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Great Wall

Great Wall
  • HISTORY
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  • Qin Dynasty
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HomeGreat Wall › Great Wall History
Great Wall History

Great Wall Construction Prior to Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty is traditionally divided into two periods: Western Zhou (11th century BC-771BC) and Eastern Zhou (770BC-221BC). And the Eastern Zhou has two periods: the Spring and Autumn Period (770BC-476BC) and the Warring States Period (476BC-221BC).

Spanning 2,700 years of Chinese history, ranging from the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), over twenty states and dynasties were involved in the building of the Great Wall. The creation of the Great Wall was initiated during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period to prevent the invasion by other states of China and outer tribes.

Walls Built in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC - 476 BC)

Great Wall of Chu State

According to historical records, the first part of the Great Wall of China was built by Chu State. Chu State was a small state that gradually developed by conquering weak neighbors during the Spring and Autumn Period. To control China and prevent the intrusion of the Jin and Qi states, Chu State built a series of walls along its northern frontier in about 656BC. These boundary markers would eventually evolve into the Great Wall. Shaped like a "U", the Wall of Chu was referred to as "the Rectangle Wall".

Entering the Warring States Period, Chu State extended its wall to guard against the attack from other states especially the mighty Qin. As such, the wall of Chu became more integrated and solid. At this point, the site now included the Lushan and Yexian Counties of Pingdingshan City, Wugang City, Fangcheng and the Nanzhao Counties of Nanyang City in Henan Province.

Great Wall of Qi State

Qi State was another state that participated in the building of the wall. Qi construction of the Wall commenced in the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period and finished in the middle of the Warring States Period. The whole construction lasted 300 years covering a length of 600 kilometers (372 miles). That was later called the Famous Wall of Qi.

Similar to Chu State, Qi State built the fortification to prevent intrusion by other states and outer tribes. It became one of the most influential military defenses in Chinese history. Its ramparts, passes, fortresses and beacon towers formed an integrated military defense system around which important historical events and campaigns were held.

The Wall of Qi stretched across almost the whole of Shandong Province, from the west in Changqing County to the east in Jiaonan County, passing through eight cities to reach the Yellow Sea of China.

With the development of Chinese society, the defense function of the Wall of Qi no longer exists. Only relics are left.

Walls Built in the Warring States Period (476BC-221BC)

Battles during the Spring and Autumn Periods and the Warring States Period occurred very often, particularly during the period of the "Seven Powers of the Warring States Period". Each state was eager to set the boundaries of its territory. To defend the state against invasion, they each built defense walls. With the increasing heat of the battles, the walls were continuously extended. The "Seven Powers" of Qin, Qi, Chu, Han, Yan, Zhao and Wei each built or extended their walls. Except for the Walls of Chu in the Yangtze River valley, all the others were in the Yellow River valley and Northern China areas.

Great Wall of Qin State

During the early Warring States Period, Qin State suffered from a weak economy, civil strife and repeated invasions by Wei State. To protect Qin State, the kings, Qin Ligong and Qin Jiangong successively, built the wall to the west of the Yellow River and the Luo River - a site that can now be found in Northern Shaanxi in Shaanxi Province.

An additional section of the wall was built along the northwest frontier of the state by King Qin Zhaogong. To the northwest of Qin State lay the Yiqu, a branch of the ancient Chinese Xirong people. Powerful during the Spring and Autumn Periods, these people held battles with the Qin from time to time. To guard against the intrusion of the Yiqu, King Qin Huiwen built the fortification along the north of his frontier. However, it was not until the period of King Qin Zhaogong that the Yiqu were completely defeated and the wall of Qin was built. These sites now lie in Gansu Province and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Great Wall of Zhao State

According to historical record, the Wall of Zhao State was built in two sections. One section was built to the south of Zhao State in 333BC to prevent attacks from Wei and later the strong Qin. The whole wall was about 200 kilometers (124 miles) long and its site can now be found in Linzhang County and Cixian County of Hebei Province.

