The Great Wall of China: In Need of a Great Clarification

With talks of the American Border wall ebbing and flowing through the popular consciousness, I’d like clear the name of the another border wall that had been dragged through the mud in the process.

The Great Wall of China is often touted to be among the new seven wonders. As a result, factoids are often thrown around by Pop science websites and pedantic acquaintances. These include the following. “The Great Wall of China is visible from Orbit”, “The Great Wall of China was actually built in the 16th Century”, “The building of the Great Wall led to the fall of Rome”, and “The Wall failed to keep the Mongols and Manchus out of China.” Half-truths and hogwash indeed they are.

A Quick Background on Chinese Wall Building

The Chinese have been building walls since prehistoric times. At first, walls were just rammed earth mounds, but during the Zhou era, larger cities demanded better protection, and a combination of reinforcing stones/bricks and wooden scaffolding build on top of the rammed earthen mounds created the walls that were now familiarly Chinese. Wall construction throughout the ages remained very similar. To the Chinese, there was no need to improve the technology of fortifications as their strongest foes, the nomadic tribes of the north, lacked artillery.

The Xian City wall, a prime example of a Ming era City Wall. Note the excellent platform for which to conduct anti-siege operations, and in peacetime, as a highway for civilians and military alike.

Fortifications were designed with defense and logistics in mind, as entire cities were walled. These fortresses were primarily built as rammed earth walls sometimes encased in brick or stone , mortared with a mixture of lime, glutinous rice, and tung oil, creating a strong water-proof seal. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see walls wider than they were tall. The wide platforms that resulted were excellent for staging troops or transport during peacetime. Battlements lined these walls to protect archers, cannoneers, and defenders, while towers were set in regular intervals to serve as command centers and sentries. The rammed earth construction made many of these walls highly resistant to artillery and incendiary attacks, unlike their European counterparts, which were largely hollow and served as buildings instead. Even when European armies invaded in the 19th century and the Japanese in WWII, their fortifications stood strong in the face of howitzers and automatic guns. The densely packed earth proved useful in absorbing the shock of cannon fire, even if the outer layer of brick or stone fell away(however, this leaves the wall vulnerable to water erosion).

With manpower to spare, the Chinese were able to undertake massive wall building operations much more extensive than defenses any other country could afford. Few walls were wider and longer.

Origins of the Great Wall

Contrary to popular belief, the Great wall was never a single building project. Even in its conception, the wall was a patch of sorts, as Qin Shihuang Di, the first emperor, ordered the many northern border walls of the recently conquered states to be connected. Til this day, the decision mares his image in the collective memory of China, as stories survive of the supposed atrocities that resulted. Thousands were said to have died building the walls; however, given the rammed earth construction of the wall, throwing in the bodies of dead laborers would have been very counter productive.  Sand, dirt, clay, and mud would have been mixed and tamped down alongside layered organic plant material, presumably for the same reason adobe bricks contain straw. The plant material reinforces the earth, much like re-bar in concrete.

rammed earth great wall
A fairly accurate representation of the early wall and its construction. The layers of earth and vegetation is shown clearly.

The concept of the Great Wall was born.

The Great Wall and the Huns

It is often thrown around that the building of the Great Wall led to the fall of Rome. The story usually goes like this: The Chinese were sick and tired of the Huns, so they build the Great Wall which drove the Huns west towards Rome. While the Great Wall remained a defensive fortification during the Han dynasty, it was certainly not the direct cause for the fall of Rome. Indeed the Wall was constructed to defend China from the Xiongnu(匈奴), a powerful tribal confederacy of steppe nomads, but the Xiongnu remained a border threat even after the Great Wall was built, with the succeeding Han emperors even sending out envoys west in hopes of finding allies, in the process learning about its contemporaries, the Parthians, Bactrians, and Indians.

