The Great Wall of China — Historic Military Defense System and Significant Cultural Icon

The Great Wall of China, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling Great Wall.

What is the Great Wall of China?


The Great Wall of China, or Wan Li Chang Cheng, was an extraordinary military defensive system that protected the Middle Kingdom from northern nomadic invaders, a carrier and the witness of history, and an important symbol of Chinese culture.


Yanmen Pass, An Important Fortreit on the Great Wall of China, Photo from Official Site of Yanmenguan.

Why the Great Wall of China was built?


Since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), when agricultural societies had formed, stabilized, and kept progressing, their conflicts against the nomadic groups became intense. 


Peasants would reap what they sow, build houses and live stable lives with their families, and dedicate themselves to taking care and protecting their land. 


Nomadic herdsmen would keep migrating to places with sufficient water and grass to feed their livestock, and were quite vulnerable to natural disasters, especially in winter. 


Therefore, when nomadic in the north were lack of food and recourses, they would ride their horses southward and rob peasants. 


Sometimes, a few hundred cavalry warriors would cost huge losses to farmers.


Unearthed Eggs and Pottery Jar of the Western Zhou Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To protect themselves, an alert system was constructed since the Western Zhou Dynasty.  


The Western Zhou Dynasty constructed a series of castles on borders to defend against nomadic groups such as Yanyun and Quanrong.  


Soldiers guarding those castles would ignite beacon fires when seeing invaders, to alert or command nearby armies and people. 


Then, people connected beacon towers and built long walls to defend themselves, but with smaller scales. 

Centuries later, Qin Shi Huang united the Middle Kingdom and established the unified Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC). 


He sent tens of thousands of laborers to construct the first version of the Great Wall of China, to defend against Xiongnu. 


Afterward, the Great Wall had been strengthened, expanded, rebuilt several times, but their main purpose was consistent: to protect the agricultural Middle Kingdom from northern nomadic invasions. 

Ruins of the Qin Great Wall in City Guyang, Photo by Huang Xiang.


Was the Great Wall of China effective?


Constructing Great Wall had cost lots of money and resources, and those empires that invested a lot to construct it were all ended. There's no doubt. 


However, the agricultural Middle Kingdom's culture, the one that the Great Wall of China was built to protect, has survived and been inherited well. 


Language, characters, etiquette, tradition, history, customs, calendar, and so on, all preserved and inherited as significant parts of the consistent Chinese Culture, one of the four but only existing ancient civilizations in the world. 

Brocade Arm Guard of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) Embroidered Auspicious Words "Five Stars Rise in the East and Benefit China" — Xinjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

It is easy to document how many times the Great Wall got broken through and how many lives were costed to construct it, but quite difficult to tell how many times had the Great Wall stopped invasions from the north or how many lives had been saved throughout history. 


Meanwhile, according to historical documents, constructing and garrisoning Great Wall was way cheaper than implementing a northern expedition. 

Relics of the Great Wall of China, Photo by Gucheng.

How did Genghis Khan and Manchu conquer the defense system of the Great Wall?


Technically, they both didn't conquer the Great Wall. 


When Genghis Khan (1162 — 1227) was expanding, it was the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115  — 1234) locating on the other side of the Great Wall. 


Genghis Khan did defeat Jurchen Jin's troops several times and caused them huge loss, but the Jin Dynasty was in the end perished by allied armies of his third son Wokuotai Khan and the Song Dynasty on the south. 


Exquisite Jade Pedants of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty — Capital Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

When Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 and perished Song in 1279, the Song Dynasty only occupied the southern part of China and had no Great Wall to defend at all. 


As for Manchu, the Great Wall was opened from inside by a general named Wu Sangui, after the Ming Dynasty was ended because of rebellions in 1644. 


The Great Wall has been a strong, magnificent system, things that succeeded or failed an empire are always about people, or humanity, or historical law.

Shanhai Pass of the Great Wall of China, the Gate that Wu Sangui Opened and Let Manchu Army in.

How did the Great Wall serve its functions in history?


  • The beacon system could send information instantly and accurately. 


  • The tall walls could force nomadic cavalry to get off their horses and reduce their speed and mobility.


  • It provided soldiers garrisoning nearby valuable time to organize and prepare to fight back.


  • The Great Wall was an excellent highway to transport soldiers and resources, especially when comparing to steep paths on magnificent mountains.


Great Wall on Steep Mountain Ridges.

  • Even a point of the Great Wall was broken through, the invaders needed to finish their robbery and retreat out quickly before the breach point was repaired; otherwise, they would be in a desperate situation of being completely cut off and had no resources nor reinforcements.


  • The Great Wall could effectively control border trades, which sometimes was used by the Middle Kingdom as a means to sanction or block the nomadic regime's economy. It also helped to prevent smuggling and leaking important information.  


  • The Great Wall and its nearby garrison towns had been used as perfect attack bases.  

Who and when built the Great Wall?


