In 1987, the Great Wall was declared a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO

First Great Wall The First Great Wall was ordered built in 214 BCE by Qin Shih Huang Ti after he had finished consolidating his rule and creating a unified China for the first time. The wall was designed to stop raids by the Xiongnu raiders from the north. 500,000 laborers were used during the 32 year building period to create the First Great Wall.


Although the wall worked at keeping out enemies, it did nothing to stop internal pressures which lead to a regime change in 206 BCE and the new leadership of the Han Dynasty. The first Han emperor, Taizong, was quick to see the benefits of the wall against the raiders and ordered more wall to stretch out as far as Zhaoxiang, GansuProvince.

Second Great Wall Over 70 years later, the Han Dynasty were still fighting the raiders since the Great Wall had been left to deteriorate and the raiders had breached it in several places. In 130 BCE, Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty embarked on a program of extending, rebuilding and fortifying the original First Great Wall. After the emperor finished adding more regions under his rule in 127 BC, he ordered a major expansion program that created the Second Great Wall, outposts in Zhangye, Wuwei, Jiuquan, Dunhuang and Yumenguan in Gansu Province and Lopnor and other outposts in Xinjiang Province. The Great Wall was extended down the Hexi Corridor through which the Silk Road traders would travel on the way to and from the West.

When the Han Dynasty fell apart into the three kingdoms of the Wei, Shu and Wu, the northern Wei kingdom decided to continue maintaining the Great Wall so that they could keep out the Rouran and Qidan nomads from the northern plains. Despite the constant maintenance, the Wall kept being breached by the Rouran nomads. Additional walls were built inside and outside of the Great Wall by the different kingdoms. Eventually the Wei kingdom merged with the unifying Sui kingdom and was overthrown by the Tang Dynasty in 618 ACE.

Nothing more was done to the Great Wall until the reign of the Liao and Song dynasties. The Liao Dynasty controlled the north while the Song Dynasty controlled the south. The Liao were troubled mainly by a tribe in the northeast region of China called the Nuzhen (known as Manchu in Mandarin) so they built defensive walls along the Heilong and Songhua rivers. These failed to stop the raiders from coming south.

Third Great Wall In 1115, the Nuzhen established the Jin Dynasty and since they were from the north themselves, understood that the Mongols were right behind them. The Jin emperor ordered the construction of a Third Great Wall to be built in Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The walls built had the characteristics of having ditches running along the walls full length.

Despite the impressive fortifications built, the Mongols overthrew the Jin in 1276 and established the Yuan Dynasty. During the Yuan dynasties rule, the Wall fell into deep disrepair and in 1368, the Chinese Ming Dynasty walked right in and took control.

The Ming Dynasty, after getting rid of the Mongols, determined that they would never be taken again by outsiders. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hongwu, re-established manning of the Great Wall, fortresses and garrisons were built along the wall, and the fort at Jiayuguan was built in 1372 at the western end of the wall. The second Ming emperor, Yongle, turned his focus outward from the empire and sent out explorers and diplomats into the big, wide world.

Fourth Great Wall It was not until the battle of Tumu against the Mongols that renewed interest in reinforcing the Great Wall occurred. Between 1569 and 1583, the most well-known parts of the Great Wall were built, the Fourth Great Wall. The reinforced wall managed to repel Mongols several times.

The Manchu retook China in 1644 and formed the Qing Dynasty. From this point on, the Wall slowly started to fade away while stone and rocks were taken from the Wall for building projects and homes. The Cultural Revolution definitely took its toll out on the wall when local people and local governments were encouraged to help dismantle the Great Wall.

It was not until 1984 that President Deng Xiaoping started a restoration and protection project of the Great Wall.

The Chinese were already familiar with the techniques of wall-building by the time of the Spring and Autumn period between the 8th and 5th centuries BC

During this time and the subsequent Warring States period, the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan and Zhongshan all constructed extensive fortifications to defend their own borders. Built to withstand the attack of small arms such as swords and spears, these walls were made mostly by stamping earth and gravel between board frames.

