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China's Great Wall

Great Wall

The Great Wall is China's best known historical monument. Stretching 1,674 miles [2,694 kms] it has formed China's northern boundary for thousands of years. With impassable mountains forming the border to the west and south-west, and the sea to the east it is the northern boundary that has always posed the main threat to China. In ancient days, the nomadic people of the northern steppes were illiterate; herding grazing animals for a living. Occasionally groups would use their superior horsemanship to advantage by raiding Chinese towns for silk and lacquer-work. Sometimes these raids were large enough to threaten the Chinese Empire. In 166BCE 140,000 horsemen came within 100 miles [161 kms] of the capital Chang'an.

Great Wall, tower
Great Wall in China, near Beijing

Chinese Language

Such an ancient language as Chinese has inevitably gathered very many characters and words that have histories going back hundred of years - far longer than any other currently spoken language. However the structure of Chinese language is quite easy to pick up and continues to be a source of fascination.
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Fortress and Great Wall

In Chinese the Great Wall is called Chang Cheng long fortress or Wanli Changcheng ten thousand li long fortress although it actually measures 12,000 li (Li is a Chinese unit of distance of 0.5km). The term ‘fortress’ does seem strange for a ‘wall’ but the Great Wall was always more than just a wall; with watchtowers in clear view of each other, continually manned, there were requirements for food and other supplies for the thousands of people defending it. So it was more like a community strung out in a long line than a bare wall. When defenders spotted an enemy a beacon fire was lit which soon propagated to the next in the chain - by smoke (from burning wolf dung) during the day and by fire at night. The beacons alerted defenders to send out help from the closest fort, similar to what can be seen in the Muster of Rohan in the Lord of The Rings film.

Like other Great Walls around the world, a wall is just as much about keeping people in, as keeping 'barbarians' out. Without a well maintained border people would be free to evade justice and taxes by just crossing the border whenever they wished. It also has a key symbolic role of marking the border so people definitely knew if they were inside or outside China.

Great Wall
Great Wall 1994. Image by Teresa Ray
Great Wall, Beijing
The 'Arrow Buckle' section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu near Beijing

The wall was not all built at one time, much of what people see at Badaling near Beijing is a modern 1950s and 60s restoration of a Ming dynasty rebuild of an original wall. For many hundred of miles the wall has not been well maintained and is in a state of dilapidation. Far away in the Gobi Desert where stone and wood were not to hand, layers of pounded soil and reeds made an adequate alternative as rain is so rare. So only the easternmost 500 miles [805 kms] from Ningxia looks like the modern image of the Great Wall. There are a few viewing locations open to vast numbers of tourists along the route including: Badaling 达岭; Mutianyu ; Huanghua Cheng ; Simatai ; and Jinshanling .


The chief architect of the Great Wall was Qin Shihuangdi - the First Qin Emperor of China who conquered the kingdoms making up China. One of his many initiatives for nation-building was patching up and linking the various walls that had been built over the preceding centuries. Previous in the Warring States period many of the kingdoms had built walls to defend themselves. He ordered General Meng Tian to use up to 300,000 slaves to build new and strengthen existing walls. About 500 million tons of material form the wall. For the Qin dynasty and those that followed, the Wall marked the division between the civilized world and the barbarians outside. The 'Great Wall' as it is understood today (the brown line on the map) stretches from Shanhaiguan on the Yellow Sea (near QinHuangDao, Hebei) all the way to the 嘉峪 Jiayuguan Jade Gate, Gansu in the depths of the Gobi desert. A plaque at Shanhaiguan proclaims it as 'Tian xia di yi guan' the First pass under Heaven, identifying it as the edge of the civilized world. The tower at Jiayuguan, Gansu was built in 1372 on the orders of the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang; the walls are 38 feet [12 meters] high and (800 yards [732 meters] long. The story goes that the construction was so carefully planned that only one brick was left over when completed.

Nu Mengjiang

Many legends are told of the making of the Great Wall evoke the hardship of the hundreds of thousands who were forced into service to build it. The emperor used conscripted labor and many families lost their men to the endeavor. Nu Mengjiang's husband was one such conscript. Nu Mengjiang went to seek out her husband and after much searching was told he was buried beneath the Wall. After three nights of Nu Mengjiang's sad and lonely vigil, the Wall split open revealing the bodies of the dead including her husband clasping the other half a jade hairpin she carried with her. Heartbroken she threw herself into the sea. A temple at Shanhaiguan commemorates the legend.

