China is a series of fortifications made of stone,
brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along
an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China
to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and
invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe.
Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC;
these, later joined together and made bigger and stronger, are
collectively referred to as the Great Wall. Especially famous is
the wall built in 220–206 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first
Emperor of China. Little of that wall remains. The Great
Wall has been
rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced over various dynasties; the majority
of the existing wall is from the
Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Apart from defense, other purposes of the Great
Wall have included
border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods
transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade
and the control of immigration and emigration. Furthermore, the
defensive characteristics of the Great
Wall were enhanced by the
construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations,
signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, and the
fact that the path of the Great
Wall also served as a transportation
Wall stretches from
Dandong in the east to
Lop Lake in the
west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner
Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced
technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km
(5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi)
sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and
2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as
hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the
entire wall with all of its branches measures out to be 21,196 km
(13,171 mi). Today, the Great
Wall is generally recognized as
one of the most impressive architectural feats in history.
2.1 Early walls
2.2 Ming era
2.3 Foreign accounts
6 Visibility from space
6.1 From the Moon
6.2 From low Earth orbit
8 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
The collection of fortifications known as the Great
historically had a number of different names in both Chinese and
In Chinese histories, the term "Long Wall(s)" (長城, changcheng)
appears in Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian, where it
referred to both the separate great walls built between and north of
Warring States and to the more unified construction of the First
Chinese character 城 is a phono-semantic compound of
the "place" or "earth" radical 土 and 成, whose Old Chinese
pronunciation has been reconstructed as *deŋ. It originally
referred to the rampart which surrounded traditional Chinese cities
and was used by extension for these walls around their respective
states; today, however, it is much more often the Chinese word for
The longer Chinese name "Ten-Thousand Mile Long Wall" (萬里長城,
Wanli Changcheng) came from Sima Qian's description of it in the
Records, though he did not name the walls as such. The AD 493
Book of Song quotes the frontier general
Tan Daoji referring to "the
long wall of 10,000 miles", closer to the modern name, but the name
rarely features in pre-modern times otherwise. The traditional
Chinese mile (里, lǐ) was an often irregular distance that was
intended to show the length of a standard village and varied with
terrain but was usually standardized at distances around a third of an
English mile (540 m). Since China's metrication in 1930, it
has been exactly equivalent to 500 metres or 1,600 feet, which
would make the wall's name describe a distance of 5,000 km
(3,100 mi). However, this use of "ten-thousand" (wàn) is
figurative in a similar manner to the Greek and English myriad and
simply means "innumerable" or "immeasurable".
Because of the wall's association with the First Emperor's supposed
tyranny, the Chinese dynasties after Qin usually avoided referring to
their own additions to the wall by the name "Long Wall". Instead,
various terms were used in medieval records, including "frontier(s)"
(塞, sāi), "rampart(s)" (垣, yuán), "barrier(s)" (障,
zhàng), "the outer fortresses" (外堡, wàibǎo), and "the
border wall(s)" (t 邊牆, s 边墙, biānqiáng). Poetic and
informal names for the wall included "the Purple Frontier" (紫塞,
Zǐsāi) and "the Earth Dragon" (t 土龍, s 土龙,
Tǔlóng). Only during the Qing period did "Long Wall" become the
catch-all term to refer to the many border walls regardless of their
location or dynastic origin, equivalent to the English "Great
The current English name evolved from accounts of "the Chinese wall"
from early modern European travelers. By the 19th century,
Wall of China" had become standard in English, French, and
German, although other European languages continued to refer to it as
"the Chinese wall".
Main article: History of the Great
Wall of China
Wall of the Qin
Wall of the Han
The Chinese were already familiar with the techniques of wall-building
by the time of the
Spring and Autumn period
Spring and Autumn period between the 8th and 5th
centuries BC. During this time and the subsequent Warring
States period, the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan, and
Zhongshan all constructed extensive fortifications to defend
their own borders. Built to withstand the attack of small arms such as
swords and spears, these walls were made mostly by stamping earth and
gravel between board frames.
