A Sketchy View of the Great Wall - Why Great? | History
Great Wall History

A Sketchy View of the Great Wall - Why Great?

* The Great Wall (长城, pinyin: chángchéng), also known as the Great Wall of 10,000 li (万里长城, pinyin: wànlǐ chángchéng), is included in the list of the "Seven Medieval Wonders of the World" (of course not one of the classical Seven Wonders of the World recognized by the ancient Greeks).

* The Wall was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

* The Chinese have a saying, 不到长城非好汉 (pinyin: bú dào chángchéng fēi hǎohàn), roughly meaning "you're not a real man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall".

But for what is the Wall great?

It's not, however, an easy question to answer. Let's just start from the Wall's length and building time.

The Earliest Wall, Around 700 B.C.

The first wall was arguably built around seven centuries B.C. by the Chu State, powerful prince enfeoffed by the Zhou Kingdom and flourish during the Spring and Autumn Period (B.C. 770 ~ 476). Most scholars also believe that the Qi State, prince like the Chu State, also built its wall about the same time of the wall of the Chu State. Nevertheless, not until hundreds of years later did many other princes, known as warring states, involved in wars for subjugating each other, begin to build their own walls. This time was known as the Warring States Period (B.C. 475 ~ 221).

Warring States Period was a turbulent period, with alliance and breakaway, and restless battles between states arising from princes that annexed smaller ones and consolidated their rules for domination when the ruling power of the Zhou Kingdom (till 221 B.C.) was declining. In this background, the defense of one state against attack from others became significant. Because walls proved the best screen to chariots, main arms of that time, relatively powerful states, i.e. the Qin, Wei, Zhao, Han, Qi, Chu and Yan States, also known as "the Seven Powers", began to build walls along their borders. These walls are called pre-Qin Walls by historians today. And they are predecessor of the Great Wall.

The First Great Wall, Around 200 B.C., Length, 10,000 Li, i.e. 5,000 Kilometers

After the Qin Dynasty had established and unified the whole China in 221 B.C., the Emperor, i.e. the First Emperor, ordered to combine the walls constructed by the Zhao, Yan and Ex-Qin States, mainly to fend off the intrusion of the flying cavalry that made the Xiongnu in the north, and thus formed the first wall that exceeded 10,000 li or 5,000 kilometers. The Great Wall, short for the Great Wall of 10,000 li, thus had its name.

Three Great Walls

Many people know about the Great Wall. But maybe fewer know that there are actually three such Great Walls, the longest built during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. ~ A.D. 220), following the Qin Dynasty, exceeding even 20,000 li. The Great Walls of the Han and Qin Dynasties still have remains, but most of them no longer exist. The Wall we see today was largely built during the Ming Dynasty (1368 ~ 1644). It stretches over 12,000 li from Jiumenkou near the Yalujiang River in the east, to Jiayuguan Pass in the west. By the Great Wall, people now usually mean the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty. But in a broad sense, the term indicates one of the three Walls above.
In Chinese history, more than twenty states and dynasties built their own walls. Counted together, they come to a formidable length of 100,000 li.

Great Military Works

Should people decide another list of the Medieval Wonders of Military Works of the World, the Great Wall would be very likely to be listed again. Many people have climbed the Great Wall and experienced being real men. They may have seen enjoyable and peaceful life on and down the Wall. They may have also been amazed at the beautiful scenery from the Wall and felt proud at a peak. But all these might fail to remind people that the Wall was once product of war: it was fortification in ancient times.

As a military works, the Wall was not merely, as seen almost everywhere in logos, site tickets and signs representing the Great Wall, the simple mode of one winding and crenellated wall mounted with some towers or platforms each distance apart. Rather, the Wall was a far more complex system into which builders brought their minds of war art.

The Wall falls into the scope of fortification, a military engineering science now still being researched that mainly deals with how to enhance the attack or defense capacity of a position to its terrain before or during the battle. Depending on whether built before or during the war, the fortification can be classified into two categories: the permanent and the temporary. The Wall belongs to the former. Devised as a permanent giant of defense works, in the process of construction, besides appropriate materials and sound structures adopted to make it solid enough to survive all weathers, the Wall required also thorough consideration of how the enemies might attack and of how to counterattack.

Ancient militarists believed that the best defense lies in both readiness for fight and unbeatable strength against assault. So on one hand, the dynasties built their Walls along the north boundaries to balk the intrusion of nomadic tribes and prepared for any battle along the defense lines. On the other hand, as the weapons of the enemies were being improved, the dynasties kept branching out their Walls and adding new functional parts to them. Take example for the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty, during the 16 years of his station in Bianzhen County, present Jixian County in Tianjin, General Qi Jiguang presided over building the part of Wall running more than 1,000 li from Bianzhen County to the Shanhaiguan Pass and along the line set up over 1,000 fight towers. It helped to keep the peace of the border for a long time. Besides filling out the Walls with new component parts, the dynasties also set up near the lines passes, pass cities and outer cities, counties, forts, and so forth. All these combined as a complete regional, rather than a linear, defense system. Here special mention is made that the outer city, which often sat in front of the pass city and whose one or more gates made certain angles, sometimes 90 degrees, to the gate of the pass city, preventing the enemy from flinging in straightforward and sharing burden of the pass city.

Building

The building of the Wall was also matter-of-fact. In strategic places, double- or multi-walls were adopted to thicken and enforce the defense. For example, to protect its capital, present Beijing, the Ming Dynasty constructed three walls to the north and west of the city and between the walls disposed brocades to hold up enemy cavalries.

The builders of the Wall also noticed the possibility of enemies' entry from narrow passes of the sides and wanted to give them no chances. So we can often see walls in Beijing hike up to perilous hilltops. Some slopes are so abrupt that building walls along them is unthinkable even for people today. Fight towers were also designed out of that consideration. They were first adopted on the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty. Evenly distributed on the Wall every 300 or 400 meters, they made it quick to round up a force at a certain point. More importantly, their distribution on the Wall referred the effective range of the arrow of the day, also 300 to 400 meters, so that soldiers taking a commanding position on the tower could kill enemies coming from the sides.

Governing

Policies were also made to make the gigantic works work. The governing of the Wall was often allocated to local organs. In the Qin Dynasty, along the Wall were set up 12 prefectures, responsible for keeping the defense of their corresponding parts. In the Ming Dynasty, the Wall was parted into 9 sectors, called "Nine Frontiers", governed by nine military counties, from east to west i.e. Liaodong, Jizhen, Xuanfu, Datong, Yansui, Ningxia, Guyuan and Gansu Counties, some names of which are still used today.

Architecture Wonder

The Great Wall is also an architecture wonder of the ancients. It was so big a project that it was impossible to build it in uniform forms and materials in different places. So we can see parts of different materials and various shapes, which were depended on local resources. If you have chances to walk thought the whole route of the Wall, as done first in 1985, Jan Molen and Dick, the latter of which against cancer, you would see how diverse the Wall is.


The Ming Dynasty was the last dynasty that ever built the wall. Since then, the wall gradually fell out of use as fortification. It no longer fitted new forms of wars and could hardly resist weapons that were being more powerful. Its function gradually faded, and eventually becomes a memory of yesterday.

But the Wall still stands there, as it was. It traverses the north part of China, being a masterpiece of both the architecture and the war art of ancient China. Having also witnessed the rise and fall of dynasties, it tells a glorious history created by its people.