How Long Is China’s Great Wall And Why Was It Built?
by | May 2, 2021
How long is China’s Great Wall and why was it built? Construction to create the current 13,000 miles of the wall continued, on and off, for more than two millennia. Much of what remains was built during the Ming Dynasty. While intended to keep out foreign invaders, Genghis Khan demonstrated how even a wall as great as this had a flaw.
It’s the most iconic structure in Asia.
Running all the way from the North Korean border to the western desert wastes of the Jiayu Pass, the Great Wall of China is simply one of the longest things ever built.
In fact, it’s so long we don’t even know its actual length.
Estimates range from 8,850km to a staggering 21,000km – over twice the distance separating Beijing from Los Angeles.
Standing up to 9m high, it traverses mountains, valleys, and hostile deserts.
First started some 700 years before the Roman Empire was even a saucy twinkle in Augustus’s eye, the Wall has demarcated the north of Chinese civilization for millennia.
Yet despite being one of the most famous engineering projects ever undertaken, the Great Wall remains a mystery to most of us.
What we do know is often distorted or plain wrong – like the common misconception that it’s the only manmade structure visible from space.
While such false factoids may be fun, the truth is even more compelling.
Standing at the heart of Chinese policy for aeons, the Wall has witnessed kingdoms, empires,and regimes rise and fall.
Today, we’re going to uncover its story.
Fact from Fiction
If you’re an average person, you might be coming into this video assuming you already know a bit about the Great Wall, stuff you’ve picked up off trivia videos.
Well, we hate to break it to you, but that stuff is almost certainly wrong.
And that’s not your fault.
The Great Wall of China is surrounded by more misconceptions than the use of facemasks during a pandemic.
The first thing you need to understand is that it’s not the Great Wall so much as the Great Walls – plural.
Rather than being constructed as a single entity, the Wall is a hodgepodge of fortifications that, taken together, represent a formidable barrier.
It’s also discontinuous.
While you may picture a single unbroken fortification, the reality is that almost a third of the “wall” consists of stuff like rivers and mountain ranges.
Oh, and just to be clear: no, it’s not visible from the surface of the Moon.
Yet, the biggest misconception most people have of the Great Wall is its history.
The story of the Great Wall can be traced back to China’s Spring and Autumn Period, which lasted from 770 – 476 BC.
Despite its romantic name, the Spring and Autumn Period was anything but magical.
As the authority of the Zhou Dynasty disintegrated, the once-unified civilization was starting to split into separate states.
While this upheaval gave us super-brainy dudes like Confucius and Sun Tzu, it also gave us a whole lot of Chinese people killing one other.
Hence the need for a great wall.
We say “a” great wall rather than the Great Wall because that’s how things started:
with multiple walls, all pretty great in their own right.
The state of Chu was the first to get building, throwing up a defensive wall in the 7th Century BC.
Just to give you an inkling of this time period from our Western perspective, this lines up with the early-ish years of Ancient Greece – centuries before Socrates or Alexander the Great were born.
So, yeah: the Chu wall. Pretty old.
The Chu wall must’ve done its job at keeping the other Chinese states out, because soon they were all at it.
But don’t go thinking these great walls looked anything like the modern Great Wall.
Although they stretched for hundreds of kilometers, the Spring and Autumn “walls” were mostly earthen bulwarks.
Still, they clearly planted the germ of an idea in people’s subconscious – one that would soon involve building the biggest wall of all.
Come 475 BC, the Zhou Dynasty was so weak that the seven Chinese states were no longer even pretending to play nice.
And so began the battle for supremacy known as the Warring States Period.
While the Spring and Autumn period’s name might be misleading, the name “Warring States Period” couldn’t be more descriptive if it tried.
For over 200 years, the Chu, Qin, Qi, Wei, Zhao, Han and Yan all schemed and fought to be the ones in charge.
But, like a WWE Royal Rumble, there could only be one contender left standing at the end.
In 221 BC, the Qin metaphorically KO-ed their final opponent with a steel chair, and succeeded in reuniting China.
It would be under their watch that China would finally stop building walls plural; and focus on a single behemoth.
The Wall Begins
There are two things you’ve gotta understand about Shi Huang; the First Qin Emperor, and big fan of terracotta soldiers.
The first is that he’s the guy responsible for our conception of a unified China.
He standardized written Chinese, set up the first bureaucracy, and laid the foundations of the modern state.
The second is that he did all this while being an epic dick.
In 220 BC, a year after unifying China, Shi Huang decreed a wall be constructed across the northern frontier.
The rationale was to defend the new Chinese state against Xiongnu raiders, but its real intention was to be a symbol of unity.
A way of proving that China was now a single entity under a single ruler.
And that apparently required forcing everyone to help build the damn thing.
The Corvée system was a common form of taxation in the past, paid to a ruler in the form of X days of free labor.
Shi Huang’s goal was to take this idea and run with it as far as possible.
During his short reign, men from across China were dragged north, dumped on a building site, and told to make a wall.
It was gruelling, backbreaking labor.
While the number who died during construction is unknown, the poetry of the time features sons, brothers, and husbands going to work on the Great Wall and never coming back.
