By Lu Rucai, China Today staff writer

A survey among influential statesmen and entrepreneurs from 50 countries in connection with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, headed by Feng Huiling, vice president of the Renmin University of China, confirm[ed] that the Great Wall is still the main sightseeing priority of visitors to China.

How Long Is the Great Wall?

“Most people associate the Great Wall with Badaling,” says Dong Yaohui, vice-president of the China Great Wall Society and authority on the subject. “Construction of the wall began during the Spring and Autumn Periods more than 2,000 years ago, and continued through to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Its total length exceeds 6,500 kilometers.” Badaling is just one [2.15-mile] section of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall currently open to tourists, a length that [doubled] in time for the 2008 Olympics.

Building of the Great Wall was initiated by the southern State of Chu in the 7th century BC, when China was in a state of anarchy as numerous independently ruled vassal states vied for power. The aim of the Wall was to strengthen defense of the local regime. The State of Qi and others in the north took similar defensive action. After Qinshihuang united the country and established the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, the defensive walls built by former northern vassal states were linked. Its total [3,100-mile] length extended from Liaoning in Northeast China to Gansu’s Minxian in Northwest China. Today, just a few sections of the Qin Dynasty Great Wall still stand in northern Datong in Shanxi Province, western Minxian County in Gansu Province and Guyang in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Construction of the Great Wall continued during the ten dynasties succeeding the Qin, that on the largest scale during the Han (260 BC - AD 220) and Ming dynasties. The total length of the Han Dynasty Great Wall exceeded [6,200 miles], and was around [3,720 miles] in the Ming Dynasty, according to research.

Most of the Great Wall still standing was built more than 600 years ago, in the Ming Dynasty. The length within the Beijing boundary, including the well-preserved sections of Badaling, Simatai and Mutianyu, extends for [390 miles],

“No matter how solidly it may have been built, the Great Wall, like everything else, has a life span,” says Zhou Youma, deputy secretary general of the China Great Wall Society. “Its ‘quality guarantee period’ was 50 years, according to Ming Dynasty standards. If any problems occurred within that time, the officer in charge of its construction was punished. Today, even the most recently constructed sections of the Great Wall have a history of 300 to 400 years, which is why their condition is fragile.”

Zhou confirms that the Great Wall is extremely vulnerable to erosion, whose pace of damage far outstrips that of restoration.

For War or Peace?

The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is an imaginative description of this ancient project that raises the points, “With this method of construction (section by section) many large gaps arose;” “there are said to be gaps which have never been filled in at all.” It then asks, “The wall was conceived as a protection against the people of the north, as was commonly announced and universally known. But how can protection be provided by a wall which is not built continuously?”

As vice-president Dong Yaohui of the China Great Wall Society remarks, “Military defense is generally considered to have been the aim of the Great Wall. But it performed a peaceful rather than warlike function.” Dong acted as guide to former U.S. president Bill Clinton and current U.S. president George W. Bush when they visited the Great Wall. Both presidents were keen to know why so much manpower, material and funds had been expended on this massive, yet apparently incomplete, defense project throughout the centuries. Dong explains, “The Great Wall was a means of reconciling China’s nomadic and farming economies. Clashes between the Han and nomadic communities occurred throughout Chinese history. Nomadic ethnic groups north of the Great Wall, such as the Qin and Han Dynasty Huns and Ming Dynasty Mongols, sought pastures for their horses, cattle and sheep. They coveted land in the Central Plains areas that had been settled by Han farmers. Nomad sheep and cattle ruined painstakingly cultivated Han crops, and farmers retaliated by slaughtering nomad livestock. ”

The conflict caused many farmers to migrate southward, leaving large areas of farmland in the north to waste. Dong continues, “In order to halt this agricultural retreat, troops were sent in by the government of the Central Plains areas to protect farmers and their land, but they would arrive only to find that the marauders had already retreated. The nomads would simply renew their attack as soon as the troops had withdrawn.” Construction of the Great Wall, therefore, was with the aim of restoring order to the farming economy, and the function of troops stationed on it was to maintain peace on the border.

The Great Wall to some extent promoted development of border trade. As the nomadic economy produced only meat and hides, nomads would attack Central Plains farming communities and pillage the cloth and iron implements they produced. As Dong Yaohui explains, “Construction of the Great Wall prevented looting and established trade.” Great Wall passes such as the Niangzi and Zijing were outposts for collecting tariffs.

“Few battles occurred along the Great Wall for thousands of years, and those that did were of short duration. The Great Wall was built to avoid wars, and its solidity was with the aim of maintaining peace. There are forks on certain sections, and it is not continuous in mountainous regions as building on steep slopes was pointless. The Great Wall, therefore, should not be defined simply as a military project,” Dong Yaohui concludes.

“A main principle followed in building the Great Wall was to ‘take advantage of natural barriers and take measures appropriate to local conditions,’” is Zhou Youma’s reply to Franz Kafka’s questions.

Historical Great Wall Inhabitants

Many villagers living at the foot of the Great Wall in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and even Beijing, are descendants of its original builders and garrisons.

Emperor Qinshihuang dispatched more than 300,000 troops that had just wound up the military campaign against Hun invasion to build the Great Wall. He requisitioned a further 500,000 civilian laborers, among them convicts. “The soldiers were from all over the country, and Ming Dynasty builders were from both southern provinces as well as those in the north such as Shandong,” Zhou Youma says. A mural inside an Eastern Han tomb discovered in Horinger County, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 1971 indeed depicts the occupant’s journey from Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) to Horinger via the Juyong Pass. There was consequently a meeting of cultures at the various localities along the Great Wall.

Garrison troops were sent to the Great Wall upon its completion to consolidate frontier defenses. Soldiers and peasants were ordered to cultivate wasteland along the Wall, and taxes were levied to cover soldiers’ pay and provisions.

Other than at times of invasion, garrisons on the Great Wall rarely exceeded one or two soldiers to a single watchtower. When an enemy attack was reported, soldiers lit beacons to inform nearby troops, and the message would be passed via the Great Wall beacon towers to the military headquarters in the capital. During the Ming Dynasty, beacons were lit to raise the alarm and gunshots signaled the number of invaders. The beacon system was capable of alerting the capital to an attack within two hours from as far as a thousand miles away.

Many perceive the Great Wall simply as a huge wall, but it consists of many military facilities, such as barriers, passes, terraces, beacon towers, and arsenals as well as defense guard headquarters and barracks. Its multiple functions include a base for fighting and command posts, observation, communications, and shelter. A defense project of such dimensions was an effective safeguard against nomad cavalry.

The Contemporary Roles of the Great Wall

Since opening to the public in 1952, the number of visitors to the Badaling Great Wall exceeds 150 million, including more than 400 foreign heads of state.

Several other sections of the Great Wall, amounting to some [19 miles], have since been opened to tourists. They include Mutianyu, Simatai and Juyongguan. Other sections are badly in need of repair and consequently dangerous. The Regulations on the Protection of the Great Wall prohibits visitors to these areas.

“The symbolism of the Great Wall is far greater today than its historical significance. It is above all a landmark, regardless of the roles it played in history,” concludes Dong Yaohui.

Reprinted with permission of China Today (

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