The Great Wall of China: History and Facts
Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt
The Great Wall of China, one of the seven wonders of the world, was initially built to protect the northern side of China. It was worked on sporadically for over two thousand years before the entire surface of the wall was complete. The construction began during the Warring States Period (770-256 BC) by the Han Dynasty. Since that period, the wall has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt several times; each time reflects the ups and downs of the Chinese dynasty. Most of what remains today is from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) because much of the original constructions do not exist due to destruction.
Why Was It Built?
The main reason for building the Great Wall of China was as a defense system. It was vital due to China's constant turbulence throughout history. During the initial construction of the Great Wall, nomadic groups, as they traveled from place to place, felt entitled to particular areas that were beneficial to them. They would invade and fight for any land that was not immediately handed over. Usually, the property was most helpful if it contained easy access to vegetation. To get to that vegetation, they would kill whole communities. The Great Wall was then constructed to protect the Chinese people from these early violent nomadic people.
How Was It Constructed?
For the Great Wall to be useful as a defense, they needed more than just a thin cement slab blocking against violent intruders, which meant a lot of workers, a lot of tools, and a lot of labor. Often hauling the tools that would be typical to build such a massive structure was too high; therefore, they used local tools and rocks. They used the stones from the very mountains they stood to protect. During the Ming Dynasty, instead of building with stones, they used bricks that they would bake in a kiln on site of the construction. They would use rectangular slabs of rocks that were carried by either men or pack animals such as donkeys or goats.
They also needed watchtowers, where people could keep watch over the land for trespassers, protect the property, and be able to alert those of a possible attack. For the nation to be monitored, they built the watchtowers at 1,500 feet intervals throughout the Great Wall. The exact number of watchtowers is unknown, although we know it was well over ten thousand. During warring times, bowmen stood guard at the watchtowers ready for attack. These bowmen also had a system to alert other people when they saw men approaching. These men, along with many of the troops, lived in the watchtowers. They also stored their weapons there for easy access.
Aside from watchtowers, there were also many beacon towers. There are three different kinds: one away from the wall, a second attached to it, the third within the Great Wall. In the beacon towers, they served a similar purpose, as did the watchtowers. Men kept watch and would alert others in case of a war. To inform the soldiers, they would send up a smoke signal during the day and bright fire lights at night. Throughout the wall, at regular intervals, there are square holes or breaches called crenels. Crenels were used to keep watch for invaders as well as used as a place to prepare to shoot.
Today, the Great Wall no longer serves as a defense system, but rather as a fantastic structure that many travel from across the world to view. Some believe you can see the great wall from space. Although it is an enormous structure, this is untrue, because although it is long, it is not wide enough to see. We would be just as likely to see a highway system, like the Great Wall from space.
The original great wall was over 7,300 kilometers long. Only 6,300 kilometers remains mostly built during the Ming Dynasty. The wall was made wide enough for five horses to canter side by side along the top of it. On average, it was seven to eight meters high and six to seven meters wide, which is a little less than a five-lane highway. The road portion where people and horses would travel was approximately four to five meters wide.
The highest point that wall reaches is on the ridge of Yanshan Mountain. It rises one thousand meters above sea level and is one of the more famous sections of the Great Wall. The wall itself starts at the Yellow Sea and wraps around the Northern side of China. The video below has some great pictures of how far the wall reaches.
Secrets of the Great Wall
In Beijing alone, the Great Wall measures 629 km. Beijing has been the nation's capital for the past 800 years since the twelfth century. It was a very significant area to protect, which may also be the reason why Beijing is home to the most well-preserved portions of the Great Wall. Due to its mountainous terrain, they built much of the wall on the mountain ridges. The section of the Wall that lies in Beijing is the most beautiful portion and also one of the most popular among tourists.
Although it is the hope of the nation that the need for such a great tool of defense will never be needed again, it stands today to remind them of the heart and determination of those who came before them. Today a wall like that would take years to construct, even with our new technology, machines, and vehicles, etc. Imagine the pain and struggle it took thousands of men to build all 7,300 kilometers.
If these walls could talk, they would be able to tell a history of over 2,000 years. They saw the warring times, the peaceful times, death, pain, victory, and joy. Their history is longer than the wall itself, which is why so many people are fascinated by it. Not only do they have the stories of the war, but of the men who built it.
- "Beijing Great Wall." China Odyssey Tours. Accessed February 28, 2018. http://www.chinaodysseytours.com/beijing/beijing-great-wall.html.
- "Great Wall of China." Travel China Guide. Accessed February 28, 2010. https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/.
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz