Great Wall of China Facts

Length: 21,196 kilometers (13,171 miles) total, not continuous

Height: Varies, up to about 8 meters (26 feet)

Translated Chinese Name: Chang Cheng, “Long Fortress”

Watch-towers: The Ming-era Great Wall (current wall) has an estimated 25,000 watch-towers along its length.

Construction Timeframe: Earliest fortifications, 7th century BCE through repairs in present day.

Major Construction Eras: Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE), Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE)

Materials: Older walls were mostly rammed earth; Ming Great Wall sections include brick and cut stone sections.

Purpose: The Great Wall of China was intended primarily to protect the cities, agricultural fields, and trade routes of settled farmers from raids and invasions by nomadic peoples from the north and west.

Deaths during Initial Qin Construction: Unknown; Estimates range from 100,000 to over 1 million.

Is the Great Wall Really Visible from Space? No. It definitely cannot be seen from the moon, contrary to rumor, and is not visible to the naked eye from low Earth orbit, though it can be seen from the International Space Station with binoculars or a camera zoom lens.

Great Wall of China | Qin Era (221 – 206 BCE)

During the Qin Dynasty, 221-206 BCE, first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi organized the border fortifications into an early iteration of the Great Wall of China. The map shows his concern for his capital at Chang’an, marked with the star. Click for larger image.. © Kallie Szczepanski

In 221 BCE, a warlord from the Qin state managed to defeat the rulers of the other Warring States and unite China into a single empire for the first time. His throne name was Qin Shi Huangdi.

Qin Shi Huangdi ordered the complete rerouting of all existing fortification walls in northern China. His workers tore down the walls that had divided the various Warring States. They also constructed the first of a series of border walls between China and the northern nomadic peoples, a tradition which continued for the next 1,800 years.

The nomads that represented the greatest threat to Qin China were the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic peoples. The Xiongnu ranged across what is now Mongolia, southeastern Siberia, and the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu. At different periods, the Xiongnu formed trade or tribute relations with their settled Chinese neighbors, alternating with periods of raiding or open warfare. Obviously, Qin Shi Huangdi considered them a serious problem; he devoted serious manpower and a good portion of his treasury to shoring up the border between the Qin state and Xiongnu lands via this first, centrally-organized Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China | Han Dynasty Era (206 BCE – 220 CE)

Map: the Great Wall of China during the Han Dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE. The Great Wall extended to the west during the Han Dynasty, since it was built to protect the newly-established Silk Road trade routes from attack by nomads. Click for larger image.. © Kallie Szczepanski

After the Qin Dynasty fell in 206 BCE, the Han Dynasty took power in northern China. The Han emperors continued the policy of fortifying the northern borderlands against nomads, particularly the Xiongnu. As this map shows, however, the Han also had an additional goal.

The Han state relied heavily on commerce with lands to the west via the Silk Road, a trade network that ran from Persia to the Han capital at Chang’an (now Xian). As a result, the Han Dynasty added sections of the Great Wall of China reaching out to Dunhuang, where ethnic-Chinese control of the trade route began.

Great Wall of China | Silk Road Fortification

Jiayuguan Fortress, on the western end of the Great Wall of China, in the Gobi Desert. Click for larger image.. Keren Su / Getty Images

Under the Han Dynasty, what had been an internal Chinese trade in silk gradually extended out to encompass nearby Central Asian peoples, and then spread further westward. Soon, Chinese silk graced the courtiers of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) in Byzantium, now called Istanbul, Turkey.

Along the way, this new Silk Road passed through Central Asia, the northern parts of India, and the Parthian Empire in Persia. Silk and pottery from China were traded for spices, precious gems, and gold or silver from points west.

Of course, slow-moving camel caravans laden with precious goods made a tempting target for nomadic peoples along the way. In large part to protect the caravans that made it across the Gobi Desert and were on their way to Chang’an the Han Dynasty extended the Great Wall to Dunhuang, the western edge of their territory and an important stop on the Silk Road.

Despite the Great Wall of China, which marked the boundary between Han China and the Xiongnu’s territory, the two peoples clashed frequently over the 400 years of Han rule. Between 133 BCE and 89 CE, they fought a series of wars. Sometimes, the Chinese would sally out from the Great Wall and attack the Xiongnu on the open plains; at other times, the Xiongnu would make their way through or around the Wall to attack Chinese cities.

In the year 89, Han China defeated the Xiongnu state and the nomads scattered. However, the great expense of the Sino-Xiongnu Wars severely weakened the Han Dynasty, leading to its slow collapse. The Han Dynasty fell once and for all in 220 CE.

