Nearly everyone has heard of the huge, stone wall known as the Great Wall of
China. The Great Wall of China was built mainly to protect the Chinese Empire from the
Mongolians and other invaders. The Wall has been periodically rebuilt and modified
throughout history by each reigning Chinese dynasty. There are huge discrepancies
regarding the length of the wall. One person had said that the wall was over 3,720 miles,
Richard Nixon said it was 2,484 miles long, while Time magazine favored 1,684 miles.
However, it is known that the Great Wall extends from Kansu, in the west, to the Yellow
Sea, in the east. Ancient records report that at least one million slaves and prisoners of
war were used to create this defensive wall. Many laborers died from exhaustion and
starvation while working on this colossal task, their bodies added to the rubble and
masonry as the quickest means of disposal. For centuries, the Wall was known as "the
longest cemetery in the world."
Credited with the consolidation of the Walls, Shi Huangdi created the
Great Wall, which at the time was known as the Wan Li Chang Cheng (Ten Thousand Li Long
Wall). It twists and winds along hill crests, gorges, and rivers. At its greatest, it
reached from the China Sea town of Shanhaiguan, over 3,000 miles westward into the Gansu
province. To put this in perspective, it would stretch from Los Angeles to Boston, or,
from London to beyond the Urals mountain chain which separates Europe from Asia.
1. How the Wall Was Built
2. History of the
Picture of the Great Wall
1. How the
Wall was Built
This section discusses how the Great Wall was
built in different times. Unfortunately, we do not have information on all of the States
or Dynasties since little archeological research has been conducted on the Great Wall.
A. Pre-Great Wall
During early construction, the Chinese employed a
process known as the tempered earth method. Planks were erected on both sides of the wall,
earth (t'u) was dumped to fill the void between the planks, and then tightly compacted
(hang), layer by layer, with heavy pounders. These layers ranged in thickness from three
to twenty centimeters and if cared for correctly, could last a long time. If unattended,
however, the walls would quickly deteriorate.
B. Great Wall
At the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the layers of
the Great Wall consisted of layers of bundles of twigs, six to twelve inches thick,
alternated with thinner layers of coarse clay or gravel. Unfortunately, this method of
building easily eroded unless it was given great care
During the Ming Dynasty, the people of China did not want to trade with
the nomadic Mongols, but they could not defeat them militarily. The Chinese had only one
real option: prevent the Mongols from entering China. This idea was adopted during the
fifteenth century, however, the concept of the Ming Wall was not fully grasped until the
sixteenth century. Below is a brief sketch of the development of the Great Wall during the
By end of the sixteenth century, the border defenses, still visible
today, were created. The Ming Dynasty, however, did not call it the great wall, they
refereed to it as chiu pien-chen, or "nine border garrisons," referring to the
strategic locations for large numbers of soldiers.
As garrisons grew more complex, so did wall building. Early Ming
ramparts and dirt walls, even the wall built by Yu Tzu-chun, had been made of compacted
earth. Unskilled local laborers usually carried out the work; thus, the walls did not last
very long and eroding over time. In order to make the walls more sturdy, new construction
began using stone and brick. This created a huge demand for more workers because the stone
work was much more time consuming and labor intensive.
The development of the Great Wall continually shifted to help ward off
attack by the Mongols. The basic idea of wall building was to move from west to east. As
construction of each portion of the wall was completed, the nomads were forced to shift
their point of attack. With every successful section of wall, the Mongols were forced to
redirect their efforts.
