The history of the world’s most famous wall: The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is a spectacle. It was built over thousands of years and is estimated at 13,170 miles. For reference, the Equator is 24,901 miles. The Great Wall of China is a huge tourist attraction with over 10 million people visiting the Great Wall every year. But why was the wall built? Who built the wall? And how is it still standing after all these years?

The Great Wall of China is located in northern China. It was originally envisaged by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China under the Qin dynasty, in the third century B.C to prevent invasions from the North and especially Mongols who were a tribal group that would regularly conduct raids into China. Around 220 B.C Qin Shin Huang ordered that earlier fortifications between states be removed and existing walls along the northern border be joined into a single system that would protect China against attacks from the North. The wall became a powerful symbol of Chinese strength. The “Wan Li Chang Cheng” or 10,000-Li-Long Wall was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken by any civilisation.

Qin Dynasty

The project was directed by the famous Chinese general Meng Tian. He used a massive army of soldiers, convicts and commoners to build the wall. It is said that as many as 400,000 people died during the wall’s construction due to starvation, excessive fatigue and being flogged to death. Criminals had to work as punishment. Their hair would be shaved off and they were made to wear iron rings. They were required to work for four years according to the laws of the Qin Dynasty. 

Many of the workers that died were buried under or near the Great Wall. The most well-known of all the legends of The Great Wall of China is the “Men Jiangnu’s Bitter Weeping story”. A woman’s husband had died building the wall. Her weeping was so bitter that a section of the wall collapsed, revealing her husband’s bones so she could bury them.  

During the Qin Dynasty, glutinous rice flour was used to making the binding material for the bricks. The wall was made mostly of earth and stone. It stretched from the China Sea port of Shanhaiguan over 3,000 miles west into Gansu province. 

When the Qin Dynasty fell with the death of Qi Shi Huang, much of the Great Wall crumbled. It wasn’t until after the fall of the later Han Dynasty and a series of frontier tribes seizing control in northern China, until the wall was repaired again. The most powerful of these tribes was the Northern Wei Dynasty and they repaired and extended the wall to defend themselves against other tribes. 

The wall as it exists today was mainly constructed during the mighty Ming Dynasty 1368-1644. In 1421 the Ming emperor, Yongle, announced China’s new capital, Beijing. Under his hand, Chinese culture flourished and there was huge increase in the construction of the Great Wall which included bridges, temples and pagodas. However, the lives of guards stationed along the wall were very tough. A 1443 document from the Ministry of the Army admitted that “soldiers on the northwest border are exposed to wind and cold. Whether they serve as watchmen on the signal towers or guards in the passes… they may be away from their base, family, and children for months or years, and are often lacking for clothing and food. Their suffering from hunger and cold is indescribable.”

The wall was split into south and north lines, named the Inner and Outer Walls. 6 strategic “passes” and gates were also placed along the wall and were heavily patrolled during the Ming period. In the mid-17th century, Manchus of Northeastern China broke through the Great Wall invading Beijing which led to the falloff the Ming Dynasty and the start of the Qing Dynasty.

Between 18th and 20th centuries, the Great Wall became the most common emblem of China from the eyes of the Western world. It was a symbol of their physical strength and barrier to repel foreign influences. 

In the 1950s the best-known section of the Great Wall, Badaling, located 43 miles northwest of Beijing, was rebuilt and attracted thousands of tourists every day. 

The Great Wall of China has a rich and long history full of effort, determination, strength and secrets. A protection from invasion, a symbol of the unification of China and a popular tourist attraction, the Great Wall of China holds the same importance as it did when it was first built all those years ago. 

Have you visited the Great Wall of China? Did you know about its history? Is it a tourist attraction that you would like to visit in the future? Let me know in the comments 

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