Great Wall of China

By MSW Add a Comment 9 Min Read
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

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

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).

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version