Great Wall Terrain & Structure

The terrain the Great Wall traverses is complicated and varied. Long rivers, steep mountains, lofty cliffs, boundless desert, and vast grasslands all witness the imposing presence of the Great Wall.

Great Wall of Qin Dynasty, Lintao, Gansu
Great Wall of Qin Dynasty, Lintao, Gansu
It starts from Liaodong (today's east and south of Liaoning Province) in the east and ends at Lintao (today's Lintao County in Gansu Province) in the west. The wall was built according to the local conditions and used local materials. Generally speaking, the Qin Wall was made of large pieces of stones. Between the stones, huge amounts of detritus was accumulated and filled in. It measures about 4.4 to 5.5 yards. The steep cliffs were used as natural walls after being chiseled a little. In Gobi area, the wall was built by mixing grit with the local plants such as red willows, reeds, and poplars. In flat plains, the wall was built from pounded yellow earth, layer upon layer. Besides connecting the scattered sections of previous states, Qin Wall was augmented with rather complicated military structures such as blockhouses, barriers, passes and beacon towers.
 It followed the basic characteristic of Qin Wall, that is, to build the wall according to the local conditions and used local materials. The difference lies in the constructional types. The Han Wall mainly wound through grasslands where big stones were not available.  The compressed earth construction was favored. For example, in Dunhuang, where large amount of bulrush, poplar, red willow and dogbane grew, these were used for wall construction. The branches of these plants served as groundwork which was covered by a layer of sun-dried mud bricks mixed with grit and above was the rammed bulrush. On average, the thickness of the bulrush layer measured 1.6 to 2.0 inches and the grit layer measured 7.9 inches. Remnants of this work remain till this day. The willow branch and bulrush could bear strong tension, and stones and grit were not easy to be destroyed after being compacted in layers, so the wall became rather solid.

Great Wall of Han Dynasty
Great Wall of Han Dynasty
The military system of Han Wall included barriers, beacon towers, strongholds, trenches, castles besides passes and blockhouses. Tiantian, a newly created observation object, was built by placing a layer of silver sand inside the trench. If the Huns dared to set foot in, they would certainly leave footprint on the sand, which would be noticed by sentries. Besides, the strict beacon system was formed in Han Dynasty. The regulation prescribed that a beacon be built at the interval of 1.6 miles, a block at the interval of 3.1 miles, a fortress at the interval of 18.6 miles and a pass at the interval of 62.1 miles. In the daytime, smoke columns were used to warn the coming of attacks. One smoke column indicated that less than one thousand enemies invaded, if more than one thousand enemies attacked, two smoke columns would be raised. Three smoke columns would be lifted in case more enemies came. At night, soldiers would kindle firebrands to warn of coming dangers.

It is the solidest and most complete one compared with walls in other dynasties. The Ming Dynasty drew the experience from the previous dynasties when they built the wall. More important military fortifications were added on the wall. In flat areas, outside the wall, big wide moats were dug to make approach difficult.

Ming Dynasty Great Wall
Great Wall of Ming Dynasty

At the interval of 109.4 to 218.7 yards, there located a terrace which protruded from the wall. It was especially designed for close combat. Once enemies were camped outside the wall, soldiers on guard could shoot from the terrace. They could take the advantage of a commanding height to prevent enemies from putting ladders against the wall to attack the city. At certain distances, there was a fortress. It was used for storing up army supplies or stationing troops who controlled a section of the wall nearby and carried out the defense tasks along the wall.

Watch towers were often square in shape and towered above the top of the wall about 13.1 feet. While at places of strategical importance, the watch towers were round and raised high above the wall. They were built for soldiers to live in, to store food and weapons for a long period of time. The Ming Dynasty still raised smoke to warn of dangers. Besides, the boom of cannon was added to strengthen the alarm effect. In ancient times when telephone and wireless communication were not available, this method to transfer the military message was obviously fast. Beacon towers in Ming Wall were also used for ensuring the safety of ambassadors, supplying them with room and board and offering forage for their horses.

- Last updated on Aug. 01, 2022 -
Questions & Answers on Great Wall Terrain & Structure
Asked by tara from USA | Aug. 22, 2019 09:00Reply
how the Chinese were able to make the wall strong in an area with poor sandy soil and no bricks or
Answers (1)
Answered by Kimmy from CANADA | Aug. 28, 2019 02:49

The ancient Chinese use special materials to build the house. This kind of material usually blended with glutinous rice, lime and other stuff. Also, they invented a great stitching technology, Mao and Sun, to make the buildings more solid.
Asked by chas from USA | Apr. 20, 2015 16:14Reply
What natural barrier made it unnecessary to extend the great wall of China further west?
Answers (2)
Answered by Charlie from HONDURAS | Apr. 21, 2015 01:48

Chas, Han's wall reached Yumen Pass. Outside the pass is the Western Regions. There were 36 states. During the reign of Emperor Wudi, these 36 states gave their allegiance to the Han Empire. Han Empire established Western Regions Frontier Command to administrate these states. You can see that this place was under control of Han Empire. So there was no need to build the wall to defend against them.
Answered by Leslly from AUSTIN TX | Mar. 02, 2017 20:33

Thank you for helping me with my homework.
Asked by ankit from INDIA | Jan. 19, 2014 06:44Reply
what are challenges faced by constructors to built such a wall??
Answers (1)
Answered by Brain from UNITED KINGDOM | Jan. 20, 2014 19:46

1. Long distance: As most of the sections were made in remote ridges, laboring people had to walk there to build that. Also it made food and water transporting a problem, due to which there were many deaths.
2. Poor construction machines: There were no advanced machines to help them to build the wall. People had to carry heavy stones or rocks onto the ridges one by one.
3. Poor environment: It was hard to build a wall on the ridges purely relying on labor work, so people had to overcome many natural difficulties.
Asked by Bernett | Sep. 16, 2013 17:43Reply
Were there any other dynasties that helped to construct the Great Wall of China?
Answers (1)
Answered by Shun from POLAND | Sep. 16, 2013 23:00

Yes, there were. The Warring States Periods made the original sections and followed by the state of Chu, Qi, Yan, Wei, Zhao and Qin. During subsequent dynasties, the wall was extended, repaired or modified. The sections of Han and Ming dynasties are most well-known and the sections of Ming are most well-preserved.
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