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How long is China’s Great Wall and why was it built?

How long is China’s Great Wall and why was it built?

China / Society

Huayi tu, an 1136 map of China. With the Great Wall depicted on the northern edge of the country

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications and walls that were built over several centuries to protect China from invasion and raids by nomadic groups from the north.

The walls and trenches span a total length of 21,196.18 km or 13,170.70 miles.

The construction of the wall began during the 7th century BC.

When various states built walls to defend their territories from each other. The earliest known sections of the wall were built during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) by the state of Qi, which constructed walls to defend its northern borders.

The Great Wall as depicted in Thomas Allom‘s 1845 China, in a series of views

The construction of the Great Wall of China was a massive undertaking that involved the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers over the course of several centuries. The working conditions during the construction of the wall were notoriously harsh and dangerous, with workers facing grueling physical labor and difficult living conditions.

Many of the workers who were employed to build the Great Wall of China were peasants or conscripted soldiers who were forced to work on the wall as a form of corvée labor. These workers were often subjected to long hours of manual labor in difficult terrain, including steep hills and rugged mountains.

Workers were also exposed to harsh weather conditions, including extreme heat in the summer and bitterly cold winters. They had little protection against the elements, and were often forced to work without adequate food, water, or shelter.

The working conditions on the Great Wall were also dangerous, with many workers injured or killed by falls or rockslides. Workers were also vulnerable to diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis, which spread quickly in the crowded and unsanitary living conditions of the labor camps.

The wall as it is known today began to take shape during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC).

When the Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the walls of several states to be joined together to form a continuous barrier.

Qin Shi Huang in a 19th century portrait

The Qin dynasty was a short-lived Chinese dynasty that ruled from 221 BCE to 206 BCE. It was the first dynasty to unify China and establish a centralized state under the rule of a single emperor.

Qin Shi Huang founded the Qin dynasty. Qin Shi Huang, ascended to the throne at the age of 13 after the death of his father. He embarked on a series of military campaigns to conquer and unify the six warring states that had been fighting for control of China during the Warring States period.

Under the Qin dynasty, China underwent significant political and social changes. The emperor standardized weights, measures, and currency throughout the empire, in addition implemented a system of bureaucracy based on merit rather than birth. He also ordered the construction of a series of roads and canals to facilitate trade and communication.

Stone rubbing of a Han dynasty carved relief. Depicting Jing Ke‘s assassination attempt on Qin Shi Huang (right) holding an imperial jade disc. Jing Ke (left) held by a court physician (background). The dagger stuck in the pillar. A soldier (far right) rushes to save his emperor.

One of the most famous achievements of the Qin dynasty became the construction of the Great Wall.

Illustration of the Shanhai Pass garrison. At the time of the Manchu conquests

Intended to protect the empire from northern invaders. The emperor also ordered the construction of his own tomb, which included a massive underground army of terra-cotta warriors.

“A gate of the Wall of China, explaining its structure”. An illustration from Athanasius Kircher‘s China Illustrata, 1667.

Despite these accomplishments, the Qin dynasty became marked by its authoritarianism and brutal policies.

Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books and the burying alive of scholars who disagreed with his policies, in an attempt to eliminate dissent and establish his authority.

Map of the Warring States. Qin is shown in pink

After the death of Qin Shi Huang, the dynasty quickly fell into decline. Revolts broke out across the empire, as a result the emperor’s son became overthrown by the rebel leader Liu Bang. Bang went on to found the Han dynasty.

This initial version of the wall became made of earth and tamped down with stones. Furthermore extended over 5,000 kilometers across northern China.

Part of the Great Wall of China (April 1853, X, p. 41)[38]

During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the wall was extended to the west to protect the Silk Road trade routes.

The Han dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that ruled from 206 BCE to 220 CE. Preceded by the Qin dynasty and followed by the Three Kingdoms period.

Liu Bang, a commoner founded the Han dynasty and became known as Emperor Gaozu. He rose to power after leading a rebellion against the oppressive Qin dynasty, which had ruled China with an iron fist. The Han dynasty marked the beginning of a golden age in Chinese history, characterized by economic growth, technological advancements, and cultural achievements.

Under the Han dynasty, China became a centralized bureaucratic state, with a complex system of government that included imperial courts, administrative officials, and a civil service system based on merit. In addition, the dynasty also became known for its military prowess. With generals like Wei Qing and Huo Qubing leading successful campaigns against the Xiongnu nomads in the north.

