Visit the Great Wall of China

The History of the Great Wall of China

The history of the Great Wall has fascinated people from all parts of the globe. The monument is considered one of the marvels of the ancient world extending over rugged terrain along China’s northern border.

Constructed over many dynasties. The defensive barrier may have started as early as the Spring and Autumn Period that lasted from 770 BC to 476 BC.

Restored section of wall at Jiayuguan, Gansu, China
Picture by David Stanley
This a restored section of the great wall at Jiayuguan, Gansu

Purpose of the Great Wall

The regions along ancient China’s northern border were inhabited by fierce nomadic peoples who fought primarily on horseback. The Xiongnu (Hsiungnu) was one of China’s earliest enemies from the north who continuously threatened the “Middle Kingdom,” as China called itself, from the north during the nation’s early history.

In latter times, the Mongols, Turks, Manchus and other nomadic peoples would breach the Great Wall conquering parts or all of China.

In order to deal with the threat of these foreign invaders, the Chinese built stone and earth barriers and fortifications. The wall had to be high enough to prevent riders on horseback from scaling the structure. Armed sentries and detachments patrolled the wall for signs of an impending invasion. If any buildup of troops were detected, the Chinese would deploy their own forces moving along the top of the wall itself or along associated roads. Successful defense relied on the ability of the government to respond quickly and in force to any possible threat along a vast defensive perimeter.

Throughout the history of the Great Wall of China, the materials and construction techniques used to build the fortifications have been modernized and improved. In the early days, rammed earth, uncut stones and timber were used to build the wall. In latter periods, bricks, hewn stone, tiles and similar materials were used to create a sturdier barrier that required less maintenance.

History of the Great Wall of China by Dynasty

In the Spring and Autumn Period or the Warring States Period, the Zhou Dynasty kings began work on stone and earthen barriers to protect their territories. They build the wall to protect their dynasty. Thus, there were a number of relatively short “Great Walls” at the time.

221-206 BC The Qin Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty was a turning point in the history of the Wall of China. The Emperor Qin Shihuang was able for the first time to unite the previous warring states and create a single imperial dynasty. The emperor ordered that some of the existing walls be united to form a unified response to the Xiongnu threat from the north. Other state walls eventually decayed from lack of maintenance, or they were destroyed to allow easier access from one state to another.

Related articles: The Qin Dynasty

206 BC-220 ADThe Han Dynasty

In the Han Dynasty, the wall was lengthened and improved, it reached all the way from Lop Nur in the west to Liaodao in the east. The wall at this time measured more than 5000 miles (8000 km) in length including all the supplementary fortifications and branching walls. Never before in the history of the Great Wall of China has the structure reached such dimensions.

Related articles: The Han Dynasty.

220 AD - 960 AD The Feudal Dynasties

The Feudal Dynasties saw China again break up into disparate, warring states. During this period, northern invaders were successful in breaching the fortifications in an extended fashion for the first time in the history of the Great Wall of China. The nomadic armies learned to concentrate on specific weak points along the wall bringing to bear all their war engines on that one spot.

960 AD - 1279 The Song Dynasty AD

In the Song Dynasty, the Jin, a Manchu-speaking group from the north, was able to breach the wall and conquer northern China. The emperor fled the northern capital and based his empire in southern China during this dynasty. Despite the downfall of the north, China flourished during the Song Dynasty by expanding trade over the South China Sea.

1271 AD - 1368 AD The Yuan Dynasty

For the first time in the history of the Great Wall of China, the entire nation was conquered by foreigners during the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongol armies not only swept through China, but they conquered much of Asia reaching all the way to central Europe with their horse-driven armies. As they were from the north themselves, the Mongols made no effort to maintain or improve the wall wanting instead to facilitate communication between the two regions.

1368 AD - 1644 AD The Ming Dynasty

The Ming Dynasty is seen as a bright period in the history of China as the indigenous Han people were able to overthrow their Mongol overlords. Work started again on the Great Wall, in fact, the whole barrier was rebuilt in a project that lasted 100 years.

Related articles: The Ming Dynasty.

From the invasion of the Manchus to the Modern Period

For the second time in the history of the Great Wall of China, a nomadic group was able to invade and conquer the entire country. The Qing Dynasty was the second in the history of China that was ruled by non-Han people. In this case, Chian was ruled the Manchu ethnicity of the northeast. Work on the barrier again stopped only to resume after the Qing Dynasty fell and the modern People’s Republic of China came into existence.

The history of the Great Wall is one of the great chapters in the history of the world. Few if any structures started so long ago have been maintained in working order over the centuries up to the present!

However, with the country on the fast road toward consumerism and modernization, many parts of this ancient work have fallen into disrepair. Some areas far from the capital of Beijing are even bulldozed over to make way for new roads or other construction.

Historical facts about the Great Wall of China

The death Toll.

Built over about 1,600 years ending in medieval times, there were no modern safety precautions for workers. People referred to the Great Wall as “the longest cemetery on earth” during its various periods of construction. It is believed that construction of the Great Wall cost more than one million lives.

Preserving the Spirits.

So many people died during construction of the Great Wall that a tradition for removing the bodies arose. Family members going to retrieve the body of one who had died while working on the wall came to carry a white caged rooster on top of the coffin of the family member. They believed that the rooster’s incessant crowing would keep the family member’s spirit awake, thereby avoiding the risk of the spirit escaping during transport and being forever condemned to wandering the length of the Great Wall.

Serious Unified Effort.

Qin Shi Huang was the first ruler to unify China during his reign during 260-210 B.C. There were wall sections dating to the seventh century B.C. protecting seven independent states, but it was Qin of the Qin Dynasty who first initiated extensive building efforts. Other dynasties continued the efforts. The most extensive work was done during the Ming Dynasty between 1368 and 1644.

Pride in the Great Wall.

Prior to the twentieth century, the Chinese appear to have been far less impressed with the Great Wall than were European visitors. Europeans idealized the Great Wall in the late nineteenth century, but the Great Wall rarely was the object of Chinese art during that time. It did not commonly appear in Chinese art until the twentieth century.

Negative Symbolism in the Cultural Revolution. (1966-78)

Mao Tse-tung, communist founder of the People's Republic of China, viewed the Great Wall as a symbol of principles contrary to communism. The Great Wall not only received any maintenance as a historical structure.The Communist government initiated demolition of the wall with dynamite, destroying large portions of the wall. During this time, the Chinese people were encouraged to remove bricks from the wall in symbolic gestures to reclaim power.

Uncommon Bricks

The sections built of bricks are the most recently constructed sections. About 70 percent of the Great Wall consists of adobe and rammed earth, which were used well into the years of the Ming Dynasty that accomplished so much of the Great Wall’s length. Bricks were not used until after the Ming Dynasty, which ended in 1644.

The wall acting as trade Facilitator.

Several sections of the Great Wall in the western regions of China were used by travelers of the Silk Road, the extensive trade route extending from China to countries in the Mediterranean region beginning during the Han Dynasty in the second century B.C.


The Chinese invented the wheelbarrow, which was used extensively in constructing the Great Wall.

Protecting the wall.

In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the Great Wall on its list of the world’s great national and historical sites. More recently, the New7Wonders Foundation declared the wall to be selected by Internet votes as one of the wonders of the known world.