King Zheng of Qin conquered the last of his opponents and unified
China as the
First Emperor of the
Qin dynasty ("Qin Shi Huang") in
221 BC. Intending to impose centralized rule and prevent the
resurgence of feudal lords, he ordered the destruction of the sections
of the walls that divided his empire among the former states. To
position the empire against the
Xiongnu people from the north,
however, he ordered the building of new walls to connect the remaining
fortifications along the empire's northern frontier. Transporting the
large quantity of materials required for construction was difficult,
so builders always tried to use local resources. Stones from the
mountains were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used
for construction in the plains. There are no surviving historical
records indicating the exact length and course of the Qin walls. Most
of the ancient walls have eroded away over the centuries, and very few
sections remain today. The human cost of the construction is unknown,
but it has been estimated by some authors that hundreds of
thousands, if not up to a million, workers died building the Qin
wall. Later, the Han, the Sui, and the Northern dynasties
all repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great
Wall at great
cost to defend themselves against northern invaders. The Tang and
Song dynasties did not undertake any significant effort in the
region. The Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, who ruled Northern
China throughout most of the 10th–13th centuries, constructed
defensive walls in the 12th century but those were located much to the
north of the Great
Wall as we know it, within China's province of
Inner Mongolia and in
The extent of the Ming Empire and its walls
Main article: Ming Great Wall
Wall concept was revived again under the Ming in the 14th
century, and following the Ming army's defeat by the
Oirats in the
Battle of Tumu. The Ming had failed to gain a clear upper hand over
the Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the long-drawn
conflict was taking a toll on the empire. The Ming adopted a new
strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out by constructing walls along
the northern border of China. Acknowledging the
established in the Ordos Desert, the wall followed the desert's
southern edge instead of incorporating the bend of the Yellow River.
Unlike the earlier fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger
and more elaborate due to the use of bricks and stone instead of
rammed earth. Up to 25,000 watchtowers are estimated to have been
constructed on the wall. As
Mongol raids continued periodically
over the years, the Ming devoted considerable resources to repair and
reinforce the walls. Sections near the Ming capital of Beijing were
Qi Jiguang between 1567 and 1570 also repaired
and reinforced the wall, faced sections of the ram-earth wall with
bricks and constructed 1,200 watchtowers from Shanhaiguan Pass to
Changping to warn of approaching
Mongol raiders. During the
1440s–1460s, the Ming also built a so-called "
Similar in function to the Great
Wall (whose extension, in a sense, it
was), but more basic in construction, the
Wall enclosed the
agricultural heartland of the
Liaodong province, protecting it against
potential incursions by Jurched-
Mongol Oriyanghan from the northwest
Jianzhou Jurchens from the north. While stones and tiles were
used in some parts of the
Liaodong Wall, most of it was in fact simply
an earth dike with moats on both sides.
Towards the end of the Ming, the Great
Wall helped defend the empire
Manchu invasions that began around 1600. Even after the
loss of all of Liaodong, the Ming army held the heavily fortified
Shanhai Pass, preventing the Manchus from conquering the Chinese
heartland. The Manchus were finally able to cross the Great
1644, after Beijing had already fallen to Li Zicheng's rebels. Before
this time, the Manchus had crossed the Great
Wall multiple times to
raid, but this time it was for conquest. The gates at Shanhai Pass
were opened on May 25 by the commanding Ming general, Wu Sangui, who
formed an alliance with the Manchus, hoping to use the Manchus to
expel the rebels from Beijing. The Manchus quickly seized Beijing,
and eventually defeated both the rebel-founded
Shun dynasty and the
remaining Ming resistance, establishing the
Qing dynasty rule over all
Under Qing rule, China's borders extended beyond the walls and
Mongolia was annexed into the empire, so constructions on the Great
Wall were discontinued. On the other hand, the so-called Willow
Palisade, following a line similar to that of the Ming
was constructed by the Qing rulers in Manchuria. Its purpose, however,
was not defense but rather migration control.
Part of the Great
China (April 1853, X, p. 41)
Wall in 1907
None of the Europeans who visited Yuan
China or Mongolia, such as
Marco Polo, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, William of Rubruck, Giovanni
de' Marignolli and Odoric of Pordenone, mentioned the Great
The North African traveler Ibn Battuta, who also visited
Yuan dynasty ca. 1346, had heard about China's Great Wall,
possibly before he had arrived in China. He wrote that the wall is
"sixty days' travel" from Zeitun (modern Quanzhou) in his travelogue
Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of
Travelling. He associated it with the legend of the wall mentioned in
the Qur'an, which
Dhul-Qarnayn (commonly associated with Alexander
the Great) was said to have erected to protect people near the land of
the rising sun from the savages of Gog and Magog. However, Ibn Battuta
could find no one who had either seen it or knew of anyone who had
seen it, suggesting that although there were remnants of the wall at
that time, they weren't significant.
