The Great Wall of China is an iconic sight, famous around the world. It has stood for centuries, and attracts thousands of visitors every year. But what’s the story behind it? Why was it built in the first place?
It’s commonly said that the Great Wall of China is over 2,000 years old, but that isn’t strictly true. Most of the current structure dates from around 500 years ago, but the history of the Wall can be traced back further. The earliest construction was during the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) and the Warring States period (475-221 BC). At that time, China wasn’t yet united as one country, but instead was split between smaller states. Each of them built their own border walls to protect their regions.
Imperial China and the ‘Great Wall’
The Qin dynasty were the first to unite the land that now makes up China, by defeating the other warring states to create their Empire. They had started out as a fringe state in the west, before expanding in all directions. In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang became the First Emperor of China. He ordered that the existing frontier walls be united together, into one ‘long wall’ – now translated as ‘Great Wall’ of China. The Wall ran along the northern border of China, to protect them from invaders. To the east was the sea, and to the west was only desert. It’s commonly said that the Wall was to protect China from the Mongols, but this is not true, as they came centuries later. To the north, in what is now Mongolia, lay several fierce nomadic tribes, the most feared of which were the Xiongnu, ancestors of the Huns.
The Wall that stood then was very different to the one we see today. There were no stone fortifications and watchtowers. Instead, it was just rammed earth, constructed by soldiers, peasants, and some prisoners. The Qin dynasty united the sections built by the most northern states, the Qin, Zhao, and Yan, creating a wall around 5,000km long.
The Silk Road
After the Qin dynasty fell in 207 BC, then came the Han dynasty, who would rule China until 220 AD. The first of them, Emperor Gauzou, ordered the strengthening of the Great Wall, to provide more protection from enemies in Mongolia and Manchuria, to the north. He also made diplomatic marriages between Chinese princesses and Xiongnu chiefs. However, war continued with these tribes on and off throughout the dynasty’s reign.
Emperor Han Wudi was the one who opened up the Silk Road, to allow the export of silk into the West, and so he ordered that the Great Wall be extended, to protect the route from the Xiongnu. The Silk Road was of huge importance for China, and also allowed them to import goods from Central Asia and Europe, as well as export other items, besides silk. The Silk Road goes through the Gansu Corridor and towards Xinjiang. So, the Emperor extended the Great Wall to the Yumen Pass, and added the Dunhuang section. These sections were largely made of sand and plants, from the desert. This was also the longest the Wall ever was, totalling 10,000km from the Korean peninsula to Xinjiang!
The Ming Dynasty
After the Han dynasty fell, the subsequent Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties continued to rebuild and modify the Wall. However, after they fell, northern China was ruled by ‘conquest’ dynasties, from the neighbouring regions. It was then the Ming dynasty who ousted the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, and went on to rule from 1368-1644. This was a golden era for China – the Ming also built the Forbidden City! But now that China was back in the hands of the Chinese, they restored the Wall, to protect them from the Mongolians and Manchurians. They were responsible for most of what we see today, including the most famous sections around Beijing. The Great Wall was transformed from humble earthen ramparts, to the stone fortifications we are familiar with now.
The Great Wall was built by soldiers, but also by forced labourers, continuously for 3 centuries. Bricks and stones would have been transported along human chains, with only the help of some primitive technologies. It is still somewhat of a mystery how they managed it, and many likely died in the process – although it is a myth that bodies were interred in the Wall! Along the Wall, there are fortresses at important passes, flanking towers every 500m to shoot arrows from, and watchtowers and beacon towers, where they would light fires to signal enemy attacks. The Ming Dynasty Wall extends for around 8,851km, from Jiayuguan on the Silk Road, to Shanhaiguan on the east coast.
Restoration and Present Times
After almost 300 years of rule, the Ming dynasty were toppled in 1644 by the Qing dynasty, invading rulers from Manchuria. Since the Great Wall had been built to keep them out of China, the Qing dynasty abandoned its construction. Their territory actually covered Mongolia and Manchuria, as well as China. Emperor Kangxi (the second Qing emperor) said that the enmity with the north was now over, so it was unnecessary to spend so much money and manpower building the Wall. It was left untouched for the next 300 years.
China’s imperial history ended in 1911, as the last Qing emperor was overthrown and the Republic of China was formed. The Wall began to be viewed as a symbol of Chinese culture and patriotism. After the ROC fell (but still exists in Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China began to restore sections of the Great Wall in the 1950s, to open it up for tourism. The Badaling section was the first to be reopened, in 1957, and the work has continued over the years. The Wall is so huge though, that the majority of it is still wild and unrestored. Large sections have been lost over the years, both from natural erosion and human damage.
However, the restoration led to it becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Some of the work has been criticised, for poor restoration methods, but the Chinese government continue to make efforts to preserve the Great Wall. Individuals are encouraged to not litter or graffiti, and to be careful to avoid damaging it further, so that future generations may also be able to enjoy this remarkable piece of history!
Where to go
The Great Wall of China is so massive, that there’s plenty of options for visiting. But how to know which sections to visit? It depends on what sort of experience you’re looking for. Some sections are far closer to Beijing, and far better maintained, but these naturally attract the bigger crowds. If you want some more peace and quiet, you might have to travel further from the capital. Many sections aren’t well preserved though, so can be slightly dangerous. Some of these are still ok to visit, while others are not recommended.
Climbing up the Wall – which is between 5-8m tall – is the toughest part, but once you’re on top, large stretches are fairly level, undulating up and down with the landscape. These are broken up by flights of stairs, which range is size, steepness, and quality. It’s not just a wall either though, as there are watchtowers and fortresses along the length of it.
The Badaling section is by far the most crowded area, especially for domestic tourists. Mutianyu is also busy, but is one of the best preserved sections, and also has a cable car, and a toboggan slide! Both of these, and the Juyongguan section, closest to Beijing, are wheelchair accessible. For a couple of hours hiking on a half-restored section, further away from the crowds, the Simatai and Jinshanling sections are a great option, and also have cable cars. Or, if you’re confident with braving the wilder sections, take on the challenge of Jiankou or Gubeikou. Day tours are the most popular way to go, but you could also camp overnight on the Wall, to tackle even longer stretches of hiking along it. Just make sure to research safety if you’re heading to more remote areas!
Be aware that some sections of the wall are ‘officially’ open to the public, while others are technically ‘forbidden’. People can and do visit these others sections, but are responsible for their own safety. Make sure to research the risks in these more dangerous and remote areas.
Entry price: varies for each ‘official’ section of the wall, ranging from 40-65 yuan. Additional costs apply for cable cars and the toboggan.
Opening hours: again, times vary according to season, and for different sections of the wall. Typically, they range from opening at 6.30-7.30am, and closing around 18.00-19.00pm. Check online to be sure!
How to get there:
A popular option for visiting the Great Wall of China, is to do it as a day trip from Beijing, which will take 2-3 hours to get there, depending on which section you’re going to. This takes care of your transport, some trips also include a meal, and you’ll get to learn more about the Wall from your guide on the way there. I would recommend the company I used, Tour-Beijing (not sponsored), as a good choice, especially as there were no shopping stops at any point! There is public transport available to some sections, but be aware that often the stops are only in Chinese, and the driver may only speak Chinese. Or, you can arrange your own private transport, by renting a driver for the day.
Have you visited the Great Wall of China? Leave a comment about your experiences!