The Han dynasty saw significant achievements in science and technology.

Moreover, including the invention of paper, the development of the compass, and advancements in astronomy and mathematics. It was also a time of cultural flourishing, with the creation of some of China’s most iconic art forms, such as calligraphy and poetry.

The Han dynasty was followed by the Three Kingdoms period, which was characterized by political instability and warfare, but its legacy continued to influence Chinese culture and society for centuries to come.

Rebuilt and fortified during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the wall was expanded to over 8,850 kilometers in length.

Portrait of the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368–98)

The Ming dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that ruled from 1368 to 1644. It succeeded the Yuan dynasty and preceded the Qing dynasty.

Portrait of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402–24)

Founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, a peasant who had risen through the ranks of the Red Turban Rebellion to become the leader of the movement. After overthrowing the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang declared himself the Hongwu Emperor and established his capital in Nanjing.

Under the Ming dynasty, China experienced a period of economic growth and cultural flourishing. The early Ming period became characterized by a series of reforms. Including the abolition of the Yuan-era land tax and the establishment of a new legal code. The dynasty also sponsored voyages of exploration led by the famous admiral Zheng He, which reached as far as East Africa and the Middle East.

The Ming dynasty is perhaps best known for its art and architecture.

Moreover, including the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In addition, the restoration of the Great Wall of China.

Tianqi-era teacups, from the Nantoyōsō Collection in Japan. The Tianqi Emperor became heavily influenced and largely controlled by the eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627).

Ming art is also notable for its blue and white porcelain, which became highly prized by collectors around the world.


However, the Ming dynasty also faced numerous challenges. Including the threat of invasion by the Mongols and the Jurchen.

Jurchen, a term used to collectively describe a number of East Asian Tungusic-speaking people. Descended from the Donghu people.

Furthermore, internal unrest and rebellion proved fatal for the Ming dynasty.

In the late Ming period, corruption and factionalism within the government weakened the dynasty, and it eventually fell to the Manchu-led Qing dynasty in 1644.

The Great Wall of China is a remarkable engineering feat, and it remains one of the most iconic and recognizable landmarks in the world.

Premier of China Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao. At the Badaling section of the Great Wall (1955)
US President Nixon visits the Great Wall, 1972

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, and it is one of China’s most popular tourist attractions.

The Great Wall of China is a symbol of China’s rich history and cultural heritage, and it holds great significance for Chinese citizens. For many people, the Great Wall is a source of pride and a symbol of national identity.

Seen as a symbol of China’s strength and resilience, as it represents the country’s ability to defend itself against outside invaders. The wall has played an important role in Chinese history, serving as a military fortification, a border marker, and a symbol of national unity.

Title: China – Peking – “Entry of the allies during the Boxer trouble into Peking through a hole in the wall” Abstract/medium: 1 photomechanical print : halftone.

It is difficult to estimate the exact number of people who died during the construction of the Great Wall of China.

As records from that time are incomplete and sometimes unreliable. However, widely believed that a large number of workers died during the construction of the wall. Some estimates in the millions. Of course with no evidence to back it up. As the overall construction spanned several centuries. And involved the labor of countless workers.

Some estimates suggest that as many as one million workers may have died during the construction of the Great Wall, due to the harsh working conditions, exposure to disease, and accidents such as rockslides and falls. It is important to note, however, that these estimates are based on limited historical records and are difficult to verify.

The construction of the Great Wall of China was an extraordinary undertaking. One that marks as one of the ‘wonders of the world’!

See our articles on two others: Who built the Parthenon and why was it built? Why were the pyramids built?

Furthermore, an event of mankind that required the labor of countless workers. Many of whom endured harsh working conditions and risked their lives to complete the project. Today, the Great Wall stands as a testament to the ingenuity and perseverance of the Chinese people throughout history.

In addition to its historical and cultural significance, the Great Wall of China is also a popular tourist attraction that draws millions of visitors each year. Moreover, for many Chinese citizens, visiting the Great Wall is a way to connect with their country’s past and to celebrate its cultural heritage.

In conclusion, the Great Wall of China holds a special place in the hearts of Chinese citizens. Moreover, representing their country’s long and proud history. In addition, its continued strength and resilience in the face of change and adversity.

Lastly, we hope everyone visits the wall and takes in its splendour!

The first map of China printed in a European atlas, engraved by Abraham Ortelius (1584). Shows a series of walls wedged between mountains against the Tartars. Represented by yurts.

How long is China’s Great Wall and why was it built?