Who were the Xiongnu

The Xiongnu were posited to have been the precursors of the Huns, a view largely accepted out of convenience rather than from solid evidence. However, the lack of information means that historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists can only extrapolate from tentative linguistic theories on Hunnish and Xiongnu languages . Scholars are not yet sure if the Xiongnu were a Turkic or Iranian speaking people, and the possibility that they were a mix of both is also likely, given the possible multi-ethnic nature of the confederacy. Intriguingly, Xiongnu art did share a resemblance with that of the Scythians of Europe. While little cultural and archaeological evidence supports a connection between the Huns and Xiongnu, the nature of the Xiongnu confederation leaves room for the possibility that the Huns might have been a people once under the Xiongnu.

Emperor Wu, Breaker of Rome?

While the Great Wall can’t take any credit for the eventual Hunnic invasion, another event possibly can. The Han Emperor Wu, Han Wudi, likely growing tired of the nomadic invasions, launched an offensive. Through large-scale adoption of cavalry over the traditional Chinese chariot, Wudi created an army flexible enough to meet the challenge. To defeat the Xiongnu, he had to be like them. After capturing strategic territory, opening up the Silk road, and a fascinating episode of fighting Greeks for so-called “heavenly horses”(something so interesting it probably deserves a series of posts), Han Wudi effectively shattered the Xiongnu confederation and drove them Northwest. The geo-political fallout of this campaign would’ve manifested in a few ways. The pushing of the Xiongnu west could have caused a domino effect, causing the Xiongnu themselves to exert pressure on other tribes, eventually leading the Huns to “spill” into Europe. The more popular notion that the Xiongnu themselves migrated into Europe as a result is also possible. But in either case, the Great Wall had little direct influence over the events.

Neglect, a Recurring Motif in Chinese History

The Great Wall fell in and out of relevance in Chinese history as the Chinese border fluctuated. By the end of the Han dynasty, the walls had increasingly become defensive, and as China suffered its own 3rd Century Crisis(more commonly known as the Three Kingdoms), the Wall fell out of relevance entirely. After that, only passing mentions of repairs survive.

When China finally pulled itself together under the Sui, the Gokturk threat to the north forced them to rebuild the wall, only for the Turks to ride west in an attempt to bypass the wall entirely. The Sui did manage to plug the hole, but the empire itself was over stretched financially by its many wars and imploded. It’s successor, the Tang, opted for a far more aggressive policy on its northern border. While the wall was repaired to a degree, Chinese border policy no longer revolved around the wall, for now.

Just When I Needed You Most…

During the Northern Song Dynasty, the Great Wall became a key component of Northern Border defenses, as a renewed Nomadic threat emerged as the Khitan, thought by some to be the descendants of the Xiongnu. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, the Khitan had formed the Sinicized kingdom of Liao, and styled themselves as emperors. The two superpowers remained hostile throughout their mutual existence, and a gap, known as The Great Wall Gap, served as a point of contention between them, with the Song building a series of fortresses in order to secure it.

A Shattered China

In an odd turn of fate, the Jurchens of Manchuria, at the time an ally of the Song, destroyed the Liao and drove them west, and proceeded to sack the Song Capital of Kaifeng, driving the Song south of the Yangtze. The Song had now exchanged the Great Wall for the Yangtze, and the entirety of Northern China now lay in the hands of barbarians. While these Northern states did maintain parts of the wall, it proved to be only a minor obstacle to the Mongols, who rode around it and proceeded to topple one state after another. By the time of the voyages of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, little of the Great Wall remained to make an impression.

The Ming Wall

At the end of the 14th century, the Ming dynasty succeeded Mongols, and once again, the Northern Border became a concern. The first Ming emperor, the Hongwu Emperor, had set up a series of fortresses delineating an inner line of defense in conjunction with an active military presence providing an outer line of defense. The Ming court would constantly debate about the cost of maintaining the Northern border, with factions preferring the building of another Great Wall and others supporting an active military presence. The Hongwu Emperor’s successor, the Yongle Emperor of Chinese Treasure Fleet fame, started the construction of Ming Wall.