The other section was built in 300BC by King Zhao Wuling to prevent attacks from the Hu people. King Zhao Wuling was a wise king that made great efforts to make reforms and promote the culture exchange of different nations. He learned from the Hu people on one hand, and fought against the invasion of Hu people on the other. This section of the wall was located in what now is Inner Mongolia in China.

Great Wall of Zhongshan State

Zhongshan State was a small but powerful one. During the Warring States Period, Zhongshan was aligned with the Yan and the Qin, its northern and eastern neighbors, and experienced a long and peaceful period. However its southwestern neighbors, the Zhao and Wei states, considered it a serious danger. So Zhongshan built the wall in 369BC to protect itself.

The Wall of Zhongshan was at the junction of Hebei Province and Shanxi Province of China. It ran over Mt. Hengshan, across Mt. Taihangshan and finally reached the Xingtai area of Hebei Province, stretching about 250 kilometers (155 miles).

The Wall of Wei had two sections: the first was the Hexi Wall located in the northwest of Wei, and it was originally built to guard against the mighty Qin. The other was the Henan Wall in the south. The sites are located in now Huayin City, Hancheng City and Dali County in Shaanxi Province. Starting at the foot of Qinling in Huayin, the Wall stretched to Dali, Chengcheng and Heyang in the north and Hancheng in the east, through the Loess Altiplano to Inner Mongolia, and at last ended in Guyang, Baotou. It spanned more than 200 kilometers (124 miles). The longest and best preserved part ran about 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles), with a height of 2.2-11.4 meters (7.2-37.3 feet) and a width of 6-16 meters (19.7-52.4 feet). Today, only one or two sections remain including a fortress and beacon tower at a height of 7-11 meters (23-36 feet).

Great Wall of Zhenghan State

This part of the Wall was originally built by Zheng State in 355BC. After the Zheng were conquered by the Han, Han State continued to build and use the Wall. Some call this section the Wall of Han, while others call it the Wall of Zheng - hence the creation of the shared name Wall of Zhenghan. This part of the Wall connected with the southeastern Wall of Wei, and can be found in present Xinzheng City in Henan Province, once the capital of the Zheng and Han.

Great Wall of Yan State

The Wall of Yan State also had two sections: the Wall of Yishui and the Wall of the North. Construction of the Wall of Yishui, from 334BC to 311BC, was done to guard against the attack from the Zhao, Qi and Qin. It stretched about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the foot of present Mt. Taihangshan of Yixian County through Xushui and Anxin Counties, via XiongXian County and ended in Wen'an County in Hebei Province.

The Wall of the North was built to guard against intrusion by nomadic people like the Donghu. This part of the wall was built in 254BC, which was the last wall built in the Warring States Period. This wall went through present Zhangjiakou City of Hebei Province, Inner Mongolia, across Hebei Province, Chaoyang City of Liaoning Province, over Mt. Yiwulu Shan, and reached Liaoyang of Liaoning Province. Now the sites of Wall of Yan can be found in the above-mentioned areas.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Qin Dynasty

In the year 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shihuang defeated all his enemies and unified China for the first time in its history. During his reign, the Huns from the north were a constant threat, often coming down to the Yellow River Basin and taking land from people in the Hetao Area, located at the top of the Great Bend of the Yellow River in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. To protect his people and safeguard his political power, the Emperor ordered General Meng Tian, commanding 300,000 soldiers, to defeat the enemy force. To prevent further attacks by the Huns, he decided to consolidate and extend the Great Wall of China.

Many people believed that it was Emperor Qin Shihuang who first built the Great Wall. But research showed that before Qin's Great Wall, the six ducal states had already built their own walls to prevent attacks from each other and the Huns. Qin's Great Wall was built by connecting parts of the walls belonging to the past ducal states Qin, Zhao and Yan, plus adding several thousand miles of its own. The Great Wall of Qin resembled a gigantic dragon, extending from Lintao in the west to Liaodong in the east. Thus it was named 'Wanli Changcheng' (Ten Thousand Li Great Wall).

