Introducing the Great Wall of China (Chang Cheng)

The Great Wall (Changcheng), symbolizing China’s ancient civilization, is one of the 7 man-made construction wonders in the world. It is just like a giant dragon starting from Yalu River and crossing high mountains, deserts and grassland to the Pamirs Plateau, the roof of the world from east to west in the northern part of China. For many centuries, the Great Wall, as a military defensive project, kept out the invading troops of the northern nomadic tribes. Having undergone the forces of nature for thousands of years, the Great Wall witnessed the rise and fall of many dynasties and changes on the earth, yet it is still standing proudly in the eastern part of the world. The original function of the Great Wall was to defend the nomads especially Mongols, but it didn’t work, several sections of the Ming Great Wall in Beijing like Juyongguan and Gubeikou had been breached, either by peasant uprising army or Mongols. Now, the Great Wall has become a famous historical scenic spot for tourists home and abroad, and plays an important role in bridging the friendship between the Chinese people and people in different parts of the world.


History of the Great Wall

Construction of the Great Wall first began in the 7th century BC during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC). The first section of wall that appeared in China was built by Qi Kingdom and the Chu Kingdom. They had a high wall which called “Square city” built surrounding their own territories to defend the attacks of their neighboring enemies. The invading enemy would feel terrified by the high wall, and it was also known as the Qi Wall and Chu Wall. Starting from the Spring and Autumn Period, the frequent wars intensified until the Warring State Period (475-221BC). After a series of annexations, seven kingdoms became the most powerful states (namely: Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin). In order to defend themselves and safeguard their territories against the invading enemies from the neighboring states, all the kingdoms followed the example of State Qi and_State Chu, and had sections of high walls constructed around their own territories for self-protection. They built high walls at the strategic points of the north by making use of topographical advantages to protect their northern boundaries. The three states of Qin, Zhao and Yan, located in the north, had the high walls and fortresses built along their northern frontiers as defensive projects. These high walls were the primitive prototype of the present day Great Wall and laid the foundation for the present Great Wall. Large-scale construction of the Great Wall was concentrated in the Qin (221-207BC), Han (202BC-220) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.


Qin Great Wall

The sections of the wall began to be called the Great Wall during the reign of Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. In 221 BC, Qin Shihuang defeated the other six kingdoms and unified China. Since the six states were all conquered by him, the first united feudal empire in Chinese history came into being. He established the first centralized feudal country and gave himself the title, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Shi means start). In order to consolidate the unity of the country, he not only made use of the common law, the standardized system of currency, weight and measures but also paid great attention to military affairs. He decided to link up the separate sections of high walls built by different kingdoms into the Great Wall. Especially the high walls in the northern part of China built by State Qin, Zhao and Yan, in order to ward off harassment by the Huns (an ancient nationality in northern China) and for the use of further defensive projects. Many sections of the Wall were linked up, expanded, and finally it was extended into the Great Wall. The linking work took 10 years to finish at the end of the Qin Dynasty in 206 BC. About 300, 000 soldiers and one million people, almost one fifth of China’s population at that time, were involved in the project. When it was finished, the total length of the Great Wall was over 5,000 kilometers long; so it was called “Wan Li Chang Cheng” in Chinese, which means Ten Thousand Li Long Wall (Li is the Chinese unit of measurement which is 500 meters). The Qin Great Wall started from Lintao, Gansu Province in the west and ended in Liaodong, Liaoning Province in the east.


Han Great Wall

Large-scale construction of the Great Wall was carried out throughout the reign of Emperor Wu Di (156-87BC) in the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). With the experience drawn from the wars with the Huns, the emperor found out that the Great Wall was an effective means of defense against harassment from the Huns. Apart from maintaining and utilizing the Qin Great Wall, they built an Outer Great Wall, about 500 kilometers to the north of the Qin Great Wall, in order to ward off the Huns as well as to protect the Silk Road. They also had the Great Wall extended towards the west for another 5, 000 kilometers to the Lop Nur Lake in today’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Han Great Wall started from the Liaodong Peninsula in the east, and ended at the foot of the Tianshan Mountain in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with a total length of 10, 000 kilometers. But the Han Great Wall was not that high and wide and could only be used to block the view of the enemy, thereby making them feel puzzled and preventing the enemy’s cavalries from making a sudden attack. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), after the Tang Empire entered its flourishing period, they expanded the frontier further to the north, so the Great Wall lost its function for almost 300 years.


Ming Great Wall

The last large-scale project on the Great Wall was carried out in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1368, right after Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing city, he started the reconstruction of the Great Wall on the basis of the Qin Great Wall. In 1368, Ming General Xu Da conquered Da Du (former Beijing) and drove the Mongol Yuan ruler from the throne. Emperor Toghon of the Yuan Dynasty had to retrieve to the northern desert. But the dethroned Yuan ruler still had some remnant forces. Later the remaining forces of the Yuan Dynasty launched frequent southward attacks on the mainland of the Ming. Since the remaining forces of the Yuan often made counterattacks on Beijing, in order to guard against invasions, Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang paid great attention to the construction of the Great Wall and stationed troops along the Wall. Apart from the remaining forces of the Yuan, the threats of the newly raised ethnic tribe, the Manchu, also threatened the Ming Court. So, starting from the first year of Zhu Yuanzhang’s reign, he sent his Chief General Xu Da to Beijing to build up the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass and some other strategic points inside and outside Beijing, because the Great Wall could help them prevent the remnant forces of the Yuan Court from harassing and securing the northern territories. The whole project of the Ming Great Wall took more than 200 years to complete, and there were 18 large-scale construction projects launched on the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty. After that, the total length of the Ming Great Wall was more than 7, 000 kilometers from Yalu River in Liaoning Province in the east, to Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province in the west. It passes nine cities, provinces and autonomous regions of Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu. During the Ming Dynasty two important passes which had key strategic value were reconstructed on the Ming Great Wall. One is Shan Haiguan Pass, which is located in Qin Huangdao, in the eastern part of the Ming Great Wall. Shan Haiguan Pass is also considered by a lot of people as the eastern end of the Great Wall which is not true. The eastern end of the Great Wall is located in the south of the Hushan (Tiger Mountain, 120°30′E, 40°13′N) in Liaodong Peninsula, which is to the south of Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. The other one is Jia Yuguan Pass, the western part of the Ming Great Wall in Gansu Province.


