The Great Wall of China is not just a simple wall that divides a border. In addition to being ranked as one of the most important engineering works in history, the mega structure carries enormous symbolic power over what traditional Chinese culture was all about.

The construction of the enormous wall officially began in 221 B.C. during the Qin dynasty, under the orders of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who ordered the construction of a wall on the northern border of the territory now known as China.

Counting its ramifications and secondary constructions, it is estimated to be 21,200 km long, on average 6 to 7 meters high and 4 to 5 meters wide.

From its emergence to the present day, the Great Wall, in addition to functioning for centuries as a relentless defense strategy that prevented the illegal entry of foreigners into the territory, represents a great demonstration of power and unity against outsiders. 

In this unity is concentrated the ancestral wisdom of the Chinese tradition that, despite being originally composed of countless fiefdoms and governments marked by great differences, knew how to coexist and develop mutually, feeding on their roots and points in common, forming an enormous nation protected by noble and strong armies that used the Great Wall to mark their limits against the enemy.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the Great Wall became popular as the most common emblem of China to the Western world, and established itself as a symbol of manifestation of strength and power against foreign influences and threats.

History of the Wall

The Great Wall of China is an ancient series of walls and fortifications, totaling more than 20,000 kilometers in length. It is undoubtedly one of the most recognized symbols of ancient China and its long and vivid history. 

The mega work was originally conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century B.C. with the aim of preventing the incursions of the barbarian Xiongnu nomads and others that abounded in the region.

But the best known and best preserved section of the Great Wall was built between the 14th and 17th centuries A.D., during the Ming dynasty. 

In more than 2,000 years of history, only on rare occasions did the Great Wall fail to completely prevent invaders from entering Chinese territory. Therefore, it is said that in general terms it fulfilled its purpose as a military strategy and a powerful symbol of the strength of Chinese civilization.

During the years 1000 and 250 B.C., China was dominated by a system of fiefdoms or states led by princes, all united under the kings of the Zhou dynasty.

Many of these fiefdoms developed and acquired relative independence, provoking some conflicts among themselves, giving rise to the so-called Warring Kingdoms period.

The nomadic peoples of Mongolia and Manchuria, taking advantage of the weakness of the Chinese empire caused by the fragmentation of their kingdoms, lost no opportunity to attack and advance into Chinese territory.

Consequently, several kingdoms in the north of the region built important border walls to keep their population protected, creating small fortresses isolated from each other.

In 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huang conquered all the states that opposed him and succeeded in unifying China once again, giving birth to the Qin dynasty. 

He quickly ordered the destruction of the walls that divided his empire and ordered the construction of a great wall that would connect the existing fortifications along the northern border.

The construction of the “Wan Li Chang Cheng”, or 10,000 Li long wall, was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken by any civilization. The famous Chinese general Meng Tian was the original director of the project and according to historical records used a massive army of soldiers, convicts and commoners as laborers.

Historians of the time claim that nearly 400,000 workers died during construction and many of these were buried within the wall itself.

Subsequent dynasties pursued various policies towards the defense of the northern border. The Han (202 BC – 220 AD), the Northern Qi (550-574), the Jin (1115-1234) and, in particular, the Ming (1369-1644) were the ones who actively rebuilt and expanded the walls.

Mobilizing millions of workers over centuries, the aforementioned dynasties rebuilt and advanced the Great Wall also to the west, achieving a greater defense against invading peoples.

In contrast, the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties did not build border walls, but opted for other solutions such as military campaigns and diplomacy to face the threats coming from inside Asia.

The Great Wall as it is known today is mainly the product of work done during the Ming dynasty, particularly since it was decided, starting in 1474, to rebuild most of the walls by modifying their original facing with stones and bricks.

The Ming rulers adopted a largely defensive posture, and their reform and extension of the Great Wall was key to this strategy.

The Great Wall was divided into southern and northern lines, respectively called the Inner and Outer Walls. Strategic fortress-like “passes” and gates were placed along the wall; the Juyong, Daoma and Zijing passes, closest to Beijing, were called the Three Inner Passes, while further west were Yanmen, Ningwu and Piantou, the Three Outer Passes.