Generally speaking, Qin's Great Wall can be divided into three sections: western, middle and eastern. Thewestern section started from the present Min County in Gansu Province, winding its way to Inner Mongolia via Guyuan County in Gansu Province; Jingbian, Yulin, Shenmu in Shaanxi Province; ending at the south bank of the Yellow River. The middle section started from Xinghe County in Inner Mongolia, winding its way to the north border of Wulanbuhe desert by way of Daqingshan Mountain, Guyuan County, Yinshan Mountain and the Yellow River. This part of the Great Wall was built mainly by using rubbles left from existing walls. The eastern section started from Huade County, Inner Mongolia, through Hebei Province, ending in Fuxin City in Liaoning Province. This part of the wall was built on the foundation of the ruins of Yan Dynasty walls.

It took about nine years to finish this grand project. The construction of the Qin Great Wall took many lives and a great deal of money and materials. From a historical aspect, during Qin Shihuang's rule, the Great Wall had served its role as a defensive force to protect people from wars and ensured them a peaceful and stable society.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Han Dynasty

Emperor Wendi (Yang Jian) who ruled from 581 to 604 was the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty. He usurped the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and established the Sui Dynasty in 581. The Sui Dynasty lasted for only two generations spanning 38 years. However, in this period several sections of China Great Wall were built.

Adopting the well-established administrative systems of the Northern Zhou, the Sui proceeded to bring down the Chen Dynasty of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and so created a united China and bringing to an end an era of chaos that had endured for 270 years. Following unification, the feudal separatism that had lasted in China for four hundred years also came to an end.

The new imperial government set about the prevention of invasion from the northern nomadic peoples such as the Turkic People and Qidan People. In 583, the Turkic People, a nomadic tribe that inhabited land to the north of the Sui territory, split into the Eastern and the Western factions due to inner confliction. However, the Turkic tribe continued to attack the Sui's northern boundary.

A labor force numbering many hundreds of thousands was gathered to work on the construction of the Great Wall. Historical records show us that the Sui Dynasty undertook six such major construction projects in total.

Sui Great Wall during the Reign of Wendi

Four construction projects were completed during the reign of Emperor Wendi.

1). In April of 581, the first section of the Sui Dynasty Great Wall was built. This project took only twenty days but in December, the eastern sections of the Great Wall attributable to the Northern Wei and the Northern Qi were repaired.

2). Historical research shows that a section was started in 585 from the east bank of the Yellow River near Lingwu County in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, through Hengshan County to Suide County of Shaanxi Province. This ran for about 350 kilometers (217 miles) from west to east.

3). In 586, a twenty-day repair was undertaken. In addition, construction of several fortresses was commenced along the Great Wall to the east of present Hengshan County of Shaanxi Province in order to protect the Sui border in that region.

4). In 587, a further section of the Great Wall was constructed but there is no surviving record providing detailed information about this.

Sui Great Wall during the Reign of Yangdi

When Emperor Yangdi came to the throne in 604, he instigated two more Great Wall construction projects.

1). During 607, a labor force of millions was levied to extend the Great Wall from the east of today's Youyu County of Shanxi Province to the southwest of Toketo County of Inner Mongolia.

2). The other section commenced at Xining City of Qinghai Province in the west, but the location of the eastern extremity of this section is not recorded.

These two sections of the Great Wall had no strategic purpose beyond displaying the military power that prevailed during the rule of Emperor Yangdi.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Northern & Southern Dynasties

The Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420) after the Han Dynasty (206BC-220) were suffered by contending battles. Due to the battles and inner conflicts, no Great Walls were built during the two dynasties.