Soon after Europeans reached Ming
China by ship in the early 16th
century, accounts of the Great
Wall started to circulate in Europe,
even though no European was to see it for another century. Possibly
one of the earliest European descriptions of the wall and of its
significance for the defense of the country against the "Tartars"
(i.e. Mongols), may be the one contained in João de Barros's 1563
Asia. Other early accounts in Western sources include those of
Gaspar da Cruz, Bento de Goes, Matteo Ricci, and Bishop Juan González
de Mendoza. In 1559, in his work "A Treatise of
China and the
Gaspar da Cruz
Gaspar da Cruz offers an early discussion of the
Great Wall. Perhaps the first recorded instance of a European
China via the Great
Wall came in 1605, when the
Portuguese Jesuit brother
Bento de Góis
Bento de Góis reached the northwestern
Jiayu Pass from India. Early European accounts were mostly modest
and empirical, closely mirroring contemporary Chinese understanding of
the Wall, although later they slid into hyperbole, including
the erroneous but ubiquitous claim that the Ming Walls were the same
ones that were built by the
First Emperor in the 3rd
China opened its borders to foreign merchants and visitors after
its defeat in the First and Second Opium Wars, the Great
Wall became a
main attraction for tourists. The travelogues of the later 19th
century further enhanced the reputation and the mythology of the Great
Wall, such that in the 20th century, a persistent misconception
exists about the Great
China being visible from the
The main sections of the Great
Wall that are still standing today
An area of the sections of the Great
Wall at Jinshanling
Although a formal definition of what constitutes a "Great Wall" has
not been agreed upon, making the full course of the Great Wall
difficult to describe in its entirety, the course of the main
Wall line following Ming constructions can be charted.
The Jiayu Pass, located in
Gansu province, is the western terminus of
the Ming Great Wall. Although Han fortifications such as Yumen Pass
Yang Pass exist further west, the extant walls leading to
those passes are difficult to trace. From
Jiayu Pass the wall travels
discontinuously down the
Hexi Corridor and into the deserts of
Ningxia, where it enters the western edge of the
Yellow River loop at
Yinchuan. Here the first major walls erected during the Ming dynasty
cuts through the
Ordos Desert to the eastern edge of the Yellow River
loop. There at Piantou Pass (t 偏頭關, s 偏头关, Piāntóuguān)
Shanxi province, the Great
Wall splits in two with the
"Outer Great Wall" (t 外長城, s 外长城, Wài Chǎngchéng)
extending along the
Inner Mongolia border with
Shanxi into Hebei
province, and the "inner Great Wall" (t 內長城, s 內长城, Nèi
Chǎngchéng) running southeast from Piantou Pass for some 400 km
(250 mi), passing through important passes like the Pingxing Pass
Yanmen Pass before joining the Outer Great
Wall at Sihaiye
(四海冶, Sìhǎiyě), in Beijing's Yanqing County.
The sections of the Great
Wall around Beijing municipality are
especially famous: they were frequently renovated and are regularly
visited by tourists today. The
the most famous stretch of the Wall, for this is the first section to
be opened to the public in the People's Republic of China, as well as
the showpiece stretch for foreign dignitaries. South of Badaling
is the Juyong Pass; when used by the Chinese to protect their land,
this section of the wall had many guards to defend China's capital
Beijing. Made of stone and bricks from the hills, this portion of the
Wall is 7.8 m (25 ft 7 in) high and 5 m
(16 ft 5 in) wide.
One of the most striking sections of the Ming Great
Wall is where it
climbs extremely steep slopes in Jinshanling. There it runs 11 km
(7 mi) long, ranges from 5 to 8 m (16 ft 5 in to
26 ft 3 in) in height, and 6 m (19 ft 8 in)
across the bottom, narrowing up to 5 m (16 ft 5 in)
across the top. Wangjinglou (t 望京樓, s 望京楼, Wàngjīng
Lóu) is one of Jinshanling's 67 watchtowers, 980 m
(3,220 ft) above sea level. Southeast of
Jinshanling is the
Wall which winds along lofty, cragged mountains from
the southeast to the northwest for 2.25 km (1.40 mi). It is
connected with Juyongguan Pass to the west and
Gubeikou to the east.
