It is one of the longest and largest structures ever built. It was designed to defend one of the oldest and greatest civilizations on the planet.
For centuries it did just that…..and for some centuries it didn’t do that at all.
Some people have claimed that you could see it from space, and it is one of the most visited tourist attractions on Earth.
Learn more about the Great Wall of China, one of the planet’s greatest man-made wonders, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand why the Great Wall of China was built, you first have to understand the geography of China.
The historic center of China and Chinese civilization has been in what is today the eastern third of China. This region of China has hadthe vast majority of the population for all of its history. This region is relatively flat and extremely fertile.
The agricultural production of this region is the reason why China has historically had such high populations and a high population density. Even thousands of years ago when populations were much lower, China still usually had the highest population in the world because this region was so productive.
China has often been divided by an imaginary line called the Hu Line. It stretches from the city of Heihe in the north near the border of Russia, to Tengchong in the south which is close to the border of Myanmar.
The western side of this line has about ? of the land of modern-day China, but only 6% of the population. The eastern side has 94% of the population and the vast majority of the agriculture.
The eastern side of that line is what the defense of China has been about.
Now consider how China has historically viewed its defenses.
To the east, you have the Pacific Ocean. The only island off the coast of China today is Taiwan, which traditionally had never really been that populated. Japan is further to the north and lies across the sea from Korea and Siberia.
The Philippines is further south but it lies across the sea from southeast Asia.
So, the coast of China has never been a source of threat.
To the south, you have the Himalayan mountains and the Himalayan foothills. Outside of a small area near the coast on the border of Vietnam, there really haven’t been any threats to China from the south. There have been wars fought with Vietnam, but they were mostly China invading Vietnam, not the other way around.
The Himalayas were for all practical purposes impassable, so the major empires in India and Southeast Asia never posed a threat to China. Despite being two of the largest ancient civilizations, most of the contact between China and India occurred by sea or via the silk road, not over the mountains.
To the west, you had a region that was mostly desert and unpopulated. What is today the region of Xinjiang contains the Taklamakan desert, and beyond that is the Tian Shan mountains.
So you basically had an enormous region to the east, south, and west where China, for the most part, didn’t have to worry about invasion.
The real threat came from the north. For centuries, China was under threat from nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes who found China to be a lucrative target for raiding and invasion. You did have the Gobi desert, but the Gobi wasn’t an impassable barrier.
So starting about 2,700 to 2,500 years ago, before China became a single united empire, many of the regional warlords began building walls to stop raiders coming from the north.
Here is where I should probably address the first misconception about the Great Wall of China. There is no single Great Wall of China, as in there isn’t a single wall that stretches across China. It would be more accurate to say that there are Great Walls of China, plural. If you see a map of the Great Wall of China, you’ll see several lines of walls, often hundred of miles apart from each other.
These first walls were build built in a piecemeal fashion. They didn’t necessarily look like the well-constructed stone and brick structures that you’ve probably seen photos of.
Most of this very early construction was made with rammed earth, not bricks, or with stones that they found.
The oldest existing segment of the wall is known as the Wall of Qi, which dates back to the year 441 BC.
Many of these very early walls were not necessarily facing north to keep out nomadic invaders. Each kingdom would build walls to keep out other kingdoms, as well as people from the steppes.
That all changed when the first Chinese emperor Qin came to power in 221 BC and established the Qin Dynasty.
He did two things with respect to the Great Wall. First, he dismantled all of the walls which were built between the various Chinesse states which prevented easy movement within the new empire.
Second, he connected all of the northward facing walls so it became one contiguous wall.
The wall was never intended to be a permanent border. One of the philosophies of the Qin and later dynasties was “build and move on”.
The wall during this period stretched for about 3,000 miles.
After the fall of the Qin Dynasty the wall fell into disrepair. It went through a series of periods where new sections of the wall would be built and extended, old parts of the wall would be rebuilt, and then it would be ignored and fall into disrepair again.
Different imperial dynasties had totally different approaches to the wall.
The Han Dynasty in the second century, extended the wall to what became its greatest extent and it was also extensively rebuilt during the Sui Dynasty.
The Tang and Song Dynasties did relatively little with respect to repairing and expanding the wall.
