Ni hao, LIFEers! (That is "hello" in Mandarin.) This week our intrepid class traveled back in time (metaphorically speaking) to ancient China with the help of Professor Bobby O'Brien to learn all about the facts and fiction of The Great Wall of China.
Let's learn the fiction first; all those wonderful little things we learned about the Great Wall that give the wall its mystique, but have no basis in reality. Myth 1: you can see the Great Wall from space. People probably thought that because the wall was so long, you could see it from space. But think about it, we have highways that are wider and just as long, and you can’t see them from space. The fact is you can’t see any man-made object on earth from space. Myth 2: the wall is ancient, built before the time of Christ. The truth is the majority of the wall is less than 500 years old, built by the Ming Dynasty. Myth 3: The Great Wall has always been called “The Great Wall”. Like most walls, the Great Wall is a defensive structure, and the ancient Chinese had no more romantic notions about the wall then any Americans have about our border fences. Myth 4: there are people buried in or beneath the wall. This rumor probably started because Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, constructed part of the wall, and he was infamous for executing enemies, both foreign and domestic, and conscripting thousands of laborers to build the wall. However, bodies have only been found next to the wall, probably the remains of workers who died on the job. Myth 5: the Great Wall is one long continuous wall. The wall is actually composed of many sections, built by many different people over a thousand years. (See the bottom of the blog for a map of the wall.) Lastly, Gary Larson in one of his Far Side cartoons put forth another theory: he depicted two ancient Chinese warriors standing upon the newly completed Great Wall; one of them boastfully states "NOW we'll see if that dog can get in here!"
So that is the fiction, now how about the facts? Let’s go through the how, why and who. First how. The first builders made the wall out of the materials on hand; dirt, vegetation, stones, and compressed the pile down into a mound or levy-like structure. This was called “hangu” or a ramming technique. Later builders practiced dry-stone-walling, where trained builders carefully placed rocks so they gripped each other and did not need mortar to stay in place. The final building method used kiln-fired bricks. The bricks were made at the construction site and were as strong as modern day reinforced concrete. But even more amazing than the bricks was the mortar; made from a mixture of lime, clay and rice-flour. Today, in the parts of the wall made via this method, the bricks are eroding away but the mortar still remains.
Next up; why. Why did they build this huge wall? The wall was built for defensive purposes, to keep out various peoples over time; the nomadic Mongols, the Turks, the Shin-Nu, and possibly one really bad dog. The ancient Chinese considered the nomadic groups to the north to be barbarians; they were less cultured, couldn't write, had no technology, no agriculture, nothing that makes up the basics of civilization. For centuries the two groups would either trade or raid. The Chinese had tools, food, and art. The barbarians had excellent horses. Whenever trading ceased (either through policy or lack of interest) the raiding began and wall construction renewed.
Lastly: who. Who built the Great Wall of China? The wall began with the Zhou Dynasty (pronounced “Joe”, 1025-265 BCE). China consisted of several small states constantly warring with each other and the nomadic peoples, and the first sections of wall were meant to keep invaders out. Next, the Qin Dynasty (pronounced “Chin”, 221-206 BCE) expanded the wall. The first emperor united the warring states, and it was during this time the wall was called “Changcheng” or “the long wall”. The Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) greatly expanded the empire, built many roads and expanded the wall to its most westward point. They also built forts along the wall to serve as trading posts along the silk road. Several other dynasties built sections of the wall, but major building didn't resume until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming had tried and failed to conquer the Mongols, so they built a test wall in the Ordos desert. When the wall repelled an invasion, wall building was considered a necessary part of a successful defence, and the Great Wall began its era of greatest expansion. The Qing were the last dynasty, and faced a time of civil unrest. One of their generals sided with revolutionaries and opened the gates of Beijing to the invaders. With the enemies now permanently inside the kingdom, wall building ceased and the Great Wall fell into disrepair.
So how did the Great Wall become great? 17th century Jesuits visiting from Europe visited the wall and wrote home about it, coining the term “the Great Wall”. Voltaire and a host of others also wrote about the wall, expounding upon its impressiveness and probably contributing to many of the myths still around today. But it wasn't until the last century, and the growth of tourism, that the wall was internationally embraced. Even Mao said “you are not a real man unless you've got to the Great Wall”. After Maoist China, the government began to restore the Great Wall, embracing it as a symbol of China’s history and might.
For more information on the Great Wall, please check out these books.
See here for a map of the Great Wall of China, and all its many segments: