The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world, and it took longer to complete than any construction project in history. Aside from its superlatives on architectural lists, the Great Wall serves as a physical representation of the unification of China, a nation with a history as complicated as its wall is long.
The original seven wonders of the world were named by Philo of Byzantium, an ancient Greek engineer, who compiled a list of what he believed to be the best the world had to offer. When he penned this list in 225 BCE, one of the seven wonders of the modern world was soon to break ground. Since its formal construction began in 220 BCE, the Great Wall of China has shaped the landscape of Asia with an iconic 13,000 miles of disjointed segments. It created a boundary between north and south while reshaping the history of the Eastern world with stone, bricks, and mud.
Why Was the Great Wall of China Built?
Long before dirt was packed and stones were laid for the world’s longest human-made structure in China, walls have been staples of numerous civilizations throughout history – and to the present day. Whether in Mesopotamia or Babylon, through Berlin or along the southern United States border, the idea and physical structures themselves have established boundaries designed to keep something in and something out. The ‘why’ behind the construction of an impassable border reveals truths about a nation’s military, political, cultural, and social goals.
The walls that were in place in China prior to the Qin dynasty served the purpose of defending smaller communities from raids and invasions by neighbors and nomads. For over 400 years, the Great Wall would protect the unified China from the enemies to the north. Westward expansion brought new opportunities for China to engage in international trade with Europe, and the Great Wall ensured travelers and merchants that they too would be safe from looting. Now, it is a magnet for international tourism. Over the centuries, the Great Wall’s importance has changed with the mercurial state of the world, both closing off China from some things and opening it up to others.
Who Built the Great Wall of China?
The Great Wall project was as much tactical as it was symbolic. When the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, seized power from provinces all around East Asia for the Chi kingdom, he sought to unify his empire while preventing a resurgence of feudal lords. Per the demands of this tyrannical emperor, it is estimated that 300,000 soldiers and convicts were forcibly mobilized to embark on the monumental task's first phase. In total, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands more people built the wall over the 2,000 years it took to complete.
Portrait of Emperor Qin Shi Huang by an unknown artist. (Source: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The scale of the project meant that as new sections of the Wall were being built, others needed to be restored. Construction ebbed and flowed according to an emperor’s particular agenda, be that for conquest, defense, or focusing on domestic issues. The Qin, Han, Northern Qi, Jin, Ming, and Qing dynasties contributed significantly to the Wall, and the gaps in its construction indicate periods of internal political or social strife.
When Was the Great Wall of China Built?
Construction of the Great Wall dates as far back as the 7th century BCE and continued over the course of nine dynasties. Warring kingdoms around eastern Asia built segments of the Wall to defend themselves from northern invaders during the Warring States Period. Seven different kingdoms went back and forth acquiring and losing territory, while regional leaders endeavored to maintain control over their domains.
When Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China in 220 BCE, he demanded that some segments of the preexisting walls be connected and others torn down. While there is no single stone whose placement marks the start of the longest-ever construction project, each brick on the Great Wall of China bears the memory of the hands that laid it. It is rumored that the bodies of those who died during the grueling construction – and there were many of them – were buried within the walls. One can choose to see the Great Wall of China as a memorial for those who died building it.
How Long Did It Take To Build the Great Wall of China?
The Great Wall of China developed from the skeletal remains of fortifications that were erected well over two millennia ago. One of the earliest segments of the structure is called the Chu Square Wall. Built in the modern-day provinces Hubei and Henan, the Chu Square Wall was erected between 680 and 656 BCE, connecting several watchtowers together for a unified defense system. While there is no carving or explicit indication of the dates the construction of the Great Wall began and ended, archeologists, anthropologists, and historians agree that the building continued on through the reign of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The Great Wall of China (Source: Pixabay)
Phases of the Great Wall’s Construction
As noted, the construction of the Wall proceeded over the course of many centuries. The timeline of construction can be divided into three broad phases:
[220 BCE – 206 BCE]—Construction of the Great Wall During the Qin Dynasty
When the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, set his sights on unifying the seven warring states, he put into motion a plan that would protect the nation from the Huns to the north. The monumental wall demanded a huge labor force that would haul materials from nearby resources to construct the barrier. The makeup of the wall itself differed from region to region: Where stones were bountiful and masons created bricks, workers would form human chains or carry loads on their back with excruciating efforts. In other areas wheelbarrows of mud would be dumped in between planks of wood to create a tall mound that was very daunting to cross. As the height and length of the Wall grew, so did the death toll for those who worked to build it.
[206 BCE – 1368 CE]—Progress on the Great Wall from the Han to the Yuan Dynasties
During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), China engaged in conflict with the Huns and, following their triumphant win, Emperor Han Wudi ordered that sections of the Wall be rebuilt and new ones constructed. The solidification of the border encouraged a migration northward and eventually out to the west, paving the way for the emergence of the Silk Road. Trade and culture flourished, and the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties maintained the Great Wall until the 13th century CE. In that century, the Mongol Empire, led by Gengis Khan, took advantage of the divisions within China between the Jin and Song Empires and conquered the region, exposing a weakness in the Great Wall’s efficacy.
[1368 –1644]—Reconstruction and Expansion of the Great Wall During the Ming Dynasty
Once the Emperor Hongwu rose to power after defeating the Yuan leaders, he consolidated northern China and re-emphasized the role of the Great Wall in the nation’s defense. He established the Ming dynasty, whose emperors would contribute the most to the expansion and restoration of the Wall. Developments in building tactics meant that the old model of stacking stones and packing mud fell to the wayside.
The Great Wall’s structure began resembling the image of what we may recognize today as the impressive stone structure snaking across the hills of the East. Workers continued using stone and brick, but they began mixing the lime mortar with sticky rice pulp to strengthen the structure. When the Ming dynasty fell, the idea that the Wall represented China’s main line of defense collapsed along with parts of the structure itself.
A winter image of the Great Wall of China taken from space with a telescopic lens. (Credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team / NASA Image Archive)
For decades a rumor falsely percolated through the media that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space. NASA astronauts and Chinese taikonauts have since debunked this rumor, noting how the Great Wall can be seen and documented with powerful cameras, but not with the naked eye.
Want to Learn More About the Great Wall of China and Who Built It?
Since its fall from tactical utility, the Great Wall has been restored, though its use today has given it a new purpose. Named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, the Great Wall of China is the country’s most visited tourist destination. What once was designed to keep people out now attracts millions of visitors from all around the world.
The Wall continues its legacy as a symbol of unity and national identity across China. It almost acts as a historical figure in its own right, influencing legends, works of art, and pop culture across China and beyond. While its outer shell changed with the fashion of the day, the essence of the Great Wall of China carries a history of the hands that laid it, the lives that were lost over it, and the conflicts that have and will continue to pass before it. For a closer look at the early days of the Great Wall of China, watch First Emperor: The Man Who Made China.
Daisy Dow is a contributing writer for MagellanTV. She also writes for Local Life magazine. Originally from Georgia, she graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in philosophy and studio art. She now lives in Chicago.
Hero Image: A path along the Great Wall of China (Source: Pixabay)