The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China was built and rebuilt between the fifth century B.C. in the 16th century A.D.. It is a long series of fortifications used to protect the northern borders of the Chinese empire. There have actually been several walls, all called the Great Wall of China – the most famous was built between 220 – 200 B.C. Little of it remains now, and it was further north than the current Great Wall.

The Great Wall is the longest structure made by man. It stretches over 4000 miles along a rough arc, though its total length is 4160 miles. It’s not just the longest man-made structure – it’s also the largest in terms of both mass and surface area. At its peak, over one million men guarded the present wall.

By the seventh century B.C., during the Spring and Autumn Periods, the Chinese were accomplished wall builders. During the Warring States Period, which lasted from the fifth century to 221 B.C., several states defended their borders using earthen fortifications. The Qin dynasty was established in 221 B.C. under the leadership of Qin Shi Huang. He ordered a new wall to be built, one that went links those fortifications together.

The wall is made of many materials, as transportation of materials could be problematic. In the mountains, local stones were used; rammed earth was used to build the Great Wall along the plains. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of peasant workers who were buried inside the wall. It’s believed that as many as a million people died while building this wall.

Today, there are no surviving records to indicate the exact course of the Qin Dynasty wall. Later dynasties would repair or rebuild walls as they saw fit, often expanding sections into Northern Territory to defend against invaders.

The Ming Dynasty revived the Great Wall after a bitter defeat in 1449. Waves of Mongols were pummeling China, and the Ming Dynasty hoped the walls would keep the hordes away.

The Mongol threat was a deadly serious one, and the Ming Dynasty aimed to strengthen the Great Wall. Rather than rammed earth, they turned to bricks and stone. Considerable attention was paid to strategic areas, like near the capital of Beijing, were heavily reinforced. The Great Wall held until 1644, when Manchus were allowed through the gate by a disgruntled Ming general.

Today, portions of the Great Wall remain. It is unknown how much is left, particularly in remote areas. Time and the elements are taking their toll. Some sections of the Wall have been torn down to make way for modern building projects, and other sections have been damaged or destroyed by vandalism. Since no attempt has been made to map out the length of the Great Wall, it is unknown how much is being lost.

A lingering myth about the Great Wall of China states that it is the only man-made structure which can be spotted from space. In fact, this has turned out to be untrue. The myth has even attained the status of urban legend, appearing in textbooks, board games, and elsewhere. In fact, the Great Wall of China is not visible from space.

The Great Wall on an 1805 map of China, courtesy Wikipedia.
Map of China showing the Great Wall during the Qin Dynasty, courtesy Wikipedia.
China showing the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty, courtesy Wikipedia.