During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Qing Emperors only restored some passes along the Great Wall. They didn’t continuously build the Great Wall, because the Qing Emperors adopted the conciliation policy, or friendly-neighboring policy, towards the Mongolian and Tibetan nobles to ensure a peaceful boundary. Historical records show that for over 2, 000 years in Chinese history, more than 20 kingdoms and dynasties had built the defensive walls. All the bricks, rocks and dirt used in building up the Great Wall would be enough to build a one meter thick and five meters high wall around the world. Actually most of parts of the Great Wall people can see now were built during the Ming Dynasty. The most comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has recently concluded that the entire Great Wall, with all of its branches, stretches for 8,851.8 km. This is made up of 6,259.6 km actual wall, 359.7 km of trenches and 2,232.5 km natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Latest survey by the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage shows that the total length of the Great Wall in Beijing is 527 kilometers and 388 kilometers of it has been renovated or rebuilt either for protection or tourism.


Construction of the Great Wall


Building Materials

The building materials for the Great Wall in the Qin and Han dynasties were mainly rock, clay, earth and stone, even wood and pottery tiles were used. Generally speaking, at that time the building materials were quarried nearby. They followed the principle of “taking local materials and using them in accordance with their qualities”. When the Great Wall was built in the mountain areas, stone blocks were quarried right on the mountain. On the plains, the Great Wall was built with rammed earth or clay. In the deserts, the Great Wall was built with reeds and willow branches netted together to hold the sand. The Great Wall near the Lop Nur Lake was built in this way and can still be found today. In Northeast China, some sections of the Great Wall were built with piles of wood and timber. The Great Wall was filled up with hardened rammed earth, stones and rocks, and was covered up with large pieces of rectangular bricks. During the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall was rebuilt in most places. It was largely replaced by big bricks and evenly sized stone blocks; that is why most part of Ming Great Wall remains.


Beacon Tower

Beacon towers were built on both sides of the wall every 5-10 kilometers at the commanding points, which were at the top of the mountains or turns for making warning signals. Whenever the enemies were spotted, fires were lit on the top of the beacon tower at night, and smoke was made during daytime. The smoke was specially made by burning dried wolves’ dung mixed with hay in the daytime. And the number of the fire and smoke signals also revealed the number of invading enemies. One fire or smoke indicated 100 enemies, two 500, three 1,000, four 5,000 and five is the most which indicated 10,000 enemies. In this way, the commanders would not only know where the enemies were approaching, but also its number.



Watchtowers were built at regular intervals on the Great Wall itself for watching and attacking. Some of the watchtowers were built on sheer cliffs and irregular mountain projections of strategic importance, and others were built with a small house in the middle, a wooden roof, and all around there are holes for shooting arrows. A typical watchtower usually has two stories with the defense soldiers living inside. The ground floor was used for storing weapons and supplies with a number of windows for archers. The upper floor has battlements, peep holes and apertures for archers. In the middle of the tower there is small living quarter for the soldiers. On the upper part, shooting holes were built along the battlements on the Wall for shooting arrows. The watchtowers were not only used by the defending troops to take shelter from the wind, rain and heat, but also to fight and check the enemy’s advance, as well as storing arms and ammunition. So the whole Great Wall formed a complete defensive project with great strategic significance.



The main force for building the wall were soldiers, exiles, criminals and conscripted civilians. Since most of the work had to be done manually, the construction was very slow. A stone inscription unearthed at Badaling Great Wall records that in 1582 of the Ming Dynasty. It took several thousand soldiers and farmers a whole year to build a section of 200 meters wall. So one could imagine how hard it was for them to build the Great Wall. Lots of people died of hard toil when they were building the Great Wall, and their bodies were buried just under the wall. That is why the Great Wall is also called “The longest cemetery in the world”.


Construction Method

The Great Wall twists and runs mostly in the mountains and deserts, or turns up the mountains and down valleys. Without any use of modern machinery at all, it was really an unimaginably difficult job at that time, especially because some of the stone blocks were as big as over 1, 000 kilograms a piece in weight. At that time, the common transportation method was to carry the building materials by backbreaking labors. The laborers had to move all the heavy stone blocks, bricks, lime and other materials up to the mountains on their bare backs and shoulders or a pole on their shoulders with two baskets on both ends. Sometimes the earth and stones were passed up from hand to hand or carried in baskets by donkeys or goats. The large stone slabs were moved up to the mountains by means of rolling logs and crowbars. The cables were invented and considered to be more ingenious tools, so that the building materials could be carried in baskets over the deep gullies or rivers by them.


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