Home / Great Wall / Facts

Great Wall Facts

Badaling Great Wall, Beijing
Badaling, Beijing

Chinese Name: 长城/万里长城 (Cháng Chéng/Wàn Lǐ Cháng Chéng)
English Translation: Great Wall / Great Wall of 10,000 Li
Length: 13,170.70 miles (21,196.18 kilometers)
Builder: the ancient Chinese laboring people (common people, farmers, soldiers and slaves)
Construction Period: About 2,000 years from the Warring States Period (476 BC - 221 BC) to Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

 The World's Longest Military Defensive System

The Great Wall was a huge defensive line against enemies' intrusion in the past. The nearest battle took place at Gubeikou, Beijing in 1933, leaving many bullet holes on the wall. It is also the longest man-made construction in the world, winding 13,170.70 miles (21,196.18 kilometers) from the east sea shore (Laolongtou) to the west desert (Jiayuguan). If all the bricks are used to build a wall with a width of one yard and a height of 16 feet (five meters), it is long enough to go around the earth.

 Read more: How long is the Great Wall?

 Over 20 Dynasties Have Implemented the Construction

This huge project is not a construction of one single state. It is a collective achievement fulfilled by over 20 dynasties section by section. The earliest section was built in the Warring States Period, marking the beginning of the 2,000 years' construction work, while the latest construction happened in the Ming Dynasty.

 History & Chronology

Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC) Every state built its own separate ramparts to defend intrusions of other states.
Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BC) Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC), the first emperor of a united China, ordered to link seperated sections to form a 3,100 miles (10,000 li) defense line from Lintao, Gansu to Liaoning, resisting northern nomads. Since then, this defense line started to have the name, 'Great Wall of 10,000 Li'. 
Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) Lack of renovation, the existing sections was too weak to defend any attack. After expelling invaders out, Emperor Wu ordered to repair the Qin sections and extended it into 6,200 miles (9,978 kilometers).
Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280) – Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368) Small-scale construction was implemented in most dynasties.
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) Massive construction was ordered in the northern China to protect the capital, Beijing.
Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) – Present The military function began to fade. It has turned into a popular sightseeing destination and cultural relics.
Jiayuguan Pass, Gansu
Jiayuguan, Gansu

 The First Massive Construction Started With a Rumor

After Qin Shi Huang unified the central China, he had made many efforts to consolidate his power. Dreaming of ruling the country forever, he had sent Lu Sheng, who claimed to master necromancy, to go around the country seeking a way to get immortality. After countless empty-handed return, Lu finally brought back a message saying 'Qin will be overturned by Hu (refers to northern nomads)'. In order to avoid that, Qin Shi Huang commanded to link up separated sections of previous states and massively extend new ramparts to guard the northern border.

 Most Sections We See Today Were Built In the Ming Dynasty

Ming Dynasty is the last state, implementing the large-scale Great Wall construction. Sections built in that dynasty measures 5,500.3 miles (8,851.8 kilometers) long in total with 3,889.5 miles (6,259.6 kilometers) of artificial ramparts, occupying two fifth of the whole length. Most of them are preserved, and many of them have been renovated to better represent the charm of this old military fortress.

 Mostly Lying Over Mountain Ridges

Occupying an advantaged location is the key to win a battle. In order to take over a commanding position during the war, sections were often constructed at lofty mountains ridges. Stairs can be nearly vertical at some points, looking like a staircase leading to the sky. Visitors may need to use both hands and feet to climb up this 'heavenly stairway'.

Zhenbeitai, Yulin, Shaanxi
Zhenbeitai, Yulin, Shaanxi

 Constructers: Tens of Millions of Laboring Men

This grand defense line is considered a great accumulation of both manpower and money. Tens of millions of strong men were recruited mandatorily to work day and night. The number of labors only in the Qin Dynasty reaches nearly one million, occupying one twentieth of the whole population of the day. Most would lose their life during the construction. Generally, if there are millions of labors, only one tenth of them can survive.

 Read more: Who, when and why built the Great Wall?

 Built of Local Materials

The construction work required a large amount of raw materials. Located at remote areas, it would cost a lot of extra expense conveying them. The most efficient solution was to make a good use of local materials, such as quarrying stones in the mountainous areas and rammed earth in loess regions. In the desert of Gansu, even sand and weeds were piled up to build the ramparts. Since brick-making skill was mature in the Ming Dynasty, bricks can be made right next to the working sites instead of the special workshops. From then on, sections were laid mainly by bricks.

 Safeguard of the World's Oldest Trade Route – Silk Road

In the Han Dynasty, this defense line extended from the central plain to the western regions. Zhang Qian was sent on a diplomatic mission to the western regions along the Great Wall and opened up the initial Silk Road for a better economical and cultural communication between China and other countries. The route even reached the Europe at last.

 Cannot Be Seen from the Space

In May 17th, 2004, a picture took from the space was said to had captured the profile of the Great Wall and was published by ESA (European Space Agency). Years later, some experts clarified that the outline on the picture was actually a river of Beijing and there was seldom a chance to observe any irregular construction from the space. Professors of NASA also claimed that the color of the bricks was similar with the surrounding environment, making it even harder to distinguish the Great Wall on space pictures. 

 Popular Sections to Visit

This old military construction traverses 15 regions in China, leaving numerous relics throughout these areas. The most famous ones are listed as follows:

Liaoning Hushan, Jiumenkou
Beijing Badaling, Mutianyu, Juyongguan, Simatai, Jinshanling, Jiankou, Gubeikou, Huanghuacheng, Lupiguan, Water Pass, Xiangshuihu
Tianjin Huangyaguan, Taipingzhai
Hebei Shanhaiguan, Laolongtou, Jiaoshan, Xifengkou & Panjiakou, Zijingguan, Daomaguan
Shanxi YanmenguanGuguan, Niangziguan, Ningwuguan, Pianguan & Pingxingguan
Shaanxi Zhenbeitai
Gansu Jiayuguan, Yumenguan, Yangguan, Dunhuang Han Dynasty Great Wall

 One of World Leaders' Favorite Spots in China

As the symbol of China on international stage, climbing the Great Wall becomes a popular activity while visiting China. Even nation leaders cannot resist the charm of this old military barrier. More than 420 state leaders have set their foot on the wall, such as Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Putin, Thatcher, Mandela, and Aznar.

 Top Hiking Destination of China

The Great Wall hiking can be listed among the top ten hiking activities in China. The best section to hike is Jiankou in Beijing. The mountain it lies upon looks like an arrow with the collapsed ridge resembling its arrow nock, and hence the name Jiankou (arrow nock). Without any renovation, the beauty of the wildness will make you better feel its past strength and desolation. Stairs and watchtowers are collapsed at some points, making the hiking much challenging.

 The Great Wall is Disappearing

According to the statistics from UNESCO, nearly 30% of the Great Wall have disappeared due to years of weathering and human intervention. The latter one is the major threat to this old site. Some people living near the sections place their own benefits beyond this historical relic, by shoveling bricks to build their own house or selling bricks which carved with characters. It is common to see the ramparts being cut off to give way to the modern road construction. All these behaviors lead to the ruin of this great wonder. An overall management and renovation is very urgent.

 Further Reading: Great Wall FAQs