This section was one of the first to be renovated following the
turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
At the edge of the Bohai Gulf is Shanhai Pass, considered the
traditional end of the Great
Wall and the "First Pass Under Heaven".
The part of the wall inside
Shanhai Pass that meets the sea is named
the "Old Dragon Head". 3 km (2 mi) north of
Shanhai Pass is
Wall (焦山長城), the site of the first mountain of
the Great Wall. 15 km (9 mi) northeast from Shanhaiguan
is Jiumenkou (t 九門口, s 九门口, Jiǔménkǒu), which is the
only portion of the wall that was built as a bridge. Beyond Jiumenkou,
an offshoot known as the
Wall continues through Liaoning
province and terminates at the Hushan Great Wall, in the city of
Dandong near the North Korean border.
In 2009, 180 km of previously unknown sections of the wall
concealed by hills, trenches and rivers were discovered with the help
of infrared range finders and
GPS devices. In March and April 2015
nine sections with a total length of more than 10 km (6 mi),
believed to be part of the Great Wall, were discovered along the
Ningxia autonomous region and
Wall at Mutianyu, near Beijing
China in tourist season
Before the use of bricks, the Great
Wall was mainly built from rammed
earth, stones, and wood. During the Ming, however, bricks were heavily
used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime,
and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work
with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. Additionally,
bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth.
Stone can hold under its own weight better than brick, but is more
difficult to use. Consequently, stones cut in rectangular shapes were
used for the foundation, inner and outer brims, and gateways of the
wall. Battlements line the uppermost portion of the vast majority of
the wall, with defensive gaps a little over 30 cm (12 in)
tall, and about 23 cm (9.1 in) wide. From the parapets,
guards could survey the surrounding land. Communication between
the army units along the length of the Great Wall, including the
ability to call reinforcements and warn garrisons of enemy movements,
was of high importance. Signal towers were built upon hill tops or
other high points along the wall for their visibility. Wooden gates
could be used as a trap against those going through. Barracks,
stables, and armories were built near the wall's inner surface.
A more rural portion of the Great
Wall that stretches throughout the
mountains, here seen in slight disrepair
China at Badaling
While portions north of Beijing and near tourist centers have been
preserved and even extensively renovated, in many other locations the
Wall is in disrepair. Those parts might serve as a village playground
or a source of stones to rebuild houses and roads. Sections of the
Wall are also prone to graffiti and vandalism, while inscribed bricks
were pilfered and sold on the market for up to 50 renminbi. Parts
have been destroyed because the
Wall is in the way of
construction. A 2012 report by the State Administration of
Cultural Heritage states that 22% of the Ming Great
disappeared, while 1,961 km (1,219 mi) of wall have
vanished. More than 60 km (37 mi) of the wall in Gansu
province may disappear in the next 20 years, due to erosion from
sandstorms. In some places, the height of the wall has been reduced
from more than 5 m (16 ft 5 in) to less than 2 m
(6 ft 7 in). Various square lookout towers that characterize
the most famous images of the wall have disappeared. Many western
sections of the wall are constructed from mud, rather than brick and
stone, and thus are more susceptible to erosion. In 2014 a portion
of the wall near the border of
Hebei province was
repaired with concrete. The work has been much criticized.
Visibility from space
From the Moon
One of the earliest known references to the myth that the Great Wall
can be seen from the moon appears in a letter written in 1754 by the
English antiquary William Stukeley. Stukeley wrote that, "This mighty
wall of four score miles [130 km] in length is only exceeded by
the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the
terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the Moon." The claim
was also mentioned by Henry Norman in 1895 where he states "besides
its age it enjoys the reputation of being the only work of human hands
on the globe visible from the Moon." The issue of "canals" on Mars
was prominent in the late 19th century and may have led to the belief
that long, thin objects were visible from space. The claim that the
Wall is visible from the moon also appears in 1932's Ripley's
Believe It or Not! strip and in Richard Halliburton's 1938 book
Second Book of Marvels.
