Introduction to the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is an immensely long
man-made wall that was built to keep out invaders. It spans nine provinces and its total length is 6,700 km
(3,948 miles). The Great Wall extends from ShanHaiGuan (the
'Old Dragon Head'), a seaport along the coast of BoHai, in
the east (near BeiDaiHe resort) to JiaYuGuan Pass in GanSu
Province in the west. Like a giant dragon, the Great Wall of
China winds its way across grasslands, deserts and mountains.
In this guide, we look at the
history of the Great Wall and its design and construction.
History of the Great Wall of China
Although the Great Wall of China
was originally built for protection, the wall stands as a
tribute to the amazing ingenuity of the Chinese.
Listed as a World Heritage
Site by UNESCO in 1987, the Great Wall ('Chang Cheng' in
Chinese) is a true marvel and a testament to the long
history of the Chinese Civilisation.
Today, people from all
over the world visit to walk on the Great Wall of China,
to stand on a watchtower and view the wall snaking into
the distance. This treasure is now protected so that
future generations can see the Great Wall with the same
wonder and amazement as we do now.
Some parts of the Great
Wall of China have almost disappeared. Some parts have
been overwhelmed by the elements. Some have been
by the desert. Others eroded by local people recycling
the wall's materials for constructions in their villages.
Nevertheless, the Great Wall in large part still stands
in silent splendor, enduring the passage of time and
greeting the changes of the seasons as it has done for
many hundreds of years.
The history of the Great
Wall is a long one - it was built over many hundreds of
years. Walls were first built to keep invaders away from
the farming villages on the Chinese border. These walls
were built at weak points in the natural landscape or
where the threat was perceived as greatest.
Some of these walls
eventually became of greater strategic importance when
the localised defences were gradually joined to form the
Great Wall of China. At those times that the Chinese
territory expanded northward, earlier walls became
secondary defences when a more northernly wall was built.
In the early days, the
Great Wall was as much a demarcation of territory as a
defence as such, but as the Great Wall became stronger,
it's defence role increased. Where possible, natural
barriers were integrated into the path of the wall. This
is particularly true for mountains - their height was
used to gain both a greater view and for advantage in
The Great Wall of China
was built by soldiers, civilians, farmers and prisoners,
primarily during three dynasties: the Qin, the Han and
the Ming, although the Sui Dynasty and the Ten Kingdoms
period also played a part.
The building styles of
each dynasty added their own flavor and advanced the
techniques learned from the previous.
The first dynasty of China
was the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206BC).
The first emperor, Qin ShiHuang, was a tyrannical emperor
who unified China by force and set about constructing one
Great Wall - by joining, where possible, existing one and
filling the gaps. He even sent scholars to work on the
Great Wall - anyone who was deemed unproductive. These
workers faced arduous labor, and the constant danger of
being attacked by bandits.
Most of the early Great
Walls were composed of loose stone, but when the natural
stone in an area was not sufficient, the engineers turned
to another method of wall building - a stoneless wall
that was built using a wooden, rectangular frame that was
then filled with loose soil. The soil was trampled down
for many hours by a team of workers until it was solid.
This process of filling and trampling would be repeated
over and over until the wall reached the desired height.
The second dynasty to add
to the Great Wall was the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). This dynasty rose to power in 206 BC after the
fall of the Qin. The most notable contribution of the Han
Dynasty is that they extended the Great Wall westwards
through the Gobi Desert. Despite a lack of building
materials, ingenious Chinese engineers found a solution.
Their answer was similar to that of the Qin, but created
a stronger wall.
This method involved first
laying down a layer of willow reeds, possibly woven. Then
a layer of gravel and a little water was applied and
trampled solid. After the trampling, a new layer of reeds
and gravel was added. This process would be repeated
until the desired height was reached. Amazingly, some
portions of this Great Wall are still standing, partly
due to the dry conditions of the Gobi.
The Han also improved the
watchtowers of the Great Wall - making them two storied
to gain a better lookout.
Great Wall we see today
The last dynasty to build
a northern defensive wall was the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
This dynasty built the biggest, longest, strongest and
most ornate Great Wall ever. These are the walls that we
are familiar with today.
