Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China (Chinese: Wanli Changcheng; “10,000-Li Long Wall”) consists of a series of defensive structures built across northern China. One of the largest building-construction projects ever carried out, it runs (with all its branches) about 4,500 miles (7,300 km) east to west. Large parts of the fortifi cation date from the 7th to the 4th century B.C.E. In the 3rd century BC the emperor Shihuangdi connected existing defensive walls into a single system fortified by watchtowers. These served both to guard the rampart and to communicate with the capital, Xianyang (near modern Xi’an) by signal-smoke by day and fi re by night. Originally constructed partly of masonry and earth, it was faced with brick in its eastern portion. It was rebuilt in later times, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The basic wall is about 23 to 26 feet (7 to 8 metres) high; at intervals towers rise above it to varying heights.

The Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.E.) was so influential that the name “China” is derived from Qin. Shihuangdi was its founder and most notable emperor. On the one hand, he was a cruel tyrant. On the other hand, changes he made during his reign helped to define China even today. The boundaries he set during his reign became the traditional territory of China. In later eras China sometimes held other territories, but the Qin boundaries were always considered to embrace the indivisible area of China proper. He developed networks of highways and unified a number of existing fortifications into the Great Wall of China. He established a basic administrative system that all succeeding dynasties followed for the next 2,000 years. His tomb near Xi’an contains one of China’s most famous treasures-6,000 life-sized terra-cotta statues of warriors

It was Chu that innovated advanced weapons such as crossbows and steel swords, and Han that was skilled at making a wide range of weapons, including crossbows, swords, and halberds. Crossbows first appeared in Chu in the early fifth century B.C.E.  and were in general use in the fourth century B.C.E. Their strength and effective killing range generally increased over the centuries as their mechanisms were perfected.

There is no doubt that innovations in heavy crossbows, linked crossbows, and siege weapons such as catapults, rolling towers, mobile shields, scaling ladders, and battering rams facilitated the offense in the Warring States period. However, in ancient China as elsewhere, “[t]echniques for assault and defense advanced simultaneously.” Whereas military classics advocate the offensive doctrine, the less well-known Mohist school emerged as “the defensive counterpart,” so that various texts together “document a mutual escalation in the art of offense and defense.” As offensive weapons and techniques developed, various states also “undertook the expanded defense of borders, constructing great walls, ramparts, forts, and guard towers throughout the countryside to defend the entire territory against incursion.” After unification, the defense walls built by Qi, Yan, Zhao, and Qin against Xiongnu were connected to form the Great Wall, while those built by various states against one another were demolished.

The prevalence of conquests discussed earlier should not be interpreted as evidence that conquest was easy in the ancient Chinese system. Most major cities had such strong fortifications that they could not be taken except with resort to stratagems or at high cost. For instance, Qin’s siege of Han’s Yiyang produced high casualties. Qin’s conquest of Ba and Shu, which were ringed by mountains, required most of a century. Similarly, Han’s conquest of Zheng involved multiple wars fought intermittently over the course of five decades from 423 to 375 B.C.E. , and Zhao’s conquest of Zhongshan lasted from 307 to 286 B.C.E. . At the same time, Qi failed to conquer Yan in 314 B.C.E. . Yan, in turn, was not able to take two well-fortified Qi cities, Ju and Jimo, after five years of siege.

Construction of defensive walls began during the reign of China’s ‘‘First Emperor,’’ Qin Shi Huang, in 221 B.C.E. These connected sections of preexisting border fortifications of Qin’s defeated and annexed enemies, dating to the Warring States period, from which the Qin empire had emerged as victor. The building technique of this remarkable structure was the ancient method of stamped earth that employed masses of slave laborers as well as military conscripts. Some parts of the wall stood for nearly two millennia and were incorporated into the modern ‘‘Great Wall’’ built by the Ming dynasty following the humiliation of defeat and capture of the Zhengtong Emperor at Tumu (1449). After he regained the throne in 1457, the Ming court decided on a purely defensive strategy and began building 700 miles of new defensive walls starting in 1474, fortifying the northern frontier against Mongol raiders. The Ming system involved hundreds of watchtowers, signal-beacon platforms, and self-sufficient garrisons organized as military colonies. Infantry were positioned along the wall to give warning. But the main idea was for cavalry to move quickly to any point of alarm and stop raiders from breaking through. In that, the Ming strategy emulated Mongol practices from the Yuan dynasty. It was also reminiscent, though not influenced by, the Roman defensive system of ‘‘limes’’ which in Germania alone were 500 kilometers long.

The Great Wall was meant to reduce costs to the Ming of garrisoning a thousand-mile frontier by channeling raiders and invaders into known invasion routes to predetermined choke points protected by cavalry armies. This strategy was mostly ineffective. The Great Wall was simply outflanked in 1550 by Mongol raiders who rode around it to the northeast to descend on Beijing and pillage its suburbs (they could not take the city because they had no siege engines or artillery). The wall was also breached by collaboration with the Mongols of Ming frontier military colonies, which over time became increasingly ‘‘barbarian’’ through trade, marriage, and daily contact with the wilder peoples on the other side. Some Han garrisons lived in so much fear of the Mongols they were militarily useless; others lost touch with the distant court and hardly maintained military preparations at all. Finally, the Great Wall could always be breached by treachery or foolhardy invitation. Either or both occurred when a Ming general allowed the Manchus to enter China via the Shanhaiguan Pass to aid in the last Ming civil war in 1644, which brought the Ming dynasty to an end and put the Qing in power.

China never built a defensive wall along its Pacific sea frontier, as it felt no threat from that quarter. And yet, the main threat to its long-term stability and independence came across the Pacific in the form of European navies and marines. As with the 20th century Maginot Line in France, building the Great Wall in some ways signaled Ming defeatism rather than advertised Ming strength. The overall historical meaning of the Great Wall is ambiguous. To some, it signifies the worst features of China’s exploitative past; to others, it celebrates the longevity of China’s advanced, classical civilization.

Suggested Reading: Sechin Jagshid and V. J. Symons, Peace, War, and Trade Along the Great Wall (1989); Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China (1990).

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