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The History of the Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

One of China’s most recognizable symbols of construction is the Great Wall. This massive wall consists of several walls and fortifications, some of which run parallel to each other.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang initially conceived the wall in the third century B.C. He ordered the wall to be built to help prevent barbarian nomads from attacking and entering the Chinese Empire. In fact, the wall is the most extensive construction project ever completed and doesn’t cease to amaze archaeologists to this day.

The best preserved and well-known section of the wall dates to the 14th through 17th centuries A.D. Erected during the Ming dynasty, the Great Wall served more as a psychological barrier for China instead of a physical one. However, to this day, it remains an enduring symbol of strength for this mighty country.

Construction during the Qin Dynasty

While the beginning of this construction masterpiece dates to the third century B.C., there are many areas of the wall that predate this by hundreds of years. During the Warring States Period, China was divided into several individual kingdoms. It wasn’t until around 220 B.C., when Qin Shi Huang, became the first emperor of China that these kingdoms became unified. At that time, Qin had earlier fortifications removed, and several of the existing walls on the northern border merged into a single wall system that extended more than one-third of a mile. It served to protect China from attacks by the north.

An ambitious project, General Meng Tian was in charge and used a massive army of convicts, soldiers and commoners as workers to help build the giant wall. Experts say that as many as 400,000 people died during the construction process and most were ultimately buried within the wall.

The wall is made primarily of stone and earth and ended up stretching from the China Sea port town of Shangaiguan to more than 3,000 miles west into the Gansu province. Some areas of the wall overlapped to provide more security. The wall’s base measures 15 to 50 feet, rises as high as 15 to 30 feet tall with ramparts 12 feet or higher and guard towers located at specific intervals on the wall.

The Evolving Wall

Once Qin Shi Huang died, and the Qin Dynasty fell, a significant portion of the Great Wall fell into disrepair. When the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) fell, several tribes gained control of Northern China. The most powerful was the Northern Wei dynasty (385-525 A.D.), which undertook to repair and extending the existing wall. Later, the Bei Qi kingdom (550-577) restored and built more than 900 miles of the Great Wall. The Sui dynasty (581-618) also repaired and extended portions of the Great Wall.

When the Sui dynasty fell, the Tang dynasty (618-907) reigned, causing the Great Wall to lose most of its importance as a barrier and fortification. During this period, China expanded past the northern portion of the wall, which left little need for it to serve as protection from invaders. Under the Song dynasty (960-1279), people withdrew from the north, as the Liao and Jin people took over most of the area. Then came along the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1206-1368), which was established by the infamous ruler Genghis Khan. Khan eventually ruled all of China, sections of Europe and Asia. The Great Wall was not a military fortification for the Mongols, but they did have soldiers assigned to watch the wall to protect caravans and merchants that traveled over trade routes.

Ming Dynasty

What you see today when you view the Great Wall is mostly contributed to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Similar to the Mongols, the Ming rules didn’t focus on building fortifications. In 1421, emperor Yongle made Beijing the new capital of China. During the Ming dynasty, the culture grew and flourished, and construction once again began on the Great Wall. Other construction projects in the country included bridges, pagodas and temples. The construction that we see on the Great Wall began around 1474. Initially, they focused on territorial expansion, but once they were able to accomplish this goal, they took a defensive stance and extended the Great Wall.

Ultimately, the Great Wall had several strategic fortresses and gates, and the areas near the capital were heavily guarded in the Ming period.

The Significance of the Great Wall

During the mid-1600s, the Manchus broke the Great Wall, eventually causing the fall of the Ming dynasty. This paved the way for the Qing (Manchu) dynasty (1644-1912). From the 1700s to modern day, the Great Wall has become a symbol for both China and the Western world. The Great Wall symbolizes both physical and psychological strength.

One of the most impressive architectural structures built by man, the Great Wall was designated a UNESCO site in 1987. It is the only man made structure visible from outer space.

Today, thousands of national and foreign tourists visit the wall every day, awing its historical significance and architectural beauty.

If you would like to visit the Great Wall of China in person, check out our many tours of this region. Additionally, learn more about our 15-Day Yangtze Cruise Tour with Bullet train.

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