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Great Wall (China)

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Great Wall of ChinaGreat Wall of China
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I

Introduction

Great Wall (China), popular name for a semi-legendary wall built to protect China’s northern border in the 3rd century bc, and for impressive stone and earthen fortifications built along a different northern border in the 15th and 16th centuries ad, long after the ancient structure had mostly disappeared. Ruins of the later wall are found today along former border areas from Bo Hai (a gulf of the Yellow Sea) in the east to Gansu Province in the west. The Great Wall is visited often near Beijing, at a site called Ju-yong-guan, and at its eastern and western extremes.

The Great Wall is probably China's best-known monument and one of its most popular tourist destinations. In 1987 it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Great Wall is not a single, continuous structure. Rather, it consists of a network of walls and towers that leaves the frontier open in places. Estimates of the total length of the monument vary, depending on which sections are included and how they are measured. The Great Wall is about 2,400 km (about 1,500 mi) long, according to conservative estimates. Other estimates cite a length of 6,400 km (4,000 mi), or even longer. Some long-standing myths about the wall have been dispelled in recent decades. The existing wall is not several thousand years old, nor is it, as has been widely asserted, visible with the naked eye from outer space. (Astronauts have confirmed this. However, some of the wall is discernible in special radar images taken by satellites.)

II

The Wall of Qin Shihuangdi

Wall building—around houses and settlements and along political frontiers—began in China more than 3000 years ago. Using the hang-tu method, pounded layers of earth were alternated with stones and twigs inside wooden frames to produce durable earthen walls. During the Warring States period (403-221 bc), before China was unified, feudal states fought for control of the area constituting most of modern-day China. The states of Qi, Yen, and Zhao were among those that built earthen ramparts along their frontiers.

The most famous early wall construction is attributed to the king of the Qin dynasty, who conquered the other states and unified China in 221 bc. Taking the title of Shihuangdi, or First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi ordered his military commander Meng Tian to subdue the nomads of the north and fortify China’s vast frontier. Historians still debate the form these fortifications took, but records mention the chang cheng (long wall) of Shihuangdi. No reliable historical accounts indicate the length of the Qin fortifications or the exact route they followed.



III

The Ming Walls

Few traces exist today of the ancient wall of Shihuangdi. Today’s Great Wall, which follows a different route from that of Shihuangdi’s fortifications, consists of a series of walls built by China’s Ming dynasty beginning in the late 15th century ad. The Ming, having suffered a military defeat by the Mongols, had refused to continue to trade with them. The Mongol tribes of the northern steppe had long depended on China for grain, metal, and other goods, and China’s refusal led to further conflict between the Ming and the Mongols, which the Ming proved unable to win. The Ming rulers could not decide whether to negotiate with the Mongols or attempt to conquer them. As a compromise, they decided to keep the Mongols out by constructing walls along China’s northern border. Ultimately, the walls proved ineffective, as the Mongols were easily able to pass around or break through them during raids. For this and other reasons, sections of the walls periodically required repair.

Although the first Ming walls were built of earth in the traditional manner, by the 16th century the work had become much more elaborate and was done in stone by professional builders paid in silver. Bit by bit, in response to Mongol challenges, the Ming heavily fortified the region around the capital at Beijing. Other areas were protected with shorter walls or forts, or had no defenses at all.

Wall building and repair continued until the Ming dynasty fell to the Qing dynasty in 1644. By this time, the walls formed an incomplete and uneven network. The eastern end was at Qinhuangdao, in Hebei Province on the gulf of Bo Hai, while the western extreme was near Jiayuguan in Gansu Province. The walls spanned mountainous terrain, conforming to the territory’s numerous peaks and valleys. They included inner walls and outer walls, and some stretches had watchtowers placed at regular intervals so that alarm signals could be passed between them in case of attack. Along the top of the walls was space for soldiers to march. At their most impressive, around Beijing, the walls measured at least 7.6 m (25 ft) in height and up to 9 m (30 ft) in width, tapering from the base to the top. These dimensions varied greatly at other points.

IV

The Myth of the Great Wall

Neither the Qin wall nor the Ming fortifications were called the “Great Wall of China” by their Chinese contemporaries. That label, and the myths that have come with it, appear to have originated in the West. Europeans who visited China in the 17th and 18th centuries confused the Ming fortifications with the Qin wall or walls mentioned in dynastic histories. They also assumed incorrectly that impressive masonry walls like those surrounding Beijing at the time also extended far to the west. As a result, a description developed in the West of a vast wall that had secured peace for the civilized Chinese for thousands of years by excluding the nomads. This idea captured the imagination of Westerners, and by the late 19th century a visit to the "Great Wall of China" had become a staple of the Western tourist’s itinerary.

In the 20th century the Chinese also began to adopt the idea of the Great Wall, despite the evidence presented by their own historical records. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, who was instrumental in establishing the Republic of China in 1912, wrote about the wall in glowing terms consistent with the Western myth. Although some Chinese scholars pointed out Sun’s errors, they never succeeded in halting the myth’s progress. Patriotic fervor during World War II (1939-1945) popularized the myth of the Great Wall, and some renovation was done to the Ming fortifications in the early 1950s. The tide changed, however, under Communist leader Mao Zedong, who came to power in 1949. In 1966 Mao launched the political campaign known as the Cultural Revolution, during which he appealed to the Chinese people to destroy anything associated with traditional culture. Unappreciated for its historic value, the magnificent wall surrounding Beijing was torn down for quarrying during this period. Other wall ruins were also destroyed.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976, the political climate changed in China, evidenced in part by a rise in nationalism. In the years that followed, the myth of the Great Wall was officially propagated throughout the country. In the 1980s the Ming walls began to undergo extensive renovation at their most visited locations. In the 1990s, however, historians in both China and the West began to reestablish the actual history of Chinese wall building and to explore the development of the folklore surrounding the Ming walls.

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