The early Great Wall was
located much further north than the current Ming wall,
with its eastern end at modern day North Korea. Very
little of this first wall remains - although aerial
photographs do reveal a low, long mound. The Great Wall
that the Ming created was, more or less, completely new.
The Ming Emperors, having
overthrown the Mongols from the north, devoted large
amounts of material and manpower to making sure that they
(and the other semi-nomadic peoples to the north) could
Their methods of Great
Wall building fused all that was learned by the two
previous dynasties. First, a center of trampled earth was
created. Then, around the firm center was applied a shell
of stone and bricks. The bricks that were created by the
Ming are so strong that they compare well with the ones
we use today.
Near Beijing, the Great
Wall is constructed from quarried limestone blocks and
The strong Ming wall was
built across some of the most dangerous terrains in
China, including steep mountains, sometimes on 75 degree
inclines! It has been said that every foot of the
construction of this Great Wall cost one human life.
The Ming Dynasty Great Wall starts on
the eastern end at ShanHai Pass, near QinHuangDao, in
Hebei Province, next to Bohai Sea. It once spanned 9
provinces and 100 counties, but the final 500 kilometers
of the Great Wall to the west have all but turned to
rubble. Today, the western end of the Great Wall
effectively ends at the historic site of JiaYuGuan Pass,
in northwest GanSu Province, at the limit of the Gobi
Desert and the oases of the Silk Road.
JiaYuGuan Pass was intended to greet
travelers along the Silk Road. Although the Great Wall
now ends at JiaYuGuan Pass, there are many watchtowers
extending beyond there along the Silk Road.
In 1644, after two years of trying, the
Manchus finally crossed the Great Wall by bribing an
important general, Wu SanGui, to open the gates of
ShanHai Pass and allow the Manchus into China. Legend has
it that it took three days for the huge Manchu army to
pass through the Great Wall.
So began the Qing dynasty. After the
Manchu conquered China, the Great Wall was of less
strategic value, mainly because the Manchu extended their
political control far to the north of it, much further
than any previous Chinese dynasty.
The last Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty
was a military fortification of great strength. However,
historians are sometimes dismissive of its net value. It
was astonishingly expensive to build, maintain and
garrison and the resources the Ming spent on the Great
Wall could have been spent on other military
capabilities. The fact remains that the Great Wall was of
no help in preventing the fall of the Ming Dynasty.
However, only because the currently
prevailing dynasty had weakened from within were invaders
from the north able to advance and then conquer. Both the
Mongols (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368) and the Manchurians
(Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911) were able take power not
because of a weakness in the Great Wall but because of a
weakness in the government. They took advantage of
disenchantment and rebellion and stepped into the void of
power without an extended war.
and Wall Design
Along the Ming Great Wall
of China there are many watchtowers, spaced from less
than a kilometer to several kilometers or more apart.
These were partly used to
transmit military messages. Fire and smoke were the most
efficient means for communication - fire was used at
night and smoke during the day. Straw and dung was used
for this. In 1468, a series of regulations set specific
meanings to these signals: a single shot and a single
fire or smoke signal implied about 100 enemies, two
signals warned of 500, three warned of over a 1000 and so
on. In this way, a message could be transmitted over more
than 500 km of the Great Wall within a few hours.
During the Ming Dynasty,
two-storied watchtowers were built on the Great Wall in
strategic places. The ground floor was used for living,
and storing food and weapons, and the top floor was used
as a high lookout platform and also for defense. Canons
were installed in strategic places, sometimes in
watchtowers but also along the wall.
The watchtowers also
provided a place to retreat to, if necessary, from
attackers who had scaled the Great Wall. Inside, the
watchtowers have narrow and puzzling layouts to confuse
any infiltrators. The internal passageways and staircases
were unique and restricted. This allowed defenders to
pick off attackers one by one.
administrative centers were located at larger intervals
along the Great Wall. Small armies were garrisoned along
the length of the wall to provide early warning of
invasion and a first line of defense.
The outer parapet of the
Great Wall is crenelated with merlons almost 2 m high
from the base of the wall. The merlons provided
protection from incoming fire while the gaps allowed fire
Videos of the Great Wall of China