Qin Shi Huang conquered all opposing states and unified China in 221 BC, establishing the Qin Dynasty. Intending to impose centralized rule and prevent the resurgence of feudal lords, he ordered the destruction of the wall sections that divided his empire along the former state borders. To position the empire against the Xiongnu people from the north, he ordered the building of new walls to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire’s northern frontier. Transporting the large quantity of materials required for construction was difficult, so builders always tried to use local resources. Stones from the mountains were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used for construction in the plains. There are no surviving historical records indicating the exact length and course of the Qin Dynasty walls. Most of the ancient walls have eroded away over the centuries, and very few sections remain today. The human cost of the construction is unknown, but it has been estimated by some authors that hundreds of thousands, if not up to a million, workers died building the Qin wall. Later, the Han, Sui, and the Northern dynasties all repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great Wall at great cost to defend themselves against northern invaders. The Tang and Song Dynasties did not build any walls in the region substantially. The Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, who ruled Northern China throughout most of the 10th–13th centuries, constructed defensive walls in the 12th century, but those were located much to the north of the Great Wall as we know it, within today’s Inner and Outer Mongolia.

Ming era – The Great Wall concept was revived again during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, and following the Ming army’s defeat by the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu. The Ming had failed to gain a clear upper hand over the Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the long-drawn conflict was taking a toll on the empire. The Ming adopted a new strategy to keep thenomadic tribes out by constructing walls along the northern border of China. Acknowledging the Mongol control established in the Ordos Desert, the wall followed the desert’s southern edge instead of incorporating the bend of the Yellow River.

Unlike the earlier fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger and more elaborate due to the use of bricks and stone instead of rammed earth. Up to 25,000 watchtowers are estimated to have been constructed on the wall. As Mongol raids continued periodically over the years, the Ming devoted considerable resources to repair and reinforce the walls. Sections near the Ming capital of Beijing were especially strong. Qi Jiguang between 1567 and 1570 also repaired and reinforced the wall, faced sections of the ram-earth wall with bricks and constructed 1,200 watchtowers from Shanhaiguan Pass to Changping to warn of approaching Mongol raiders. During the 1440s–1460s, the Ming also built a so-called “Liaodong Wall”. Similar in function to the Great Wall (whose extension, in a sense, it was), but more basic in construction, the Liaodong Wall enclosed the agricultural heartland of the Liaodong province, protecting it against potential incursions by Jurched-Mongol Oriyanghan from the northwest and the Jianzhou Jurchens from the north. While stones and tiles were used in some parts of the Liaodong Wall, most of it was in fact simply an earth dike with moats on both sides.

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall helped defend the empire against the Manchu invasions that began around 1600. Even after the loss of all of Liaodong, the Ming army held the heavily fortified Shanhaiguan pass, preventing the Manchus from conquering the Chinese heartland. The Manchus were finally able to cross the Great Wall in 1644, after Beijing had already fallen to Li Zicheng’s rebels. Before this time, the Manchus had crossed the Great Wall multiple times to raid, but this time it was for conquest. The gates at Shanhaiguan were opened by the commanding Ming general Wu Sangui on May 25 who formed an alliance with the Manchus, hoping to use the Manchus to expel the rebels from Beijing. The Manchus quickly seized Beijing, and defeated both the rebel-founded Shun Dynasty and the remaining Ming resistance, establishing the Qing Dynasty rule over all of China.

Under Qing rule, China’s borders extended beyond the walls and Mongolia was annexed into the empire, so constructions on the Great Wall were discontinued. On the other hand, the so-called Willow Palisade, following a line similar to that of the Ming Liaodong Wall, was constructed by the Qing rulers in Manchuria. Its purpose, however, was not defense but rather migration control.

Although a formal definition of what constitutes a “Great Wall” has not been agreed upon, making the full course of the Great Wall difficult to describe in its entirety, the course of the main Great Wall line following Ming constructions can be charted.

