Military Defense System of China Great Wall

Although a tourist destination nowadays, the Great Wall was originally built as a military defense system on the vast north land of China. In ancient times, this long wall extending thousands of kilometers, together with its beacon towers and passes, had worked well and survived in many battles, successfully protecting Han Chinese in the central area from invasions of northern nomadic tribes. None of Huns, Turks, and Khitan could break through the solid military defense line, enabling the steady agriculture society of central China and the development of ancient Chinese civilization.

Military Importance of the Great Wall in Ancient China
- Protecting Han Chinese from Invasions of Northern Nomadic Tribes

Great Wall of ChinaThe Han Chinese living on the Central Plain south of the Great Wall mainly relied on agriculture, which decided they needed a safe and stable living environment. To ensure this, a defensive screen to block outside invasions became very necessary. In history, the three dynasties most actively building the Great Wall were right the periods when the Central Plain were most frequently disturbed by northern nomadic tribes, for instance the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC) and the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) by the Huns as well as the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 AD) by the Mongols.

 See detailed Who was the Great Wall of China built to keep out?

Battles Fought at the Great Wall of China

In its 2,700-year-history, the northern nomadic tribes always wanted to broke through the Great Wall and this led to many severe battles along the wall. Most of the time, the Great Wall did a great job protecting the Central Plain, while there were a few failures, like the Tumu Crisis in 15th century. However, the nomadic tribes had seldom marched south through the Great Wall and captured the Central Plain, except Mongol leader Genghis Khan, the only one in ancient history who breached the Great Wall with his army in 13th century.

In contemporary and modern times, the defensive function of Great Wall got weaker and weaker and this defense line was breached several times, for instance, the Shanhaiguan Pass was captured by UK army in 1900 and the Gubeikou was seized by Japan army in 1933. Nowadays, the military defense function of the Great Wall has completely lost and it has become a national symbol and a top tourist destination of China.

Famous Great Wall Battles:

 General Meng Tian Attacked the Huns in the North, in 3rd century BC, Qin Dynasty

 Wei Qing and Huo Qubing Beat Back the Huns, in 2nd century BC, Han Dynasty

 Genghis Khan Breached China Great Wall, in 13th century, beginning of Mongol Empire

 Tumu Crisis, in 1449, Ming Dynasty

 The War of Shanhaiguan Great Wall, in 1644, end of Ming and start of Qing

 Battle of Rehe - Last Battle on the Great Wall, in 1933, between China and Japan

Composition of Great Wall Fortifications

The Great Wall of China was not just a long wall, but a complete military defense system mainly consisting of:
1. Defensive Wall: to block enemies, transfer soldiers and delivery military supplies during battles; for soldiers to patrol on peaceful days.
2. Beacon Towers: to send military messages, keep watch on enemies, provide shelter and store daily necessities for soldiers on guard.
3. Passes: to station troops, protect important military points.

A Pass along Great Wall
Juyongguan Pass
A Great Wall Beacon Tower
A Great Wall Beacon Tower

The northern tribes were good at field battles based on the motility and flexibility of their powerful cavalries. The Han Chinese, whose cavalries were weak but infantries were powerful, were better at protracted and positional battles. The Great Wall, as a stationary arsenal and a fortified camp, right changed the disadvantages of Han Chinese into advantages and the Han people could then fight as they wanted. Also, there was no need to set soldiers at every inch of the Great Wall, but at some important passes and fortresses. Once the enemies approached, the soldiers stationed in the passes could come to the battle site via the wall after seeing the messages from the beacon towers. In this way, it greatly reduced the possibility of being breached and the cost of defense.

 See details of How was the Great Wall of China defended?

However, some people blame that the Han Chinese should take more active defense measurements, not just set up a screen to defend negatively. The opinion is easily proved wrong if taking the ancient conditions into consideration: 
1. The limited manpower and material resources made the long-distance expeditions against the northern nomads very difficult;
2. The active defense policies cost too much, which could lead to the recession of national power;
3. The northern nomadic tribes were from different directions. When fighting with one, others might seize the chance to launch an attack;
4. The Han Chinese did not have too many benefits in the north. Even if they captured the northern land at great cost, they could not use the barren land to plant crops.

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