Great Wall
Photo by Georgio , available under a Creative Commons license .
Thu 4th May

Preserving Confucian Temples

In this article in China Daily the role of Confucian temples is examined. Should the remaining temples be run to draw in tourists or return to be places where Confucian doctrine is studied? Under Mao Zedong, most Confucian temples were torn down and the monks and officials dismissed. Confucius was held up as the epitome of all that was backward and out-dated. Gradually, since about 1990 Confucius has come back into prominence. The Chinese government supports the many Confucius Institutes springing up all over the world to promote Chinese culture and education. He is now seen as an ancient father figure representing the distinctive Chinese culture and philosophy.

A report on the status of the remaining 546 Confucian sites highlights the difficulties in maintaining them. The province of Hunan has the most Confucian academies including Yuelu that has been going for over a thousand years. With massive redevelopment of towns and cities all over China the temple sites are coming under increasing pressure from development.

There are Confucian sites outside China: Vietnam, Japan and Korea and many Asian tourists come to visit the Chinese temples. Of particular interest is the vast temple complex at Confucius' birthplace Qufu which is still inhabited by his descendents.

Qufu, temple, Confucius, Shandong
Lingxing Gate of Qufu Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong. January 2009.
Image by Sean Shih available under a Creative Commons license

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Built to take five horsemen riding abreast with regular watch towers and forts, it was designed to impose itself on the landscape. This led to some to hypothesize that it could be seen from the Moon long before space travel. This did not turn out to be true, the Great Wall is only a few yards wide, and features that small can not be seen from such a distance. The suggestion was probably triggered by the apparent discovery of canals on Mars .

After the Qin dynasty the succeeding Han extended the wall to the west to defend the new territories they had conquered (the Gansu corridor). Over the next few hundred years the Great Wall served mainly as a border marker and little was done to keep it in good repair. It was only on the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty that the Wall was repaired and strengthened using as many as a million men as laborers. It served its purpose well for many centuries, but when the Mongols invading it kept them out for only a few years (1211-1215). When the Mongol dynasty came to power the wall lost any strategic value as Mongolia and China were united, it began to fall into disrepair again.

Ningxia, Great Wall, ruin
The ruins of the Great Wall, this section is a mud built wall that was erected during the rule of the Ming Dynasty, Ningxia

Ming re-build of the Great Wall

During the following Ming Dynasty paranoia about potential attacks from the north led to a military expedition northward by Emperor Zhengtong in 1449. It led to a humiliating defeat brought on by incessant rain and poor leadership. An estimated 500,000 troops took part, and it ended up with the capture of the Emperor himself and the massacre of the Army. This debacle led many to favor a strengthening of the Great Wall to block any further trouble and forget any ideas of conquest north into Mongolia. The new line of the wall did, in places, follow a different line to the original wall. The crippling expense of the wall was a subject of great debate, construction started in 1455 and continued sporadically until the fall of the dynasty in 1644. Rather than the low, earth built walls in the western section the Ming walls were chiefly of stone. At strategic points it was not just a single line of wall but made of two or more parallel walls. The average height was 24 feet [7 meters] and 21 feet [6 meters] thick at the base. The core was filled with earth and rubble while the top was lined with three of four layers of brick. A carriage could ride along the top of the wall. A series of cannons were mounted along the wall to defend it.

Gansu, Jiayuguan, camel
Camels in front of Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

Manchu invasion

All this effort proved pointless in the end. The fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchus who lived beyond the wall was fueled by internal strife as much by foreign assault from beyond the Great Wall. It was the rebellion led by Li Zicheng that sparked the demise of the dynasty. Li was born at Yan'an, Shaanxi (later to become Mao's wartime base) and rebelled against excessive taxes and oppression. His revolt soon gathered mass support at a time of hardship due to famine, he stormed the ancient capitals of Luoyang and Kaifeng. Li then declared himself leader of the new 'Shun dynasty ' at Xi'an in 1644. Meanwhile the Ming troops were deployed away in the north-west to hold off a possible Manchu invasion and were unable to prevent Li's revolt reaching Beijing. When Beijing fell, the Ming General Wu Sangui fatefully formed an alliance with the Manchus to defeat Li and to restore the Ming dynasty. With the Ming Emperor now dead, the Manchu troops took advantage and after defeating Li promptly installed themselves as a new dynasty. The Great Wall with all its impressive defenses, designed for just such an eventuality had played no part in the overthrow, the Manchu army had been let through the gates with open arms.

