The Great Wall of China 101

There is so much more about the Great Wall than just bricks and stones. From the surroundings to centuries of history, you simply cannot stop at the view if you wish to understand what it really represents.

Foggy morning on the Great Wall of China. By Mathilde Loubeyres
Foggy morning on the Great Wall of China. By Mathilde Loubeyres

Travelling around and seeing famous places is a good thing but it can feel pretty disappointing if you satisfy yourself with the view only, without digging into History. After all, the Great Wall of China is simply a wall, like one you could build in your backyard with a lot of time and effort (and space)… What makes it so fascinating is its history.

So if like many people you’ve never really thought about it, you’ll learn a few things, starting with: No, the Great Wall of China does not surround China…

The Origin of the Great Wall

Built over several centuries, in many different steps, the Wall, surprisingly, is only 8850km long. No way you can go around China with that! In the end, it’s not even a straight line but an assemblage of many separated portions. Sometimes linked together, sometimes not, the whole thing spreads across Northern China. Stretching from the Korean border in the East, to roughly half of China’s width. It covered, at its best, the entire northern border of the Ming Empire. Not to be confused with modern China, bear with me.

The first portions were built some 700 years BC, so that’s nothing new! The best-preserved parts however are from the Ming dynasty. And as you all know of course, the Ming reigned between 1368 and 1644.

But by the way, why would they even build it in the first place you’re wondering? That I can tell you right away. The threat for the Chinese dynasty was pretty much always the same over the centuries

The Mongols

The nomads living past the northern border, on much poorer lands and being a bit envious of Chinese richness. Only if it all started with a few recalcitrant nomads, it is without counting on Temüjin… I’m sure you’ve all watched the movie ‘Mongol’ by the French director Luc Besson? If not, it is about time you fix this!

Temüjin, 13th century, unifies the nomads (meaning the Mongols) and becomes their emperor under the name… Genghis Khan (which should ring a few more bells hopefully). The balance between the Chinese and the Mongols becomes a bit shaky, and inexorably ends up shifting entirely. The Mongols take over the Empire between 1211 and 1215. At this time Genghis Khan’s grandson starts the Yuan dynasty. Unfortunately, a farmers’ rebellion gets the better of the Yuan. Mongols flee the empire and the famous Ming dynasty appears, we are now in 1368.

Personally all this seemed super far away, so to give you some perspective: At this time France is eradicating the Templars under the orders of King Philippe Le Bel and Pope Clément V on a Friday 13th of October 1307 (origin of the unlucky Friday 13th), and America is to be rediscovered by Columbus a century later.

The Rise of the Ming Dynasty

So, the Ming are now in power and even though the Mongols are back where they belong, it doesn’t mean they’re not hungry anymore. On top of that, the Ming completely neglect their garrisons on duty on the northern wall. It all results in the fraternization of the two on the border. History seems to show that Ming soldiers even served as guides for Mongol raids in Chinese territory up until about 1550, despite all the improvements and constant expansions the Ming tried to make to the Great Wall.

A century later, weakened by two centuries of conflicts, the Ming fell just like the Yuan and another rebellion sees the rising of the Manchu or Qing dynasty in 1644. The Chinese empire expands considerably under their reign, and the wall that used to be on the border ends up inland, useless and abandoned.

This is how we find the Great Wall today, for our great pleasure.