The Jiayu Pass, located in Gansu province, is the western terminus of the Ming Great Wall. Although Han fortifications such as Yumen Pass and the Yangguan exist further west, the extant walls leading to those passes are difficult to trace. From Jiayu Pass the wall travels discontinuously down the Gansu Corridor and into the deserts of Ningxia, where it enters the western edge of the Yellow River loop at Yinchuan. Here the first major walls erected during the Ming dynasty cuts through the Ordos Desert to the eastern edge of the Yellow River loop. There at Piantou Pass (偏頭關) in Xinzhou city, Shanxi province, the Great Wall splits in two with the “Outer Great Wall” (外長城) extending along the Inner Mongolia border with Shanxi into Hebei province, and the “inner Great Wall” (內長城) running southeast from Piantou Pass for some 400 kilometres (250 mi), passing through important passes like the Pingxing Passand Yanmen Pass before joining the Outer Great Wall at Sihaiye (四海冶), in Yanqing County, Beijing.

The sections of the Great Wall around Beijing municipality are especially famous: they were frequently renovated and are regularly visited by tourists today. The Badaling Great Wall nearZhangjiakou is the most famous stretch of the Wall, for this was the first section to be opened to the public in the People’s Republic of China, as well as the showpiece stretch for foreign dignitaries.[40] South of Badaling is the Juyong Pass, when used by the Chinese to protect their land, this section of the wall had many guards to defend China’s capital Beijing. Made of stone and bricks from the hills, this portion of the Great Wall is 7.8 meters (26 ft) high and 5 meters (16 ft) wide.

One of the most striking sections of the Ming Great Wall is where it climbs extremely steep slopes. It runs 11 kilometers (6.8 mi) long, ranges from 5 to 8 meters (16 to 26 ft) in height, and 6 meters (20 ft) across the bottom, narrowing up to 5 meters (16 ft) across the top. Wangjinglou (望京樓) is one of Jinshanling’s 67 watchtowers, 980 meters (3,220 ft) above sea level. Southeast of Jinshanling, is the Mutianyu Great Wall which winds along lofty, cragged mountains from the southeast to the northwest for approximately 2.25 kilometers (about 1.3 miles). It is connected with Juyongguan Pass to the west and Gubeikou to the east. This section was one of the first to be renovated following the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

At the edge of the Bohai Gulf is the Shanhai Pass, the traditional end of the Great Wall known as the “Number One Pass Under Heaven” (天下第一關). The part of the wall that meets the sea is named the “Old Dragon Head” (老龍頭), within the Shanhai Pass complex. 3 km north of Shanhaiguan is Jiaoshan Great Wall (焦山長城), the site of the first mountain of the Great Wall. 15 km northeast from Shanhaiguan, is Jiumenkou (九門口), which is the only portion of the wall that was built as a bridge.

Characteristics – Before the use of bricks, the Great Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones, and wood. During the Ming Dynasty, however, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime, and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. Additionally, bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth. Stone can hold under its own weight better than brick, but is more difficult to use. Consequently, stones cut in rectangular shapes were used for the foundation, inner and outer brims, and gateways of the wall. Battlements line the uppermost portion of the vast majority of the wall, with defensive gaps a little over 30 cm (12 in) tall, and about 23 cm (9.1 in) wide. From the parapets, guards could survey the surrounding land. Communication between the army units along the length of the Great Wall, including the ability to call reinforcements and warn garrisons of enemy movements, was of high importance. Signal towers were built upon hill tops or other high points along the wall for their visibility. Wooden gates could be used as a trap against those going through. Barracks, stables, and armories were built near the wall’s inner surface.

Condition – While some portions north of Beijing and near tourist centers have been preserved and even extensively renovated, in many locations the Wall is in disrepair. Those parts might serve as a village playground or a source of stones to rebuild houses and roads. Sections of the Wall are also prone to graffiti and vandalism. Parts have been destroyed because the Wall is in the way of construction.

The Great Wall of China  •   Locations & Activities

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