The Great Wall of China: One of Today's Seven Wonders of the World

On July 21, 1969, the first man set foot on the moon. Neil A. Armstrong, commander of the Columbia spacecraft, was the one chosen by history for such a high honor. As Armstrong gazed at the Earth while resting on the Moon, he remarked that the only work of man visible from that distance was the meandering line of the Great Wall.

Aerial View of a section of the Chinese Great Wall

The Great Wall or the Great Wall of China is the name we Westerners give to the defensive system erected to prevent barbarian invasions during the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese call it Wanliuhangcheng, which means "the wall of 10,000 li" (li is a measure equivalent to 500 m or 0.31 miles): 6,300 km on which 25,000 towers stand.

China's isolation is partly responsible for its difficulty in communicating with the outside world due to the rugged terrain.

China is surrounded by a series of natural barriers that are very difficult to access: to the north, the cold Gobi desert closes its borders, making communications with Mongolia and Siberia difficult; the high plateau of Tibet closes the passes to India to the west; the Pacific Ocean borders the south and east, and the southwest, which gives access to Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, is closed by large massifs such as the Szechwan massif. The only weak point of these natural barriers was in the north, on the borders of the Gobi Desert, in the great steppes of the Hiong-nu (Huns), terrible warriors who crossed the Yellow River, the Hoang-hoHo, to invade Chinese territory whenever they felt like it. The fear that the Hun hordes would awaken in the conscience of the peaceful Chinese was the embryo that would give rise to the construction of the Great Wall.

The First Fortifications.

In the 18th century B.C. the first Shang dynasty, characterized by its interest in culture and art, appears in the chronicles of North China.

The Great Wall of China stretches about 6,000 kilometers

However, around 1100 BC, this peace and quiet would be threatened by a tribe from the west of the Yellow River, the Chou, who would put an end to the reign of the Shang and install their own dynasty that would face the process of disintegration during the "period of the Warring Kingdoms". These kingdoms would fight fiercely against each other from 453 to 221 B.C., giving rise to the first "Warring States".

In 408 B.C. a wall was erected towards the sea in the territory of the Wei. To the north of their territory, the Wei built another wall to isolate themselves from the Chao and the Ts'in. The Ts'in (Qing) was a wealthy people thanks to their agriculture, which was supported by the waters of the Ming River and the Zheng Guo canal. The economic benefits of agriculture allowed them to build an army that was as feared as it was well organized. When they went into combat, the soldiers' pay depended on the number of severed heads they presented to their superiors. It is easy to understand that these warriors were more and more popular, as they left no one with a head wherever they went. 

After a period of continuous wars in 247 B.C., a king occupied the throne of the Ts'in and in a few years, he defeated all his enemies. Cheng proclaimed himself emperor with the name Ts'in She Huang-ti, which means "first emperor of the house Ts'in" (from the word Ts'in derives the name of China). One of the first government actions of the new emperor, founder of the 2000-generation empire, was to send his trusted man, General Mong T'ien, to inspect the northern border in search of solutions to neutralize the danger posed by the northern tribes. On his return, the general informed the emperor that the best way to control the territory was to reinforce the existing walls and build others until all the sections were joined together along a perimeter of 3000 km.

An Army of Masons. 

The emperor accepted the idea and quickly began the construction of the Great Wall in the hands of 300,000 workers who devoted themselves day and night to their mission (the figures vary, according to different authors, from 300,000 to one million workers). Soon the sections built in Shanxi, Hubei, and Gansu were joined with those built by the Chao and the Yen.

Construction of the Great Wall (221-212 B.C.)

The work was not easy, considering that most of the workforce had to be transferred against their will. If we add to that the extreme climate, very cold in winter and very hot in summer, we can understand that the Wall can be classified as pharaonic. The hard-living conditions caused the death of many workers who, according to historians, are buried inside the wall, as there are no remarkable cemeteries along with it. The pace of work was so hard that only nine years later General Mong T'ien's task was completed.

Legend has it that a divine of Emperor Ts'in foretold bad omens in the construction of the wall if 10,000 men were not buried in its foundations alive. The emperor, considering a useless loss of human lives such a sacrifice, searched among his men for one whose name included the character "10,000" and once found, he ordered him to be buried in the wall to appease the wrath of the gods. Between 215 and 206 B.C., the Great Wall was completed with the attached fortifications and citadels. The wall was on average 10 m high and its layout took advantage of the orography of the terrain, adapting it to the defensive needs. 

The material used was basically rammed earth covered with stone and brick to give it the necessary consistency. However, the wall does not have the same composition everywhere. Its easternmost sections are built with large square rocks, joined together cleanly and firmly with mortar as if in these places it had been worked under the watchful eye of the emperor Ts'in. It is a bulwark of great dimensions, tall, thick and strong. It has loopholes on both sides of the patrol path and bulky guard towers that at intervals are raised to a greater height. The width is 7 m, set to allow the passage of several riders or two carts.

The Great Wall dimensions

Every certain stretch a fort was erected and the separation between them was given by the range of the arrows so that the archers of each garrison could cover half of each stretch. In these fortifications lived permanently a guard corps that communicated by means of a system of banners during the day and of bonfires during the night. The efficiency of the communications was so remarkable that the Chinese army could mobilize immediately in a short space of time, taking advantage of the route that the Wall configured.

According to tradition, the Great Wall follows the wandering course traced by a favorite white horse of Emperor Ts'in, although this legend is unfounded. Emperor Ts'in She Huang-ti set a strong rhythm to all his activities so that in a short time he managed to unify the language, measures, and weights, timetables, and administration, thus configuring a powerful unitary state where the law of retaliation prevailed as the main system of justice. He did not hesitate to eliminate anyone who showed the slightest disagreement with his form of government, regardless of rank. With the same naturalness, he ordered the death penalty to a peon that even a general or a nobleman.

