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Great Wall of China - History

The famous Great Wall of China, which was built to keep the China's horse-riding neighbors at bay, extends more than 2,000 kilometers across China, from Heilongjiang province by Korea to China's westernmost province of Xinjiang. The wall that is so well known today is predominantly a product of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), though the building of fortified walls to protect territory along the northern frontier stretching from Manchuria to Central Asia is a practice whose roots go back to the Qin dynasty of the 3rd century BCE. In c. 220 B.C., under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defence system against invasions from the north. Construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when the Great Wall became the world's largest military structure.

States prior to the Qin Dnasty had built walls to delineate political boundaries with other states. The expansion of the Qin Empire rendered the lesser walls superfluous, but the Eastern Hu incursions gave the Qin a reason to fortify the northern-most barrier. While the Great Wall was not originally conceived to serve as a defense against raiders from the north and east, under the Qin dynasty, sections were added to existing walls. From this time the Great Wall became a military barrier rather than just a political border, though the efforts to keep raiders out through the building of fortifications were unsuccessful. The Eastern Hu continued to raid and demand tribute, until they were ultimately undone by another coalition of nomads, the Xiongnu.

The Great Wall of China was not constructed as a single project. There were two major periods of construction on the Great Wall, one during the Qin and Han dynasties, and the second during the Ming dynasty. During the first period the wall was not one extensive wall, but was rather numerous shorter fortifications. By the time of the second period of major construction during the Ming many of the original fortifications had fallen into complete disrepair, or had even disappeared. It is made up of numerous construction projects that were begun at different times, during different dynasties and in different locations. The wall as it known today is predominantly a product of the Ming Dynasty, which both repaired and rebuilt older sections, and expanded the reach of the structure. The Ming Dynasty structure can be seen from Hebei province to Gansu province. Beyond Gansu province the wall becomes a series of watchtowers that stretch into Xinjiang province and the Taklamakan desert.

The initial fortifications and the subsequent wall were both constructed to slow the advance of invading forces that depended on cavalry-mounted horsemen expert at using the bow and arrow. The initial constructions may have been designed at least as much in response to internal strife as to exterior threats. Imperial governments feared the possibility of disloyal Chinese bringing military technology or other kinds of information to the northern nomadic tribes. As a result, the construction of the wall was equal parts protection from outside invaders and an attempt to keep the Chinese in China.

The Great Wall represented one solution to imperial China's most long term foreign policy problem. This problem rose from the need by China, as a sedentary, agricultural empire to respond to the invasions by nomadic, tribal peoples. Initially, this concern came to prominence with the rise of the Xiongnu (shyong-new) Empire, which was based in present-day Mongolia. In later centuries the Chinese would sustain attacks along the northern frontier from other peoples residing to the north. Some of these groups even succeeded in conquering China, such as the Mongols in the thirteenth century (ruling as the Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368), and the Manchus (ruling as the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911).

The initial fortifications were begun in the 3rd century BCE, during the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty (221- 206 BCE). The fortifications begun during the Qin dynasty were augmented and expanded during the Han dynasty (202 BCE- 220 CE) that followed. The final, and most comprehensive, period of construction took place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The Ming Dynasty extended and strengthened the Great Wall in response to the earlier successes of the Mongols. Early Ming rulers greatly feared the Mongols, whom they had toppled in 1368. This fear was not without foundation: one fifteenth-century Ming emperor was captured and held captive by the Mongols for a year.

The Ming Dynasty was overthrown by another people from beyond the northern frontier: the Manchus. Over a number of decades, the Manchus prepared for the conquest of China by learning the governing systems and skills of the Chinese empire. In 1644, Manchu leaders took advantage of an internal rebellion that destroyed the Ming, entering Chinese territory through one of the wall's gates. The Manchus established the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty (1644- 1911), China's last dynasty.

Great Wall of China Map - Spring and Autumn Period Great Wall of China Map - Contending States Period
Great Wall of China - Early Han Great Wall of China - Sui Dynasty

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:05 ZULU