The Ming Wall incorporated more stone and brick than before, and later, were properly mortared. However, history mirrors itself. What started as regional sections of wall became incorporated into longer sections when the Jurchen and Mongol threat intensified. The defeat of Ming forces in the Tumu Crisis(1449), which before had held up against the nomadic threats, shocked the Ming and emboldened the Mongols, causing the Ming strategy to turn defensive, hastening the wall project.

General Qi Jiguang and the Great Wall

Around 1550AD, the section of wall near Beijing, now the capital, had come under threat of the Tumed Mongols, now under a new Khan. The Altan Khan, as he was called, had broken through the wall and sacked Beijing. The General, Qi Jiguang, having had success fending off Pirate invasions of the Southern coast, was now called to defend the Northern Border.

Qi Jiguang would become one of the most competent of Chinese Generals, and devised a system of border defense that incorporated an active military presence with the Great Wall. He first started off with another building project, refortifying the Wall and building a series of more than a 1000 watchtowers. Unlike pervious towers, these watch towers were hollow, able to garrison the troops necessary to defend the wall. Troops were also stationed beyond the wall, trained in special tactics by the general which incorporated the use of war wagons alongside heavy artillery. In some way, these moveable forts were like mobile extensions of the Great Wall itself. For once in Ming History, they seemed to have regained control of their Northern Border.

The Rise of the Qing and Salvaging the Great Wall’s Reputation

During the late Ming, as the world throbbed under the effect of the little ice age, rebels ran riot within the empire and the Manchu, descended from the earlier Jurchens, grew powerful under the legendary Nurhaci. Halted by the Liaodong Wall, the Manchus were pinned in the Liaoning region. They broke through the Liaodong wall, only to be blocked by a series of fortresses and a section of the Great Wall along the Shanhai Pass, which ran into the sea. The Manchus seemed to be backed into a corner, and the Ming, under the command of the very capable Yuan Chonghuan, beat back the Manchus after a series of battles and sieges. Nurhaci himself perished in the fighting after he was hit by cannon fire during the Battle of Ningyuan. All seemed well for the Ming until Huang Taiji, the successor of Nurhaci, broke through a section of the Wall, but were eventually beaten back after nearly reaching Beijing. The Ming emperor stupidly recalled Yuan Chonghuan under suspicion of treason, and had him executed. The Manchus, however, had come to realized that the section of wall running along the Shanhai pass was impenetrable, and military operations were suspended.

The following series of events are often misrepresented and poorly understood by academics and history buffs alike, largely due to a vilification of a certain historical character(oddly, by the history buffs) or a complete misunderstanding of the events themselves(sadly by many academics who only have a cursory understanding of Asian history, but fancy themselves otherwise).

The Northern border remained quiet as the Ming withdrew forces to deal with an internal uprising. The uprising, lead by Li Zicheng, was the last straw for the Ming, as armies and garrisons within the empire and along the Wall surrendered. As Li Zicheng set up the Shun dynasty, a few pockets of resistance held on in the South, and at the Shanhai pass, Wu Sangui, a veteran of the border wars, held out as the last serious military threat in the North. With about 40,000 men, Wu’s garrison forces defeated the Shun army on 2 occasions, but Wu knew that his forces were badly outnumbered. Seeing no other options, as his loyalties to the Ming were now meaningless, and cornered by Shun armies, Wu Sangui decided to surrender to the Manchus. It is understandable why Wu Sangui made the decision, but the nature of the agreement was decidedly against his favor. Pinned between the Shun army and the Great Wall with the Qing Army waiting behind, Wu had little leverage, having at first parlayed with the Qing, surrendering the Northern China in return for helping defeat the rebels and restoring the Ming in the South, which the Qing refused. However, having been handed a few defeats by the Shun, Wu Sangui capitulated to the Qing, opening the Shanhai Pass. This act would forever paint Wu Sangui as the Benedict Arnold of Chinese history, and the Great Wall, would once again fade out of history.

