The Great Wall of China

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The Great Wall of China


What is commonly referred to as the Great Wall of China is actually four great walls rather than a single, continuous wall. The oldest section of one of the four Great Walls of China was begun in 221 b.c., not long after China was unified into an empire out of a loose configuration of feudal states. The most famous early wall construction is attributed to the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. Scholars generally credit him with the restoration, repair, and occasional destruction of earlier walls, and ordering new construction to create a structure to protect China's northern frontiers against attack by nomadic people. Historians continue to debate the form these fortifications took. Though records mention the chang-cheng (long wall) of Emperor Shihuangdi, no reliable historical accounts indicate the length of the Qin wall or the exact route they followed.


Wall building, around houses and settlements and along political frontiers, began in China more than 3,000 years ago. The first walls were probably between households, marking an important stage in the evolution of the traditional Chinese home. Next came walls around villages and towns. Earthen walls surrounded some prehistoric villages, and there are visible remains of a 4.3-mi (7-km) wall that is still more than 29.5 feet (9 m) high. These durable walls were constructed by the technique of pounded layers of earth alternated with stones and twigs inside wooden frames. In the period before the Qin dynasty, when political power was divided effectively among the rulers of feudal kingdom, these earthen walls were used to build state border walls.

During the Warring States period (403-221 b.c.) before China was unified, feudal states fought for control of the area constituting most of modern China. Although most of these segments of wall are impossible to locate today, some of them were reused during the construction of later walls. These early walls, however, are not usually thought of as being a Great Wall.

In 214 b.c., to secure the northern frontiers, Qin Shihuangdi, ordered his general Meng Tian, to mobilize all the able bodied subjects in the country to link up all the walls erected by the feudal states. This wall became a permanent barrier separating the agricultural Han Chinese to the south and the nomadic horse-mounted herdsman to the north. According to historical records, the Great Wall of Qin Shihuangdi was completed in about 12 years by the 300,000-person army, conscripted labor of nearly 500,000 peasants, and an unspecified number of convicted criminals. These workers were subjected to great hardships. Dressed only in rags, they endured cold, heat, hunger, exhaustion, and often cruel supervisors.

The wall was built across rugged terrain that included streams, rivers, mountains, and desert landscapes. Local earth, stone, timber, and bricks were the primary materials used to build the wall during the Qin dynasty. Although some stones were quarried to build walls in the mountains, tamped earthen walls—a traditional Chinese building technique—were most common in the flatter terrain and desert areas. Posts or boards were fixed on both sides of the wall, and earth and small stones were used as fill between the boards. This process was repeated layer upon layer, and the wall slowly rose 4 in (10 cm) at a time. This earthen fill was rammed into a solid layer by wooden hammers. In recent years archeological work has found evidence that most of the early walls were built in this manner. One example reveals that the wall was composed of bundled twigs, approximately 6 in (15 cm) thick, alternated with thin layers of coarse clay or gravel.

Building materials were transported on the backs of people or with carrying poles. A complex system of trails accommodated pack goats and donkeys bringing food and materials. Materials were often passed from hand to hand; builders stood in line from the foot of a section of wall and then building materials were passed from person to person. This method was safer and more efficient especially with sections on narrow mountain trails. Handcarts were used to transport materials on flat ground or gentle slopes. Large heavy rocks were carried using wooden rods and levers. Ropes were slung across deep ravines and valleys to move basketfuls of building materials. Some of the surviving members of the construction crews settled into some of the agricultural areas opened up after the construction was completed.


Most scholars suggest that the practice of extensive wall building, along with many other aspects of Chinese life, was instituted in the third century b.c. when the first unified Chinese state came into existence. This unification was effected when one of the earlier states, the Qin, defeated its rivals and the king adopted the newly created title of huang-ti (emperor) of the Qin dynasty (221-207 b.c.).

The first emperor proceeded to embark on a series of drastic reforms and massive public works projects to consolidate his rule. Along with a network of roads leading from the capital city, his laborers linked protective walls to deter raiding nomads into a defense system known as a wan-li-ch'ang-ch'eng or "ten-thousand li long wall." From the beginning, the construction of the first Great Wall of Qin was linked with the emperor's developing dynasty.

From 230-221 b.c. the warring rivals, the Han, Zhao, Wei, Yen Chou, and Qi, were crushed and the kingdom of Shihuangdi expanded eastward and northwards. Warfare during this time became larger in scale and ruthless with the development of the iron sword and crossbow. The technique of casting less expensive iron rather than bronze resulted in the production of swords with sturdy iron blades, preceding those invented and produced in the West by nearly 1,000 years. The crossbow, which fired arrows up to 250 yds (228.6 m) with accuracy, gave the Qin army an important edge in subduing enemies. By 221 b.c. Qin Shihuangdi had united nearly all of China.

The Qin unification ushered in a series of major changes that included the construction of the wall. The Great Wall as a project entailed an enormous investment of human and material resources. A single state government with strong centralized control was instituted. Law was standardized and a strong authoritarian rule was imposed. Also at issue was how the Qin dynasty (and later ones as well) would deal with the threat of nomadic people. Nomads were people who followed a pastoral way of life, subsisting on their flocks and moving with the seasons from one place to another. Equipped with horses and weapons, they held a great advantage over the settled Chinese people. The decision to allocate massive amounts of human and material resources to the construction of the wall was in part a strategy to maintain Chinese integrity at the borders.

Agricultural production along the Great Wall developed quickly. The once barren land was turned into a flourishing agricultural zone with irrigation and the use of the traction plow. Weights and measures, as well as coinage and writing, were standardized. Wide highways were also built to allow construction of the Wall. Some of these roads were themselves feats of engineering. They were raised in places where flooding was likely to occur and bridges allowed for the efficient transport of goods and hundreds of thousands of laborers.

The first of the Great Walls is an example of two conventional Chinese ideas: that a defensive system should be built where the terrain makes access difficult, and that locally available material should be used. The natural terrain—mountains and deserts—was fully utilized to make the structure of the wall both useful and practical. The first walls were designed to deter warriors wielding swords, spears, and bows and arrows. However, despite the defensive nature of the Wall, it did not become a barrier to cultural, political, and economic interchange. Goods, people, and ideas traveled back and forth at different times and places. For example, advanced metallurgical techniques, innovative farming methods, horses, camels, and music infiltrated Chinese culture over time.

The impact of the first Great Wall continues to be researched and discussed. The imperial system initiated during the Qin dynasty set a pattern that was to develop over the next two millennia. Steeped in myth and legend the history of the Great Wall of Qin became a rich legacy and a blueprint for subsequent generations of Chinese people.

Though much of this first Great Wall has disappeared as a result of centuries of natural and human-inflicted damage, remains of compressed earth, sand, and stones can be seen. The second "ten-thousand li long wall" was built during the Han Dynasty, the third was built by the Jin Dynasty that made peace with the Mongol invaders, and the fourth was built by the Ming Dynasty beginning in 1368. This series of walls has become China's best-known monument and national symbol, and embodies some of most innovative and ingenious ideas of any people in the world.


Further Reading

Fryer, Jonathan. The Great Wall of China. London: New English Library, 1975.

Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall of China: From History toMyth. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Zewen, Luo, et al. The Great Wall. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.