Travel - Locations
By: - at February 14, 2015

Top 15 Fascinating Facts about the Great Wall of China

rural portion of the wall

A familiar, if not pervasive, landmark, the Great Wall of China is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Stretching across northern China, this masterpiece of ancient construction stretches for thousands of miles, passing through ten cities or provinces – some of which include Mongolia, Qinghai, Liaoning, Tianjin, Beijing, Hebel, and Inner Mongolia. Built over a period that spans thousands of years, the section constructed during the Ming Dynasty is made up of 7,062 lookouts, just over 720 beacon towers, and close to 3,360 walled platforms. The Wall, itself, is believed to have been created to protect ancient peoples from raids from northern nomadic tribes.

Rural Portion of the Wall:
Rural Portion of the Wall
By Mark Holmquist via Wikimedia Commons

Referred to in Chinese as Wan Li Chang Chen, The Great Wall is now one of the main reasons people visit China annually. Approximately 10 million tourists visit the wall each year to see the great landmark – a structure that is a testament to the civilization, art, and culture of the Chinese.

15)  The Great Wall Is Not a Single Wall
While, the landmark is known as the “Great Wall,” the structure is actually comprised of sectioned walls and fortifications, with each section built during large periods of time.

The first sections of the wall were built when China was made up of fledgling feudal states while other sections were constructed when the country became more unified. Original sections of the walls were connected as the empire grew.

map of great wall of china construction dates
By Maximilian Dörrbecker via Wikimedia Commons

While some of the wall’s areas are linked with one another by stone and brick, other parts may be joined only by hill forts – earthworks made up of straw, sand and dirt for protection. Besides the sectioned walls, the “Great Wall” also features spurs, branches and offshoots as well, making the whole network rather complex as a whole.

14)  The Great Wall Is Actually A Series of Walls, Fortifications, and Towers
Needless to say, the Great Wall of China is no simple wall or defensive structure. Instead, the structure is considered, historically and archaeologically, to be a complicated military installation – designed primarily to garrison armies so they could keep a vigil against enemy attacks. Fortresses in the wall were built at strategic points in order to provide protection for people living in towns, along fords, and close to mountain passes.

Fortification Design:
Fortification Design

In fact, thousands of watchtowers dot the length of the Wall, many of which served multiple functions during ancient times. Besides acting as lookout points, the watchtowers also served holding areas for the housing of troops or for the storing of supplies. The towers also served as signal stations so that the soldiers guarding the area could send out alerts of attacks.

More Fortifications Along the Wall:
More Fortifications Along the Wall

The Great Wall, in its time, was also utilized as a highway. The majority of the walls making up the structure range from 15 to 30 feet wide, all which permitted the easy passage of troops or couriers from one section to another. Where the terrain was difficult to navigate, use of the wall sped up travel to a significant degree.

13)  The Great Wall is So Long That No One Has Been Able To Determine Its Length
Because the Great Wall was built over a span of several centuries, or a couple thousand years, the actual length is extremely difficult to determine. Plus, determining the length is contingent upon how the wall is measured. If you add the offshoots to the structure, the Wall's total length increases substantially. Not only that, new walls were sometimes built parallel to older walls, which does nothing to clarify the measurement.

Hikers Walking Along One of These Offshoots:
Hikers Walking Along One of These Offshoots

Measuring the Great Wall today is also complicated by the fact that part of the structure is now in ruins. As a result, obtaining an exact measurement becomes an impossible task. A 2009 mapping study, using GPS and infrared technology, showed that roughly 180 miles of the wall had been buried by sand storms as well as other natural processes.

great wall of china

According to recent studies though, scientists estimate that the remaining Wall is around 5,500 miles long. However, if the length of the entire defensive system is tallied, the length of the Wall is estimated to be an astounding 31,070 miles long! That measurement is over 6,200 miles longer than the circumference of the Earth.

12)  The Great Wall Took 2,000 Years to Build
It took workers over 2,000 years to build the Great Wall of China. The first part of the wall was first built in the 6th and 7th centuries BC with the final parts of the wall completed from the 14th through 17th centuries.