The claim that the Great
Wall is visible from the moon has been
debunked many times, but is still ingrained in popular
culture. The wall is a maximum 9.1 m (29 ft 10 in)
wide, and is about the same color as the soil surrounding it. Based on
the optics of resolving power (distance versus the width of the iris:
a few millimeters for the human eye, meters for large telescopes) only
an object of reasonable contrast to its surroundings which is
110 km (70 mi) or more in diameter (1 arc-minute) would be
visible to the unaided eye from the Moon, whose average distance from
Earth is 384,393 km (238,851 mi). The apparent width of the
Wall from the
Moon is the same as that of a human hair viewed
from 3 km (2 mi) away. To see the wall from the
require spatial resolution 17,000 times better than normal (20/20)
vision. Unsurprisingly, no lunar astronaut has ever claimed to
have seen the Great
Wall from the Moon.
From low Earth orbit
A satellite image of a section of the Great
Wall in northern Shanxi,
running diagonally from lower left to upper right and not to be
confused with the more prominent river running from upper left to
lower right. The region pictured is 12 km × 12 km
(7 mi × 7 mi).
A more controversial question is whether the
Wall is visible from low
Earth orbit (an altitude of as little as 160 km (100 mi)).
NASA claims that it is barely visible, and only under nearly perfect
conditions; it is no more conspicuous than many other man-made
objects. Other authors have argued that due to limitations of the
optics of the eye and the spacing of photoreceptors on the retina, it
is impossible to see the wall with the naked eye, even from low orbit,
and would require visual acuity of 20/3 (7.7 times better than
William Pogue thought he had seen it from
discovered he was actually looking at the Grand Canal of
Beijing. He spotted the Great
Wall with binoculars, but said that "it
wasn't visible to the unaided eye." U.S. Senator
Jake Garn claimed to
be able to see the Great
Wall with the naked eye from a space shuttle
orbit in the early 1980s, but his claim has been disputed by several
U.S. astronauts. Veteran U.S. astronaut Gene Cernan has stated: "At
Earth orbit of 100 to 200 miles [160 to 320 km] high, the Great
China is, indeed, visible to the naked eye." Ed Lu, Expedition
7 Science Officer aboard the International Space Station, adds that,
"it's less visible than a lot of other objects. And you have to know
where to look."
Neil Armstrong stated about the view from Apollo 11: "I do
not believe that, at least with my eyes, there would be any man-made
object that I could see. I have not yet found somebody who has told me
they've seen the
China from Earth orbit. ... I've asked
various people, particularly Shuttle guys, that have been many orbits
China in the daytime, and the ones I've talked to didn't see
In October 2003, Chinese astronaut
Yang Liwei stated that he had not
been able to see the Great
Wall of China. In response, the European
Space Agency (ESA) issued a press release reporting that from an orbit
between 160 and 320 km (100 and 200 mi), the Great
visible to the naked eye. In an attempt to further clarify things, the
ESA published a picture of a part of the "Great Wall" photographed
from low orbit. However, in a press release a week later, they
acknowledged that the "Great Wall" in the picture was actually a
Leroy Chiao, a Chinese-American astronaut, took a photograph from the
International Space Station
International Space Station that shows the wall. It was so indistinct
that the photographer was not certain he had actually captured it.
Based on the photograph, the
China Daily later reported that the Great
Wall can be seen from 'space' with the naked eye, under favorable
viewing conditions, if one knows exactly where to look. However,
the resolution of a camera can be much higher than the human visual
system, and the optics much better, rendering photographic evidence
irrelevant to the issue of whether it is visible to the naked eye.
"The First Mound" – at Jiayuguan, the western terminus
China at Badaling
A portion of the Great
China at Simatai, overlooking the gorge
Mutianyu Great Wall, China. This is atop the wall on a section that
has not been restored
The Old Dragon Head, the Great
Wall where it meets the sea in the
vicinity of Shanhaiguan
Wall at Dandong
Defense of the Great Wall
Gates of Alexander
Wall of Qi
List of World Heritage Sites in China
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^ a b Waldron 1990, pp. 204–05.
^ Yule 1866, p. 579This section is the report of Góis's travel,
as reported by
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2010. Jiaoshan Great
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Shanhaiguan ancient city. It is named after Jiaoshan Mountain, which
is the highest peak to the north of
Shanhai Pass and also the first
mountain the Great
Wall climbs up after Shanhai Pass. Therefore
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^ a b Turnbull 2007, p. 29.
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China Fears Loss of Great Wall,
Brick by Brick". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
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other structures that are less spectacular from an earthly vantage
point—desert roads, for example—appear more prominent from an
^ "Metro Tescos",
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