Like the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China is an instantly recognizable landmark. In fact under perfect visual conditions and at a distance of 160 kilometers from the Earth the Great Wall is visible from low orbit.

However not everyone knows how such a massive structure came into being. Who built the Great Wall of China? When? Why?

The answer to these questions, as well as some interesting facts about the Great Wall of China can be found in the article below.

Early Beginnings

The history of the Great Wall of China can be traced as far back as 2000 years ago, and its construction spanned over a period of 1,000 years.

The Chinese had been building walls since around 8th Century BCE. These walls, like many fortifications at the time were very rudimentary. They consisted of no more than mud or dirt packed hard between planks of wood, and maybe fashioning some sort of sharp points to deter would-be attackers. Such a fortification was used extensively during the Warring Period of China’s history, when many factions put up such walls to defend their respective lands.

Eventually, the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty Qin Shi Huang defeated the other states, and tore down the walls that separated the states.

He kept the walls that bordered the northern part of China as the native peoples from Mongolia were nomads, always venturing into the lands of the Chinese to pillage or raid border towns.

During the Dynasty Period (800 BCE – 1300 CE)

The Great Wall initiative begun by the Qin dynasty waned as other dynasties had their own interests to guard. Some dynasties, who counted their power bases to the north of the country (the Han dynasty for example) expended large amounts of manpower and money to rebuild parts of the wall. Dynasties like the Song were primarily based in the south of the country and therefore saw no need to upkeep it.

Finally some of the dynasties, like the Liao or Jin, were from the land beyond the initial Great Wall, and saw no need to use it to keep themselves out of their own country! Thus by the beginning of the 14th Century CE, the Qin Great Wall had fallen into disrepair with many of the stone portions eroded and the wooden portions simply fallen apart.

Unruly Neighbors and the Ming Dynasty (1400 CE)

The troubles from the north of China continued well into one of the most powerful Dynasties in China’s history – the Ming Dynasty. With the Great Wall in disrepair, Mongols and Manchurians moved freely in Northern China. Wang Zheng, a highly regarded official of the Emperors court influenced the Emperor to move north with a large army to stop the invasion of some 20,000 Mongols.

Marching forward with more than 500,000 soldiers the Emperor Zhu Qizhen found himself constantly outmaneuvered by the more mobile Mongol army. Eventually after many skirmishes, the entire Chinese army was encircled, destroyed, and the Mongols even captured the Emperor. The entire campaign was a disaster, and precipitated the Ming to renew interest in the Great Wall to keep Mongols out.

Over the next 200 years the Great Wall would reach its modern day length and splendor. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Qing, originally from Mongolia discontinued repairs on the Great Wall as Mongolia was annexed into the Chinese empire.

Modern Day

In the 19th Century, the wall served as a major tourist attraction for China, a country which was being picked at by all sides by the colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and Portugal. It survived World War I due to the conflict being fought away from China proper. Into World War II, the Great Wall even survived the Japanese occupation of China which was mainly fixed along the coastline cities of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Macao.

It wasn’t until the Communist’s came into power, and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (a movement to erase China’s despotic past) that the Wall came under scrutiny. Seen as a symbol of the tyranny of China’s dynasties from the past, the Communist government began a large-scale demolition of the wall. Using dynamite and construction equipment, large portions of the wall were destroyed during this time.

Thankfully, China adopted a less strict policy on foreign travel during the 1970’s, beginning with a visit from President Richard Nixon. Chairman Mao took him to the Great Wall and in a complete 360 from Communist policy, stated that “You were not a man, until you reached the top (of the Great Wall)”. Thus although many sections of the Great Wall were destroyed by the Communist Chinese government, many sections survived into the modern age.

Interesting Facts about the Great Wall

  • The Great Wall is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated site.
  • The Great Wall is the longest man-made structure on Earth.
  • The best preserved section of the Great Wall is close to Beijing, and was the finishing point for a cycling course at the 2008 Summer Olympics
  • The Great Wall took an immense number of builders to complete. For this reason it is known as the “Longest Graveyard on Earth”, with an estimated one million people perishing in its construction.
  • There are many references to dragons with regards to the Great Wall. There is a legend stating that the first workers building the wall followed the tracks of a dragon to determine where to begin building it.
  • There are 10,000 watchtowers along the Great Wall, these watchtowers were used to signal other garrisons, hold troops, and supplies.
  • At its height in the Ming Dynasty, there were over one million soldiers garrisoning the wall.
  • The Great Wall is often symbolized as a dragon, which in China is a symbol of divinity and vitality. Since Chairman Mao’s death, the Great Wall of China is seen by many Chinese as a symbol of national unity. It is undoubtedly one of the largest and most storied human constructions in human history.