A symbol of China’s historical detachment and sense of vulnerability, the Great Wall snakes through the Chinese landscape, over deserts, hills, and plains, for more than 2,500 miles (4,000 km). Yet, despite its seemingly impregnable battlements, the wall was ultimately an ineffective barricade. In the 13th century it was breached by the ferocious onslaught of the Mongols and then in the 17th century by the Manchu, helped by the decline of the Ming dynasty. Today, its dilapidated remains crumble across the rugged terrain of northern China and only select sections have been restored.
THE EXPANDING WALL
Sections of the bastion called the Great Wall were first built during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) by individual states to thwart incursions by northern tribes and to defend against aggressive neighbors. Simple and unconnected earthen ramparts, they were not joined together until the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) first unified China under Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. The maintenance and expansion of the wall reflected each succeeding dynasty’s feelings of insecurity. Enlarged under the expansionist Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the wall was neglected by the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), only to be heavily fortified by the more inward-looking Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
BUILDING ON SAND
The Qin wall was a simple tamped earth affair, but the later Han dynasty adopted a more advanced technology that enabled them to build walls even in the bleak expanses of the Gobi Desert. They would line wooden frames with a layer of willow reeds and twigs and then fill the frame with a mixture of mud, fine gravel, and water. This would then be pressed firmly into place. When the mixture dried, the frame could be removed, leaving behind a large slab of hard, bricklike mud that could be built upon again in the same manner. This is much like modern construction, when steel rods are use to reinforce concrete.
GENERAL CAI KAI
One of the legends about the wall tells that during the Ming dynasty, General Cai Kai was put in charge of building the section of wall at Huanghua, 40 miles (55 km) north of Beijing. Word got back to the emperor that the general was taking too long over the task and wasting too much money. The unfortunate general was therefore summarily executed. Later, when the Mongols mounted a concerted attack, General Cai Kai’s efforts paid off; Huanghua was the only fortress that successfully warded off the enemy. Realizing his mistake, the emperor exhumed General Cai Kai’s body and had it reburied with full honors near the part of the wall that he built.
RECONSTRUCTION OF THE GREAT WALL
This shows a section of the wall as built by the most prolific wall builders of them all the Ming dynasty. The section at Badaling, some 43 miles (70 km) north of Beijing, was butt around 1505 and is similar to this. It was restored during the 1950s and 1980s.
These enabled the soldiers to fire down on their attackers with relative impunity.
Warnings of attack were signaled by the smoke given off by burning dried wolf dung.
Another Ming addition, cannons were used to defend the wall and warn of attack.
These were spaced two arrow shots apart to leave no part unprotected.
This averages 26 ft (8 m) in height and 23 ft (7 m) in width.
Because the wall took advantage of the natural terrain for defensive purposes, following the highest points and clinging to ridges, it now offers some superb panoramic views.
Away from the Beijing area, most of the wall is unrestored and has crumbled away, with only the core remaining.
A Ming addition, these served as signal towers, forts, living quarters, and storerooms for provisions, gunpowder, and weapons.
In addition to enabling communications via smoke, flares, drums, and bells, the wall acted as a road for the rapid transport of troops over very difficult terrain.
THE SYMBOLIC WALL
The Chinese word for city, “cheng,” also means wall. For the Chinese, the wall, as well as serving a practical purpose, symbolized the boundary between home, safety, and civilization inside, and the chaos and barbarism outside.
5th century BC: Individual states make defensive wallls out of firmly tamped earth.
119 BC: After driving the Mongols back into the Gobi Desert, the Han dynasty extend the Great Wall.
589: After centuries of strife, Yang Jian unites China under the Sui dynasty and rebuilds the Great Wall.
1215: The Mongols capture Beijing after being held off for four years by the wall.
1644: The Manchus overrun the wall from the northeast and create the Qing dynasty.
1987: The Great Wall of China is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.