Therefore, the earliest defensive walls in northern China date from about 700 BC. They were built by people in individual states which ruled the region at the time, including the Chu, Qi, Wei, Han, Zhao, Yan, and Qin nations. Collectively, these areas were known as the "Warring States" during this period of conflict in Chinese history.

ancient chinese nations

After the Warring period, during the 2nd century BC, Qin Shi Huang, ruler of the western Qin state, unified the warring states into the first Chinese empire. During this time period, the emperor worked at linking the previous defensive fortifications and walls into one cohesive fortress – all which served to safeguard the country from nomadic attacks from the north. Armies were stationed along the structure to defend people from attack, with signal fires used to call in any needed reinforcements.

As time progressed, later dynasties improved and extended the fortification, constructing new walls as new territories were usurped or fortifications were replaced. The construction was continuous throughout the Ming Dynasty, which ruled over China from 1368 to 1644 AD. In fact, most of the walls that exist in the system today are stone or brick fortifications that were built when the Ming was in power.

11)  The Great Wall Is Made Out of Rice
While it is not a major building material, rice was indeed used as a structural component in the construction of the Great Wall. During the Ming era, a sticky type mortar made of rice flour and slaked lime was used for building the stone and brick walls. The mortar is still used today for brickwork and stone. Exceptionally solid – even today, the rice-type mortar prevents weeds from sprouting through the nooks and crannies that develop when other mortars are used.

In fact, in certain research studies, scientists, studying ancient Chinese architecture, experimented with rice mortar – trying to recreate the use of the bonding compound in current architectural and building projects in China. When analyzing the sticky material, they found that the crystalline structure differed significantly from other kinds of mortar. Because rice’s calcium carbonate structure is smaller and more condensed, it forms a stronger and more dependable bond for laying bricks.

rice bricks

Next to using rice, the other materials utilized in the construction of the Great Wall are considered more mundane. Many of the early-built sections were simply made from compacted dirt or stone. Because the wall spans over such a great distance, builders frequently made use of natural materials that were nearby or close at hand.

10)  The Great Wall Was Not Always a Good Fortress for Defense
While the main purpose of the Great Wall of China was to prevent invasions from nomadic people in the north, the Wall did not always prove to be reliable. Because the nomads lived in the drought-like conditions of the Chinese steppes, they frequently were tempted to raid the stockpiles of food of their agricultural neighbors to the south.

Defensive Positions Along the Great Wall:
Defensive Positions Along the Great Wall

Although trading existed between the two regions, the relationship between the two peoples, overall, was neither harmonious nor peaceful. The main weakness associated with the Wall was its incongruity. Therefore, northern nomads always found a way to get into the region. One of the most famous raiders was Genghis Khan, whose Mongol warriors succeeded at conquering China in 1279 AD.

Genghis Khan:
Genghis Khan

The defense provided by the wall was also ineffective when it was not adequately manned. After all, a wall standing alone, without the support of a battalion, cannot defend an area from attack.

9)  The Great Wall of China Is One of the Largest Public Works Projects Ever To Be Undertaken
Historically, the Great Wall of China has to be listed as one of the largest public works projects on record. The massive amount of work and time involved in building the thousands of miles of walls and fortifications also required large labor force. Therefore, it is hard to determine just how many people worked on the structure over the centuries – considering the length of the wall and the time involved.

wall section great wall of china

The first large-scale "Great Wall” project, during the Qin Dynasty, employed roughly 300,000 soldiers and 500,000 laborers. Later, the Northern Qi Dynasty used 1.8 million people on its wall-building projects, and the Sui Dynasty employed a million people for further construction of the wall. Frontier guards, farmers, convicts, down-on-their-luck intellectuals, and even disgraced noblemen were employed, at one time or another, to work on the building project.

Great Wall of China Near Jinshanling:
Great Wall of China Near Jinshanling
By Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons

8)  The Great Wall Unified Chinese Culture
The Chinese have shared a common culture longer than any other group of people on earth, and the building of the Great Wall is one of the events that played a major role in this respect.

