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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, or 42,392.36 Li)
Average Height: 25.6 feet (7.8 meters)
Average Width: 7.1 yards (6.5 meters)
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 were 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 occurred 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 separated sections to form a 3,100 mile (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 the repair of 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 northern China to protect the capital, Beijing.
Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) – Present The military function began to fade. It has since turned into a popular sightseeing destination and cultural relic.
Jiayuguan Pass, Gansu
Jiayuguan, Gansu

 The First Massive Construction Started With a Rumor

After Qin Shi Huang unified central China, he 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 returns, Lu finally brought back a rumored message saying 'Qin will be overturned by Hu (refers to northern nomads)'. In order to avoid that, Qin Shi Huang commanded the link up of separated sections of previous states, and massively extended new ramparts to guard the northern border.

 Most Sections We See Today Were Built In the Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty was the last state to implement large-scale Great Wall construction. Sections built in that dynasty measured 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 along lofty mountains ridges. Stairs were nearly vertical at some points, looking like a staircase leading to the sky. Visitors sometimes need to use both hands and feet to climb up this 'heavenly stairway'.

 High Enough to Block Enemies

The height of ramparts varies according to differing terrains. On average, the wall measures 25.6 feet (7.8 meters) high, making it difficult for enemies to break through. Usually, those built in flat areas are higher than those on steep ridges, with the highest point reaching 46 feet (14 meters).

 Wide Enough for Two Carriages to Get Through

In order to guarantee every watchtower getting sufficient provisions, the wall was generally constructed to be wide enough for carriages to deliver supplies along it. The average width of the whole defense line is 7.1 yards (6.5 meters), which can allow two carriages or three horses to walk abreast and pass each other.

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 survived when the construction completed.

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

 Built of Local Materials

The construction work required a large amount of raw material. Located in remote areas, it would require a lot of extra expense conveying them. The most efficient and cost-effective solution was to make good use of the 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 could be made right next to the working sites, instead of in special workshops. From then on, sections were laid mainly by using bricks.

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

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

 Can the Great Wall Be Seen from the Space?

On May 17th, 2004, a picture taken from the space was said to have 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 space. Professors of NASA also claimed that the color of the bricks is 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 of 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, Pingxing Pass
Shaanxi Zhenbeitai
Gansu Jiayuguan, Yumenguan, Yangguan, Dunhuang Han Dynasty Great Wall

 Read how to choose between the two most visited sections: Badaling vs. Mutianyu

 One of World Leaders' Favorite Spots in China

As the symbol of China on an international stage, climbing the Great Wall became a popular activity while visiting China. Even national 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.

Simatai Great Wall
Simatai, Beijing

 Top Hiking Destination of China

Great Wall hiking can be listed among the top ten trekking 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 imbue feelings of its past strength and desolation. Stairs and watchtowers are collapsed at some points, making the hiking quite challenging.

 The Great Wall is Disappearing

According to statistics from UNESCO, nearly 30% of the Great Wall has disappeared due to years of weathering and human intervention. The latter is the major threat to this old site. Some people living near sections of the Wall, place their own benefits beyond this historical relic. They shovel bricks to build their own houses, or sell bricks carved with characters. It is also common to see the ramparts being cut off to give way to modern road construction. This type of behaviors leads to the ruin of this great wonder. An overhaul of management and renovation is very urgently required.

 Further Reading

 Great Wall FAQs         Badaling Facts and History