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The Ming Great Wall

After the dynasty that founded the Great Wall, that whose history is most closely associated with the enormous structure, is the dynasty of Ming, some fifteen centuries later. Of its sixteen emperors, those who had most to do with the mighty defense were Yung Lo, Ch'eng Hua, Lung Ch'ing and Wan Li.

The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, left his second son, Chu Ti, with the title of Yen Wang (i.e., Prince of Yen), a revival of an old style in the local kingdom before the days of Chin. Chu Ti had the special duty of guarding the frontier against the late Mongol tyrants, while Hung Wu returned to his native district in the Yangtze basin, and chose the city of Nanking, which had already been a capital more than once, as the seat of his restored Chinese Empire, now to be reorganized after the long foreign tyranny.

When Zhu Yunwen (Chien Wen) succeeded to the throne in 1398, he at once took measures to deprive of power his uncles, who were princes of various parts of the empire. But Ti, prince of Yen, who ruled modern Chihli, rebelled in 1399, marched southwards, and in spite of several earlier reverses in Shantung crossed the Yangtze in 1402 and entered Nanking in triumph. The young emperor disappeared in the confusion which followed upon the entry of the troops into bis palace and was never seen again.

When Yung Lo, the great Ming, ascended the ancient throne of the Chins, with a sagacity worthy of the Greatest Huang Ti, he decreed the shifting of the center of empire from the comfortable south to the windy north. Kublai Khan had built his capital, Kambaluc, inside the Great Wall, that, if necessary, he might promptly defend that structure from its friends. Yung Lo constructed Peking hard by the Mongol site to facilitate his personal defense of the Great Wall from its ancient foes. The modern capital of this vast empire is now in the north because the Great Wall dictated a policy necessitating the permanent presence there of the sovereign. To alter the center of empire, or, as the Chinese would say, "move the urns of empire," was only less important than to interfere with the original distribution of the races of men.

Yung Lo wished to be in person near the frontier over which they had fled. So it was expressly proclaimed in 1403 that the main forces, under the direct command of His Majesty, were to be cantoned near the northern boundary in order to repel possible invasion; Peking therefore would become the capital, and Nanking would revert to its previous importance as the mere seat of a provincial governor.

The descendants of the Yuan dynasty, after being driven out of China, constantly endeavored to regain their lost dominion. When the capital was removed to the north by Yung Lo, the Great Wall was near to it on three sides, and from that time the enemy became day by day more troublesome. Therefore, to the end of the Ming dynasty, the defense of the Great Wall became a leading object.

The Great Wall was revived following the Ming army's defeat by the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu in 1449. The Ming had failed to gain a clear upper-hand over the Manchurian and Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the protracted conflict was taking a toll on the empire.

In 1474 it was reported in a memorial to the throne that the Wall was in a state of great disrepair, and that the flourishing condition of the Empire afforded a favourable opportunity for restoring it. The necessary sanction having been obtained from the Emperor, the work was prosecuted with energy. The local garrison supplied the labour, and in a few months the wall had been renovated throughout a great portion of its length by the efforts of 50,000 soldiers. A large extent of territory within this wall was then parcelled out among military settlers, and while there was increased security from without, greater prosperity prevailed within. So late as AD 1547, during the Ming dynasty, 300 miles were added to it, and it had constantly been repaired.

The Ming emperors (1368-1644), after the long period of conflict which ended with the expulsion of the Mongols, revived the tradition begun by Qin Shi Huang. During the Ming dynasty, 5,650 kms of crenelated wall were built. The stones used were incredibly well matched, and the wall was fortified by 25,000 towers and protected by 15,000 outposts. To defend the northern frontier, the Wall was divided into nine Zhen, which were military districts rather than simple garrisons. At strategic points, fortresses were built to defend the towns (e.g. Jinshanling for Peking), passes or fords. The passageways running along the top of the wall made it possible to move troops rapidly and, in peace time, for imperial couriers to travel. Two symbolic monuments still proudly stand at either end of the wall. These are the "First Door under Heaven" at Shanhaiguan, located at the wall's eastern end, and the "Last Door under Heaven" at Jiayuguan, which, as part of the fortress entirely restored after 1949, marks its northwestern end.

Most parts of the Great Wall were built along the mountain ridge, for the sheer mountain ridge could add more defensive value to the wall. The Great Wall is mostly built in the high mountains and deep valleys, where the transportation of construction materials is rather difficult. There are many different kinds of designs for the fortifications on the Great wall, such as passes, beacon towers and walls, and each of them has various functions.

Walls are the main part of the construction, averaging about 8 maters / 25 feet tall. They serve as the important link connecting the passes, beacon towers, watch towers and other military structures together. It was built very firmly at some vital passes. Walls were usually built on the mountain ranges with very important strategic function for defense. The walls in plain area or strategic points should be very high and fortified built with block stones while those walls in dangerous mountain tops were made very low and simple. In some places walls are just the cliff or slit rocks.

