Qin Dynasty Construction
Although the beginning of the Great Wall of China can be traced to the 3rd century B.C, a lot of the fortifications in the wall date from hundreds of years prior, when China was divided into a few individual kingdoms during the Warring States Period. In about 220 B.C, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China, demanded that previous fortifications between states be removed and some of the existing walls along the northern border be connected into a single system that would continue for more than 10,000 li (one li is approximately one third of a mile) and safeguard China against attacks from the north.
Building of the 10,000-Li-Long Wall, or “Wan Li Chang Cheng,” was one of the most formidable building projects ever taken on by any civilization. Chinese general Meng Tian controlled the project and apparently used an enormous army of commoners, convicts and soldiers as workers. Made mainly of earth and stone, the wall extended from the China Sea port of Shanghaiguan more than 3,000 miles west into Gansu province. In some strategic places, sections of the Great Wall of China overlapped for increased security. The Great Wall of China rose about 15 to 30 feet high and guard towers were distributed at intervals positioned at intervals along it.
The Great Wall of China Through the Centuries
Following the death of Qin Shi Huang and the fall of the Qin Dynasty, most of the Great Wall of China fell into disrepair. Following the fall of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C – 220 A.D), a succession of frontier tribes grabbed control of northern China. The effective but short-lived Sui dynasty (581 – 618) extended and repaired the Great Wall of China several times.
The Great Wall of China lost its importance as a fortification after the fall of the Sui and the rise of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), as China conquered the Tujue tribe to the north and spread past the original frontier protected by the wall. The powerful Mongol dynasty (1206 -1368) established by Genghis Khan finally controlled all of China, sections of Europe and parts of Asia. Although the Great Wall of China held minor importance for the Mongols as a military fortification, soldiers were ordered to man the wall in order to safeguard caravans and merchants moving along the trade routes established during this period.
The Ming Dynasty
As it exists today, the Great Wall of China was built mostly during the mighty Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Similar to the Mongols, the early Ming rulers had minor interest in constructing border fortifications, and wall building was restricted before the late 15th century. Building of the Great Wall of China as it is known today started in about 1474. After a first phase of territorial expansion, Ming rulers took a mainly defensive stance, and their extension and reformation of the Great Wall of China was vital to this strategy.
Beginning west of Juyong Pass, the Great Wall of China was divided into north and south lines, respectively named the Outer and Inner Walls. Strategic fortresses and gates were situated along the wall. Each of the six fortresses were heavily protected during the Ming period and considered key to the defense of the capital.
Importance of the Great Wall of China
During the mid 17th century, the Manchus from southern and central Manchuria broke through the Great Wall of China and infiltrated Beijing, finally forcing the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the start of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644 – 1912). Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the Great Wall of China came out as the most common symbol of China for the western world, and a representation of the barrier maintained by China to hinder foreign influences.
Presently, the Great Wall of China is generally acknowledged as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history, and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.