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Great Wall History

Great Wall History Map
Great Wall History Map (Click to enlarge)

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The history of the Great Wall is said to start from the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC). In the following 2,000 years, more than 20 states and dynasties took part in the construction. The accumulative length of the wall exceeds 31,069 miles (50,000 km).

 Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC)
In the turbulent Zhou Dynasty that consists of Western Zhou Dynasty (1046BC-771BC), Spring and Autumn Period, and Warring States Period (475BC-221BC), several powerful states appeared at the same time. In order to defend themselves, they all built walls and stationed troops on the borders. The earliest one is the Chu State Great Wall, also known as "Square Wall". Later, other states joined in the construction, including Qi State, Wei State, Yan State, Zhao State and Qin State. The Wall built by different states was disconnected until the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

 Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC)
In 221BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China for the first time after defeating the other states. Considering that the central plain was constantly assaulted by the northern Huns, Emperor Qin Shi Huang sent the great general Meng Tian to fight back. At the same time, he ordered the previous wall sections of different states be linked together and extended. Thereafter, the Great Wall, which runs eastward from Lintao (today's Minxian County in Gansu Province) to Yalu River in Liaoning Province, flew over mountain ridges, rivers, deserts, and plains in north China like a giant dragon.
Great Wall of Zhao State, Warring States Period, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
Wall of
Warring States Period
Great Wall of Qin Dynasty on Yinshan Mountain, Guyang County, Inner Mongolia
Qin Dynasty wall on Yinshan 
Mountain, Guyang County, Inner Mongolia

 Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD)
After Emperor Qin Shi Huang's death, the Qin Dynasty soon came to an end due to mass uprisings. Han Dynasty was then established by Emperor Gaozu, and he had the previous wall renovated and reinforced. Later, Emperor Wu of Han constructed the Great Wall in a large scale. He had Yanmenguan Pass restored in 130BC, and the Qin Dynasty Wall renovated in 127BC. In order to protect the Hexi Corridor, he ordered the defensive line between Yongdeng County and Jiuquan in Gansu Province be built in 121BC. The line was extended from Jiuquan to Yumenguan Pass from 111BC to 110BC, and it was further lengthened to Lop Nor in Xinjiang from 104BC to 101BC. The Han Dynasty Wall not only defended against northern Huns, but also protected the ancient Silk Road between China and the western regions.

 Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 - 589)
After the decline of the unified Han Dynasty, China came to a chaotic era when different states fought against one another to expand their territories, and built the Great Wall to defend themselves. The Northern Wei, Northern Qi, Eastern Wei, and Northern Zhou Dynasties all built their own sections, but on a smaller scale than the Han Dynasty.

 Sui Dynasty (581 - 618)
The establishment of Sui Dynasty put an end to the tumultuous period. The emperors attached great importance to border defense on account of the constant invasion of northern nomadic tribes. They ordered the wall and fortresses be built in the north and west. It took two million laborers 28 years to finish the large project. Thereafter, the defensive system stretched from Zihe River (an ancient river in today's south Inner Mongolia and northwest Shanxi) in the east, via Lingwu of Ningxia, and ended at Yugu (today's Guide County of Qinghai Province) in the west.
Great Wall of Han Dynasty, Dunhuang, Gansu
Han Dynasty wall, 
Dunhuang, Gansu
Great Wall of Northern Dynasties to Sui Dynasty in Ningwu County, Shanxi
Great Wall of Northern Dynasties 
to Sui Dynasty in Ningwu County, Shanxi
 Tang Dynasty (618 - 907)
The subsequent Tang Dynasty saw peace between the northern tribes and central China most of the time, so few sections were built during this period.

 Song Dynasty (960 - 1279)
The history of Great Wall continued during the Song Dynasty to defend against the invaders from the north and west, like Western Xia, Liao, and Jin. Nevertheless, the Wall failed to stop the intrusion of northern Jin Dynasty, leading to demise of Song Dynasty in 1127. Fortunately, Zhao Gou, known as Emperor Gaozu of Song, escaped to southern China and reestablished the Song in Lin'an (today's Hangzhou), historically called Southern Song Dynasty and the previous Song was named Northern Song Dynasty to distinguish between them. Owing to a lack of money and confidence in the natural barriers like Yangtze River and many other crisscrossing rivers, the Southern Song did not build the defensive line on its territory.

 Jin Dynasty (1115 - 1234)
After defeating the Northern Song, the Jin Dynasty became a strong regime in northeast China. However, threatened by neighboring states, like Western Xia, and Mongol Empire, the Jin Dynasty began to build the northernmost wall of China in 1194, but the project was suspended due to drought and the objection of ministers. In 1196, the project was started again, and lasted three years. The Jin Dynasty Wall has a total length of about 1,025 miles (1,650 kilometers). There were also ditches, beacon towers, fortresses, and garrisons along the wall.

 Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368)
The strong Mongol Empire on horseback absorbed Western Xia, Jin, Southern Song as well as some other states, established the unified Yuan Dynasty. Owing to its large territory and strong military power, few sections were built during the Yuan Dynasty.

 Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644)
Badaling Great Wall of Ming Dynasty, Beijing
Badaling section of 
Ming Dynasty, Beijing

In contrast, the subsequent Ming Dynasty is the peak of Great Wall's history. Since its establishment, the Ming Dynasty was harassed by northern tribes, like Tartars and Jurchens. Therefore, it never stopped the construction of the defensive line during its rule of over two centuries. Besides adding many more miles of its own, the Ming emperors ordered enlargement of the walls of previous dynasties into double-line or multi-line walls. For example, out of Yanmenguan Pass were added three big stone walls and 23 small ones. The main line of Ming started from Hushan near the Yalu River in the east to the Jiayuguan Pass in the west. It has a total length of about 5,500 miles (8,851.8 kilometers).

 Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911)
The Ming Dynasty Wall was solid, but it failed to stop the cavalries of the Qing Dynasty, a regime established by Manchu people in northeast China. The Qing cavalries broke through Shanhaiguan Pass, and occupied the central plain. In the early Qing Dynasty, the emperors thought they were strong enough to defend themselves, so few wall was built. Later, in order to prevent Han people from entering northeast China and Inner Mongolia, they ordered a deep trench be dug in Liaoning and Inner Mongolia, and the willows be planted along the trench. Hence, the Qing Dynasty Wall was also called "Willow Line".

Later, with the end of Cold Weapon Age, the Great Wall gradually lost its function as military defensive system and many sections are severely damaged and disappearing due to natural disasters and human activities. However, it is a precious heritage of all human beings and witness to Chinese history that deserves better preservation and protection. 

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