Not that they called it the Great Wall.
Back then, it was known as the “10,000-Li Long Wall”, after a unit of measurement roughly equivalent to 500m.
However, it was now at least a single project.
As his huge earthen wall was built, Shi Huang simultaneously had all the walls from the Warring States period knocked down.
The only ones he left were small fragments from the Spring and Autumn period that could be incorporated into the new, Great Wall.
By the time Shi Huang died in 210 BC, the Wall stretched from Korea into the deserts near Gùyuán.
His popularity, on the other hand, stretched all the way down to minus a million.
Within two years of the First Emperor’s death, the Qin Dynasty had been overthrown.
What followed was a bloody decade in which China quickly fractured into 18 separate states,and then just as quickly rejoined back into a single whole under the Han Dynasty.
Initially, the Han view of the Great Wall was all like “that thing?
Symbol of tyranny.
Let’s forget all about it.
But while it was Han’s official policy to portray themselves as more enlightened than that dick Shi Huang, they couldn’t deny the wall’s usefulness.
During the reign of Emperor Wudi, from 141-87 BC, it became clear that a massive, garrisoned wall could work not just as a means of defense, but as a means of control.
Specifically, for controlling the lucrative Silk Road.
And that was how the Han went from Wall haters, to its biggest fanboys.
By the time the Western Han Dynasty ended around 24 AD, the Great Wall reached north into the Gobi Desert, and West beyond modern Jiuquan.
Or, to put it in American terms: about equal to the distance separating New York City from Austin, Texas.
But this was far from the Great Wall’s final form, or even its maximum length.
The story of China’s national symbol was only just beginning.
A Symbol of What?
Over the following centuries, the Great Wall’s usefulness ebbed and flowed.
The Eastern Han mostly ignored it before their fall in 220 AD, while the many leaders during the Six Dynasties era alternately let it fall into disrepair, and went mad building 1,000km long additions.
As late as the Sui Dynasty at the end of the 6th Century AD, it’s clear the Wall still loomed large in popular imagination.
The Emperor Yangdi, for example, wrote the following poem:
Desolately the wind rises.
We march thousands of miles over vast distances.
Why do we cross the deserts?
To build the Great Wall.
But Yangdi was one of the last.
Not long after he wrote those words, interest in the Wall fell to its lowest point in history.
For that, you can blame the Tang.
Starting in 618 AD, the Tang Dynasty is considered the Golden Age of Imperial China.
This was the era when China defeated all its northern enemies, so expanding its territory that the Wall became useless as a defensive structure.
But it also became useless in another way.
The Tang wanted China to engage with the world.
Wanted foreigners to be seen not as mindless barbarians; but as traders and allies.
In this global-facing China, the symbolism of a massive bloody wall was best forgotten.
But – and, with a story like this, there’s always a “but” – here’s the thing:
No matter how little the Tang were onboard with the Great Wall, they never took the step of knocking it down.
When the time came, it would be all too easy for some other dynasty to build it up all over again.
The Tang golden age finally ended in 906 AD.
After that, it was the excitingly busy Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, after which the Song took control of most of China.
Note that keyword: “most”.
Although the Song are counted as China’s rulers during this period, they weren’t the only Emperors on the block.
As their Dynasty progressed, they gradually lost control of the north, until they were forced to abandon it altogether.
Stepping into the northern power vacuum came the Great Jin.
Despite their braggadocious name, the Great Jin in reality weren’t all that Great.
They controlled the north of China for only a century or so before getting stomped into obliteration.
But they’re important for our story today because they were the first guys to use the Great Wall for the purpose it’s most famous for.
The Great Jin used this giant fortification to keep out the Mongols.
The idea of the Wall being a barrier against the Mongols is so ingrained it crops up on everything from Futurama to South Park.
But the Wall had already been standing over a millennium when Mongol raiders became a serious threat.
It didn’t do much good.
After a couple of decades of on-again, off-again warfare, the Mongols crushed the Great Jin in 1234.
Roughly half a century later, Mongol leader Kublai Khan went south, crushed the Song,and re-re-reunited China under his Yuan Dynasty.
You can probably guess how a Mongol dynasty treated the Great Wall.
By this point now, we’ve been through something like 8 Dynasties – depending on how you’re counting – a whole bunch of periods where everyone was just kicking the stuffing out of one another, and about 2,000 years of history.
Yet, despite all this, the Wall is still just a bunch of unconnected earthenworks that looks nothing like you imagine it.
Well, fear not, because all that’s about to change.
In a little over a century, the Yuan Dynasty is gonna be dead and buried.
And the guys who replace them?
Let’s just say they are absolutely gonna build that wall.
Build the Wall!
The life of Zhu Yuanzhang is so fascinating that it could make an excellent 25-minute video in and of itself.
Y’know, if someone just happened to have a YouTube channel devoted to biographies or something.
Born into a peasant family, Zhu Yuanzhang spent his formative years as a beggar, before becoming a monk, and then deciding “hell with this,” overthrowing the Yuan and establishing his own Ming Dynasty.
