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Why was the Great Wall Built — From Defense to Tourism

Why was the Great Wall Built — From Defense to Tourism

Written by Sunny XieUpdated Dec. 15, 2022

Over the centuries, the Great Wall has been built and rebuilt to defend China from northern invasion, but unexpectedly, it also promoted international trade and migration. It has now become a national symbol and China's top tourist sight.

To find out why the Great Wall of China was built and whether it was successful in its purpose, this article will give you complete and interesting answers considering different aspects.

To Build or Not to Build? That Was the Question

Whether to build the Great Wall or not was a hotly debated question for millennia in China.

  • Pros: Supporters believed that building the Great Wall was the best way to establish Chinese sovereignty and defend against the north.
  • Cons: Opponents, however, said that building the Wall would end up exhausting labor and monetary resources, and, even if the Wall was built, without continuously investing in soldiers guarding it, it was useless.

What Was the Great Wall of China Originally Built For? 

To find out why the Great Wall was built, or, to be more specific, why the first prototype Great Wall was originally built, we need to look back at what happened before the 7th century BC.

In ancient Asia, the land was distinguished by two colors, green and yellow, divided by a "400-mm rainfall line" (north of which less than 400 mm, i.e. 16 inches, of precipitation fell per year).

The  ‘green land' in the south was fertile and suitable for cultivation, and agriculture was first developed there; while the ‘yellow land' in the north and west was relatively barren and could only be used for nomadic pastoralism and animal husbandry.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC), private ownership and farming of land had already emerged south of the ‘rain line'. Whenever natural disasters occurred, herdsmen in the north would go south to rob the established farms.

The vassal states on the ‘rain line' border of northern China urgently needed a complete defensive system to protect the land they had acquired. The earliest ‘Great Wall' was born at that time to defend against opportunist plundering.

When and Why Did China Continue to Build the Great Wall?

According to historical records, over 20 vassal states of feudal dynasties built the Great Wall.

2,600 Years Ago — Walls Were Built Separately to Defend the Vassal States and North Nomads

Map of the Pre-Qin-Dynasty Great WallsMap of the Pre-Qin-Dynasty Great Walls

With the end of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC), ancient China entered into a period (770–221 BC) when more than 100 vassal states fought back and forth to expand their territory.

According to historical records, the Chu State first built a ‘Great Wall' around 676 BC and it turned out to be quite effective in resisting invasions. Other states then began to build ‘Great Walls' on the borders of their own territory. These Walls were more like dotted lines, scattered in all directions, ranging from several hundred to 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) long.

With different defensive aims, these Walls (known as Pre-Qin-Dynasty Great Walls) were roughly divided into two purposes during this period:

  • The Southern Great Walls, built by the states of Chu, Qi, Han, Wei, etc. well south of China's northern border, defended against invasion by neighboring states.
  • The Northern Great Walls, built by the states of Qin, Zhao, and Yan, whose territories were contiguous to the earlier-mentioned northern nomads', defended against occasional raids and looting.

From 221 BC: Partition Walls Pulled Down, and Border Walls Joined Together to Protect China's North

Map of the Qin-Dynasty Great WallsMap of the Qin Dynasty Great WallsQin

You must have heard of the Terracotta Army. Its owner, Qin Shihuang, China's First Emperor, united China in 221 BC and ordered the pulling down of the southern Great Walls, but he purposefully kept and linked the northern Walls built by the states of Qin, Zhao, and Yan.

Why did he do so? The Qin Empire was threatened by the Huns (the Mongol Empire of the time) in the north. In 215 BC, he sent general Meng Tian to build the Great Wall, using the basis of the northern states' Great Walls to defend against the Huns

The Great Wall linked today's Gansu Province in the west to North Korea in the east and was amazingly consistent with the 400-mm-rainfall-line. Geographically and climatically, the Qin Great Wall established a dividing boundary between static farming and nomadic animal husbandry.

From 202 BC: To Promote Expansion and Protect the Silk Road

Map of the Qin-Dynasty Great WallsMap of the Han Dynasty Great Walls

With the ongoing wars by the end of the Qin Dynasty, the increasingly powerful Huns became a primary threat. In the early years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), though the Great Wall was in disrepair, it did assist in blocking the Huns' attacks.

The Great Wall The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) extended the Great Wall west to protect the Silk Road trade.

The Han empire was in its peak period during the reign of Emperor Han Wudi (ruled 141–87 BC). He started a few full-scale wars and finally defeated the Huns. For a solid defense, he ordered the rebuilding of the previous Qin Great Wall and the building of two new parallel Walls in today's western Inner Mongolia. Meanwhile, he began to resettle Han residents in the north, carry out agricultural development, and station armies there for protection.

With the expansion and migration to the western regions, the Great Wall was then extended west through the Hexi Corridor (nowadays the Yumen Pass fort and the Dunhuang Great Wall Section in Gansu still survive), which also promoted the opening of the Silk Road.

The Han Great Wall was the longest Great Wall in history at over 10,000 km (6,200 mi), not only maintaining the territory of the Central Plains but also ensuring security along the Silk Road. Meanwhile, people moving to the northern and western regions for farmland exploitation, also promoted Chinese population migration and new local economies.

