History of the Construction of The Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China is the collective name of a set of fortification systems built across China’s historical northern borders to defend and strengthen Chinese states and empires’ territories against several nomadic tribes of the steppe and their associates. It is one of the New Wonders of the World.

Let’s look at the twisted history of the construction of the Great Wall of China.

Early walls

The Chinese were already accustomed to wall-building skills by the time by 500BCE. During this era and the following Warring States period, the states of Wei, Qin, Qi, Zhao, Yan, Han, and Zhongshan all built far-reaching fortifications to defend their own borders. Constructed to withstand the onslaught of small arms such as spears and swords, these walls were mostly made of stone or by marking earth and sand between board frames.

King Zheng of Qin captured the last of his opponents and consolidated China as “Qin Shi Huang” (the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty) in 221 BC. Intending to force centralized rule and check the resurgence of feudal lords, he ordered removing the walls’ sections that split his empire among the former states. However, to place the kingdom against the Xiongnu people from the north, he ordered new walls to connect the surviving fortifications and the northern frontier’s empire. “Build and move on” was a fundamental guiding principle in building the wall, implying that the Chinese were not making a permanently fixed border.

Transporting many materials required for construction was hard, so builders always tried to use regional resources. Stones from the hills were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used to build the plains. No surviving historical records are indicating the exact length and course of the Qin walls. Most of the old walls have eroded over the centuries, and very few sections remain today. The construction’s human cost is concealed, but some authors have estimated that hundreds of thousands, if not up to a million, labors died constructing the Qin wall. (Classic China)

Later, the Han, the Northern Dynasties, and the Sui all restored, repaired, or extended sections of the Great Wall at significant cost to defend themselves against northern enemies.

The Song and Tang dynasties did not undertake any significant effort in the region. Non-Han dynasties also increased their border walls: the Xianbei-ruled Northern Wei, the Khitan-ruled Liao, Jurchen Jin, and the Tangut-established Western Xia, who controlled vast territories over Northern China throughout centuries, all built armored walls, but those were settled much to the north of the other Great Walls as we know it, within China’s region of Inner Mongolia and in Mongolia itself.

Ming Era- The Great Wall Concept

The Great Wall concept was restored under the Ming in the 14th century, after the Ming army’s defeat by the Oirats in the unusual Battle of Tumu. The Ming couldn’t gain a clear upper hand over the Mongolian clans after continuous battles, and the long-drawn fight was taking a toll on the kingdom. The Ming adopted a new approach to keep the nomadic tribes out by erecting walls along China’s northern border. Acknowledging the Mongol control installed in the Ordos Desert, the wall followed the desert’s southern edge instead of including the Yellow River’s bend.

Unlike the older fortifications, the Ming construction was more robust and more elaborate due to stone and brick-use instead of rammed earth. Up to 25,000 watchtowers are deemed to have been assembled on the wall.

As Mongol raids regularly extended over the years, the Ming dedicated significant resources to reinforce and repair the walls. Parts near the Ming capital of Beijing was incredibly strong. Qi Jiguang, between 1567 and 1570, also fixed and reinforced the wall, covered sections of the ram-earth wall with bricks, and created 1,200 watchtowers from Shanhaiguan Pass to Changping to warn of impending Mongol raiders.

During the 1440s–1460s, the Ming also created a so-called “Liaodong Wall.” Like the Great Wall, but more basic in construction, the Liaodong Wall included the Liaodong region’s agricultural land, defending it against potential incursions by Jurched-Mongol Oriyanghan northwest and the Jianzhou Jurchens from the north. While tiles and stones were utilized in some Liaodong Wall sections, most of it was simply an earth dike with channels on both fronts.

Towards the fall of the Ming, the Great Wall helped protect the empire against the Manchu attacks that began around 1600. Even after Liaodong’s loss, the Ming army held the massively fortified Shanhai Pass, restricting the Manchus from capturing the Chinese heartland. The Manchus were eventually able to cross the Great Wall in 1644 after Beijing had already fallen to Li Zicheng’s radicals. Before this time, the Manchus had passed the Great Wall multiple times to raid, but this time it was for conquering. The gates at Shanhai Pass were opened on May 25 by the dominant Ming general, Wu Sangui, who allied with the Manchus, hoping to use the Manchus to expel the insurgents from Beijing.

The Manchus quickly seized Beijing and ultimately defeated both the rebel-founded Shun dynasty and the surviving Ming resistance, establishing the Qing dynasty rule over all of China.

Under the Qing rule, China’s borders spread beyond the walls, and Mongolia was annexed into the empire, so installations on the Great Wall were discontinued.

Present Day Condition of ‘The Great Wall of China:”

While northern parts of Beijing and near visitor centers have been conserved and even mostly renovated, the wall is in decay in many other places. The wall sometimes gave a source of stones to build roads and houses.

The Wall’s Sections are also prone to vandalism and graffiti, while inscribed bricks were stolen and sold on the market. Parts have been demolished to make way for construction or mining.

According to one report, around 37 mi (60km) of the Gansu region wall may disappear in the next 20 years, due to sandstorm erosion. The wall’s height has been reduced from more than 16 ft 5 in (5 m) to less than 2 m (6 ft 7 in). Various square lookout towers that define the most famous images of the wall have vanished. Many western sections of the wall are built from mud, rather than stone and brick, and thus are more prone to erosion.

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