The Last Stand of the Great Wall

1911 marked a new chapter in Chinese history as thousands of years of Imperial Chinese history came to an end and Sun Yatsen established the Republic of China. The Great Wall, while mildly involved in the Boxer rebellion, had lost its military significance, but Sun Yatsen promoted the Wall as a symbol of Chinese nationalism. According to his narrative, the Wall had been a bastion which protected the Chinese people throughout history. Little did he know, the Great Wall military career was not yet finished.

A rather evocative image of the defense of the Great Wall

During the Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese staged an incident(not unlike what the Nazi’s did to Poland) and proceeded to attack Northern China. After seizing most of Inner Mongolia, the Japanese pushed back the remnants of the 50 thousand strong North-eastern army. Out numbered by 2 to 1, and lacking in guns and supplies, the Chinese fell back onto the Great Wall, where they were slowly over-run. As ammunition ran out, the Chinese soldiers famously wielded 2 handed broadswords in an attempted last stand. Some units managed to used the Wall itself to their advantage, ferrying soldiers across the Wall itself and managed to hold out for a remaining 3 days. While a defeat for the Chinese, the Great Wall, possibly for the last time, had protected China from invaders.

Symbolism and the Great Wall

Misunderstandings and Politics

Hopefully, if you read all that, you’d understand that the Great Wall, even in its inception, was never a single building project. The original wall, built under the orders of Qin Shi Huangdi, was already patched together from past wall projects. While some parts of the original wall had been maintained over the years, the Great Wall often photographed and visited by tourists from around the world was built during Ming dynasty. This fact, however, has caused some writers to go out of their way to suggest that the Great Wall was built in the 16th century, citing the lack of mention from Marco Polo(which I’ve explained earlier). To quote the YT channel, “Knowing Better”, “It’s what stupid people tell other people to sound smart”.

A wonderful map of the history of the Great Wall. The patterns become clear as certain sections of the wall are built according to the contemporary border, but several sections overlap each other through time, suggesting that the Chinese either built over/renovated the sections of the Great Wall, or were conscious of its original location and build a wall to replace it.

Something else that has proven to be frustrating it an insistence of the poorly informed to give their own opinion on the usefulness of the Great Wall, when in reality, one can’t merely judge the functionality of the Great Wall without over-generalizing 2,000 years of history and ignoring its ever-changing context throughout its existence. I often hear academics scoff at the effectiveness of the Great Wall by citing incidences when it failed, most often during the Mongol Invasion or the surrendering of Wu Sangui at the Shanhai Pass; however, this would mean ignoring the context in which each incident happened and also ignoring the giant road-bump that the Great Wall has served as over the years. But as academics, they should know better. If they want to make a statement on the Great Wall, they should either cite the era and exact location they intend to elaborate on or say nothing at all.

I don’t care where you fall on politics or how you feel about your ego, but stop bastardizing the history of the Great Wall for your purposes, or at the very least, figure out the damn context. It is stupid to compare the usefulness of a wall intended to corral mounted nomadic raiders to a border wall in the era of air travel. Nor are successful invasions of China indicative of the uselessness of not just the Great Wall, but all walls. Taking history out of context and simplifying history for a joke or your political agenda while masquerading as public education and pop history is academic dishonesty of the worst sort. Whatever baggage you have, just leave this wall alone!

One thought on “The Great Wall of China: In Need of a Great Clarification

  1. Thank you for clearing up a confusing bunch of “history” for someone who truly enjoys looking at all the different walls throughout the ages of the wall as a whole. I could clearly see very different walls (thick but low; thin but high; and similar but different building styles). The true history is so much more interesting than the simplified or political agendas. You should write a book of its true history. Going deeper into its history.


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