581–1271 AD: The Great Wall Was Strengthened in China's Flourishing Dynasties

The following dynasties — Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), and Song (960–1279) — rebuilt, modified, and extended the Great Wall to protect the Chinese Empire from northern invaders.

However, by 1271, the Mongolian Empire had defeated and subsumed the northern Song Dynasty forces, as well as the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) and Western Xia Dynasty (1038 - 1227) in the north, making the Great Wall redundant during China's the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty era (1271–1368).

1368–1644 AD: The Great Wall Was Upgraded

Map of the Ming Dynasty Great WallsMap of the Ming Dynasty Great Walls
  • Most of today's Great Wall was built or restored in the Ming Dynasty.

In order to consolidate their northern border against pressure from the Mongolian Tatars and Oirat tribes and later the Jurchen in the northeast, after reclaiming China from the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), the emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) never stopped building the Great Wall.

The most well-known sections (Simatai, Mutianyu, Jinshanling, Badaling, etc.) were all built or strengthened by Qi Jiguang (1528–1588, a hero general who also saved China's coastlands from Japanese pirates).

Although the Great Wall saw developments in the previous dynasties, the Ming Great Wall saw great upgrades in both its construction and military strategy.

The Ming Dynasty builders began to use bricks and tiles on a large scale and mixed the lime mortar with sticky rice pulp to make the wall sturdier and more durable. Combat modifications, such as gun holes, watch holes, and powerful artillery machines from Portugal, were installed on the Wall.

From 1644 AD: The Great Wall Was Built as the Country's Boundary

The emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) didn't build the Great Wall and even forbade it: they were the Manchus, who the Great Wall was built to keep out! 

Meanwhile, they believed that the only way to protect China was to gain international support, instead of border battles. 

However, some Walls were built during the Qing Dynasty era but had the function of defining the nation's boundary.

In 1953: The Great Wall Was Rebuilt for Tourism

After the Qing Dynasty was abolished, the Great Wall wasn't rebuilt again until the restoration of the Badaling section in 1953 under the direction of Chairman Mao, who's famous for the saying, "Until you reach the Great Wall, you're no hero."

Since then, other sections like Mutianyu (the best-restored section), Juyongguan (an important fort), and Huangyaguan (World Heritage, but with few visitors) have been restored for the benefit of tourists interested in China's Great Wall history.

How Did the Great Wall Work Exactly?

The Great Wall secured the transmission of information and goods and long-range transportation in northern China while protecting China's economic development and cultural progress, safeguarding trading routes such as the Silk Road.

"5G" for Signal Transfer

Beacon Towers for Transmitting Information.Beacon Towers for Transmitting Information.

In the backward ancient times, it was extremely difficult to communicate without the invention of electricity and frequency networks. However, the Great Wall played an important role in transmitting the information

There's a scene in the Disney movie "Hua Mulan" showing that when the Huns tried to breach the Great Wall, they were found by the guards. Then, like falling dominos, the beacons were lit up in succession and the message of an invasion soon reached the capital.

An "Ancient Highway" to Send in Reinforcements

The Great Wall was an 'Ancient Highway' to Send in ReinforcementsThe Great Wall was an "Ancient Highway" to send in Reinforcements

Another function of the Great Wall was to facilitate reinforcement, which was equivalent to an ancient highway.

Transportation was inconvenient in ancient times, and sometimes lengthy detours were required when encountering a mountain ridge.

The Great Wall made deploying troops more efficient. When the beacon towers were lit up, support from the nearby military towns could rush along the Great Wall (a wide highway along the ridge) to the battlefront.

Great Defensive Infrastructure

The main purpose of building the Great Wall was for defense.The main purpose of building the Great Wall was for defense.

The Great Wall is not just a single city wall, but a complex defense system composed of various fortifications such as ridgeline walls, watchtowers, beacons, fortresses, and military towns, which were garrisoned with troops on the frontier. The main purpose of building the Great Wall was for defense.

Troops in the Central Plains were only trained in urban warfare, which relied more on equipment. While the northern nomads were good at open-country warfare that emphasized mobility, the ferocity of the army, and the strength of the soldiers.  

Building the Great Wall was equivalent to building a city in the wild, giving the defending Central Plains army an environmental advantage, making use of their strengths, and circumventing weaknesses.

Why is the Great Wall STILL So Important Today?

Stretching thousands of miles, the Great Wall is the longest man-made structure in the world, but that isn't its only significance.

It's a Symbol of the Chinese Nation

The Great Wall represents the unification of China. It came into being when the First Emperor of Qin had the walls of Yan, Zhao, and Qin joined up after the Warring States Period.

The Great Wall is a testimony to the history and strength of China. It was built by millions of Chinese workers over a period of more than 2,000 years (7th century BC – 17th century AD).

The Great Wall is also a great subject of Chinese literary art. A sentence in the Chinese national anthem is sung to praise and memorize the Wall. What's more, many phrases and sayings have been carried down from generation to generation to commemorate this magnificent man-made wonder.

It's a Very Popular Tourist Attraction

Ironically, the Great Wall was built to keep foreigners out, but nowadays it attracts over 4 million domestic and international tourists each year to appreciate its historical and architectural magnificence, as well as the majestic scenery seen from the Wall.

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