Throughout history, many emperors from different dynasties all had constructed and strengthened the Great Wall of China. However, there are some extremely important ones with significant contributions.  


State Chu and State Qi constructed some defensive walls in the 7th century BC, later, other kingdoms of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) all built walls to defend against each other and nomadic Xiongnu in the north. 


Ruins of Great Wall Built by State Chu, Photo by Gucheng.

After Qin Shi Huang defeated other kingdoms and unified the Middle Kingdom area, he demanded to construct of national highways, while tearing down those walls that the former kingdoms built to defend against each other. 


Meanwhile, in 214 BC, Qin Shi Huang commanded to construct the Great Wall, which connected those walls that former kingdoms built to defend against Xiongnu. 


Qin Great Wall, mainly made of stone, started from the eastern seaside and ended in the western Gobi, which was believed over 5000 kilometers long.

Ruins of Qin Great Wall in Guyang, Photo by Dai Wei.

After Emperor Wu of Han extensively defeated Xiongnu, opened up the Silk Road, and largely expanded territory, he commanded to build a Great Wall in the north of the Qin Great Wall. 


The Han Great Wall also named the Outer Great Wall (or Wai Chang Cheng), was the longest Great Wall in history (over 10,000 kilometers).


It was constructed as a defensive system and attack bases against Xiongnu, as well as solid protection to merchants on the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). 

Ruins of Han Great Wall in Gansu, Photo by Gucheng.

Afterward, some empires, such as the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 — 534) and the Sui Dynasty (581 — 618), constructed the Great Walls to defense against nomadic regimes. 


Some empires didn't, such as the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) and Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), because their territory was quite huge and had no threatens from the northern borders. 


After Zhu Yuanzhang overthrew the Yuan's reign and established the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), the empire continuously constructed and strengthened the Ming Great Wall, which is the Great Wall of China that people mostly visit nowadays.

Ming Great Wall Section, Photo by Gucheng.

Where's the Great Wall of China?


Based on the long history and various constructing dynasties, the existing Great Wall of China today, including ruins and well-preserved ones, is located in 404 towns of 15 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, which are:


Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Xinjiang. 


Ruins of Yangguan Pass in Gansu, Built in the Year 107 BC, Photo by Sun Zhicheng.


Important data and some fun facts about the Great Wall


From the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) to the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), the Great Wall of China is 21196.18 kilometers long in total, which includes;


  • 10051 segments of walls;


  • 29510 buildings;


  • 2211 castle-fortresses;


(info from


  • Among all the Great Walls of China, Han Dynasty's (202 BC — 220 AD) is the longest (over 10,000 kilometers), and the Ming Dynasty's (1368 — 1644) is of the best quality.

Ming Great Wall in Huairou, Photo by Gucheng.

  • The Ming Great Wall, the one that people mostly visit today, is 8851.8 kilometers long, which starts from Hushan of Liaoning Province, ends in Jiayuguan of Gansu Province. 


  • The building materials of the Great Wall were mainly stone, earth, and brick, according to local resources and technology.


  • The width and length of the Great Wall of China varied based on terrain, military importance, and time. The average height of the Ming Great Wall is 7.8 meters. 


  • Besides walls, there are tens of thousands of fortresses, beacon towers, grand passes, and garrison towns on the Great Wall, which were used to stock military resources and to station big troops. 

The Jiayuguan of Ming Great Wall in Gansu, Photo by Diqiulvke.


How did the Beacon Tower System on the Great Wall work?


Beacon Tower, named Feng Sui or Fenghuotai, the place to set colored smoke in the daytime and set fire at night, had been an important military alert system since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC). 


Gradually, the sound of drums and gunfire were added to strengthen the alert effect as well. 


Each Beacon Tower was garrisoned by a few soldiers, who set fire, smoke, and gunfire sound according to regulations after seeing enemies, to inform numbers and marching direction of invaders, and other important info. 

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section, Photo by Gucheng.

Beacon towers were usually 2.5 to 5 kilometers away from one another, and every three adjacent towers should be in each other's sight, to make sure sending speed and information won't be missed. 


As for burning materials, they also varied from time to time, usually different types of herbs and dungs. 

Unearthed Ju of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), the Regulated Material to Burn on Beacon Towers at Night As Alert Message — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

What does the Great Wall symbolize in Chinese culture?


The Great Wall of China was not a guarantee of military success, but it has been a significant cultural icon of China till today.  


The Great Wall, one of the most remarkable feats that had been constructed by millions of people throughout thousands of history, shows determination, intelligence, courage, and braveness to protect their family and homeland. 


As a carrier of history, traces of countless intense battles could be found on walls, buildings, and passes of the Great Wall, and valuable artifacts of the consistent Chinese culture that the wall had protected are displaying in different museums.  


Lacquer Wooden Spoon of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) Unearthed from Yumen Pass of the Great Wall, Belonged to Soldiers Used to Garrison There — Dunhuang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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