The Great Wall of China is perhaps one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks, visible even from space (with a telescope, someone made that naked eye thing up). Over ten million people visit the Great Wall every year, but how much do they really know about this ancient structure? With new sections discovered as recently as 2012, it is unlikely that it will ever reveal all of its secrets, but many amazing facts have been uncovered about this captivating structure.
Whether you hike along its length, discover lesser known sections, or revel in the picture-perfect quality of famous sections, you can almost feel the trample of centuries of feet and hear ancient battles raging on these majestic battlements. Although the steep steps of the Great Wall can be challenging, it is well worth the climb to see the spectacular panoramic views it offers, from lush greenery to arid deserts. Of all the famous landmarks to visit, the Great Wall of China is one of the most breath taking and memorable.
1,800 Years of Construction
The construction of the Great Wall of China wasn’t straightforward, spanning a total of 1,800 years and the rule of many different leaders. As far back as the 8th Century BC, warring states were already beginning to build extensive fortifications to defend their own borders. When king Zheng of Qin unified China as the first Emperor in 221 BCE, he ordered that these walls between the states be taken down, but also that new walls should be built. These were to connect up the remaining fortifications on the empire’s northern frontier, forming a wall to guard against the people from the north. Very few of these sections of the wall remain, with much of the wall we recognise now being built under the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century.
Much of the early wall was made by stamping earth and gravel between wooden board frames, and a bit later rammed earth, stones and wood were used. During the Ming Dynasty, however, bricks were used to construct much of the walls, along with tiles, limes and stone. Local materials were often used, meaning that sections of the wall are built from different materials depending on what was most readily available for construction. As early as the Qin Dynasty, glutinous rice flour was used to bind the bricks of the wall together. Colloquially called ‘sticky rice’, some historians cite its use in construction as the reason for the wall’s endurance.
One punishment for Chinese convicts was to take part in the construction, maintenance and surveillance of the Great Wall, like a kind of deadly litter picking. To make sure no one thought they were a law abiding citizen, prisoners were identified by their shaven heads, blackened faces and chains. Transgressions punished with work on the wall ranged from tax evasion to homicide, so at least it was fair.
The World’s Longest Graveyard
Building the Great Wall was extremely dangerous, with an estimated one million people losing their lives in its construction. These included civilians, convicts and soldiers, with many legends surrounding the wall featuring family members searching for lost loved ones who had been sent to aid in its construction. Archaeologists have found many human remains of those that lost their lives buried under sections of the wall.
During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, quite a lot of damage was done to the wall. Mao Zedong and the Red Guard viewed the wall as a relic whose materials would be better used elsewhere. This meant that sections of the wall were stripped, with its bricks being used to build homes, farms and reservoirs. Because of this, large sections of the Great Wall aren’t as well preserved as they might have been.
Although the Great Wall stands at an enormous length of 13,171 miles, much of the wall has actually been lost to erosion, destruction and disrepair. A 2012 report by the State of Administration of Cultural Heritage stated that 22% of the Ming Great Wall has disappeared, and a total 1,219 miles of wall have completely disappeared.
Legends of the Wall
Like anything so ancient and mysterious, the Great Wall of China is the subject of many legends and stories. One of the most famous is that of Meng Jiangnu, who is reported to have wept so loudly when she discovered that her husband had died working on the wall, that a section of the wall collapsed, revealing his bones for her to bury. Another is the Legend of Jiayuguan Pass, in which a workman calculated that 99,999 bricks would be needed to build the Jiayuguan Pass. The supervisor said that if he had miscalculated by even one brick, all the workmen would have to do three hard years of labour. After the section was complete, one brick remained by the Xiwong city gate. The workman, however, said that the brick had been placed there by a supernatural being to fix a fault in the wall, thus escaping punishment. The brick can still be seen today.
The Great Wall’s vulnerability has been highlighted repeatedly during the 21st century. Erosion through sandstorms seriously affect some parts of the wall, and human activities like construction have sped up erosion that was already occurring naturally. It is estimated that portions of the wall in Gansu and Ningxia provinces may have completely disappeared by 2040.
If these exciting facts about the Great Wall of China have whetted your appetite to see this magnificent structure for yourself, book a cruise on our China Highlights with Luxury Yangtze River Cruise.