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The Great Wall of China near Beijing

The Great Wall of China Construction Project that Spanned Generations, Centuries and Dynasties

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The Great Wall of China (known also as the ‘Wanli Changcheng’ or ‘10000 Li Wall’) is one of China’s most iconic structures. This is the longest wall in the world, and one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken. Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China is not a single, continuous wall, but a series of fortifications that were built over the millennia. Moreover, the section of the wall most visited and photographed, i.e. the one near Beijing, is not representative of the whole structure, as variations exist according to the area in which they were built.

During the Zhou Dynasty the Wall was Built for Protection from Neighboring States

During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (lasting from the 8 th to 3 rd centuries BC), China was divided amongst several powerful states. As these states were constantly at war with each other, walls were built to protect their borders. The fortifications constructed by the states of Yan, Zhao and Qin, the three northernmost states, would form the nucleus of the Great Wall of China.

Qin Dynasty – The Great Wall was Connected and Extended

In 221 BC, the unification of China was completed by Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty. Apart from internal enemies, the First Emperor also recognized external threats to his rule. Qin Shi Huang was aware that the Xiongnu on the empire’s northern border could invade at any time. Therefore, the emperor ordered the walls of the former Yan, Zhao, and Qin states to be connected and extended. Construction of Qin Shi Huang’s Great Wall began in 214 BC, and lasted about a decade, during which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and conscripted workers labored on the project. After the fall of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang’s Great Wall was largely abandoned and fell into disrepair.

A map of the great wall of china of Qin Dynasty.  (Ksyrie / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A map of the  great wall of china of Qin Dynasty.  (Ksyrie / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Han Dynasty Restored and Reinforced the Great Wall and Encouraged Trade

In the succeeding Han Dynasty, it was during the reign of Han Wudi that the Great Wall was restored and reinforced. This was carried out in order to defend China from the incursions of the Xiongnu. The Great Wall during this period was also connected to the famous Silk Route. The Great Wall was extended by Han Wudi westwards, thus providing protection for this ancient trade route. Additionally, the wall allowed the Han Dynasty to control the flow of trade between China and the West.

 A map of the great wall of china of Han Dynasty. (Ksyrie / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 A map of the  great wall of china of Han Dynasty. (Ksyrie / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The fate of the Great Wall fluctuated between the fall of the Han Dynasty in AD 220 and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Some dynasties, such as the Tang and Yuan, saw no need for the construction of massive defensive walls, and hence did not make important additions to the Great Wall. Others, such as the Sui and Liao Dynasties, saw a need for extra border defenses, thus prompting the building of new walls and fortifications. On the whole, however, much of the original walls built during the Qin and Han Dynasties were not maintained. Over time, these walls which were commonly built with rammed earth, were eroded by the elements, and few sections have survived till this day.

Mutianyu Great Wall, China. This is atop the wall on a section that has not been restored yet. (Bryanmackinnon / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mutianyu Great Wall, China. This is atop the wall on a section that has not been restored yet. (Bryanmackinnon / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

During the Ming Dynasty the Great Wall was Strengthened and Enlarged

During the Ming Dynasty , the most ambitious wall building project since the Han Dynasty was undertaken. The rulers of the Ming Dynasty continuously maintained, strengthened, and enlarged the existing walls. The Great Wall of China that the world is familiar with today dates to this period. The wall built to protect the capital, Beijing, is especially famous. Beginning at Juyong Pass (situated to the northwest of Beijing), the Ming wall splits into two circuits – an Outer northern wall and an Inner southern wall. A number of passes and gates are located along both walls. The Three Outer Passes are the Yanmen, Ningwu, and Piantou Passes, while the Three Inner Passes are the Juyong, Daoma, and Zijing Passes. These passes were crucial for the protection of the capital and were therefore heavily garrisoned.

The extent of the Ming dynasty and its walls, which formed most of what is called the Great Wall of China today. (SY / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The extent of the Ming dynasty and its walls, which formed most of what is called the Great Wall of China today. (SY / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Ming emperors placed great importance on the Great Wall of China as they were afraid that the barbarian tribes from the north would once again try to invade China. Although the Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall was certainly more formidable than those built by previous dynasties, it ultimately failed to protect them from the invading Manchus, who established the Qing Dynasty. Although the military campaign by the Manchus began in the early 17 th century, it was only in 1644 that they crossed the Great Wall. In that year, Wu Sangui, the Ming commander guarding the Shanhai Pass, struck a deal with the Manchus, opening the gates for them thus allowing them to take the capital.

The Shanhai Pass is where the Great Wall of China meets the Bohai Sea. (fuzheado / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Shanhai Pass is where the  Great Wall of China meets the Bohai Sea. (fuzheado / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Under the Qing Dynasty the Great Wall Fell Into Disrepair Again

Unlike their predecessors, the Qing Dynasty saw no need to further construct or maintain the Great Wall. It was only in modern times, i.e. during the 1950s, that the Chinese government began to reconstruct and maintain the wall. By his time, however, the Great Wall of China was no longer a defensive structure. Instead became one of China’s national symbols, as well as a popular tourist destination. In 1987, the Great Wall of China was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The main sections of the Great Wall that are still standing today. (NASA / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The main sections of the Great Wall that are still standing today. (NASA / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Top image: The Great Wall of China near Beijing   Source: Zhao jiankang / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

References

Hoyt, A., 2008. How the Great Wall of China Works. [Online]
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Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/general-ancient/great-wall-china-facts-history-length-why-built-from-space/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Great Wall of China. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Great-Wall-of-China
Travel China Guide, 2018. Great Wall of China. [Online]
Available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/
UNESCO, 2018. The Great Wall. [Online] Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/438

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