Wed 17th May

Belt and Road Initiative

Spending a trillion dollars (yes $1,000 billion) is a serious investment. China’s big idea is to open up the country for much wider trade. The primary focus is to develop stronger links with Central Asian countries on the route of the old Silk Road. However the initiative seems all embracing as even New Zealand, hardly on the Silk Road is keen to be involved. The idea is for both an overland ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (China to Europe) and a ‘21st century Maritime Road’ (China through the Indian Ocean to Africa and then north to Egypt). This has been shortened to ‘One belt one road’ or ‘Belt and Road’ or just ‘OBOR’ for short.

It is hard to work out exactly what the initiative is all about, there seem to be several factors and motives. One is that President Trump has continued to threaten China with extra tariffs to protect U.S. jobs from cheap Chinese imports. If China can open up new markets for her exports she will not be as badly hit by any protectionist measures. The U.S. continues to have a huge balance of payments deficit with China, in March 2017 the U.S. exported $9.6bn but imported $34.2bn. China’s heavy dependence on sales into the U.S. is a problem that needed to be fixed. In 2015 China’s main trade partners were: United States $457bn, Hong Kong $273bn, Japan $152bn, Germany $97.4bn and South Korea $90.1bn. Shifting trade to new countries will strengthen and stabilize China’s economy.

Many analysts also point to the problems of over-capacity in China. Just looking at total imports and exports is too crude a measure, the real problem is that China’s growth rate has slowed and the excess capacity in building related industries (steel, cement, construction) need new markets. If China can kick-start economic development elsewhere in the world she solves two problems at once - over-capacity at home and opening up new markets abroad. The China Communications Construction Group has already agreed deals worth up $40 billion in contracts with ‘Belt and Road’ countries. Sinking so much money in loans that may never be repaid is quite a risk. Venezuela now owes China $65bn and is not in a position to repay. Analysts consider such a huge project will be impossible to manage effectively and huge amounts are likely to be misappropriated.

The initiative comes at a particularly opportune time for the U.K.. Always keen on free trade and instinctively anti-protectionist the U.K. has more to gain than most other countries. With difficult talks ahead on exit of the E.U. trading block the opening up of possible deals with China all over the world is very appealing. U.K. politicians have been very keen to promote the initiative and use its undoubted trading expertise to jointly open up new markets.

The initial proposals centered on the countries of central Asia - along the route of the old Silk Road out of China. The initiative is therefore a way of re-invigorating trading links that were active for a thousand years before trade moved to China’s southern ports. The vast bulk of Chinese development had been along the south and eastern coasts, the poorest inland provinces have been left well behind. Of particular importance is the troubled province of Xinjiang. Positioned on the fringes of China the province is more Central Asian than Chinese with a Muslim majority. With frequent terrorist attacks by separatists in the province, China struggles to keep tight control. Recently China has banned Muslim parents from giving their children Muslim names and is embarking on a system of DNA profiling of every citizen. With the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative deals with neighboring Central Asian states (Takjikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) the increased economic activity should lessen instability in the region.

The key point is that China is changing from an inward to an outward-looking nation, no longer putting internal development as the top priority. With increased economic involvement comes political power too, and some hawkish observers see this as the first stage in the building of a new Chinese Empire.

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With the extended northern area under Qing control, including Mongolia the Great Wall once again lost strategic value and was not maintained. It was only 400 years later, with the foundation of the People's Republic that the Wall came back into importance. Partly due to the great impression made by the Wall on foreign dignitaries it became a symbol of China's longevity, strength and historical achievement. Sections near to Beijing were then restored to 'pristine' condition while other sections have been left to rot and these form the 'rough wall' that can still be seen today. However in the heat of the Cultural Revolution during the attack on the 'four olds', the wall itself suffered, a section of the Wall at Gubeikou was dismantled to build PLA barracks, but this policy was swiftly reversed and this section rebuilt. Mao took the Great Wall as living proof that the Chinese could undertake massive construction projects and succeed. It was Mao who stated ‘He who does not visit the Great Wall is not a real man; and he who does not love the Great Wall is not a hero’.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Great Wall of China', last updated 5 Dec 2016, Web,

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