The Great Wall of China is the longest and biggest feat of engineering for defense in ancient time. It was built in 7th Century BC, and continuously constructed over a period of 2,000 years. The Great Wall stretches across the vast area of the northern and central parts of China with a length of 50,000 kilometers. The history of the construction of the Great Wall can be traced back to the West Zhou Dynasty (from 1046 to 771 BC). The Zhou Kingdom gave the order to build beacon towers and fortresses in a continuous line, i.e. Fortress Array, to prevent invasion from northern nomadic tribes.
Map of China Great Wall
The Great Wall was built based on walls and fortresses. As a military defense, that wall and fortress can be traced back to the later period of Primitive Commune. Given its efficient defense, this style of fortification became a growing trend, even after society had taken the form of the class system. The earliest Great Wall appeared in the Spring and Autumn Period (from 770 to 476 BC). This part of the Great Wall was built by Chu States. In the Warring States Period (from 476 to 211 BC), the feudal princes of Qi, Han, Zhao, Yan, Qin and Zhongshan States respectively raised up walls along their borders, each for their own kingdom’s benefit and security. As a result, walls were distributed in Xihe Prefecture of Wei State, Zhangshui area of Zhao State, the Western area of Zhongshan State, Yi River of Yan States, and Mount Tai of Qi State, which were essentially the embryo of the Great Wall and played an important role in war time.
The Northern nomadic tribes were very good at sudden attacks, and the cavalry and infantry of states could not stop their invasion. They had to construct the Great Wall to enable their guards to protect them. This way the feudal princes had enough troops that could be deployed in defending against a war or merging other states. Until the Qin Dynasty (from 221 to 206 BC) conquered and unified the other six kingdoms, Qing shihuang (King of the State of Qin from 247 to 211 BC) commanded the people to build the walls of all the states joined together and form a line of defense. The seven states’ border walls became the known as the Ten Thousand Li (Chinese Mile) Long Wall.
Compared with a city wall, the Great wall seems not to be tall enough to defend. Was it effective against attack? Why did the Great Wall stretch for thousands of miles even across deserts? It took a great deal of labor and resources, but without being strictly guarded at some parts, how did it work as a defense? Was defense its only purpose for successive dynasties in history? To explore the secrets of the Great Wall you may have never known before, read on.
The long, stretched-out Great Wall was built along the ridge on its steep side, with forests and untrodden earth surrounding it, although it was not very high. Nomadic tribes had to get across the wall, if they wanted to invade the Central Plains. Even if they could climb the wall, transportation of materials and chariots was no easy task. Thus, it delayed the moment of attack, giving soldiers time to prepare to fight.
The Defensive Function of the Wall: The Wall is about 7 to 8 meters tall, and 6 to 7 meters wide. The path on the top of the wall allowed several horses to march abreast. The outside of the wall has battlements for watching, shooting and to cast stones. And the watchtowers provided accommodation for soldiers and somewhere safe to store weapons and food.
Beacon Towers were lit to Deliver Military Messages: Each beacon was built on the highest turning sites to ensure adjacent towers could watch each other, and messages could be delivered easily. Smoke was used in the day and fire at night. The different number of signals indicated the number of enemies approaching. Once this method was established, soldiers could send signals to call together enough soldiers to combat their enemies.
Gate Passes Controlled Crucial Strongholds: the location of the gate passes were critical positions which were favorable for preventing powerful invaders with a force of as few as possible. Passes along the Great Wall numbered hundreds and thousands in many different sizes, and constituted the key parts of the defensive system.
Obviously, the Great Wall could not stop some of the nomadic peoples from climbing over the walls, but the real target was the large scale intruders. By limiting their attack routes to several passes, which were strictly guarded, the army garrison were able to concentrate their force on these gates in order to effectively counter invasions.
Contact between the northern nomads and the people of China caused many conflicts. For the Mongols, agricultural trade with the Chinese was essential, dealing in many crops and textiles. Meanwhile, the Chinese also needed horses for war. People had to go through these passes to do business. The government controlled the passes to limit the exportation of prohibited items, and besides, they had the authority to open and close the trade with those outside. When the passes were closed, the economic exchange was stopped. Thus, it would be a disaster for the nomadic peoples who would be lacking food and clothes. The economic blockade made their prices soar, causing economic recession, and even social unrest. Therefore, they were too weak to wage wars.
The Great Wall was built in a line in past ages. It was not only used for defending when power was not strong enough, but also for territorial expansion in the rise of a dynasty. The function could be changed with the rise and fall of the dynasty.
