Building the Great Wall of China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Great Wall, a huge fortification constructed along the southern edge of the Mongolian plain, was designed to protect China from the northern barbarians.

Summary of Event

Although reliable records of early Chinese history are scarce, China had developed an agricultural society by 4000 b.c.e. Its northern neighbors, the Mongols, were nomads renowned for their fierceness. As small agricultural enclaves developed in China, it became necessary to defend them from their marauding neighbors to the north. The people living in these enclaves built substantial walls, within which were living accommodations for their residents and fields for cultivation. Shi Huangdi

The walls built to protect the agricultural villages ranged in height from 15 to 50 feet (5 to 15 meters) and had bases that ranged from 15 to 30 feet (5 to 9 meters). The top, which was a roadway, was wide enough to hold ten or twelve people abreast, usually about 12 feet (4 meters) in width.

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The walls had narrow openings through which arrows could be shot. Most of them had elevated watchtowers at frequent intervals and had narrow entrances, seldom more than two in number, protected by heavy gates that were closed at night. Most of the walls were made of earth pounded into solid masses. These earthen outcroppings were framed in wooden planks or bamboo and faced with granite, bricks, or timber, depending on what was readily available.

During the period from about 4000 until about 235 b.c.e., China was not unified politically. In 246 b.c.e., thirteen-year-old Zheng (Cheng) became ruler of the Qin (Ch’in) state, from which China derives its name. This state was strong militarily and had succeeded in repelling the northern barbarians. The state expanded and eventually achieved supremacy.

Zheng, using his strong military forces, was not adverse to employing wholesale slaughter to achieve his ends. Through his authoritarian rule, he succeeded in uniting China before he turned forty and, on becoming emperor, changed his name to Shi Huangdi (first emperor). He imposed a standardized writing system, a uniform system of weights and measures, and standards regarding the width of thoroughfares. He abolished feudal privileges and, in 213 b.c.e., ordered that most books and other remnants of past history be destroyed. In one of the most ruthless crackdowns in ancient history, he reportedly had scholars buried alive so that they could not preserve any of the traditions of the past. Zheng wanted Chinese history to begin with him.

In 221 b.c.e., the emperor began his most ambitious project, that of building the Great Wall of China. Most existing walls were preserved and were attached to other existing walls so that a great structure would stretch for at least 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) across northern China. Zheng expected this structure to be impregnable.

Scholar Arthur Waldron points out that the Great Wall that exists today was built in the sixteenth century, during the Ming Dynasty, and is not what the Qin emperor had constructed. The Qin were working with earth rather than stone, and it is believed that much of the first Great Wall may not have survived into the present day. Records regarding this first wall are minimal, and its actual path and length are difficult to determine. Waldron suggests that estimates of the numbers of workers and amount of labor required to build the wall might be exaggerations meant to demonstrate the ruthlessness of the first Qin emperor.

Great Wall of China, as it stands today.

(Corbis)

The Great Wall was called the Wall of Ten Thousand Li, the li being a measurement of about one-third of an English mile. This would make the Great Wall more than three thousand miles (about five thousand kilometers) long. Although this calculation was probably an exaggeration at the time of its building, later dynasties added to the structure, increasing its length significantly.

For the Great Wall to provide the protection its builders needed, watchtowers several stories high were placed strategically along the wall. These watchtowers, each within sight of at least two other watchtowers, were used as beacons to signal each other of imminent threats. It is estimated that more than ten thousand such beacons were linked to each other along the Great Wall. This signaling system was highly developed and efficient.

To bring his vision to fruition, the Qin emperor is believed to have mustered a workforce of about 800,000. A military force exceeding 300,000 was formed to oversee this ambitious and harrowing project. Workers were conscripted from among the nation’s criminals, troublemakers, cheats, and those in disfavor with the government. Soon, however, it was obvious that a larger workforce was required, and it became necessary to conscript teachers, scholars, musicians, artists, and others. Many of these workers were forcibly dragged from their homes and set to the strenuous and dangerous task of helping erect a huge wall over incredibly rugged terrain. Much of the wall was built along the edges of China’s steepest mountains.

Shi Huangdi was a ruthless and cruel dictator who let nothing stand in the way of his obsession with completing the wall, a project that was finally finished in 211 b.c.e. The human cost of building this huge structure was incalculable. Tens of thousands of laborers were killed in accidents or died from sheer exhaustion. Dead bodies were daily dumped unceremoniously into soil that was then compressed to form the sides of the Great Wall.

Shi Huangdi’s rule over a unified China lasted for just eleven years. One year after the Great Wall was completed, he died. His harsh, authoritarian government combined with the heavy taxation required to implement his civic projects, most notably the construction of the Great Wall and the construction of his massive tomb, caused considerable unrest among the citizenry, leading eventually to rebellion. In 206 b.c.e., the Qin Dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the Han Dynasty, which ruled China from 206 b.c.e. until 220 c.e.

Significance

The construction of the Great Wall of China was, beyond all else, an act of unification. Protective walls existed in China for nearly four millennia before Shi Huangdi grasped power and decreed that all the existing walls be joined into one great wall. The wall would extend from the Liaodong Peninsula in the east to Lintao, some 1,500 miles (2,400 hundred kilometers) to the west. By this act, Shi Huangdi created a protective barrier for the provinces that he had unified as the Qin Dynasty. As a protective barrier, the Great Wall was in its time among the most efficient structures ever conceived of and constructed. The unification taking place at this time extended to demands that the language and writing systems be standardized and that a uniform system of weights and measures be adopted. In many respects, the Qin Dynasty marked the beginning of modern-day China.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jan, Michel. The Great Wall of China. New York: Abbeville Press, 2001. Ably translated from French by Josephine Bacon. Rich with photographs by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. Informative and lucid text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeese, Tim. The Great Wall of China. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1997. Aimed at a young adult audience. Clear and direct. Illustrations, particularly its maps, are useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poirier, Rene. Engineering Wonders of the World: The Stories Behind the Greatest Engineering Feats in History. New York: Random House, 1993. Offers an interesting and useful historical perspective. Shows the Great Wall as the most monumental engineering undertaking ever recorded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Daniel. The Great Wall of China. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001. Attractively presented. Contains 149 duotone photographs, texts by Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka, and Luo Zhewen’s informative essay, “The Great Wall in History.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall: From History to Myth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Waldron approaches the traditional stories about the Great Wall with skepticism, pointing out that the current Great Wall was built at a later time and that many of the stories may be later inventions.
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