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Why was the Great Wall of China Built?

Debopriya Bose Oct 6, 2018
The Great Wall of China took centuries to build and incurred huge costs and loss of human lives. Why was the it built after all, if it involved so much effort? Let's walk through history.
The Great Wall of China is the largest network of walls ever built by man. It is not surprising that this structure, which is approximately 5,500 miles long, and runs over plains, hills and deserts, is not the result of the efforts of a single group of Chinese people.
The wall was built over 2000 years and involved a large number of imperial dynasties of China. This colossal structure is not a single man-made wall but also includes natural barriers like mountains, trenches and rivers.
Although parts of the Wall have disappeared due to the forces of nature, the structure that stands still inspires awe due to its historical significance and as an architectural marvel. But why was it built? What was it that necessitated such a massive structure to be erected?

Reasons Behind the Construction

The construction of the Great Wall had started in the early 5th century B.C. The main reason was to protect the borders of the empire from the nomadic warring tribes, that came from present day Manchuria and Mongolia.
The earliest builders of the Wall were the rulers of the states of Qi, Zhao and Yan. These small states existed during the era of the warring states, that dates from 5th century to 221 BCE, till China was finally united into a single kingdom under the Qin dynasty. These walls were made using earth and gravel that were stamped between board frames.
Once Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty of China, unified all the smaller kingdoms into one large kingdom, he ordered General Meng Tian to consolidate the existing walls and extend them further to form a northern border for his empire.
His main aim was to protect his kingdom from Xiongnu people from the north. He also ordered demolition of any walls built by other earlier states, that would divide his empire from within.
This wall is called the "Wan-Li Qang-Qeng" in Chinese which means 10,000-Li Long Wall. (In Chinese, 2 Li measures about 1 km). For the construction, instead of using the same material over different sections, the Emperor ordered his men to use locally available material.
Hence, while stones and rocks were primarily used for the wall over mountainous regions, rammed earth was used where it ran over the plains. It was rebuilt, extended and repaired later by the Han, Sui, and the Jin dynasties.
This was an expensive venture, but every bit worth the effort, as the Wall provided protection against the northern invaders. Very little of the original wall remains today, as most of it has been eroded by the forces of nature.
With the defeat of the Ming Dynasty in the Battle of Tumu in 1449, building the wall was taken up once more. Most of what we see of the Wall today was built by the Ming dynasty.
It survives till date because unlike its predecessors who used rammed earth, rocks and stones, the artisans of the Ming dynasty used stronger material like bricks throughout the new wall that they built. The section along Beijing was particularly strong.
Other than protecting the empire from the Mongolian invaders, the wall also served the purpose of standing like a barrier against the Manchu invasions that was frequent during the end of the Ming Dynasty. The wall was not just a barrier that stood passively protecting the Chinese empire; there were provisions to store weapons, grains and also house soldiers.
Army units used to be stationed to keep guard. Counterattacks could also be launched. Watchtowers and signal towers were built throughout to keep watch over enemy troops advancing on the empire, along the northern border and warn other army units patrolling.

Facts and Trivia

  • Contrary to the misconception, the wall cannot be seen from the Moon with naked eyes. It can however be barely seen from low Earth orbit, if the conditions are very clear.
  • The structure was listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO in 1987.
  • It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world, compiled by a Swiss-based company called 'The New Open World Corporation'.
  • The width of the wall varies from 15 to 30 feet and it has an average height of 25 feet.
  • With some parts being lost to erosion and new extensions of the wall being unearthed, it is difficult to correctly estimate its actual length.
The Great Wall is a major tourist attraction today.
Though many lives were lost in constructing this great structure, historians believe that the casualties thus occurred were much lesser than would have been, had the Chinese population been left open to the marauding tribes across the Wall.