The Great Wall of China

Visitors explore a section of the wall near Badaling. (Author: Rux - ReadyForTomorrow - licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license)

In legend, the Chinese dragon is quite a bit different than the European dragon. The mythical European drake is an evil beast with huge wings that makes a sport of capturing beautiful maidens, roasting courageous knights and guarding hordes of treasure kept in his cavern-like lair. The Chinese dragon is quite unlike this. He is both good and wise, has no wings, but instead a long, snake-like body. He lives beneath the rivers of his homeland which he guards from intruders.

Of course, there is no such thing as a European dragon. However, in China there is something that for hundreds of years has let its long, snake-like form lay across the Asian countryside defending it from outsiders. Many writers have indeed likened this thing to a dragon. Most people, however, call it the Great Wall of China.

Seven Quick Facts
Height: 16-26 feet (5-8m).
Width: 20 feet at bottom, 16 feet at top (6 - 5m).
Length: 3,890 miles (6,259 km) of wall; 5,500 miles (8,851 km) including other types of barriers.
Built: Construction started about 1450 AD.
Location: Along the border between ancient Ming China and Mongolia.
Constructed of: Mostly brick with stone used in the foundations, gates and other sections.
Other: Legend has it that it can be seen by the naked eye from the moon, but this is false.

Early Walls

The Chinese have a long history of using walls for defense. As far back as the eighth century BC, the warring states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan and Zhongshan built defensive structures around their land to try and secure it from their neighbors. When Qin Shi Huang conquered these kingdoms in 221 BC, however, he had the walls between the old states torn down except those along the northern frontier of his new empire. These he had extended in an attempt to keep out invaders.

This early wall was constructed of whatever materials were at hand. In the mountains stone was used, while across the plains the wall was made of "rammed earth": a mixture of sand, clay and soil compacted between wooden frames and allowed to dry and harden.

Today nobody knows the exact course or length of this early wall, but it was maintained and extended by some of the succeeding dynasties. Portions of it may even have been incorporated into the wall that stands today.

The crown of the wall is a road that allowed troops to move quickly over the rugged terrain. (Photo by J. Samuel Burner licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

The Great Ming Wall

On September 1, 1449 AD, a Ming Dynasty force 500,000 strong lost a decisive battle to a much smaller army of Mongols from the north. The capture of Empirer Zhengtong in the defeat nearly triggered the collapse of the Ming government.

This incident prompted the Ming Dynasty to decide to build a new defensive wall along the northern border just south of the Ordos Desert. It is this wall, when it was completed, that would become known as the Great Wall of China. In the end the wall proper would stretch 3,890 miles (6,259 km). When other barriers, like trenches, rivers and hills are added in, the total length of the defensive line comes to 5,500 miles (8,851 km). When finished, the wall ran from the city of Qinhuangdao in the east, to Lop Lake in the west.

The construction done by the Ming Dynasty utilized brick and stone rather than rammed earth. This speeded erection of the wall and made it more resistant to damage from rain and snow. The size of the wall differs depending on its location, but on average stands between 16 and 26 feet in height (5 - 8 m) and is 20 feet (6 m) wide across at the base. The wall tapers inward so that at the top it is only about 16 feet wide (5 m). The wall is actually two outer walls constructed of brick and stone. The area inside this was filled with loose stones, rubble and earth. On top of this, between the battlements, a smooth path was laid so that the crown of the wall could act as a road. This allowed messengers and troops to move quickly across even very rough terrain.

Can You See It from Space?

As far back as 1784, people have claimed that the Great Wall was the only man-made structure that could be seen from the moon by the unaided eye. This, however, is clearly false.

The question of whether it can be seen from low orbit is something that is still debated. Various astronauts believe they seen it with the naked eye, but on at least one occasion what the individual actually observed was a river. It is clearly visible with binoculars, however

The wall was not just a wall, but a series of fortifications including watch towers, guardhouses, castles, gates and forts. In total about 25,000 such defensive structures supported the wall. Typically every 11 miles (18 km) a beacon tower was built into the barrier. This allowed fire or smoke signals to pass information, such as news of an impending attack, quickly along the wall from fortification to fortification. This, in turn, would allow commanders to move troops quickly to where they might be needed.

Attacks Against the Wall

The wall first protected against Mongol raids and later, starting from about 1600, attacks from the Manchus from northeastern China. The wall was not always a successful defense, however. In 1550 the Mongol leader Altan Khan simply went around the wall. The Manchus crossed the great wall in 1644 when the gates at Shanhaiguan pass were opened by a Ming General who hoped the invasion would quell a rebellion in the capitol city of Beijing. The Manchus quickly took control of the Chinese heartland, however, and brought the Ming Dynasty and any further work on the wall to an end. The Qing Dynasty, which followed the Ming, annexed Mongolia into the empire, alleviating the need for a defensive line along that border.

The wall as it appeared in 1907.

In the 16th century explorers and merchants from Europe began to visit China and reports of the grandeur of the wall made it back to Europe. An early description of the wall appears in Joo de Barros' book Asia, which was published in 1563. The first European to actually pass through the wall may have been the Portuguese Jesuit brother Bento de Gis, who entered by the northwestern gate from India in 1605.

The Restored Wall

With its purpose gone, the Great Wall was allowed to deteriorate and parts of it were even disassembled for building material. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, the Communist leaders turned against this symbol of China's majestic past and destroyed much of the structure. Since 1984, however, the government has taken an interest in preserving the wall and using it as a symbol of the country. Large sections, especially near tourist centers, have been restored. In 1987 The Great Wall was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, this sleeping dragon still snakes across much of the land, crossing valleys and topping mountains. Like China itself, despite the adversity it has seen, it has endured throughout the centuries.

Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.