Subsequently, the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) coexisted. The dynasties of Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen, the Southern Dynasty (420-589), took Jiangkang (present Nanjing City of Jiangsu Province) as their capital. The dynasties of the Northern Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Western Wei, the Northern Qi, and the Northern Zhou were called the Northern Dynasty (386-581). During this period, the dynasties of the Northern Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Northern Qi, and the Northern Zhou had the Great Wall built and extended.

Great Wall of Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534)

Tuoba Gui, the chieftain of Xianbei people, the most important and largest nomadic tribes of the steppe region north of China during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, established the Wei Dynasty in 386, later called the Northern Wei. At that time, its northern Rouran people, a nomadic tribe living north of the Northern Wei, became increasingly powerful. To thwart their advance, in 423 the Northern Wei Dynasty built about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of the Great Wall to its northern boundary and set up garrisons to prevent invasion by the Rouran.

This section of the Great Wall started from Chicheng County of Hebei Province, through the north of Shanxi Province and ended in Wuyuan County of Inner Mongolia. Emperor Taiwudi, ruler at the height of Northern Wei military strength, ended the unification war at the Yellow River Valley, defeated his powerful enemy, the Rouran, and established six important garrisons north of the Great Wall to protect Pingcheng City (present Datong City), capital of the Northern Wei.

The Northern Wei also built the inner wall (Sai Wei), an earth wall lower and thinner than the Great Wall, to supplement the Great Wall. The Sai Wei was also built to protect Pingcheng City. It started from present Shanxi Province, along the boundary of Shanxi and Hebei provinces and reached Tianzhen County of Shanxi Province, circled Datong City and ended at the east bank of the Yellow River. It stretched for about 500 kilometers (311 miles) long.

Great Wall of Eastern Wei Dynasty (534-550)

The Northern Wei divided into Eastern and Western Wei. To prevent intrusion by the Rouran, in 543 the Eastern Wei built a section of the Great Wall from today's Jingle County to Chunyang County of Shanxi Province, stretching about 75 kilometers (47 miles). While not very long; it is the passage through which northern nomadic peoples entered China. The Eastern Wei built this section of the Great Wall to consolidate the northern boundary and to prevent intrusion by nomadic people.

Great Wall of Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577)

The Northern Qi Dynasty was founded after defeat of the Eastern Wei in 550. During the short period of reign, the dynasty area was frequently invaded by northern nomadic peoples such as the Rouran, Turkic, and Qidan, and was threatened by Western Wei and Northern Zhou. So the Northern Qi rebuilt the Great Wall many times.

During 552, the first part of the Great Wall of the Northern Qi was built to prevent invasion by the Western Wei. This section ran south to north, from today's Lishi County to Shuoxian County of Shanxi Province, stretching about 200 kilometers (124 miles).

Turkic people of the Mongolian Plateau became increasingly powerful, establishing the Turkic Dynasty during the reign of the Northern Qi., often invading the northern boundary of the Northern Qi. So the Northern Qi had to accelerate its pace in the construction of the Great Wall. A section of 450 kilometers (279 miles) was built in 555 starting from the south gate of present Juyongguan Pass and ending in Datong of Shanxi Province at the west.

Not only were two sections of the Great Wall built in 552 and 555, but during 556 a new section was built eastwards reaching Shanhaiguan Pass. The whole Great Wall was then about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) long, which was longer than those of former dynasties except Qin and Han.

In 557 a defense line was built inside the Great Wall. The section started east of Pianguan Pass in Shanxi Province, passing the eastern Yanmenguan Pass, and Pingxingguan Pass and then reaching Xiaguan Pass of Shanxi Province. The other section, starting from Niangziguan Pass, passing Malingguan Pass and ending at Huangyangguan Pass no longer exists; only some relics remain.

In 563 another section of the Great Wall was built along Mt. Taihangshan at the junction of Shanxi and Hebei Provinces. Some parts remain at the top of Mt. Taihangshan. A well-preserved section ran from west of Longquanguan Pass to west of Xiakou town, Jianping County of Hebei.