There are three main forts located along the Great Wall. They are:
Chia-yu-kuan in the Far West, Chu-yung-kuan not far from the Chinese capitol (Peking), and
Shan-hai-kuan located at the eastern most end of the wall. The Chia-yu-kuan marked the
Ming boundary at the end of the Kansu corridor. This corridor is a narrow route between
mountains to the south and deserts to the north that had been followed by caravans between
China and Central Asia since ancient times. General Feng Sheng, who settled troops
on the present site, established this fort in 1372. Chu-Yung-kuan is less than forty miles
north of Peking. This fort protects the most convenient pass through the mountains lying
between the capital, the river valleys, and steppe beyond. The military importance of this
pass has been recognized since ancient times. In 1368 General Su Ta established a garrison
in the pass and ordered construction of the fort. The last great fort along the Great Wall
is known as Shan-hai-kuan. This fort is in a strategic location, guarding a coastal strip,
which runs from Manchuria to Korea. Shan-hai-kuan was built along this strip, where the
road starts to narrow. Shan-hai-kuan literally translated means "Mountain-Sea
Barrier." Two hundred and sixty miles east of Peking, this fort is famous for its
large arched gate inscribed "First Pass Under Heaven." A Chinese guard first
established this site in 1381, and actual construction began in 1382. Between 1488 and
1505, 170 walls were built at strategic locations between the pass and Chu-yung-kuan.
During 1449, the military situation in China was deteriorating, leading to a new series of
changes in both administration and in the methods of fortification. In the early years of
the Ming Dynasty, the scattered encampments of the Chinese army had no real leader or
strategic commander. However, during the fifteen century, the situation on the boarder led
to an attempt to make defense stronger and more reliable.
Towers built along the Great Wall were not used for combat, but as signal
towers to report Mongol sightings or attacks. During the Han Dynasty, fire was used by
night and smoke by day as signals. The Ming signaled with cannon fire, fire and smoke.
Weng Wan-ta was the architect who developed much of the tower defense concept. In addition
to tower and wall modifications, Weng Wan-ta also improved defense in other areas. For
example, he permanently placed a garrison in front of the capitol, not just during the
autumn when raiders attacked the most. He also updated defense procedures from the Han and
Tang dynasties. Due to his modifications, it became much more difficult for the Mongols
and raiders to penetrate China's defenses.
For the remainder of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century,
China saw the climax of Ming wall building. The Ming created a fortified defensive line of
unprecedented scale and complexity, designed to protect China from all invaders. The Great
Wall was perfect technically, however, the Chinese had a difficult time defending the
entire length of the wall and sometimes fell prey to the nomads. In addition, Chinese
negligence led to the deterioration of certain sections of the Great Wall.
The Great Wall had a 15-to-50 foot
base, rose 15 to 30 feet to a top of 12-feet or more ramparts, with guard towers placed at
intervals. Great granite blocks, 14 feet long and 3-4 feet thick, face the wall and are
filled with tempered earth. During earlier times, the wall was built to prevent
non-Chinese forces from invading from the north and northwest, which were their
traditional enemy territories. Thus, the emperor's contribution was the construction of
one overall line of defense. Three overlapping layers usually protected areas that were
heavily attacked or were of great importance.
The precise date the Great Wall was built is unknown. It is believed to
have been built during Ch'in Dynasty (221-207 BC), the Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220), the
Northern Ch'i Dynasty (AD 550-574), the Sui Dynasty (AD 589-618), and the Ming Dynasty (AD
of the Pre-Great Wall
Many historians do not consider the early walls listed below to be
part of the Great Wall of China. These walls were in fact joined together during the Ch'in
dynasty (221-207 B. C.) During this dynasty, the building of a new border defense system,
known as Wan Li Chang Cheng (Ten Thousand Li Long Wall) was complete.
Name of the Wall
|656 B. C.
||Ch' u State
||What is now known as the southern part of
the Honan Province
|Fifth Century B. C
||Ch' i State
||In modern day Shangtung
|361 B. C.
||Around modern day Han-ch'eng county,
|356 B. C.
||Around modern day Han-ch'eng county,
|331-279 B. C.
||Modern day inner Mongolia
|334-311 B. C.
||Modern day northern Hopie
|333-307 B. C.
||Extends into modern day Honan, goes
beyond Yen-men-kuan at the base of the T'ai-hang mountains.
|300 B. C.
||Modern day Yin-shan area, reaching into
modern Pao-t'ou and beyond, almost over to Kao-ch'ueh.
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Pictures of the Great Wall
All of the pictures were provided by NASA.
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Cliffs, Silver Burdett Press, 1989
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