Great Wall of China Is Built Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

China’s Great Wall is a massive defensive structure built during the Ming Dynasty to defend the capital at Beijing and to keep Mongols and other invaders from attacking. Ironically, internal corruption, along with the expense of building and maintaining the wall, would contribute significantly to the dynasty’s decline.

Summary of Event

China’s strategic history has always been dominated by the threat of invasion by nomadic tribes who occupied the vast territory north of China. These tensions were the result of a clash of civilizations that brought a highly aggressive, nomadic warrior culture into conflict with a sophisticated and very often extremely “soft,” sedentary Chinese state. The vast material wealth generated by the Chinese economy was the constant target of thousands of nomadic warriors from all over Central Asia. Great Wall (China) Hongwu Li Dongyang Weng Wanda

For centuries, Chinese strategists debated how best to deal with this military threat. Some in the defense establishment believed that China should engage the opposition any time the opportunity presented itself. This theory proved to be very risky, and more often than not the nomadic warriors would inflict severe casualties on the Chinese military. Other strategists believed China’s best interests lay in the implementation of a defensive plan based on the construction of walled fortifications that could be used as protective barriers against invasion. Over time, the majority of China’s military and civilian leadership gravitated toward the defensive position. Finally, some Chinese diplomats developed a third alternative, urging a policy of peaceful coexistence and accommodation. This theory was based on the belief that China’s material wealth could be used to pacify the nomads and thus reduce the threat of invasion. In fact, all three strategic theories would be used in Chinese-Mongolian relations.

The Mongols Mongol Empire were extremely aggressive warrior hunters who trained their fighters from a very early age in the techniques of mobile warfare. Between 1206 and 1234, Mongolian armies conquered most of northern China. Four decades later, they were in control of the southern part of the empire as well. The Mongols remained in control of China until 1368, when Zhu Yuanzhang, a Chinese outlaw turned military leader, defeated the Mongol forces and established the Ming Dynasty Ming Dynasty (1368-1644);establishment of , reigning as Hongwu.

Hongwu was unable to destroy the Mongolian military machine completely; they retreated back into Mongolia and Central Asia. Out of reach of China’s forces, they were able to regroup, and eventually, they became strong enough to launch raids against Chinese overland trade routes in Central Asia. These attacks posed a great danger to both the Chinese economy and its security.

Ming military philosophy Philosophy;of Chinese military[Chinese] was also driven by the belief that the Mongols were barbarians and that they were incapable of civilized, sophisticated, diplomatic discourse. Most Ming military philosophers accepted the reality that the only way to deal safely with the Mongols was through the correct application of force. In an ideal world, this would mean the development of a first strike capability that would cause vast devastation deep within the Mongolian homeland. The passion for these aggressive preemptive strikes was always tempered with the tactical reality that the deeper an army moved into the enemy’s territory, the more likely it was to be counterattacked by opponent’s forces. In particular, the Mongolian propensity for retreat and counterattack always haunted Ming military commanders. Again and again throughout the history of the Ming Dynasty, commanders limited their scope of maneuvers so as to take advantage of the safety of walled fortifications.

Chinese military philosophers had to contend with two additional problems. The first focused on the challenges of Chinese geography. All military commanders had to realize that the sheer vastness of the territory they had to defend left them vulnerable to Mongol attacks. This challenge was linked to the second problem, the absence of an effective Chinese cavalry. China’s traditional method of warfare concentrated on large formations of infantry. These tactics were extremely vulnerable to the Blitzkrieg-like tactics of the Mongols. Warriors using highly accurate bows could devastate a large Chinese force in only a few hours.

To deal with these negative realities, proponents of an active offense, such as Li Dongyang, created a five-part model. It began with the construction of solid defensive walls that would protect Ming territory against a sudden attack by the Mongols. Thus began the structure that would eventually become known as the Great Wall of China. Li Dongyang also called for the creation of an extensive intelligence network that would keep track of the movements of Mongol forces that could cause problems. The government would also have to supply the forces stationed along the defensive walls with all the military supplies and rations needed to guard the empire’s northern border. Military;China

Li Dongyang’s plan called for increasing the quality of military training received by the troops. The most important aspect of this training was to introduce the forces to the highly maneuverable, lightning-quick tactics of the Mongols. Finally, Li Dongyang also called for the development of a mobile set of “shock troops” who would in turn use hit-and-run tactics against the Mongolian forces. These troops would be stationed along the defensive walls and be moved to areas where the intelligence had found that the Mongols would be most vulnerable.