Teahouse in the Nanjing Presidential Palace Garden:
Teahouse in the Nanjing Presidential Palace Garden
By Gisling via Wikimedia Commons

That’s because the building of the Great Wall was one of the first projects that spanned over the Chinese empire – unifying the area to the south geographically and politically.

Because thousands of people, from different parts of China, were used to build the fortification, the people became familiarized with the various customs of the Asian continent.

great wall of china

7)  The Great Wall Is Defined as a "Dragon” Wall
In Chinese philosophy, dragons are an important symbol of wisdom and goodness. Dragons live under the earth, protecting their homeland. They shape the landscape and bring it to life.

Because dragons are considered to be symbolic components of feng shui and Chinese astronomy, they were considered to be protective icons during the building of the Great Wall as well.

Components of Feng Shui:
Components of Feng Shui

According to one legend, the dragon walked the course of the building site and left its tracks to show where the Wall should be built.. The Wall, itself, has also been compared to the dragon – a protective edifice that was used to safeguard the northern border of China.

6)  The Great Wall is a Manmade Wonder, But It Is Not Considered One of The “Great Wonders” of the Ancient World
Despite being the world's largest piece of ancient architecture, the Great Wall is not counted as one of the "Great Wonders of the Ancient World." That’s because the idea of the "Seven Wonders of the World" was started by the ancient Greeks.

In fact, several Greek writers compiled their own lists of architectural wonders, most of which tended to include at least some of the same structures. Naturally, such lists focused on structures within the Greeks’ sphere of knowledge. Architectural feats, such as the Great Wall of China, were simply unknown to them.

However, that being said, many lists of the “Seven Wonders of the World" have been compiled during different periods since that time, and therefore the listings may focus on different structures. For example, the Great Wall is included as one of the wonders of the medieval world on at least one of these varied lists.

Portion of the Great Wall at Mutianyu:
Portion of the Great Wall at Mutianyu

Of greater significance, the Great Wall of China was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. UNESCO recognized the Wall for its historic, strategic, cultural, and architectural importance - a testament to the Chinese and their sophisticated expertise during ancient times.

The building of the Great Wall demonstrates a high level of forward thinking by the rulers of the ancient Chinese states – one which involved an enormous capacity for organization, given that a huge workforce was mobilized and established for the overall project.

5)  The Last Battle Fought in the Area of the Great Wall Occurred in the 20th Century
While the Great Wall was designed to defend the ancient Chinese from the nomadic people of the Asian steppes as well as the nearby Mongolian raiders, the last of the intruders came from another part of the world.

In 1938, the Japanese controlled the area north of the Great Wall, or the region of Manchuria. When Japanese troops marched on Beijing, they discovered that the Great Wall was hindering their attack.

Manchurian Region:
Manchuria Region

The Chinese army, in turn, used the wall as a defense against the invasion, giving the structure one more opportunity to serve its purpose – to defend the Chinese from attacks from the north.

However, after a series of battles, the Japanese finally broke through the fortification. Today, thousands of bullet holes batter the wall – a reminder of that one last invasion from the north.

4)  The Great Wall Caused the Boxer Rebellion (Except It Actually Didn't)
Although the Great Wall plays a part in the story behind the Boxer Rebellion, the tale is a fabrication that is American in origin. In 1899, three Denver newspapers reported that the Chinese were making plans to tear down the Great Wall in order to replace it with a road.

Chinese General Nie Shicheng Killed in 1900 During the Boxer Rebellion:
Chinese General Nie Shicheng Killed in 1900 During the Boxer Rebellion

According to newspaper accounts at the time, Chinese officials were accepting bids from American firms to do the work on the roadway, claiming that a Chicago-based engineer was used as a source for their story.

The news made a big splash, eventually appearing in papers all across the nation. However, everything was completely made up. The original stories were written as a joke by Denver reporters whose real reason for telling the tales was to spice up an otherwise bland day in the field.

