The large series of forts built along the northern border of Ancient China is called the Great Wall of China. They were initially built to protect the people of China from invasions by nomadic groups.
Many Chinese dynasties over the centuries have renovated or extended the wall and it served various purposes throughout history. The Great Wall of China is close to 2300 years old.
The name for the Great Wall of China came from the observations European travelers made during their visits. In China, the name for the wall has changed depending on the leadership.
In some eras, it was called the Purple Frontier or the Earth Dragon, while some other dynasties called it ‘Ten Thousand Mile-Long Walk’. Now it is called Changcheng which simply means Long Wall.
The structure of the wall is built with mud, cement, bricks, wood, and stones. It is the longest structure ever built in human history. It has 7000 watchtowers along its path that served as stations for soldiers.
Most of the wall stretches through rugged mountains and the countryside of China which offer breathtaking scenery and attract tourists from all over the globe.
The stretch of the Great Wall of China near Badaling was visited by 63,000,000 visitors in 2001. On average 70,000 people visit the site per day during peak seasons.
Some parts of the wall are built near the beaches of Qinhuangdao and still some others through a desert corridor stretching between the tall mountain ranges.
The total length of the Great Wall of China is 21,196 km and on an average, it towers to about 8 meters high. The highest stretch of the wall towers to about 14 meters high.
The Great Wall of China cannot be seen with the naked eye from space, however, with devices such as binoculars, it may be possible to see some parts of it from the moon.
Today the Great Wall of China serves mainly as a tourist attraction which has caused deterioration of the wall in regions with little tourist infrastructure.
One-third of the Great Wall has disappeared because people steal materials from the crumbling walls to build other necessary structures.
In 1987, the Great Wall of China was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Geographical and Architectural Facts
The Great Wall of China is a comprehensive military defense system with sophisticated features and strategic locations. The watchtowers built along the wall at intervals served as surveillance systems and beacon towers for effective communication.
The Great Wall of China is actually not one continuous wall but several walls that connect the whole structure. Some walls even run parallel to each other and are not exactly the same in their architecture or design.
The entire wall stretches from northern China all the way to southern Mongolia. The best-preserved section of the wall extends for 8850 km east to west from Mount Hu near Dandong, southeastern Liaoning province, to Jiayu Pass west of Jiuquan, northwestern Gansu province.
About one-fourth of this section is made up of natural barriers like rivers and mountain ridges. Some other parts have ditches that act as a barrier. However, about 70% of this section of the wall is actually built using hard to use raw materials like rocks.
This stretch was built during the Ming Dynasty which ruled between 1368 and 1644. It is said to be one of the most stable but also the most autocratic dynasties of China.
The Great Wall of China was built using different raw materials over time. Wood, rammed earth, and stones were used to make the wall in the very beginning.
However, during the Ming dynasty, the use of bricks increased exponentially and other materials such as lime and tiles were also used to reinforce the structure and enhance the design.
The bricks were easier to use compared to the rocks and could bear more weight than rammed earth. This was the main reason for the Ming dynasty to contribute the most to the construction of the wall.
Stones were still used to lend to the strength of the wall. They were cut into rectangular pieces and used as foundations, inner and outer edges as well as gateways.
The parapet is castellated in the uppermost most section of the wall which allowed the soldiers to defend themselves during an attack and also guard the region and the surrounding areas.
The signal towers were of great importance to the communication system of the wall and were built at regular intervals along the wall. They were built on higher locations to ensure good visibility and could provide signals to the soldiers with the help of smoke or fire.
Some gates were made up of wood to create a trap for the invaders passing through. This served as an integral feature to deter invaders from approaching the wall.
Along the inner edge of the wall stables, barracks, and armories were built. They not only prepared the soldiers to battle for extended periods of time but also served as living quarters.
Many fortresses were built at critical locations such as access points and were large and the most formidable structures of the Great Wall of China. The notable fortresses are Shanhai Pass Fortress, Juyong Pass Fortress, and Jiayu Pass Fortress.
They worked as frontline outposts and covered the area of about 4 kilometers each. The fortresses are sturdy with walls as thick as seven meters. They are about 14 meters tall.
The terrain that was chosen to build the Great Wall of China was extremely hard to navigate from the outside but relatively flat and wide on the inside which empowered the defenders while posing a near-impossible challenge for the aggressor.
The walls were constructed in a trapeze shape for two reasons. The first was to provide extra stability to the large building by keeping the bottom wide and the top narrow and the second reason was to make the surface of the wall slippery and harder to climb.