Where did the need to create a wall come from?

Basically, the need to establish a wall arose from the conflicts that appeared as a result of the constant attempts of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia to penetrate the territory now called China. 

Chinese and nomads, in spite of their closeness and even certain physical similarities, were divided by a geographical line that marks a great topographical and climatic difference that gave rise to different modes of development and social customs.

The climatic conditions and fertile soils allowed the Chinese to develop agriculture since ancient times, even with complex irrigation systems that allowed them to expand following the course of the rivers. This required a collective and organized labor force that had to depend on a well-oiled bureaucratic system that connected power among the feudal cities, as reported in analyses by China specialist Karl August Wittfogel.

These cities combined to become states and fiefdoms, which eventually merged to become part of the various empires that dominated China.

Following this model, the walls not only enveloped the cities, but also bordered the boundaries of the feudal states and, eventually, the entire Chinese empire, seeking protection from the attempted advances of nomadic societies from the north.

On the other side of the geographical divide the climatic and topographical reality is very diverse. A large steppe made crop production difficult and favored the development of a pastoral economy.

Animal herds are migratory by nature, therefore, the same path had to be followed by those who intended to live from their production. Thus arose the famous nomadic peoples of Central Asia, incompatible with the agricultural economic model of ancient China.

But as the population of the steppe grew, the pastoral economy alone could not sustain the population and it became essential to develop tribal alliances through material rewards with peoples linked to agriculture and the development of other technologies such as iron and wood. 

Relationships that began as strategic alliances often ended in conquests and usurpations, generating great losses and concerns for the Chinese empires by their northern neighbors.

Mongolia, where the enemy is concentrated

The main concern of ancient China was the region known today as Mongolia, located between southern Russia and northern China. The fiercest enemy nomadic tribes of the region were concentrated there. Among them were the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Khitan and the Mongols.

Since the creation of the Wall, China has managed to keep under control the various Mongol peoples who were partially organized to try to advance on China.

But everything changed from the 8th century onwards. Until then they were divided into many tribes, with an intense internal struggle to maintain their reign and the domination of one tribe over another.

The organization among the various peoples grew until the figure of an outstanding tribal leader emerged, Temujin (1167-1227), son of Esugey Baatar, who succeeded his father at the age of thirteen as tribal chief and achieved a consolidated unification of all the Mongols, proposing to set out to conquer the whole world, forming in 1206 the Mongol state and proclaiming himself as the authentic great king of the Mongol empire under the name of Genghis Khan.

Contrary to custom, Temujin placed competent allies instead of relatives in key positions and executed the leaders of enemy tribes while incorporating the remaining members into his clan. 

Thanks to his skills as a warrior and his ability to win loyal allies, he was able to discipline his people and unify all Mongols under his command. 

Thus it was that Genghis Khan and his immediate successors conquered practically all of Asia and European Russia, sending armies even to places as far away as Central Europe and Southeast Asia. 

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, was the first to circumvent the Great Wall and penetrate deep into Chinese territory until he managed to seize power and conquer greater China, founding the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). 

During this period China gained great recognition in Europe due to the writings of Marco Polo and other travelers who passed through the huge country in the trade developed by the Silk Road.

The Yuan dynasty was the first dynasty in which all of China was controlled by a non-Han people, the Mongols. The Great Wall had done a good job of preserving the territory for 1500 years. But as expected, it ceased to serve its function during the Yuan dynasty, as China and Mongolia became part of a single territory. 

It should be noted that the Wall did not fail in its functions in the Mongol advance over China, but rather it was the cunning used by Genghis Khan who knew how to negotiate with the ruling peoples who guarded the incomes of the Wall, taking advantage of the internal conflicts that the Song dynasty was experiencing at that time, which allowed him to cross the wall almost without using force and then invade the whole of China.

The greatest engineering work in history

It is no coincidence that the Great Wall of China has managed to stop the advance of powerful armies and has served as a shield to maintain the power of the different dynasties that developed in China under the constant threat of external forces. 