The Great Wall eventually failed to serve its purpose during the Mongol invasions. The invasion of China by the Mongols which began with Gehengis Khan and was completed by his grandson Kubali Khan, established the Yuan Dynasty, which was the first dynasty of foreign rulers in China.
The Mongols didn’t really care about the wall when they were in power, as they controlled both sides of it. It served absolutely no purpose when they ruled China. They only thing they used it for was some military outposts along the wall which station troops which guarded the silk road.
Oddly enough, none of the European visitors who traveled to China during the period, and there were many, mentioned the Great Wall.
After the Mongols fell from power, they were replaced by the Ming Dynasty in the late 14th century.
The Mings, having just lived through a century of Mongol rule, and still engaging in military conflict with the Mongols, set to wall building like no dynasty since the Han, over a thousand years earlier. Their wall building began in earnest in 1474.
The Ming Dynasty wall was by far the best version of the wall which had been built. If you ever visit China today and go to see the Great Wall, you almost certainly will be visiting a section which was built during the Ming Dynasty.
The Ming were more concerned about defense than they were about expansion, and the wall was a big part of their strategy.
This wall was built with brick instead of rammed earth and stones. They built a network of 25,000 guard towers along the wall, which were manned and evently spaced along the wall.
They also created six gates in the wall in major passes for trade and commerce to pass through. All of the gates were heavily fortified with major military installations.
Despite all the effort that the Ming Dynasty put into the wall, ultimately it was armies from Manchuria which came through the wall to cause the fall of the dynasty. They established the Quing Dynasty in the mid 16th century.
From here, the ear of wall building was mostly over.
The primary purpose of the wall for the Quing Dynasty wasn’t keeping the Mongols out of China so much as it was keeping the Han Chinese out of Manchuria.
With the adventent of more powerful artillery and mechanized warfare, the Great Wall of China became as obsolete as a defensive structure as other city walls and castles were around the world.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Great Wall became a symbol of China. It became one of the top things to see for people who were visiting the country, especially the region around Beijing.
In 1933, the Defense of the Great Wall, also known as the First Battle of Hopei, was fought between the Republic of China and the Imperial Japanese Army, as a precursor to second world war which would start in China just four years later.
Parts of the wall around Beijing were repaired in the 1950s, which is the place that most tourists visit. However, large sections of the wall were destroyed in the 1960s as people used the wall as material for building, or tore it down to build roads and other structures.
However, by the 1980s, the wall was once again protected and repaired as its value as a tourist attraction and a symbols of national pride was once again recgonized.
Today, the Great Wall of China gets over 50,000,000 visitors per year, both foreign and domestic. Over a third of the wall has been completely destroyed.
The wall varies greatly depending on the location. In some parts it is very well preserved, and in other, it has become completely overgrown with grass and looks like a long, snaking hill.
Today, you can visit the point where the Great Wall of China meets the sea in the town of Laolongtou. This is not the easternmost point of the wall, however, as there are segments which go northeast of that point.
The westernmost point is found in Jiayu Pass, which is out in the western desert. There were sections of the Han Dynasty wall which went even further west, but those are gone. The wall near Jiayu Pass just abruptly ends. It is rather odd because anyone at that point could just easily go around it.
You might have heard that the Great Wall of China was the only manmade object which is visible from space. This has been proven to be mostly false. While the wall is very long, it is far too narrow to be seen in most places.
There are, however, a few sections of the wall that are straight that sticks out from the surroundings that can be seen. However, you need to know exactly where to look.
There are also many such roads and other manmade structures which can also be seen from orbit if you know where to look.
In its totality, all of the walls which make up the Great Wall of China, built over a period of about 2,500 years, by over a million people over that time period, constitutes the largest structure ever created by humanity. Regardless if it is measured by length, total mass of building material, or the time it took to build, there is nothing in the world that is quite like the Great Wall of China.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Nes_bog over at Apple Podcasts in the UK. They write:
The gloss on top of the cherry on top of the cake
The most informative yet catchy podcast out there. Bite size episodes that will give you exactly the amount of information you need on any topic to be “that person” on the dinner table or house party. Absolutely love it!!! p.s listening on spotify- but they don’t have a review system yet!!!
Thanks, Nes_Bog! Actually, Spotify just did release a review system a few weeks ago. It is only a star based system, so you can’t actually write out a full review like this one, but you can at least express your support to the powers that be at Spotify.
Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.