Emperor Ts'in turned out to be the promoter of an idea that survived for two millennia: that of a unified territory under the control of a sovereign who had to unite the religious prestige inherited from the ancient Chou royalty with the effective authority of a monarchy.

Ts'in She Huang-ti, the first Chinese emperor

The greatness of this emperor was revealed by chance in 1974 when a farmer discovered a terracotta soldier with his plow. The mausoleum of Emperor Ts'in was found 30 km away. The excavations, not yet completed, have revealed an army of more than 7000 men represented life-size, with great precision and perfectly formed. The most surprising thing is that each soldier has personalized features; the heights vary from 1 meter 70 to 1 meter 80; the horses are 2 m high. Upon the death of Emperor Ts'in She Huang-ti, the founder of the two thousand generations, his son, Eul-she Huang-ti, reigned, a despot like few others, who ended up committing suicide after a great insurrection. Kao-tsu, the general who led the revolt, proclaimed himself the new emperor, giving way to the Han dynasty that would last four centuries: from 260 BC to 220 AD.

The Han were not satisfied with reorganizing the ancient Chinese lands, but continued the conquest projects that Ts'in had undertaken, and tried to extend the limits of their territory. To the south the task proved easy and they effortlessly annexed the autonomous region of the Nanyue (backcountry of present-day Canton), to the northwest their efforts to establish themselves with Central Asia (Tarim Basin) collided head-on with the opposition of the nomadic Hiong-nu. 

Six Thousand Kilometers From East to West. 

One of the main tasks of the Han dynasty was to reinforce the Great Wall, increasing its length to 6000 km from Dunhuang in the west to the shores of the Bohai Sea in the east. The Great Wall begins in the nearby waters of the Bohai Gulf, in the place called "the old dragon's head". The city of Shanghaiguan keeps alive the legend of being "the gate between the sea and the mountain" because the eastern gate of the walled enclosure is "the first gate under heaven", just like the characters there.

The eastern endpoint of the Great Wall of China (at the Bohai Gulf)

Ten kilometers east of Shanghaiguan stands the Temple of the Faithful Woman or Mengjiangu, named after a woman who met the death of her husband during the construction of the Great Wall (212 BC). The legend is certain that when she told him the news, she shrieked and fell into the sea. It is said that the pathetic scream collapsed almost 1 km of the Wall. As opposed to "the first gate under heaven", the Jiayu fort is "the first impregnable pass under heaven"; between one and the other, there is almost 3000 km of distance and a wall of more than 6000.

The Hans gave the great wall the name of "mouth" of their country and considered themselves "the people inside the mouth" and the other nations "the people outside the mouth". When the Han condemned a criminal or a traitor to exile, it was said that he was "spat out of the mouth". In the time of Wu-ti (140 87 B.C.), one of the main kings of the Han dynasty, the combative northern Hiong-nu, i.e. the Huns, created a great confederation that aligned Mongols, Tungus, and Turks in order to invade China. The Great Wall proved impregnable. The Chinese army concentrated on the defensive line of the Wall and despite the efforts of the Huns and their allies, they were unable to cross it.

Emperor Wu-ti of China, perhaps the greatest Chinese emperor of all times

In 184 A.D. a great popular uprising broke out, that of the "yellow turbans", whose leaders were influenced by Taoist ideology. The Han dynasty, whose authority had been the only nominal one for several decades, collapsed and royal power passed to the military who ruled the regions, as well as to the large landowning families who supported them. Chinese unity was broken and the beautiful dream of Ts'in vanished for four centuries. The fall of the Han dynasty also meant the gradual fall of the Great Wall. In fact, after four centuries of disunity, the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) did not pay attention to the walls either, since the great Chinese military power of the time made them unnecessary. In the 18th century Genghis Khan, in command of the Mongol tribes, penetrated into China. Hangzhou fell into his hands in 1276, and the southern provinces were definitively united to the Yuan Empire. It was the first time that the entire Chinese territory was dominated by a non-Chinese population. The capital was moved to Kambaluc (present-day Beijing). Although the Mongols initially confiscated land for their own benefit and took discriminatory measures against the Chinese, their rule was not despotic in the long run. The Central Asian route, which had long been closed, was reopened and merchants benefited from the possibilities of trade.

The Memories of Marco Polo. 

During this period of peace, the papacy delegated missionaries to the central part of the country in search of the mystic preste. The Venetian Marco Polo (1254-1299) visited the court of the Great Khan and left an impressive account of his journey, the Book of the Marvels of the World. In 1307 John of Montecorvino was appointed archbishop of Kambaluc. Western ideas spread in China, while, in reverse, Chinese discoveries (gunpowder, printing, paper money) spread in the West.

Marco Polo's travels between 1271 and 1295

Expelling the Mongols was not an easy task and when it was achieved, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) decided to recover the Great Wall as a defensive bulwark of the Empire. Hong Wu, the first emperor of the dynasty, ordered the construction of a new wall respecting the original layout. Once completed, 1 million soldiers guarded the Empire's borders from its fortifications.

Perhaps, the naked truth of all lyricism about the Great Wall of the Ming is what Gary Jennings puts in the mouth of Marco Polo in his book The Journeyer: "The Great Wall, built with God knows how much waste of money, time, labor, sweat, blood and human lives, was never a more effective deterrent to invaders than a simple line of demarcation drawn on a map. The Great Wall can only aspire to be regarded as the most extraordinary monument to futility in the world." 

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