Because in 563 Turkic people launched two hundred thousand soldiers to destroy the Great Wall and prepared to invade Pingcheng City, the Northern Qi extended the Great Wall of the Eastern Wei to Yanmenguan Pass in 565 and mended the inner Great Wall built in 557. In addition, a section of the Great Wall was extended from Xiaguan Pass of Shanxi Province to its east end, Juyongguan Pass. A section between Juyongguan Pass and Shanhaiguan Pass was rebuilt.

Great Wall of Northern Zhou Dynasty (557-581)

By defeating the Western Wei, the Northern Zhou Dynasty was established in 557. At its height, it defeated the Northern Qi in 577 and unified the north of China. Meanwhile, the Turkic people north of the Northern Zhou became stronger and frequently intruded into Northern Zhou areas. Emperor Jingdi had the Great Wall of the Northern Qi renovated in 579.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Sui Dynasty

Emperor Wendi (Yang Jian) who ruled from 581 to 604 was the first emperor of the Sui Dynasty. He usurped the throne of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and established the Sui Dynasty in 581. The Sui Dynasty lasted for only two generations spanning 38 years. However, in this period several sections of China Great Wall were built.

Adopting the well-established administrative systems of the Northern Zhou, the Sui proceeded to bring down the Chen Dynasty of the Northern and Southern Dynasties and so created a united China and bringing to an end an era of chaos that had endured for 270 years. Following unification, the feudal separatism that had lasted in China for four hundred years also came to an end.

The new imperial government set about the prevention of invasion from the northern nomadic peoples such as the Turkic People and Qidan People. In 583, the Turkic People, a nomadic tribe that inhabited land to the north of the Sui territory, split into the Eastern and the Western factions due to inner confliction. However, the Turkic tribe continued to attack the Sui's northern boundary.

A labor force numbering many hundreds of thousands was gathered to work on the construction of the Great Wall. Historical records show us that the Sui Dynasty undertook six such major construction projects in total.

Great Wall of Sui Dynasty

Four construction projects were completed during the reign of Emperor Wendi.

1). In April of 581, the first section of the Sui Dynasty Great Wall was built. This project took only twenty days but in December, the eastern sections of the Great Wall attributable to the Northern Wei and the Northern Qi were repaired.

2). Historical research shows that a section was started in 585 from the east bank of the Yellow River near Lingwu County in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, through Hengshan County to Suide County of Shaanxi Province. This ran for about 350 kilometers (217 miles) from west to east.

3). In 586, a twenty-day repair was undertaken. In addition, construction of several fortresses was commenced along the Great Wall to the east of present Hengshan County of Shaanxi Province in order to protect the Sui border in that region.

4). In 587, a further section of the Great Wall was constructed but there is no surviving record providing detailed information about this.

Sui Great Wall during the Reign of Yangdi

When Emperor Yangdi came to the throne in 604, he instigated two more Great Wall construction projects.

1). During 607, a labor force of millions was levied to extend the Great Wall from the east of today's Youyu County of Shanxi Province to the southwest of Toketo County of Inner Mongolia.

2). The other section commenced at Xining City of Qinghai Province in the west, but the location of the eastern extremity of this section is not recorded.

These two sections of the Great Wall had no strategic purpose beyond displaying the military power that prevailed during the rule of Emperor Yangdi.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Jin Dynasty

After the short-lived Sui Dynasty came the glorious Tang Dynasty (618-907). The whole period of the Tang Dynasty was a time of economic and cultural prosperity. During this period there was little or no threat from beyond the national borders, so no additional fortifications were deemed necessary. With the collapse of the Tang Dynasty and the subsequent fragmentation of the country the succeeding dynasties continued to focus on cultural development. The Song Dynasty (960-1279), although obliged to adopt a defensive stance against the dynasties of Liao (907-1125), Western Xia (1032-1227), and Jin (1115-1234), did not build fortification walls.

