On a hot Saturday morning, a crowd of tourist excitedly follows a tour guide through trails surrounded by lush greenery. A teenager falls behind, whose attention has been caught by a distant shape up ahead. He squints his eyes to focus his vision, and a drop of sweat runs through the creases of his forehead, trickling down his nose, and finally drips on the ground. Once he’s realized how far behind he’s become, he runs down the trail until he’s accidentally crashed into a fellow tourist, causing them to drop their binoculars. “Sorry!” he yells as he runs towards the front of the crowd. “Folks, we’re almost there. I know it’s hot and we’ve been walking for a while now, but I can assure you, it’s worth it. They didn’t make it one of the eight wonders of the world for nothing!” declares the exasperated tour guide.
The teenager becomes bored after many minutes down the trail with nothing to look at, kicking a rock and watching the floor as he walks. He hears a loud gasp up ahead, and quickly raises his head. There it was, at last. Like a long dragon, it was sprawled across hills, mountains, and forests. It was bigger than he ever imagined it to be. He stared at what seemed to be bricks that it was created with, amazed by the idea that these bricks are thousands of years old. He imagined the emperor Shih Huang Ti raising his sword and yelling a large war cry while standing on top of this structure, cueing his army to attack the incoming Mongol army. It was the infamous Great Wall of China, the modern day icon for Chinese culture, and it was stunning. What is the Great Wall of China, and how efficiently did it serve its purpose?
The Great Wall of China is one of the greatest creations humankind has accomplished in its history. What is miraculous about it is the fact that it appeared in the period when men did not have complicated instruments or technology that now makes possible the construction of gigantic structures on a routine basis. For centuries, the heroic feat of the Chinese people who put their effort in the erection of the huge structure continued to fascinate people all over the world. Constructed in the period of imperial China, the Great Wall was at the same time a very practical purpose – defending the borders of a great nation and cautiously guarding its development.
- The History of the Great Wall
Such a huge structure as the Great Wall of China naturally required many years of construction. The origins of the Great Wall can be traced to the early 8th century B.C. when the small principality of Ch’in, located along the Wei River, began to gain power in the nation. After the decline of its once powerful neighbor Chin, the small state began to grow dramatically. Its growth was so dramatic that Silverberg (1965) finds reason to state that “without pressing the parallel too far, we can see a Macedonia in Ch’in, and even an Alexander the Great in Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the Ch’in emperor who built the Great Wall” (Silverberg 26).
The Great Wall started out as a series of fortifications that were meant to protect individual states from aggressive neighbors. This issue became especially pressing in the period from the 5th to the 2nd century B.C. which is best known as the “Warring States Period”. Individual states like Qi, Yan, and Zhao, began to build the walls around their borders to shield their populations from foreign attacks (Shea).
The wall as one unit appeared in the period of the Qin dynasty. The emperor responsible for the unification of the wall was Qin Shi Huang who ordered the unification of the wall so as to protect the people inside the borders. Qin Shi Huang not only united the already existing sections of the wall, he also added more fortifications in the north where the nation faced danger from the Xiongnu people. Thus, the main purpose of the wall was protection from attacks and preservation of internal peace. One can claim perhaps that the wall was also meant to impress people with its magnificent sight and to develop architectural skills in the nation, but if these motives are valid, they were most probably secondary to the basic issue of defense.
With the same purpose in mind, the Great Wall of China was revived during the Ming Dynasty. The rule of the dynasty was challenged by the arrival of the Mongols who in 1449 who “attacked China again and kidnapped Zhu Qizhen, Son of Heaven, sixth emperor of the Ming dynasty and ruler of all China” (Newton Public Schools). The Chinese were scared by such powerful invaders and decided to put effort in the building of the wall to protect them from savage raids. The rulers of separate provinces set out to build the wall on their own, without even a centralized plan for doing so. It took them almost 200 years to build the wall around the nation. When they were finished, the mountain passes through which the Mongols normally arrived from the North proved to be blocked, and the nation was much better protected. This did not save the Ming Dynasty from the decline when the power went to the Manchus, but the Mongol threat was removed.