The walls are 8 meters high and 5 meters wide in average. There are crenel walls on the outer side and parapet walls on the inner side. The crenel walls are on the top which have defensive gaps of 30 cm tall and 23 cm wide. There are also holes at the button of the walls for shooting the arrows. All the structures were made for the purpose of easy defense on the people inside the war and easy offense on the enemies outside the war.

Strategic platforms were built every 300 to 500 meters along the wall. These platforms served a variety of purposes: for posting patrols and sentries; to serve as observation posts; and as battle platforms for offensive actions and weapon storage. Here there are also reinforcing walls built alongside the wall proper and beacon towers for transmitting military information.

Guan Cheng (frontier pass city) were the centralized defense points of the great wall. The location of Guancheng was very important. It should be built in a decent position for defending and most often this Guancheng could allow them defend the invasion of strong enemies with bare armies. Passes [guan] are the most massive defense beachheads on the wall, often located in places of military importance which are favorable for defense. They are often composed of square walls, gates, gate towers, and moats. A Chinese sentence well tells the importance of the pass city: If one man guards the pass, ten thousand are unable to get through.

Take an example of the passes of the Ming-dynasty Great Wall. The Ming Great Wall boasts about one thousand pass cities along the Great Wall. Among those, the most notable ones are Shanhaiguan, Huangyaguan, Juyongguan, Zijingguan, Daomaguan, Pingxingguan, Yanmenguan, Pianguan and Jiayuguan passes. Generally speaking, Great Wall passes are composed of a city wall, city gate, gate tower, luocheng, wengcheng, and moat.

The City wall is the main component of the Great Wall pass, often measures about 33 feet tall. The outside of the wall was laid by pieces of large bricks or stones with the inner comprising of yellow earth and debris. In peace time, the City Gate is the passageway for soldiers passing in and out. At war, it is used for the exit to counter attack enemies. Many gates are carved the name of the pass. Inside the opening, a pair of wooden doors stand there which are covered by sheet iron on the outside. The inner sides of the doors are secured by big bolts and lock holes. Even machineries are hidden inside to kill the intruders.

The Wengcheng is a small enclosure which is built on the outer side of the Great Wall. It serves as another line of the city wall to strengthen the defensibility of the city gate. The Luocheng is a secondary wall built to protect the Wengcheng which is often the main target of enemies. There is usually a moat around the Great Wall pass. It is a deep trench filled with water after excavation to build the pass. Being another line of defense, it increases the difficulty for enemies to attack the city and creates opportunities for soldiers on the wall to attack intruders.

Beacon towers are the most important component of the defensive project on the Great Wall. Beacon towers were used for passing military messages. They were often built on the tops of the mountains or rises for convenience in watching the enemies’ movements. Due to its unique function, it is regarded as the oldest effective telegraph system in Chinese history.

They are built to continually pass military messages. In ancient times, if intruders approached, soldiers on the wall would create smoke in the daytime and light a fire at night to warn their troops. Soldiers would light the fire wood to tell the next watch tower that dangers approached, so every watch tower would then get the message one after another until every soldier was fully alarmed and ready to fight. In the Ming Dynasty, giving off smoke one time (or lifting one firebrand) together with a gun shot suggests there are about one hundred enemies.

There are mainly three types of Great Wall beacon towers. The first type of beacon towers is built on the wall. This beacon tower is the fastest to pass military messages. If enemies came, soldiers would be maneuvered in shortest time and gotten ready to quickly fight. The second type is the one located inside the wall and connects the passes or garrisons. The third is built some distance away from the wall, to watch the enemies’ movements.

The history of the beacon tower construction is earlier than the building of the Great Wall. Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) emphasized on the construction of beacon towers, in some sections, the successive beacon towers even replaced the wall to form the defense system.

In peacetime, the beacon tower of Great Wall was the place where soldiers kept watch, and animal dung and fire wood were saved. Soldiers raised sheep and cattle to eat and took their dung to burn, sometimes wolf dung was also used, and this is the reason why the beacon tower smoke is called “Langyan” (Wolves’ smoke).

The Badaling section of the Great Wall most frequented by visitors dates from the Ming Dynasty, Constructed of large blocks of granite and bricks, the wall at this point is 6.6 meters high and 6.5 meters wide at its base, narrowing to 5.5 meters on the rampart. It is wide enough to permit five or six horses to stand abreast. Both trains and buses go to the northwest of the city proper in a deep mountain-flanked gully 15 kilometers long. In summer, the peaks here are covered with brilliant stretches of leaves and luxuriant flowers. As early as the 13th century, the area was known for its beauty, and was listed as one of the"Eight Great Sights of Yanjing." The name "Juyong" first appeared in the huainanzi, a philosophical work from the second century BC, in the following annotation: "The Juyong Pass is one of the nine great passes in the country."

Great Wall of China Map

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Page last modified: 02-07-2012 18:29:03 ZULU