The Rise and Fall of China's Great Wall | News
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The Rise and Fall of China's Great Wall

The rise and fall of China's Great Wall: the race to save a world treasure - Special Report
Current Events, Sept 27, 2002

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MADE OF BRICK, STONE, and dirt, the Great Wall twists and turns across China's landscape like a giant dragon. It seems to rise out of the sea at Bo Hal gulf, a place known to local people as Laolongtou, or "the old dragon's head." The wall then stretches across the plains, crawls along the sides of mountains and scales their peaks as it spans the Asian countryside.

This ancient wonder, built entirely by hand, often overwhelms visitors. On a trip to the wall in 1909, French scholar Auguste Gilbert de Voisins said, "Nothing stops it, nothing gets in its way; seeing it at this point, one might believe it to be eternal."

Today, however, neglect, misuse, and modernization threaten the giant dragon. Although the wall once stretched nearly 4,000 miles across China's northern border, only about 1,500 miles of China's Great Wall remain. The rest has fallen apart and disappeared.

This year, the World Monuments Fund placed the Great Wall on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The group hopes to protect what's left of the wall and to encourage the Chinese government and others to save the historic structure. According to a World Monuments Fund report, "[The wall] was built to protect China; now China must protect it."

The Great Wall of Qin

China's Great Wall didn't start out so great. Begun nearly 2,300 years ago, the structure was a series of small fortifications. As early as 600 B.C., people in China built small walls around their homes and cities for protection. Soldiers guarded the gates around the city walls during the day and swung the gates shut at night.

During the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), leaders struggling for control of China built walls around entire kingdoms. Soldiers occupied forts and towers on the wall and fought to protect the borders of the independent states.

In 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huangdi unified the kingdoms and became the first emperor of China. Qin Shi Huangdi gave orders to build the chang cheng, or "long wall," to protect China from northern nomads who were trying to invade China. Laborers built the wall by joining walls constructed earlier and extending the length of the wall to nearly 3,100 miles.

With the help of General Meng Tian, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered 800,000 men--soldiers, prisoners, and peasants--to build the wall. Where stones were plentiful, workers used stones to build parts of the wall. Where stones were scarce, workers used dirt.

To build the wall, laborers dug up large amounts of dirt and carried it to the wall. The workers then piled dirt into wooden frames about 6 inches deep. They used wooden instruments to pound the dirt until it became a solid mass. This process was repeated until the wall reached a desired height. Workers then moved the wooden frames to the next section of the wall and began the process again.

According to legend, Qin Shi Huangdi condemned workers to death for making the slightest construction errors. Today, few traces of the Qin wall remain. After Qin Shi Huangdi's death in 210 B.C., workers abandoned the wall and it eventually crumbled into ruins.

The Ming Fortress

Nearly all of Qin Shi Huangdi's successors built walls along China's northern frontier. The fortifications, however, never fully protected China from invasion. During the early 13th century, Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongols, a nomad group from the north, united several nomad armies and conquered much of Asia.

In 1279, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kubilai Khan, overthrew the Chinese emperor and established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Yuan emperors did not maintain the old wall or build a new one, so the wall began to fall into ruins.

After Khan died in 1227, a Chinese farmer named Zu Yuanzhang led a rebel army and helped overthrow the last Yuan emperor. When Zu Yuanzhang seized power, he established the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Zu and his successors decided to rebuild China's Great Wall, which lay mostly in ruins, to keep the Mongols from returning to reconquer China. For nearly 200 years, thousands of workers toiled away on the Ming wall--reinforcing the Great Wall with bricks and stone.

The Ming wall eventually blocked mountain passes that Mongol soldiers had used to invade China. When Mongol tribes attacked the wall, Chinese soldiers alerted others by lighting signal fires. When guards from a signal tower saw the fire, they built another fire, passing the warning along the wall. The number of smoke plumes and cannon shots fired indicated to Chinese soldiers how many enemy soldiers were approaching.

The Ming government taxed the people of China heavily to pay for construction of the Great Wall. In 1644, the Manchus, a nomad tribe from northeast of Peking, helped rebels overthrow the Ming rulers and started the next era in Chinese history--the Qing dynasty. During the Qing dynasty, Manchu forces drove out Mongol invaders and extended China's border farther north beyond the Great Wall. The wall no longer protected China's border, so construction stopped and soldiers abandoned the fortresses.

The Wall At Risk

Today, Chinese officials warn that the Great Wall is once again under attack. But this time the wall is not in danger from invaders. Instead local people and tourists alike threaten the wall. Dong Yaohui, head of the Great Wall Society of China, recently persuaded a local government to levy a fine on residents in a small village after they demolished part of the wall to obtain bricks for new houses. And in 1999, officials in the autonomous region of Nei Monggol (once called Inner Mongolia) plowed through the Great Wall to build a highway.

Nature has also taken its toll. At the wall's western end, desert sandstorms have worn down much of China's great wonder. Dong Yaohui said, "Saving the Great Wall is now the most urgent task facing our country. Its splendor must be rebuilt."

Preservationists also argue that commercial developers are destroying the aesthetic beauty of China's Great Wall. Developers have turned parts of the wall into a tourist destination. Visitors to the wall at the Badaling section near Beijing can take one of five cable cars to the top of the wall, bungee-jump off a section of the wall, paraglide along the wall, or ride a toboggan down the mountain.

William Lindesay, an Englishman living in China, organized a group to protect and preserve what is left of the wall. Lindesay's group, the International Friends of the Great Wall, works with local villagers to pick up garbage along the wall and make sure the wall is protected from vandals. "The wall is in grave, grave danger," Lindesay said.

The Chinese government also hopes to protect the national treasure. Officials in Beijing are considering legislation that, if passed, would convict anyone caught littering or defacing the Great Wall to a jail term of up to seven years.

Arthur Waldron, a historian, wrote, "Whatever the future brings, the image of the wall ... as a symbol of China ... seems bound to endure."

Get Talking

Ask students: why do you think the Great Wall of China was built? What is the approximate length of the wall? What might have been some of the challenges faced by the wall's builders? What might the wall be threatened today?

Background

The Great Wall is among the most popular tourist destinations in China, along with the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the Terra Cotta Warriors at Xi'an.

Qin Shi Huangdi (the first emperor of China) unified the nation of China and built the first Great Wall. After Qin Shi Huandi died, he was buried in a tomb with an army of terra cotta warriors and horses at Xi'an. In 1974, Qin Ski Huangdi's tomb was discovered by a group of archaeologists.

During the Qin Dynasty--when the first Great Wall was built--workers toiled for ten years to build the wall, at a rate of about 25 miles per month.

Portions of the wall have been rebuilt during the past century--including the section of the wall at Badaling, near China's capital of Beijing.

Many myths surround China's Great Wall. One of the most prevalent is that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure visible from the Moon. However, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), "The Great Wall can barely be seen from the Shuttle, so it would not be possible to see it from the Moon with the naked eye."

Doing More

After students have read the story, ask them to research other sites listed as endangered by the World Monuments Fund. What are the biggest threats to those sites? Why are the sites considered important? When students have finished gathering the information, have them present their findings to the class.

Link It

* Discovery Online: Secrets of the Great Wall http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/gre atwall/greatwall.html

* Enchanted Learning: All About the Great Wall of China http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/g reatwall/

* World Monuments Fund: List of 100 Most Endangered Sites http://www.wmf.org

* The Great Wall of China: http://www.geography.about.com/library/wee kly/aa090100a.htm

COPYRIGHT 2002 Weekly Reader Corp.
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