What’s so great about the Great Wall of China?

The Great Wall is one of the most recognisable historical sites of China due to its sheer length and size. (Pixabay pic)

Being a country with thousands of years of established history, China has a great many historical sites harkening to days and empires long gone.

One historical site, in particular, still captivates people’s imaginations and is truly a marvel of engineering to behold. The Great Wall of China stretches for more than 20,900 km through the countryside of northern China.

That distance is equivalent to driving by car from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu 20 times. Just as the structure itself is lengthy, so is the history behind which is as bloody as it is long.

The wall as people know it did not exist in its early years.

Instead of a long continuous wall of brick, the Great Wall was a disjointed series of earthen walls built by the northern feudal states.

These fortifications were to serve not only to defend themselves against their rival states, but also to restrict the movement of the ever-threatening nomadic raiders from what is now Mongolia.

After the First Unification of China under Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 221BC, the northern mountains remained difficult to seal off from nomadic incursions.

In light of this, the Emperor connected the walls and strengthened them further.

Stretching from western Lintao to eastern Liaodong, the Great Wall was then known as the Long Wall. The responsibility of the wall’s construction fell onto soldiers and commoners, who were sometimes forced into it.

Parts of the Great Wall are not accessible to visitors due to structural collapse. (Reuters pic)

Many of the builders were peasants plucked off their farms or criminals sentenced to back-breaking work on the construction site.

Even after the Qin Dynasty was replaced by the Han Dynasty, the wall retained its strategic value.

The wall was further lengthened, measuring 5,955 km at the time and stretching from the coast to the north-western city of Dunhuang.

As construction continued, the wall grew an ill-repute as a place of suffering where workers would suffer horrific accidents or be worked to death.

Poems and stories at the time claimed that the wall is lined with mass graves or that the bones are inside the Great Wall itself. Human bodies do not bode well for structural integrity, so the latter is probably an exaggeration.

However, archaeologists have indeed found large grave sites of workers who had died from the elements, accidents or just fatigue.

While the wall did look impressive, the Mongol invasion of China went on unperturbed by the wall, with Genghis and Kublai Khan paying no heed to it.

After the Mongols were expelled by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, the wall was strengthened further with bricks and stones.

Towering at a height of 7 metres and a width of 6.4 metres, the wall stretched for over 8,850 km with watchtowers carefully placed in strategic positions.

Every year, millions of tourists flock to visit the Great Wall, inadvertently contributing to its decay. (Pixabay pic)

As soon as bandits or raiders were sighted over the horizon, fires were lit on the watchtowers to signal for reinforcements.

Battlements and arrowslits allowed defenders to safely rain down arrows and crossbow bolts on anyone attempting to assail the wall.

Larger holes were also used to drop stones and boiling oil on attackers.

However, despite its intimidating strength, the Great Wall could prove vulnerable due to the troops manning it.

In 1644, the Ming were overthrown by the Manchu clans who had been allowed passage through the wall by a general who held a grudge against the Imperial court.

The Great Wall no longer served its purpose as the extent of the empire’s borders stretched out further than the wall itself.

Neglect took its toll on the wall and bricks were stolen by nearby villagers for their own use.

However, the Great Wall still retained some strategic value, and saw significant fighting during the Japanese invasion of China.

Given the marvel of engineering that it is and its sheer size, in 1987, the Great Wall of China was granted Unesco World Heritage Status.

A popular and disproven myth states that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space.

There is a certain irony that the Great Wall, built to keep people out of China is now used to draw millions of local and foreign tourists every year.