerable sites were heavily fortified and defended: Other less important sections were allowed to decay. However when the Manchu armies came against the wall, they found it to be a significant obstacle. The weakness in the wall turned out not to be in the stone construction, but in the people guarding it.

The Ming Great Wall was not the boundary or frontier of China. The Ming Emperors controlled lands north of the great wall as well. The wall can be thought of as a line of control within the country. It served to control the north of the empire rather than to demarcate the edge of the empire. The lands to the northeast were where the successors to the Ming would to come form. Aisin Giorro Nurhachi was the son of a Ming court official descended form the northeastern tribe known as the Nuzhen. His father was killed, by mistake, by Ming soldiers. Nurhachi, at the age of 25, lead a revolt against the Ming. Over a period of ten years he united the disparate tribes of the Nuzhen people. Nurhachi then spent another 20 years conquering the Haixi and Donghai tribes. This formed a new ethnic group that was to be known as the Manchus. In the year 1616, the 44th year of the Ming Emperor Wanli, Nurhashi set up his capital at Hetu Ala and, declaring himself Khan, founded the Great Jin (known also as the Late Jin dynasty). The Ming Emperor sent an army to destroy Nurhashi. In total, it is claimed, 480,000 soldiers marched on Hetu Ala. However, Nurhachi, with an army of only 70,000, managed to defeat the Ming army in the battle of Sarhu.

A series of other victories against the Ming say Nuhashi's Manchurian lands expand right up to the Great Wall itself. However, the Wall proved to be a formidable barrier. In 1623, Governor Yuang Ch'unghuan prevented the Manchu army from breaching the wall. Nurhachi turned his attentions to the lands of Mongolia instead. However, the Ming Empire was falling apart. Revolts and rebellions flared up. In 1644, a Han Chinese rebel Li Zicheng captured Beijing and the Ming Emperor Chongzhen killed himself. In an attempt to restore order, the General Wu Sangui made a pact with the Manchurians. The gates of the Wall at Shanhaiguan were opened and the Munchu marched in. The Manchu promptly marched on Beijing and took the country for themselves. Thus forming the Qing dynasty. Stories are told about Wu Sangui to explain his motives. One such tail connects him with a woman called Chen Yuanyuan. She was renowned for her beauty and Wu Sangui had become her lover. The rebel, Li Zicheng, had captured Chen Yuanyuan. The love between Wu Sangui and Chen Yuanyuan is given as one of the reasons why the General opened the wall and allowed the Manchurians into China.

The new Qing dynasty had no need for the Great Wall. They controlled the lands of Manchuria and Mongolia to the north as well as China to the south. The wall was abandoned and left to decay into its present state. In the late 20th century, the Great Wall became a national symbol for china. Images of the wall are used extensively. Chinese visas and passports have an image of the wall on them. The badges of the Chinese police contain an representation of the Wall. Sections of the Great Wall have been restored and have become a major tourist attraction.

Form and construction

The Qin dynasty walls were radically different form the stone wall tourists climb in their thousands near Beijing today. It was to a great extent built from compacted earth, not stone. Wooden shutters were first erected along the side of the section to be built. A layer of earth was filled between the shutters and pounded hard. The shutters were then raised up and another layer of earth placed on top. This process repeated until the desired height had been achieved. Walls are still made in china today using this method which is both cheap and can be easily done by unskilled labour. Watch towers were build at intervals along the walls length. Beyond the wall, advanced watchtowers were placed to give early warning of trouble. Communication between the towers used a system of smoke signals. Firewood was kept stockpiled beside the towers for this purpose.

When the Ming dynasty built their walls, in the main, they opted for stone. The Ming walls were built under the direction of the army. Each division of the army designed their own section of wall. So the exact system of construction varies along the wall's length. To think of the wall as a sign construct is to misunderstand it's history of over two thousand years. Likewise the same can be said of the Ming dynasty Walls, and it should be plural. The Ming Walls were built at various times throughout the dynasty over a period of several hundred years by various people and so one section of wall is different form another.

The Walls take advantage of the terrain. They follow ridge lines and mountain ranges rather than take the most direct route. This means that the wall is often on steep and difficult terrain. The top of the Wall has a wide walk way along which troops could march. The edges of the walkway are protected by crenelated walls. Towers were constructed at frequent intervals along the wall. These jut out form the wall with windows facing down the length of the wall as well as to the front and rear. This allows the towers to defend the wall. Should a section of wall be breached, the towers form a barrier that prevents the breach expanding along the wall's length. They also provided a platform form which a counter attack could be staged. Many towers are small but some, at key points in the wall, are large. At some places, spurs lead off from the main Wall to connect to additional outlying towers. These outliers add additional defence to week points on the wall such as where neighboring hills overlook the Wall. The Ming wall is for the most part of stone construction. Some brickwork may also be seen. The sides of the wall and the towers were built of this masonry an the center infilled with soil and rubble. This infill would then be paved with stone or brick to make the walkway.

Public Access

The Great wall has become a popular tourist site in China with both foreign and Chinese visitors. To facilitate the tourists, several section of the wall have been restored and made into museums. Most tourists visiting the wall will do so at one of these restored sections.

Near Beijing, there are three sections of the wall which have been opened to the public. the most popular among these is Badaling

Around the World in 80 Treasures - Japan to China. Episode 4 of 10. Narrated and Written by Dan Cruickshank. Produced for and broadcast by the BBC. Production date MMV


  1. Ruth Mostern, "Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern": The Spatial Organization of the Song State (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), p. 89, p. 291n103; see also p. 7. See also Hilde De Weerdt, "The Cultural Logics of Map Reading: Text, Time and Space in Printed Maps of the Song Empire,” in Knowledge and Text Production in an Age of Print—China, 900–1400, ed. Lucille Chia and Hilde De Weerdt (Leiden: Brill, 2011).