In addition to its imposing size in height, width and, of course, in length, the powerful structure that keeps such a heritage standing is the product of an enviable engineering work even today, with the technological development of the 21st century.

While it is true that many sectors were well maintained by the various dynasties, there are others that have had practically no more interventions since their creation and yet remain perfectly solid after more than 2,000 years in some cases. 

One surviving section of such an ancient wall, in the province of Shandong, is made of compacted earth called “rammed earth” and is estimated to be 2500 years old. This mixture used is nothing more than the mixture of earth, clay and rocks packed as building material in the right proportions, added to the human labor that with much sacrifice placed and compressed it to ensure the adherence and hardness of the material.

The first parts of the wall used in greater proportion this rammed earth and wood of the place. With the passage of time these first stretches of wall were unified and in some sections were fortified using bricks, quarried granite or even marble blocks. Along the wall it can be seen how, as time went by and new construction technologies and new materials were discovered, they were incorporated and adapted to what was already built.

Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the Hongwu emperor, took power in 1368 A.D. giving birth to the Ming dynasty, famous for its outstanding advances in the arts of ceramics and painting. 

The Ming emperors erected watchtowers and platforms, adding their own stamp to the wall. Most of the popularly known images of the wall show stone constructions made during the Ming dynasty.

The Great Wall is a unique work in the world mainly because it fully preserves all the material and spiritual elements, as well as the historical and cultural information, that make it of outstanding universal value. The complete route along its more than 20 thousand kilometers has been preserved to this day. 

It is also noteworthy that the elements used, as well as their construction methods from different times and places have been maintained to the present day.

Recognition of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known for short as UNESCO, is a specialized agency of the United Nations with the supposed objective of guiding nations towards greater modernization and productive development while maintaining the cultural identity and diversity of peoples. 

Although it has received much criticism in recent years for its dubious neutrality when it comes to issuing reports and assessing cultures and traditions, it continues to be an opinion with a certain international prestige when it comes to evaluating historical monuments.

Thus, since 1987 UNESCO has decreed the Great Wall of China as a World Heritage Site, highlighting in it the reflection of the collision and exchanges between agricultural civilizations and nomadic civilizations of ancient China.

In addition, the report asserts that the Wall provides significant physical evidence of the far-sighted strategic political thinking and powerful military and national defense forces of the central empires in ancient China, demonstrating an outstanding example of the military architecture, technology and superb art of ancient China. Embodying unprecedented significance as a national symbol to safeguard the security of the country and its people.

The Great Wall has unparalleled symbolic significance in China’s history. Its purpose was to protect China from outside aggression, but also to preserve its culture from the ways of foreign barbarians, and the Wall has undoubtedly succeeded in fulfilling its tasks for centuries. 

The CCP and the Great Wall today

The Great Wall has proved to be a real physical shield to keep the tradition of the Chinese people alive, preventing the advance of invading armies and evil-doing barbarians. 

However, it could do nothing against the communist specter that entered invisibly using the wickedness of certain people and spread like a virus through force and oppression during the 20th century.

The communist specter seeped into China and took its form inside walls, under the name of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Far from preserving the tradition of the world’s oldest people, as the wall has done for more than two thousand years, the CCP has been bent on destroying every sign that reflects ancestral cultures and beliefs.

However, as one more of its many contradictions, the CCP continues to use the Great Wall as a symbol of greatness to intimidate its enemies and demonstrate its power.

As an example, in February 2021, accusations from certain sectors of the international community highlighting the responsibility of the Chinese regime in the pandemic caused by the Wuhan coronavirus, aroused the anger of leader Xi Jinping who declared that foreign forces will never “coerce and enslave us”, and added: “Anyone who dares to try to do so will have their heads beaten bloodily against the Great Wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese”.

Today, the Chinese regime presents itself to the world as a standard of greatness, strength and protection of its people, just as the Great Wall of China has done. However, far from being a beacon of protection, it is the greatest source of oppression, persecution and totalitarianism in history, in addition to being responsible for destroying in a few decades the traditions that the Wall protected for more than two thousand years.

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