According to historical records, in 908 a section of the Great Wall on the Nanguanling Town of Liaoning Province at the confluence of the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea (Huanghai Sea) was built during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). In 1026, the nomadic Nuzhen who occupied territory to the northeast of China built several fortresses and beacon towers to prevent invasion. The fortresses and beacon towers formed part of the defense system of the Great Wall. At this time the Great Wall stretched from White City (Bai Cheng) Village of Acheng City of Heilongjiang Province in the north to Nongan County of Jilin Province in the south.

Great Wall of Jin Dynasty

In 1115, the Nuzhen nomadic established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). In order to prevent incursion from their neighbors, the Mongols, a large construction program was launched. The records show that two important sections of the Great wall were completed.

The Great Wall as constructed by the Jin differed from the previous sections. Known as the Border Fortress or the Boundary Ditch of the Jin, it was formed by digging ditches within which lengths of wall were built. In some places subsidiary walls and ditches were added for extra strength. The construction of the Great Wall by the Jin Dynasty was started in about 1123 and completed by about 1198. The two sections attributable to the Jin Dynasty are known as the Mingchang Old Great Wall and the Mingchang New Great Wall.

Mingchang Old Great Wall:

Also called the Border Fortress of the Jin, this section is located to the north of the Mingchang New Wall. It is near today's Heilongjiang River northwest of the Xing'an Mountains in Heilongjiang Province. It stretched about 500 kilometers (311 miles).

Mingchang New Great Wall:

Also called the Inner Wall of Jin, it was also built to prevent attack from the Mongols, the whole wall stretched about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), starting from Hetao area of Inner Mongolia at the west, passing provinces and autonomous regions such as Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and Heilongjiang and ending at the Songhua River of Heilongjiang Province.

Today, the site of the Great Wall of the Jin Dynasty can be found in Xilinhaute City of Xilin Gol League of Inner Mongolia.

With the advent of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), there was no further need to extend the border defenses, as their territory spanned parts of both Europe and Asia. The next era of construction was to follow when the rule of the Ming was established.

Great Wall Construction Prior to Ming Dynasty

The Great Wall of China as it exists today was built mainly in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644). It was an ambitious project and took over 100 years to complete. The walls of this period were well designed and known for their unique configuration and effective defense system. Extending from the Yalu River in Liaoning Province to the eastern bank of the Taolai River in Gansu Province, Ming's Great Wall winds its way from east to west through present Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu Provinces or areas.

Research has shown that Ming's emperors were busy with the construction of this Great Wall throughout their reign. After seizing political power from rulers of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), the emperors had to battle desperate Yuan forces in the north and stop the threat of invasion from other northern ethnic tribes such as Nuzhen, Dada and Wala. To resist these outside forces and protect their citizens, every emperor of the Ming Dynasty spared no effort in building, fortifying, extending and eventually completing the Great Wall.

The design of the Ming Wall was well thought out. For example, Xuanfuzhen Great Wall in Beijing, due to its strategic position, was built in the unique style of double lines, inner and outer, to strengthen its defensive ability. A total of six passes were built. The inner passes were Juyongguan Pass, Zijingguan Pass and Daomaguan Pass, and the outer passes were Pianguan Pass, Ningwuguan Pass and Yanmenguan Pass. These passes controlled entries and exits into the areas and are secured by gates. Watch towers, signal towers, fortresses, and observation posts serve as additional reinforcements. The Ming Great Wall was further divided into nine zones, each controlled by a garrison, called 'zhen' in Chinese. Two more garrisons were added later, making a total of eleven garrisons of Great Wall. This ensured the security of the capital.

Following the topographies of the land through which it travels, this ancient Great Wall looks like a long winding dragon. To get a rough idea of the size: if all its stones, bricks, and earth are used to build a city wall of 1.1 yards high and 5.5 yards wide, the total length of this Great Wall will circle the earth more than once. Today, remnants of this huge wall stand as a witness to the sacrifices of the ancient builders and the wisdom of its designers. It is perhaps one of the greatest architectural achievements of men.

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