Boxer During the Revolt:
Boxer During the Revolt

The hoax might have ended there. However, in 1939, a new article appeared that claimed that Chinese locals were so angered by the false reports that they took up arms against westerners in the country. As a result, the Boxer Rebellion ensued – a violent period in Chinese history which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Chinese and foreigners. While that last news story really did not have anything to do with the Rebellion itself, it was believed it did after the telling of the accounts.

3)  The Great Wall Is a Figurative, But Not Literal Graveyard
Many people worked on the Great Wall under oppressive conditions. As a result, the Great Wall has been dubbed as the “World’s Longest Cemetery,” primarily because so many people lost their lives while working on the structure.

While some stories have been circulated that people have been buried inside the wall, those accounts are false or the source of an overactive imagination. Most of the workers who died were buried alongside the structure. However, one legend persists about a woman named Meng Jian Nu, who was a farmer’s wife during the Qin Dynasty. Meng’s husband, who was conscripted to work on the wall, died one day while working at the site.

Map of Qin Dynasty:
Map of Qin Dynasty

When Meng heard of her husband’s death, it was said that she wept for such a long period that the wall eventually collapsed and revealed her husband’s bones. Still, scientists, so far, have found no evidence to support any truth behind this legend or any other stories about people being buried within the Wall.

2)  The Great Wall is the Most Popular Tourist Attraction in China
One of the first foreign tourists to see the Great Wall was also one of the Wall’s most famous and influential visitors. When President Nixon traveled to China in 1972, his trip included a visit to the Great Wall near Beijing. Because of the President’s trip, the outside world became more aware of the Wall’s significance.

Since that time, the Great Wall has become China's most popular tourist attraction, with 10 million people visiting the area where the Wall sits every year. The section of the Wall most often visited is in Badaling, or the section of the Wall closest to Beijing. Badaling also served as the endpoint of the 2008 Olympic cycling course.

Great Wall of China at Badaling:
Great Wall of China at Badaling
By Dolly442 via Wikimedia Commons

Other sections of the Wall have been opened to the public as well. The area near Mutianyu is accessible from Beijing, but receives fewer visitors, making it a better choice for tourists who want to savor scenic views of the surrounding countryside..

Hikers like to walk the Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai, a 7.5-mile hike through relatively isolated terrain.

Great Wall of China Near Simatai:
Great Wall of China Near Simatai
By Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons

Tower Section, Simatai Great Wall Section:
Tower Section, Simatai Great Wall Section
By Jakub Hałun via Wikimedia Commons

Tour options for visiting the Wall include multi-day journeys along stretches of the structure, with opportunities to spend the night camping beside the Wall itself.

Helicopter flights over parts of the Wall can be booked, or motorcycle sidecar tours to some of the less-frequented sections of the Wall can be scheduled too.

1)  The Great Wall Is Not Visible from The Moon
The myth that the Wall is visible from the moon appears to have started before 1900, but was popularized in 1932 when the “fact” was published by "Ripley's Believe It Or Not.’ Even though space travel would not yet occur for many decades, people still believed the fallacy. Today, that "fact" is still accepted as common knowledge - that the Wall is visible from the moon, or at least visible by orbiting the planet.

However, people who have visited space (and the moon) say otherwise. Astronauts who participated in the Apollo moon missions confirm that no manmade structure is visible from the moon. Astronauts, who have orbited the Earth, also state that the Great Wall is not visible from those heights.

Satellite Image of Great Wall:
Satellite Image of Great Wall
By Evar Arnfjoro Bjarmason via Wikimedia Commons

Only 30 feet wide at its broadest sections and largely made out of natural materials, the Great Wall blends seamlessly into the surrounding terrain and is therefore impossible to see from the stratosphere.

The Great Wall of China is a monument to China's influence imperially and culturally. The Wall is also a subject of myth and fantasy, with its legends stretching and surpassing the length of the structure itself. Once a part of a cohesive defensive strategy, today the Wall holds important links with China's past.

Not only is the Great Wall a national treasure, it is a global testament to human skill, ingenuity, and resolve.





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