The Great Wall

Many thanks to Bryan of the Great Wall forum for writing this page. Bryan and the forum members have been very helpful in the planning of the route for the walk.


One of the Seven Wonders

Mention China to most people and one of the first things that comes to mind is the Great Wall. It’s well known all around the world. It’s one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. But how much do most people really know about it? Many people have seen photos of the most famous sections and they assume that those photos are representative of a long wall that stretches along the Chinese border. The reality is actually much different than most people’s impressions.

The Great Wall refers to many different walls that were built over a very long period of time in different parts of China using a wide variety of construction materials and techniques. Most of these walls have mostly or completely vanished by now. Only the more recently constructed and higher-quality walls remain.

A history of building walls

China has a long history of building walls. Many thousands of years ago it was common for people to build walls around their homes. That practice paved the way for the concept of building walls around entire cities. And walled cities eventually evolved into the idea of walls to protect entire states. Before China was unified, the different areas of China built walls between each other. And after China was unified, the emperor had the idea of walling in the entire country. China was constantly plagued with very costly attacks from tribes to the north. The first emperor of China, emperor Qin, decided to build a wall to protect his country from these attacks. As time went by, and as different areas were perceived as the northern border of China or as places vulnerable to attack, walls were built in a wide variety of areas, some much further north than others. They did not always run from east to west; some of them ran north and south or at angles, often following geographic areas of weakness, terrain that was easily crossed by the enemy. Over time these walls were extended and sometimes linked to one another.

Thus construction of what is now called the Great Wall began in the Qin Dynasty in the second century BC. Following the Qin Dynasty, some other dynasties built or maintained Great Walls, and others did not. One of the most prolific dynasties to build Great Walls was the Han Dynasty, from 206 BC to 220 AD. Their Great Wall was the longest in terms of east-to-west distance of a generally continuous wall.

Advanced building techniques

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was the most recent time when Great Wall construction was performed on a massive scale. The Ming revolutionized wall building with sophisticated designs using various materials depending on location, but also incorporating watch towers, signal towers, auxiliary structures, and many and varied features to improve all operations associated with defense. They rebuilt existing walls, sometimes repeatedly, and constructed new ones. The Ming Dynasty Great Wall is the one you commonly see in photos, its imposing brick and stone structures following mountain ridges far into the distance.

Not surprisingly for a structure with the history and significance of the Great Wall, there are many misconceptions among both Chinese and foreigners. By far the most popular one is the idea that the Great Wall is visible from the moon or from space. It seems almost reasonable, and it’s impressive, as statistics about the Great Wall should be. But this claim was first made in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in 1932, while manned space flight began in the 1960s. And while the Great Wall is incredibly long, it is only as wide as a minor road and it blends in well with its surroundings. Therefore it is only visible from a low altitude, perhaps ten thousand meters depending on conditions.

The second most common misconception is about the bodies of the deceased being buried in the wall. Not only is this highly unlikely based on the importance that the Chinese placed on the most durable possible construction, but also no physical or written evidence of this fact has ever come to light.

But what is true about the Great Wall is that it is a spectacular piece of work, an awesome sight, a fascinating cultural relic with an amazing history, the world’s largest structure of any type, and mankind’s greatest-ever military defense project.