The Great Wall

Perhaps no other man-made structure on Earth staggers the imagination as the Great Wall of China. Thousands of miles long, the wall was built up over centuries by a succession of Chinese states and dynasties into one of the greatest man made projects in the world. Alternately abandoned, neglected, fortified and treasured the wall has become a symbol of China. The creation of the Great Wall not the result of a single vision but rather the end product of many different attempts to create defensive and offensive structures. Due to this, the history of the Great Wall is quite complex, weaving its way throughout much of Chinese history over nearly two millennia. Construction of early walls began around 771 BC and the start of the Spring and Autumn period of early Chinese history. Several Chinese states, such as the Western Zhou, Chu and Qi built walls to consolidate newly won territory and as defensive measures against both internal rivals and outside forces such as the Xianyun peoples to the north. At the conclusion of the Warring States era in 221, the state of Qin emerged victorious after a period of conflict and consolidated China into one imperial, authoritarian nation under the control of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. The unification of China gave the new Qin dynasty an unprecedented amount of resources and manpower. Emperor Qin ordered the joining of previously separate sections along the borders of his new dominion and the elimination of sections inside China itself so as to prevent their use by potential rebels against his rule. The new sections of walls served as movement corridors, defined borders and imposed imperial authority on distant lands. Like earlier walls, the Qin additions were composed of rammed earth, wood and stone, linking natural defenses such as rivers. Along the walls were a system of watchtowers, early warning outposts and troop barracks. A massive military project built a new wall far to the north in an attempt to expand the dynasty’s borders. However, Qin’s distant walls proved untenable and effort was abandoned soon after the collapse of the dynasty. After a period of uneasy peace with the Xiongnu to the north, hostilities once again broke out. During the Han dynasty, new walls were again built far to the north until they too were abandoned in favor of a stronger defensive line closer to Chinese territory by approximately 40AD. Subsequent Chinese dynasties either ignored the walls or added their own sections, such as the efforts by Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty to build a wall in Mongolia. This part of the wall near modern day Hohhot was composed of earthen walls and towers. However, the terrible cost in lives (estimated at nearly half a million by records of the era) added fuel to the anger of a discontented population and helped lead to the eventual overthrow of the Sui. The subsequent Tang Dynasty chose to forgo walls in favor of a mobile military response and succeeded in expanding their borders. It was with the ascent of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 AD that the Wall achieved its current, iconic form of stone watchtowers linked by massive stone walls and ramparts, although only a relatively short section of the wall so built up due to the expense of building stone versus earth walls. The civil bureaucracy of the time ensured quality control by overseeing the stones and bricks used in the projects. Many bricks in the wall still bear the marks of the workshop where they were made, an easy way to track the origins of poor quality materials. Although the Ming began with an offensive military strategy similar to the Tang in mind, a series of decisive defeats and setbacks resulted in a shift to a more defensive policy. To compensate for lost territory and for lost troops, the Ming began to rely heavily on walls and static defenses. Despite some internal dispute, wall building continued through the dynasty with the now familiar stone walls and towers becoming a hallmark of the Ming. Ultimately, the Wall was unable to hold back the enemies of the Ming and the Ming dynasty was replaced by the Qing, a new non-Han Chinese dynasty founded by the Manchu. Since the Qing originated from the harsh grasslands of Mongolia beyond the Wall, the Qing saw little need to maintain a structure that was once meant to keep them out of China. What’s more, the boundaries of the Chinese empire now extended past the wall. After the collapse of the penultimate Chinese dynasty in 1911, the Wall saw action during the chaotic warlord era and again during World War Two. Efforts to restore the wall began as early as 1952. When the United States and the People’s Republic of China normalized relations in 1979, then president Richard Nixon toured the Great Wall. By 1987 the Great Wall was chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site. For all its historical and cultural significance, the vast nature of the Wall means it is nearly impossible to completely maintain. Large sections have fallen into disrepair, other areas destroyed during the campaigns of the Cultural Revolution while other remote parts have been intentionally dismantled to provide building materials for nearby villages over the years or to make way for a modern construction project. Today, large sections of the Great Wall lie in ruins while other sections have been reclaimed by nature. As recently as 2012 new sections of the wall have been uncovered by archaeologists, extending tendrils out into Mongolia. For all its complex history, the Wall stands out as a stunning human achievement, albeit one bought at the cost of many lives spent working to create such a wonder.