An aerial view of the Great Wall shows its expansive reach and fortification points across the mountains. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
The Great Wall (changcheng or wanli changcheng) is a series of defensive walls built in northern China between the fifth century BCE and the nineteenth century. These walls played a role in defending China from incursions by northern steppe peoples, particularly the Mongols during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Although the term Great Wall suggests a unitary structure, in reality there is no singular Great Wall but rather a series of border walls (bian qiang) built in different regions of northern China in different periods using different building techniques and materials. The most widely recognized areas of the Great Wall today are those walls and towers built north of Beijing in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century out of quarried stones, bricks, and mortar. Although many sources give an approximate length of the Great Wall, there is no effective way to determine the length of all of the border walls, nor have they all been discovered or surveyed in modern times.
Wall-Building in Ancient China
During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), in order to create a barrier against invading armies, states in northern China built border walls out of pounded earth or dry fieldstone (states not in northern China also built border walls). These walls were partially consolidated and expanded under the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), which continued to use the same building techniques. More walls were built along northern borders under the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), when incursions from northern steppe warriors known as “Xiongnu” were common. By the end of the Han dynasty border walls stretched from present-day Gansu to the Korean Peninsula, although these walls were by no means continuous. Subsequent dynasties continued to build walls sporadically, but the next large-scale wall-building effort by a unified Chinese empire was not until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).
Wall-Building in the Ming Dynasty
Although the first high-profile wall-building campaign took place in Liaodong in the 1440s, the most important wall-building projects in the last one hundred years of the dynasty were those designed to protect the Ming capital established by the Yongle emperor (reigned 1402–1423). Beijing is located on a flat plain surrounded to the northwest, north, and northeast by formidable chains of mountains. Yet, two major passes that run through the mountains to the northwest and northeast made the capital vulnerable to raids from the Mongols. One pass runs through the area of Great Wall known today as “Badaling.” The other runs along the Chao River, passing the Great Wall at Gubeikou near the present-day Great Wall tourist sites of Jinshanling and Simatai.
In the 1540s the Altan khan (1507–1582), a descendant of Chinggis (also spelled Genghis) Khan, gained control of the eastern Mongols and plagued the Chinese borderlands to the west. In 1550, after the Ming Jiajing emperor (reigned 1521–1566) declared a no-trade policy, the Altan khan led a major raid on the capital city, leading thousands of Mongol horsemen to the edge of the walled city. Thousands of Chinese living around Beijing were slaughtered and thousands of head of livestock brought back to Mongol territory.
The immediate result was a major wall-building campaign that lasted for the next three decades. The Ming dynasty decided to fortify existing walls and build new ones along the mountain ranges north of Beijing. Most of these walls used unquarried fieldstone but used lime-based mortar to hold the stones together. In 1554 Ming soldiers stationed along the wall in the area of Gubeikou succeeded in repulsing a major Mongol raid. The raiders moved eastward to the area known today as Jinshanling, where they were again repulsed by Ming soldiers. They continued to move eastward to the Great Wall area of Simatai but did not succeed in penetrating the Ming defenses.
In 1568 the Longqing emperor (reigned 1566–1572) invited two of China’s leading military strategists, the general Qi Jiguang and the scholar-official Tan Lun, to the capital to help design Beijing’s defense strategy. The two Ming officials promptly recommended that the Ming dynasty build three thousand brick towers along the border walls where soldiers could be stationed and could store key supplies such as grain, gunpowder, and weapons. That number was eventually scaled down to twelve hundred, and building commenced the next year. The towers were built out of kiln-fired bricks and mortar and were strategically placed at intervals along the ridgelines and on peaks.
In 1576, after an unsuccessful attempt to threaten the Ming officer in charge of the area into giving presents such as iron pots, silver, cloth, and grain, a small Mongol tribe launched another raid on Ming territory north of Beijing. The tribe crossed over to Ming territory and attacked a fort, killing eighteen soldiers. Soldiers who chased the tribe back into Mongol territory met their deaths in an ambush. Although the body count was low, this event prompted the Ming dynasty to begin building walls out of bricks and mortar. Eventually a few hot spots along the wall north of Beijing were fortified in this way. In most cases the Ming soldiers built the walls over existing structures.
Today the Ming Great Wall north of Beijing is one of China’s most important tourist sites and one of its most powerful symbols. Although the walls and towers sustained significant erosion owing to the elements and natural forces, as well as the dismantling of certain sections of the Great Wall by peasants in nearby villages who used them to build their houses (this practice was encouraged during the rule of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong), many of the walls and towers have been quite well preserved—a testament to the craftsmanship of their builders. In the 1980s the Chinese government began to reconstruct certain areas of the Great Wall north of Beijing to be designated as official tourist sites (this reconstruction actually began in the 1950s with Badaling). These areas include Badaling, Mutianyu, Jinshaling, and Simatai. In most cases an effort was made to restore the walls and towers to their original condition. In other cases, such as Simatai, many of the walls and towers were reinforced but left in the condition they were in to give people a more authentic picture of how the walls have fared over the past five hundred years or so.
Jing, A. (2006). Zhongguo Changcheng shi [History of China’s Great Wall]. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Press.
Serruys, H. (1982, Spring). Towers in the northern frontier defenses of the Ming. Ming Studies, 14, 9–76.
Waldron, A. (1990). The Great Wall: From history to myth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Source: Field, Andrew. (2009). Great Wall. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 930–932. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
The Great Wall peters out and comes to an end in the dessert at Jiayuguan, in Gansu pro
vince. This particular section was built during the Ming dynasty. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Great Wall (Chángchéng ??)|Chángchéng ?? (Great Wall)