Like we said: fascinating.
But while Zhu Yuanzhang was the one to establish the new dynasty, it would be his successors who made the Wall a centerpiece of their policy.
The first to start this obsession was the Yongle Emperor.
During his reign at the beginning of the 15th Century, he moved the capital from Nanjing back north to Beijing.
While this was great from the perspective of “having a sweet-ass place to establish the Forbidden City”, it was less great from the perspective of “suddenly having angry Mongols on your doorstep”.
So the Yongle Emperor initiated a process of works on the Great Wall, a process that would be most enthusiastically taken up by the Hongzhi emperor at the end of the century.
But rather than just reinforce the existing Wall like the dynasties before them, the Ming would utterly transform it.
Under their watch, the existing earthen mounds were destroyed and replaced with elegant brick sides dotted with watchtowers.
It was a version of the Wall that was both a defensive structure, and a work of art.
Intricate dragon symbols were carved into the towers; towers which were themselves things of beauty.
But the new Wall also had a third purpose: one that was entirely political.
The Ming wanted everyone to know exactly how they felt about the Mongols, whose Yuan ancestors they’d overthrown.
So they gave their towers bombastic names like “the Tower for Suppressing the North” and – our favorite – “the Tower for Suppressing the Goat-Like Foreigners”.
Yet despite the angry symbolism of the Ming Wall, the reality of it could never live up to its hype.
One of the problems was it was so long that its upkeep became a Sisyphean task.
Do you know that false-but-popular story about painters working on the Golden Gate Bridge had to start all over again once they reach the end?
Well, that was actually true of the Ming Wall.
Sections that had been gloriously rebuilt would already be crumbling by the time other parts were finished, necessitating endless repairs.
Then there was the difficulty of garrisoning it.
While the areas around Beijing were always well-stocked, the extremities were – how to put this politely?
often manned by men who couldn’t give a fèn.
Being posted to the Wall’s watchtowers meant being dragged away from your family for years,
stuck on crappy pay, and being given nowhere near enough food or clothing to keep you alive.
You can see the inevitable results of that in this 1550 report from a military commander: “Our troops and rangers often go into Mongol lands to trade with them and have made friends there.
The Mongols take our men’s place as watchmen and our soldiers replace their troops as herders.”
But perhaps the single-most damning fact about the Ming’s obsession with the Wall is this:
In 1644, just as the Ming Dynasty was about to fall, they were still rebuilding the Wall.
All those hundreds of years, all that work… and it had all amounted to nothing.
What’s in a Name?
What must’ve really stuck in the Ming’s throats was that the guys who overthrew them were the sort of outsiders they’d been trying to keep out.
The Qing Dynasty were from Manchuria, a northern land beyond the Ming Wall.
Yet, when the time came, they simply rode down, penetrated this barrier, and overthrew the Ming.
Giant walls, everyone: great for symbolism.
Not so great for actual defense.
Still, while the Manchu Qing may have easily broken through the Wall, that doesn’t mean they weren’t big fans of it.
The Qing were a foreign Dynasty that did its level best to make itself appear Chinese.
They adopted all the trappings of the Ming court.
Assimilated themselves into China’s imperial story.
And if that meant maintaining the Wall as a cultural symbol, then so be it.
Yet the Qing did have at least one practical use for the Wall.
Although their ruling class completely assimilated into Chinese society, they wanted to keep their homeland of Manchuria very un-assimilated and pure.
So they used the Wall not as a way of keeping invaders out of China; but – irony alert – of
keeping the Chinese out of Manchuria.
It was also during the Qing era that the Great Wall finally came to the attention of the Western world.
In the 17th Century, the Jesuits arrived in China.
Although their whole thing was to spread Christianity, they tried to make themselves useful to the Qing, establishing arms factories, building astronomical instruments, and helping map the Empire.
It was during one of these mapping expeditions that the Jesuits encountered the Great Wall.
The sight of this seemingly unbroken Wall, stretching off for thousands of kilometers was mind-blowing.
Although the local Chinese seemed to care little about it, the Jesuits were impressed enough to send glowing accounts back to Europe.
These accounts landed like a bomb.
Voltaire was hugely influenced by them.
They were followed by more descriptions, including a famous 17th Century one by Captain William Parish.
It was Parish who transcribed the name as Wan Licheng, an abbreviated form of Wanli Changcheng, meaning “Long Wall” or “Endless Wall”.
But the translation that stuck was “the Great Wall”.
Yet, even as Europe was embracing an idealized version of China’s Great Wall, the continent’s Great Powers were proving how useless it was as a defensive structure.
Roughly four decades after Captain Parish surveyed the Wall, British gunboats were sailing up China’s Rivers, threatening to bomb entire cities into oblivion if the Chinese didn’t allow the sale of opium.
Not long after, another Opium War resulted in the classic British dick-move of burning down the seat of government.
By the time the 19th Century ended, the idea that the Wall could ever again be a useful defensive structure must’ve been laughable.
Yet its usefulness wasn’t entirely over.
As the 20th Century dawned, the Ming Wall would find another life not as a military structure, but as an icon.