Both a barrier and a gateway to the wealth and enigma of the Chinese Empire, the Great Wall of China is a man-made work on such a gigantic scale that it has been called the Eighth wonder of the World.
More superlatives have been heaped upon the Great Wall of China than on any other structure in the world. ‘The greatest construction project ever undertaken by man’, ‘the longest bastion’ and ‘the world’s biggest graveyard’ are just three examples. The facts speak for themselves the wall stretches for some 4000 miles (6400km) across China, following a twisting, curving path that has been likened to the body of a dragon. It was constructed over a period of 2100 years by millions of soldiers and labourers, and it cost the lives of untold thousands; in one ten-day period alone, in the seventh century AD, 500,000 men perished.
China’s great Wall stretches across deeply wooded forest, sandy desert and mountainous terrain. It was once said to be the only man-made structure visible from the surface of the moon and, although this has proven not to be true, the wall holds a place in the record books as the largest building project ever undertaken.
The origins of the wall date back to at least the fifth century BC. This period of Chinese history, referred to as that of the Warring States, followed the disintegration of the once-unified kingdom of Zhou. To protect themselves against one another, the fractured states built defensive walls. In addition, the largely agricultural northern states – such as Qin, Zhao and Yan – each constructed a series of dykes and earthworks to fortify their borders against incursions by the Xiongnu, the semi-nomadic cattle herders of the steppes to the north.
In 221 BC the Qin ruler, Shi Huang, subdued the Warring States and proclaimed himself first Qin Emperor of China. In an 11-year reign, he established a ruthless and efficient empire, a system of justice, a standardized form of weights and measures, a network of roads and a strict bureaucracy that controlled where people lived. He also ordered the consolidation and extension of all the existing walls to secure the empire’s northern boundary. An army of some 300,000 soldiers and up to a million pressganged labourers and prisoners set to work, tearing down and then rebuilding some of the old walls, and also strengthening existing works.
In contrast to the earlier walls, which had consisted largely of defensive ditches with banks of earth made by pounding the soil into wooden ‘forms’, an assortment of materials and construction methods was employed in the fabrication of Shi Huang’s wall. As transport was difficult, local materials were used. In mountainous areas, blocks of stone were hewn from the rock face; oak, pine and fir logs infilled with tamped earth was the favourite combination in forested regions; and a mixture of earth, sand and pebbles was used in the Gobi Desert. Transportation was by human effort, by donkey, or by rope and pulley. Materials were carried on men’s backs or passed along a ‘human chain’.
The wall was never intended as a defensive fortification in its own right: it relied always on manned garrisons to deter invaders. Some 25,000 watchtowers were spaced at 300-600ft (90-180m) intervals along the wall, each 40ft by 40ft )13m by 13m) at the base and standing an average of 40ft (13m) high. Garrison towers were never situated more than 11 miles (17.5km) apart. By day, a mixture of wolf dung, sulfur and nitrate produced smoke to signal to neighboring towers the strength of an attack; at night, dry timber fires were used. Line-of-sight communication between the watchtowers meant that a message could travel from one end of the wall to the other in just 24 hours – a feat not equaled until the advent of the telephone.
The soldiers stationed on the wall often complained about conditions. After a march of anything up to eight weeks, many found themselves in a remote area with a harsh climate, among people whose language and culture were alien to them. An incidental advantage of the garrison system to successive emperors was that the army was fragmented and – in some cases – miles away from the court in Beijing. Soldiers were therefore unlikely to be able to band together and mutiny.
After the death of Shi Huang, the emperors of the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) continued to maintain and lengthen the wall. There were also later periods when rebuilding and consolidation meant that more time and manpower were invested in it. The final major phase of construction was undertaken by the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), who, having repelled the Mongols first from Beijing and then from the rest of the country, sought to strengthen China’s northern defenses.
The sections of the Ming wall that have survived best are those constructed of masonry. These were made by levelling the ground, then laying foundations of courses of stone slabs. The wall has stone faces, infilled with a mixture of small stones, earth, rubble and lime. Once this structure was high enough – generally the Ming wall is 20ft (6m) high, 25ft (7.6m) wide at the base and 20ft (6m) wide at the top – it was finished with bricks. If the angle of incline was less than 45 degrees, the bricks were laid flat; if it was greater, they were fashioned into a staircase. Kilns were established at various points along the wall to manufacture vast quantities of bricks and tiles.
At the height of the Ming dynasty the wall stretched from Shanhaiguan on the Bo Hai Gulf east of Beijing to Jiayuguan in the central Asian province of Gansu; the westernmost limit wa sYumenguan, 130 miles (200km) farther west, in the pre-Qin era. Today, the sections near the village of Badaling, 50 miles (80km) from Beijing, are the best preserved (and the most visited by tourists). Elsewhere the condition of the wall varies from good to dilapidated – the latter particularly in the far west. Its current state of repair depends partly on the initial choice of materials, some of which have not endured, and partly on the extent to which the wall has been plundered by farmers for their own uses. Yet its power as a symbol is undiminished. To the Chinese it is a potent reminder of the nation’s greatness, longevity (the political system laid down by Shi Huang was unaltered until 1911) and indestructibility. To the rest of the world it is a stunning monument that stands as a testimony to human strength, ingenuity and endurance.