This philosophy of offense and active defense was most successful during Li Dongyang’s lifetime, while the Ming Empire was at its peak. Fifteenth century China was the most powerful nation on earth. The early Ming emperors had introduced important bureaucratic reforms that controlled official corruption and increased the efficiency of all the departments of government. There were also extensive social reforms that increased the size of the peasant class, reduced forced labor, and opened vast new territories to agricultural production. The Ming Empire during this period possessed both the domestic tranquillity and the economic strength that traditional Chinese military philosophers said was needed for successful military campaigns. The empire was able to absorb the costs of the construction of great walled fortifications, along with the ability to create, supply, and maintain an effective fighting force. Ming generals, using walled fortifications as their base of operations, were able to carry out successful military strikes against a number of Mongolian tribes.

The most famous of these defensive structures is the Great Wall of China, which stretches from Chinese Turkestan in the west to Manchuria and the northern Korean Peninsula in the east. This massive structure traverses a distance of 4,160 miles (6,700 kilometers) and is the largest defensive barrier in the history of humankind. Originally the wall connected a series of nine major fortifications. In the west, it began by protecting the Kansu Corridor, a narrow caravan route that connected China and Central Asia. In the east, its primary goal was to defend the Chinese government at Beijing. It continued past the capital to Manchuria and Korea both as a fortification against nomadic warriors and to control the strategic avenues leading to the East China Sea.

Architecturally, the average height of the structure is nearly 33 feet (10 meters), and its average width is more than 16 feet (5 meters). In a few very strategic locations, such as around the capital, the width of the wall is nearly 33 feet. The major military structures are towers, with between five and eight towers per kilometer. Some of the towers were used for defense against Mongol attack, while the others were part of an early warning system in which beacons (fire at night and smoke during the day) were activated to direct troop movement along the pathways on the top of the Great Wall. The Ming Dynasty had to employ large numbers of highly skilled masons and developed an extensive network of stone quarries, brick manufacturers, and roads, first to build and then to repair this massive structure. The financial impact of the construction of the Great Wall was significant and contributed to the dynasty’s demise.

By the sixteenth century, the Ming Dynasty was in a state of decline. Years of material excess had corrupted the bureaucracy, and there were governmental failures across the empire. Public works projects such as dams, irrigation systems, canals, and roads fell into a state of disrepair. The social consequence of these failures was a devastating famine, which gave rise to peasant rebellions.

This endemic economic and social collapse caused the Ming to drastically alter their military planning. Instead of using walled fortifications as the base of offensive operations, the Ming now regarded them as a part of a new diplomatic tactic that emphasized peaceful coexistence and accommodation. The most notable proponent of this approach was Weng Wanda (1498-1552). He believed the Ming Dynasty had lost its ability to engage the Mongols in successful military campaigns. He was convinced that the only recourse the empire now had was to use tribute payments and trade to buy time, until the government could once again field an army strong enough to defeat the Mongols.

The Ming military establishment quickly challenged this attempt at containment. Many strategists believed the policy of accommodation was extremely dangerous. Mongolian access to Chinese commercial establishments would allow them to gain important intelligence concerning Ming economic, political, and social problems. Military leaders were also concerned that an extensive trade policy would allow the Mongols to obtain materials that could be used against the Ming Empire in future military encounters.

Eventually the Ming military rejected this attempt at accommodation and instead embraced the concept of a static defense. The great walled fortifications that had been constructed as part of an offensive strategy were now linked into one massive defensive barrier, today known as the Great Wall of China, and the empire retreated into another period of isolation.


The failure of the Ming Dynasty to strengthen its military eventually allowed another nomadic people, the Manchus, to invade China. This was just another example in Chinese history of a strong, vibrant culture subduing a dynasty in decline, whose magnificent wall of static defense became a symbol of a stagnant culture. In 1645, Manchu forces captured Beijing and began a two-decade-long war to subdue the rest of the empire.

Once in power, the Manchu, or Qing, Dynasty adopted a defensive strategy similar to that of the Ming. This “fortress China” mentality would be no match for the new, powerful European technology; eventually China would become the puppet of the industrialized West. China would remain in this colonial state until the twentieth century, when Communist leader Mao Zedong once again made a commitment to adopt an offensive strategy and drove all foreign influence from the mainland.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An excellent one-volume history of China.
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    xlink:type="simple">Graff, David, and Robin Higham. A Military History of China. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. The best one-volume Chinese military history available today.
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    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Alastair. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A valuable and interesting history of Chinese military thought.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lindsay, William. The Great Wall. London: Hi Marketing Press, 1999. An interesting account of one man’s journey along the entire length of the Great Wall. The book contains great photographs along with a full historical overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sawyer, Ralph. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1993. Contains all the foundational works of Chinese military philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall: From History to Myth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. One of the best one-volume accounts of the history of the Great Wall of China.

Feb. 11, 1457: Restoration of Zhengtong

1465-1487: Reign of Xianzong

1488-1505: Reign of Xiaozong

16th cent.: China’s Population Boom

16th cent.: Rise of the Shenshi

1505-1521: Reign of Zhengde and Liu Jin

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