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The Great Wall of China

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Great Wall of China Sections of the Great Wall of China, including this section near Beijing, have been restored in the 20th century. Built by the Ming dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Great Wall stretches about 2400 km (about 1500 mi) along China’s northern border. Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China (221-210 bc), constructed different fortifications also known as the Great Wall. Few traces remain of that ancient structure.

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Great Wall History

Great Wall has been one of the wonders of the ancient world. It is like a sleeping dragon spanning across almost the whole China. It is an object, which many legends revolve around. Some exclaimed it as "the only man-made object visible to the naked eye in space!" Some calculated the materials used in the wall are sufficient to build a small wall of eight feet tall and three feet thick around the equator. 

Why Did Chinese Build Walls?

The threats of nomadic people in the north were constant throughout Chinese history. They were continuously raiding the Chinese northern borders. With every new ruler, came endless debates in the court on how to deal with those "barbarians". Chinese had four options:

  1. Initiate offensive campaigns to drive them out of the neighborhood.
  2. Create defensive garrisons.
  3. Make diplomatic and economic ties with them.
  4. Build a wall to keep them out.

All the above options were favored at various times. Experience showed offensive campaigns were too costly and risky, defense garrisons respond too slowly to counter lightning attacks on a long border. The third option would be a very rational one, it was in fact tried and successful in couple of occasions, but generally the Chinese held themselves in a very high opinion, or the so-called "Middle Kingdom Complex". They looked down upon the nomads as "people with animal heart" who live on the edge of the world. Any notion of them as an equal state was unthinkable. Thus wall building was the most favored option in many dynasties. There were three dynasties which built the most walls; they are Qin, Han, and Ming. 

Qin (pronounced chin) (221-206 BC)

The legend has it that Qin Shi Huang, or the first emperor built the earliest Great Wall after the unification of China under the central Qin government. He intended to keep out the hsiong nu, or Huns from his country, to make a stable future for his descendents who will be the Second Emperor, Third Emperorˇ­so on until infinity. However, forced conscription for wall building, and many other cruel treatment provoked a rebellion which overthrew his empire right after his death.

Qin Shi Huang

Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220)

One of the most powerful dynasties of Chinese history was also bothered by Huns. They tried many ways to deal with them, including the most open economic and diplomatic relations, which was abandoned because it was too "shameful". Then offensive campaigns were taken up, which did result in some success, though burdened the empire's finance. The great wall was repaired and added sections to accompany the empire's expansion to the west across the Gobi desert. This time, its mission is to protect the legendary Silk Roads. The great wall played a vital role in protecting those flourishing markets along the road.

Ming (1368-1644 AD)

Ming was the greatest wall builders. Most of what we see today of the wall are remnants of this dynasty. Ming is ruled by a house of Chinese who overthrown the Mongols (Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368). They wanted to make sure "barbarians" never rule over China again. Hence they were very mistrustful and uncompromising to the foreigners. Ming forbidden any foreign contact and trading for a while during 16th century. However, because of one of the border officer's defection, Ming was not able to repel another nomadic people, Manchurian's invasion. 

Today, the effectiveness of the Great Wall in history is still a controversial issue. The history record shows that the wall has in many times successfully repelled invading nomads. Only when a dynasty had weakened from within were invaders from the north able to advance and conquer in two occasions. However, some scholars feel the Chinese wall builders are responsible for the border unrest. The nomads are people who could not farm, so they are in desperate need of trading with Chinese to survive. When Chinese denied them, they had to raid border towns. They argue that the wall provoked the nomads to form larger and more efficient organizations that eventually brought China's own downfall. Today, it is an accepted fact that it is more effective to deal diplomatically with one's enemy rather than totally avoid them.

Where and How Long is the Wall?

Wall has never been surveyed in its entirety. Its length and course are not accurately mapped out. There are recent aerial and satellite images that will make the work easier. 

The entire wall and its extensions sum up to more than 6400 km, or in ancient Chinese measurement, more than 12000 Li (a li is about half of a kilometre). That's why the Chinese word for Great Wall means "The Wall of Ten Thousand Li". 

The Wall crosses three different geographical regions. The western end is in the Gobi desert, where most of the walls are in ruin. The central section spans across the Ordos Steppes where the Yellow River follows a meandering course. It is a region of mud. East of the Ordos region, the wall stretches across the precipitous mountains of eastern China to the Pacific Ocean.

How Did Chinese Build Walls? 

As scientific knowledge increased, different dynasties used different construction methods.


The watchtowers were built first, and they are usually two bowshot lengths from each other. Then the wall was constructed. Workers filled wooden frames with earth, which was then tamped tightly. Removal of the frame leaves a tight packed wall.


Han's technology weren't much improvement from Qin.


Much of the Ming wall was brickwork. Mass productions of bricks, which were as strong as modern day masonry blocks, by kilns were cutting-edge technologies at that time in the world. Tamped earth was encased in brick walls, which crosses in some of the most forbidden terrains, rising in places at an angle of 70 degrees.

Overall, the wall wouldn't have existed without millions of workers' effort. It is better to describe the Great Wall as a story of human sweat and determination rather as a story of technology.

Appearance of the Wall

Soldiers were aided by architectural features like Buttresses to defend enemies. Buttresses were blocks that stick up from the wall at regular intervals, where troops could store equipment. They were also designed to protect from enemy firing arrows from below. They included holes though which wall guards could fire on invaders. The watchtowers were places for the soldiers to live and keep supplies. They are in sight of at least another tower, to signal to. On top of the tower, there were crossbows, or later, small cannons.

Life along the Wall

Chinese empires stationed garrisons along the border. They served in small units, living and working in the watchtowers of the wall. Their works were mainly keeping an eye for invasions. Soldiers were equipped with Armour, helmets, and heavy crossbow. Each watchtower had flag or torch to signal if enemy is sighted. Some border soldiers also work as custom agents, especially along the silk roads. Many of the garrisons are self-sufficient by farming the nearby plots.

The Significance of the Great Wall

The Great Wall played an important part in the history. The wall was seen differently in different times though. The Chinese rulers who built it saw it with great assurance of border defense, as it provided safety of Chinese culture and trade centre such as those on silk roads. The nomadic people saw the wall as a threat to their survival. In fact, during the Han dynasty, the Great Wall had forced the Huns to expand west into Europe, which started a chain of event that eventually brought down the Roman Empire. As early as 17th century, the westerners marveled at the wall, and see it as a symbol of the Chinese isolationism. Despite the westerner's praise, Chinese views of the wall was a sorrow one during the post-Ming period, the Chinese people felt the wall was a reminder of their defeat to the Manchurians. Today, the Great Wall is being publicized as the unofficial national symbol for China, and a great tourist attraction. The Chinese people see it with pride of their ancient ancestry. This can be all summarized by a Chinese saying:" There is no good man who has not been up the Great Wall."

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