The base structure included pits, slopes, and ditches that further bought time for the defenders. The castellated parapets worked as places to hide behind in case of firing while still providing a wide viewing range for attack.
The watchtowers served the purpose of storage for food and weapons as well as additional shelters for soldiers.
History and Legends
During the 8th and 5th century BC, the Chinese had already begun to build walls in order to protect from attacks and invasions by barbarians.
This time was characterized by several wars in ancient Chinese history when various kingdoms built massive forts to protect their borders.
Qin, Wei, Zhou, Qin, Han, Yan, and Zhongshan were among the kingdoms that built fortifications during the Warring States period to withstand attacks with weapons like swords, spears, javelins, etc.
The walls were therefore made with stones or by compressing gravel and earth between board frames.
After the victory of the Qin Dynasty against the other kingdoms, China was brought under one rule and King Zhen became the first emperor of China.
In an effort to bring China under a centralized rule, he ordered the destruction of all the walls that separated his kingdom among the former states.
However, he commanded the construction of walls against the northern territory of the Xiongnu people who lived in the Eurasian Steppe. The plan was to keep building walls along the stretch to connect the fortifications present on the empire’s northern frontier.
General Meng Tian was put in charge of the construction. He commanded a large army of soldiers, convicts, workers, and common people to create one of the most ambitious building projects in human history.
The transportation of raw materials to build the walls posed a tough challenge in the difficult terrain. The people, therefore, used locally sourced stones to create the wall and earth to level the plains.
We do not know exactly how long was the wall built by the Qin dynasty due to a shortage of historical records and also the erosion of the structure but it is said that hundreds of thousands of laborers died during the construction of the Qin wall.
During 1206 and 1368, the powerful Yuan dynasty led by Genghis Khan controlled all of China and some parts of Asia and Europe.
To Genghis Khan, the wall served no purpose militarily but it did help in strengthening the prosperous Silk Route. He commanded soldiers to guard the wall and protect the traders, merchants, and their caravan.
Many dynasties took on the renovation and construction of the wall like the Han dynasty, the Sui dynasty, and the Northern Dynasties but it received the most attention during the Ming era.
The defeat of the Ming dynasty against the Mongol tribe called Oirat propelled the construction of the wall along the northern border of China. Fighting with the Mongols proved to be exhausting and the better strategy to avoid conflict was to build a wall to prevent further invasions.
They began building the wall on the southern edge of the Ordos Desert and included the bend of the Yellow river separating the territories under the Mongol and the Ming control.
The Ming dynasty construction was much stronger than the previous work done on the wall. Not only were the raw materials upgraded but the design also developed comprehensively.
An estimated 25,000 watchtowers are said to have been built to provide maximum surveillance of the region and ensure reinforcements in case of an attack.
During the Ming era, the walls near Beijing were made especially strong and a considerable amount of resources and manpower were exclusively dedicated toward making the wall an integrated defense system.
Though the wall served greatly during the Manchu invasions which began in 1600, the Manchus were able to defeat the Ming dynasty by taking advantage of the Li Cheng rebellion in 1644.
After that the Qing dynasty had complete control over China, they ventured to annex Mongolia and extend the borders of the empire beyond the wall. This led to the discontinuation of the construction of the Great wall of China.
Today major works are done on the wall by the tourism sector of China and it no longer serves the purpose of defense.
Visibility from Space and Other Facts
Many people have claimed that the size and stature of the Great Wall of China make it visible from space. However, scientists have proven that we cannot see the wall from such a large distance.
Neil Armstrong after his landing on the moon spoke about the visibility of the wall from space. He said that he was not able to see the wall from the surface of the moon.
However, William Pogue who observed the Earth from a low earth orbit distance of about 300-500 km in height reported that he was able to see the wall but not without binoculars and a lot of practice.
2000 kilometers of the wall has disappeared due to natural erosion and or human damage. The Chinese government along with the tourism sector have made many efforts in preserving and restoring the wall.
In China, the Great Wall is part of their mythology, symbolism, and national identity. From the 18th century, the Great Wall is seen by the rest of the world as the symbol of Chinese architectural strength.
It has also been perceived as the psychological representation of the Chinese state policy of guarding against foreigners and keeping their citizens under strict authority.
It has been debated whether the wall’s significance was to keep the invaders out or lock the Chinese citizens inside.
Throughout history, the Chinese leaders used the concept of ‘otherness’ in their political policies. The presence of a physical wall reinforced this concept.
The wall represented a cultural unity between the people within the walls and a strong repulsion toward the ethnically different tribes of Mongolia outside the walls.
It is one of the most stunning feats of architecture and one of the wonders of the world.