The next dynasties to rule the region, the Northern Dynasty (420 – 589) and the Sui (581 – 618) maintained the Great Wall of China as built by the Han, and even extended parts of it. However, the Tang (618 – 907) and the Song Dynasties (960 – 1279) did not keep up the Great Wall.

In 1271, the ancient emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s worst fear was realized when a Mongol invader from the north became the new Emperor of China. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, took power in China and founded the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368).

It probably goes without saying that the Yuan Dynasty did not build or maintain walls through the center of their empire, dividing the Chinese section from the Mongolian section. When the ethnic-Han Chinese took power once again in 1368, however, walling the Mongols out became a top priority once more.

The Great Wall of China, Ming Dynasty Era

The Great Wall of China during the Ming Dynasty era, 1368 to 1644. This version of the Great Wall is the one that still exists in large part today. Click for larger image.. © Kallie Szczepanski

In 1368, an ethnic-Chinese family defeated the Mongol Yuan and established the Ming Dynasty, which lasted until 1644. They wanted to protect China from a renewed invasion by the Mongols or other northern nomads, such as the Manchus. However, the old Great Wall of China had been neglected for approximately 1,000 years, and the rammed earth fortifications had decayed away.

The Ming built a new Great Wall of China, mapped above, and they built key sections of it from brick and stone so that it would not crumble away as easily as the Qin and Han walls had done. This iteration of the Great Wall is actually that one that can still be seen today in many places across the northern People’s Republic of China.

It is easy to see that the Ming were particularly concerned with protecting the new capital at Beijing, which had been established by the Yuan Dynasty, and adopted by the Ming. A semi-circle of wall surrounds the city at a distance to hold off invaders from the north and west.

The Permeable Wall of China

Mongol traders bring a camel train through the Great Wall of China, 1902. The Great Wall has always been permeable, rather than a solid or impassable fortification. Click for larger image.. C.H. Graves / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Although the Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall of China, built solidly of stone and brick, looks formidable and impossible to penetrate, in fact, people passed through the wall regularly throughout its history. In the above photo from 1902, traders from Mongolia make their way through a gate in the wall to trade their goods with their Chinese neighbors.

When hostile armies wanted to make their way through the gates, they most often simply bribed or cajoled some of the guards to let them in. This was simpler and far less dangerous than actually launching an assault against the Great Wall.

In 1644, the Ming Dynasty faced widespread peasant revolts, famine, and the inability to levy taxes. A peasant army occupied Beijing in May of that year, and the last Ming emperor committed suicide in the Forbidden City. Sensing an opportunity, the ruler of the Manchu or Jurchen people from Manchuria approached the Great Wall north of Beijing, at the Shanhai Pass. A general in the border guard named Wu Sangui decided that the northern invaders were a better bet than the rabble in Beijing. He chose to open the gates to the Manchu army. The Manchus quickly marched south, seized Beijing from the hapless peasant-turned-emperor who had enthroned himself, and established the Qing Dynasty. It would last until 1911.

The Great Wall in Disrepair

Neglected ruins of the Great Wall of China at JianKou. Click for larger image.. Ilya Terentyev / Getty Images

Like the Mongol Yuan Dynasty before them, the Manchu Qing saw no reason to devote resources to fortifying their northern border. On the other hand, they did also refrain from tearing down the Great Wall of China, even those parts that divided them from their homeland in Manchuria.

For two and a half centuries, the Great Wall of China languished under the benign neglect of the Qing. Trees sprouted in the watch-towers, and stones tumbled off the parapets or were taken by local people to shore up their houses.

In the nineteenth century, it became clear that the real threat to Qing China came not from the northern nomads, but from European and later, Japanese, imperialism. The Great Wall of China did nothing to protect China during the First and Second Opium Wars, or the Boxer Rebellion. Had this magnificent structure completely outlasted its usefulness?

The Great Wall of China Today

Tourists on the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, not far from Beijing. Frans Lemmens via Getty Images

The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, marking the end of Imperial China. The country entered a chaotic period that ended only in 1949 when Mao Zedong and the Communists won the Chinese Civil War and established the People’s Republic of China.

It might seem odd that a communist government that launched the Cultural Revolution to stamp out all traces of China’s past would repair the Great Wall of China, after 300 years of neglect. It also seems strange that the Great Wall would form the basis of a thriving tourist industry in this communist nation, completely with guided tours, glossy books and brochures, zip-lines, and even gondola rides to the top for weak-legged tourists.

Today, however, this enduring symbol of Imperial China, and of its fear of nomads, is one of China’s top tourist destinations, and a source of quite a bit of capital. If you have not yet seen it, it is well worth the trip!

by Kallie Szczepanski



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