The Great Wall of China, despite popular belief, is a series of fortifications rather than a single “great wall.” Expanding from the eastern stretch of Dandong to Lap Lake in the west, this wonder has gone down in history as perhaps one of the most recognizable and indistinguishable figures of humanity’s achievement and existence.
The mere concept of this “great wall” was originally an idea to protect fractured and warring Chinese states from each other, using wooden boards and packed clay. However, as time moved forward and the nation united under King Zheng of Qin in 221 BCE, the idea of such a wall was put to better and more practical use.
The earliest Chinese wall was built between the 8th and 5th centuries BCE in the subsequent Warring States period of Chinese history, in which the Qin, Wei, Qi, Zhongshan, Yan, and Zhao states constructed primitive yet durable walls to defend their own borders from each other. Only used in an effort to combat swords and spears in a bronze age society, these walls were made of packed dirt and gravel as mortar between simple board frames.
After Zheng of Qin conquered the last of his opponents within the warring states, China became united as the Qin dynasty rampaged through political and social features of eastern Asian society. The original walls were destroyed in an attempt to impose centralized government among the once warring states, as Zheng was rather paranoid of feudal lords attempting to overthrow him in an attempt to rebirth their own independent states. The idea of the wall, however, was immediately repurposed and reorganized into a concept to protect the borders of not individual states but the entire nation as a whole.
Understanding the predicaments with their immediate neighbors, the Xiongnu people to the north, Zheng of Qin ordered the construction of new “great walls” to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire’s crumbling northern frontier. The empire spent loads of local resources in an effort to minimize transportation of the materials necessary to build up the new walls. If the wall’s sector happened to be near a mountain range? Stone was used to craft it. If the wall’s sector happened to be in the middle of plains? Packed dirt and gravel were stacked up high.
There are no distinct historical documents identifying just how long these Qin walls were; and most of the ancient walls have eroded over the centuries – leaving little evidence to work with today. The overall human cost of the construction is unknown, but it has been estimated that somewhere between hundreds of thousands to a million workers died in an attempt to complete the Qin wall system.
Later, the Han and Sui dynasties attempted to repair and expand specific sections of the Great Wall to defend themselves against further northern invasions. The later Tang and Song dynasties didn’t continue the construction, choosing to work up internal affairs rather than border patrol. However, the Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties (who ruled Northern China for nearly three centuries between the 10th and 13th), constructed heavily defensive walls – ones made from bricks and stone near China’s province of inner Mongolia and into Mongolia itself.
After a century of the walls remaining rather sturdy, the Great Wall concept was revived under the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. After failing horrendously in the Battle of Tumu against the Oirats and being unable to defeat the uniting Mongolian tribes, the conflict of war began eroding the empire’s borders ever so slightly. The Ming managed to adopt a new strategy in an attempt to keep nomads out of their borders, constructing new and improved walls along the northern border yet again. However, acknowledging the locations of Mongol control, the wall followed a deserted southern edge rather than following the famous Yellow River.
Unlike previous installments of the so-called Great Walls, the construction led by the Ming was incredibly strong and elaborate. Bricks and stone and even primitive mortars were used instead of chipped blocks and packed earth.
Upwards to 25,000 watchtowers were constructed among the wall’s length, with stationed guards and archers ready for action at a moment’s notice. Troop barracks and garrison stations littered the wall as milestones, and stations far away from each other were able to signal each other using smoke and bonfires, a primitive telegraph to the ancient men of warfare. Every inch of this new wall was used as a strategic entity, with even the path of the wall serving as a transportation corridor – a method to get from A to B without even leaving the wall’s safety.
These walls, albeit invasive in nature, are usually what we think of today when we hear of the Great Wall of China.
The Mongols did what the Mongols knew what to do best, they continued to ram themselves into China’s Great Wall. The Ming devoted countless amounts of precious resources to repair themselves, severely reinforcing walls that were nearby their capital, Beijing. The walls would continue to be repaired and reinforced throughout the ages, upwards to 1567 and 1570 by Qi Jiguang.
However, as the Ming dynasty was meeting its final days, the Great Wall failed to serve its purpose as it barely defended the mighty empire against the Manchu invasions around 1600 CE. But, not for long. Eventually the Manchus would break through, quickly seizing the capital city and defeating the rebel-founded Shuns and the remaining resistance emanating from the Ming ranks. They established their own dynasty: The Qing.
Under the Qing rule, the borders of the nation extended far beyond the Ming’s walls. Mongolia, once a major threat to the eastern Asian empire, was annexed like a pathetic second power, literally absorbing itself into the empire. The Qing saw no real need to continue the construction of walls that served no real strategic purpose in the center of the homeland.
Later, Qing rulers would build the Willow Palisade, a wall similar to the Ming’s original concepts. However, this newest wall wasn’t used as defense – but simply migration control.