In short, the Great Wall was a man-made barrier to weaken nomads’ aggression, and to force them to attack the high passes. In ancient times, the feudal dynasties wanted to weaken the nomadic tribes in two ways: military wars and trade blocks. Originally, the Great Wall was not all connected so it could not block trade activities totally, and the government was hard pressed to accomplish its purpose. Later, when it had been built in a continuous line in the Ming Dynasty, there was no loophole for trade.
In most cases, the Great Wall could apply its function in history, but this does not mean the wall was invincible. In fact, the key to conquering enemies is the power of the nation.
Building the Great Wall was a remarkable feat in ancient times, but for ordinary people life was cruel and hard. Troops could not be used in construction; therefore, tremendous numbers of laborers were expropriated from each family. Without their young adults, a lot of families were in deep water.
This is a traditional love story in China. Legend has it that this happened in the Qin Dynasty during the building of the Great Wall. A woman named Meng Jiangnu married a man named Fan Xiliang. Three days after their wedding, her husband was taken by soldiers to help build the Great Wall. From then, she missed Fan Xiliang day and night. When winter came, Meng still hadn’t heard any news from her husband. As the weather was freezing, she was worried about her husband and decided to make some warm clothes for him. But unexpectedly, the journey to find her husband was full of hardship. A year passed by the time Meng arrived at the foot of the Great Wall, and there were countless people working. She had to ask about her husband’s whereabouts from people one by one along the wall. Finally, she found a man who knew her husband. However, she was given a piece of bad news that Fan Xiliang had died of fatigue and hunger while building the Great Wall and was buried under the wall, just like thousands of other dead workers. Meng was horrified and could not help crying for three days and nights. Suddenly, a part of the Wall collapsed with a terrible noise, and Fan Xiliang’s remains were exposed. People believed that her love moved God, so the section of the Wall was broken down. The desperate wife eventually jumped into the sea and took her own life.
Even though the story is not factual, it tells the truth to some extent. It is a fact that a great many young couples were torn apart by tyranny, and countless laborers gave their lives to construct it. People created the story to reflect the cruel system of labor in the reign of Emperor Qin Shihua and express sympathy for the oppressed.
This legend is about an expert craftsman named Yi Kaizhan, who was a master of the arithmetic of the construction. After his calculation, the cost for the materials would save a lot. He said the construction on Jiayuguan Pass needed 99, 999 bricks. The supervisor didn’t trust him and said if he miscalculated he would be decapitated and all of the craftsmen would be punished with 3 years of hard labor without any pay. When the project was completed, there was one brick left. The supervisor wanted to use it to threaten them so that he could get their wages for his own. But Yi was clever, he responded that the brick was left to balance the wall as god indicated, and even a tiny move could cause the whole structure to collapse. The supervisor was intrigued and could not carry out his intention, so Yi and the other craftsmen would not suffer penalties. Therefore the brick can still can be found on the gate of the Pass.
If you have a chance to travel the Jiayuguan Pass, try to find a brick on the eaves behind the gate of west Wencheng Jiayuguan Pass.
Building many buttresses and beacons on the wall required abundant bricks. With the poor conditions on the site, all bricks had to be carried by workers from 20km (12miles) away. Added to that, the slope to transport them was very steep, and the wall was high as well. With the workers being desperately tired, the process was hard and slow. One day, a shepherd boy brought his goats to graze at the foot of the Wall. He saw it and suddenly had a good idea. He took off his belt and tied bricks on the back of a goat. Then, he brought the goat toward the Wall. Workers were surprised and used this way to carry a large number of bricks onto the Wall.
The Great Wall functioned as a defense against invasion in history. It resisted Huns in the West Han Dynasty (from 202 BC to 8 AD), Mongolian people from the west and Tatars in the Ming Dynasty. The Great Wall played an important role in the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty too. Ethnic minorities were not able to cross the Great Wall due to the limitations of their technology. Thus, they had to look for a way of peaceful coexistence, even to develop trade. Although the Great Wall was built up for fighting, it actually enhanced peace and developed economic enterprise between the warring factions.
In general, the Great Wall in Beijing and Hebei Province has been kept in good condition, and these are popular spots for visitors at home and from abroad.
The sections that are recommended to visit are Badaling, Mutianyu and Jiankong Great Wall in Beijing, Jinshanling and Huangyaguan Great Wall in Hebei Province. Additionally, Jiayuguan Great Wall, situated in Gansu Province is a charming part. Surrounded by vast desert, it is an enchanting section, full of a sense of history.