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Great Wall of China - History

Great Wall - Characteristics - Notable areas

A defensive wall on the northern border was built and maintained by several dynasties at different times in Chinese history. There have been 5 major walls:

  1. 208 BCE (Qin Dynasty)
  2. 1st century BCE (Han Dynasty)
  3. 7th century CE (Sui Dynasty)
  4. 1138 - 1198 (Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period)
  5. 1368 - 1640 (from Hongwu Emperor until Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty)

The first major wall was built during the reign of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi. This wall was not constructed as a single endeavor, but was mostly the product of joining several regional walls built by the Warring States. The walls that were linked together at this time consisted of rammed earth with watch towers built at regular intervals. It was located much further north than the current Great Wall with its eastern end at modern day North Korea. Very little of this first wall remains; photos reveal a low, long mound.

The government ordered people to work on the wall, and workers were under perpetual danger of being attacked by brigands. The construction was supervised under the command of the Qin general Meng Tian. Construction of the wall involved the mobilization of vast amounts of labor, including forced conscription of criminals, prisoners of war, and political dissidents. Because many people died while building the wall, it has obtained the gruesome title, "longest cemetery on Earth" or "the long graveyard". Possibly as many as one million workers died building the wall, though the true numbers cannot be determined now. The people that died were not buried in the wall, since decomposing bodies would have weakened the structure. The large labor force in itself may have been one of the reasons for building the wall many of these criminal and political dissidents were recently added to the general population because of the huge influx of people that were recently released from the army. After China was united, many of the soldiers in the army went back into the population. So to keep order the Emperor needed a way to occupy this huge group of unemployed citizens, thus the first Great Wall was built.

The later long walls built by the Han, the Sui, and the Ten Kingdoms period were also built along the same design. They were made of rammed earth with multi-story watch towers built every few miles. These walls have also largely vanished into the surrounding landscape, eroded away by wind and rain.

In military terms, these walls were more frontier demarcations than defensive fortifications of worth. Owen Lattimore's work is good place to start if a person wishes to learn more about the great wall as frontier demarcations. Certainly Chinese military strategy did not revolve around holding the wall; instead, it was the cities themselves that were fortified. It is also clear that the military operated campaigns on the other side the area of the wall during the Qin Dynasty, these defesive operations clearly show the wall not being used as a defensive fortification.

The Great Wall which most tourists visit today was built during the Ming Dynasty, starting around the year 1368 and lasting till around 1640. Work on the wall started as soon as the Ming took control of China but, initially, walls were not the Ming's preferred response to raids out of the north. That attitude began to change in response to the Ming's inability to defeat the Oirat war leader Esen Taiji in the period 1449 to 1454. A huge Ming Dynasty army with the Zhengtong Emperor at its head was annihilated in battle and the Emperor himself held hostage in 1449.

Apparently the real focus on wall building started as a result of Altan Khan's siege of Beijing which took place one hundred years later in 1550. The Ming, faced with the choice of trying to defeat the Mongols with direct military force, chose instead to build a massive defensive barrier to protect China. As a result, most of the Ming Great Wall was built in the period 1560 to 1640. This new wall was built on a grand scale with longer lasting materials (solid stone used for the sides and the top of the Wall) than any wall built before.

The Ming Dynasty Great Wall starts on the eastern end at Shanhai Pass, near Qinhuangdao, in Hebei Province, next to Bohai Gulf . Spanning nine provinces and 100 counties, the final 500 kilometer have all but turned to rubble, and today it ends on the western end at the historic site of Jiayuguan Pass (also called Jiayu Pass), located in northwest Gansu Province at the limit of the Gobi Desert and the oases of the Silk Road. Jiayuguan Pass was intended to greet travelers along the Silk Road. Even though The Great Wall ends at Jiayu Pass, there are many watchtowers extending beyond Jiayu Pass along the Silk Road. These towers communicated by smoke to signal invasion.

In 1644, the Kokes Manchus crossed the Wall by convincing an important general Wu Sangui to open the gates of Shanhai Pass and allow the Manchus to cross. Legend has it that it took three days for the Manchu armies to pass. After the Manchu conquered China, the Wall was of no strategic value, mainly because the Manchu extended their political control far to the north. See more on the Manchu Dynasty.

Before the Second Sino-Japanese War, as a result of the failed defense of the Great Wall, the Great Wall became a de facto border between the Republic of China and Manchukuo.