- What the Wall is Like
The Great Wall of China is an impressive sight. According to NASA, “the entire wall is about 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) long” (NASA). There is widespread myth that “that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space or from the moon with the naked eye” which, however, is not true (Rosenberg). It is true that the wall is visible. However, it is not unique in this regard since many other objects are equally visible. One can see even smaller things like regular roads.
It is interesting on many other aspects, though. The line of the wall is interspersed with watch towers that served in former times as storage places for arms, housing for the army, and used to send smoke signals. The Wall also includes barracks and administrative units that are located farther apart from each other. There are also signal towers used to send messages from one area of the wall to another. It was important to provide an integrated system of communications between different parts of the army located along the wall so as to ensure coordinated response to the enemy (Rosenberg).
Though an important tourist attraction, the Wall is not preserved equally well at all points. In some areas, it has fallen into the state of disrepair and even serves as a source of construction materials for the local population. In the places where the presence of the wall interfered with construction projects, it was destroyed to allow builders more space (Shea). There are also instances of vandalism when the wall is covered with graffiti (Crystal). There are, however, the restored or intact parts of the wall that are open to tourists.
The Great Wall is made not only of bricks, but also of such materials as earth, wood, and stones. Due the light weight of the bricks, once they appeared, the builders began to use them heavily in the construction. In addition, they also utilized tiles and lime. The foundation was created in a rectangular shape. The upper part of the wall is covered with battlements and extends 9 inches in width (Rosenberg).
- The Great Wall as a Cultural Symbol
The Great Wall is an important artifact in Chinese history. The wall in later years became a symbol of separation from the rest of the world that was often felt in China. The term “Great Wall” is used to speak of cultural phenomena (Friedman 15), or of the wall isolating political prisoners in Communist China (King 270). Clark talks of “the breaking down of the barriers which have separated the two great streams of Eastern and Western civilization—the barriers which may be symbolized by the Great Wall” (Clark vii).
Many Chinese people lament the fact that the famous wall is now in a shabby state (Hall 1998). The disrepair in some areas has come to the point where “aerial photos show that in sections, only the top battlements show — the center of the wall has filled with sand and silt” (Shea 2004). The prominence of the wall as a tourist destination also makes it the victim of hawkers who try to get a piece of the wall to sell to tourists.
The Great Wall, built over the course of many centuries of Chinese history, was intended to protect the nation from foreign invaders. The wall has effectively fulfilled its goal, warding off Mongol invasion. Today, it serves as a powerful reminder of what people could accomplish in old times and a cultural symbol of the nation.
Clark, Grover. The Great Wall Crumbles. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1935.
Crystal, Ellie. “The Great Wall of China.” Crystalinks. 1995. 14 Mar 2007 <crystalinks.com/chinawall.html>
Friedman, Alison Mara. “The Other Great Wall of China”. Dance Magazine, 79.2 (February 2005): 15+.
Hall, Peter. “A Not So Great Wall”. Business Asia 6.11 (June 15, 1998): 16.
King, Richard. “Philip F. Williams and Yenna Wu. “The Great Wall of Confinement: The Chinese Prison Camp through Contemporary Fiction and Reportage.” China Review International 12.1 (2005): 270+.
NASA. The Great Wall of China. 1995. 27 March 2007 <http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/radar/sircxsar/gwall.html>.
Newton Public Schools. The Great Wall of China. 27 March 2007 <http://www.newton.mec.edu/Angier/DimSum/Great%20Wall%20Background.html>.
Rosenberg, Matt. The Great Wall of China. 2007. 27 March 2007 <http://geography.about.com/od/specificplacesofinterest/a/greatwall.htm>.
Shea, Marylin. The Great Wall of China. 21 January 2004. 27 March 2007 <http://ce.eng.usf.edu/pharos/wonders/Forgotten/greatwall.html>.
Silverberg, Robert. The Great Wall of China. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.