The Great Wall of China is the world's longest wall. Estimates of its length vary from 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) to 50,300 kilometers (31,250 miles), with most sources saying it is between 6,275 kilometers (3,900 miles) and 7,240 kilometers (4,500) miles long. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the main line's length is 3,460 kilometers (2,150 miles), with an additional 3530 kilometers (2,195 miles) of branches and spurs. According to the Chinese government, the Great Wall embraces a 3,460-kilometer (2,150-mile) -long main wall, occasionally broken up by mountains and other obstacles, and 2865 kilometers (1,780 miles) of spurs and additions. In 2012, the Chinese government said a careful reassessment determined the Great Wall is 21,198 kilometers (13,171 miles) long, [Sources: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2003, The New Yorker, May 21, 2007; Los Angeles Times, July 2012]

The oldest parts of the Great Wall date back to the 7th century B.C. For self-protection, rival kingdoms built walls around their territories, laying the foundation for the present Great Wall. When Emperor Qin Shihuang unified the whole country in 221 B.C., the existing walls were linked up and new ones added to counter attacks by the remnants of defeated states. Most of The Great Wall that we see today dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

The Great Wall of China stretches across nine northern Chinese provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions from Bohai Bay on the Yellow Sea in the east to the Gobi Desert, 2,500 kilometers away in the west. It ranges in height from five meters (16 feet) to 13 meters (40 feet), and is up to 10 meters (32 feet thick). From Shanhaiguan, northeast of Qinhuangdao City on Bohai Bay in Hebei Province on the east coast, the Great Wall rises and falls with the contours of the mountains spanning westwards, ending at Jiayuguan, southwest of Jiayuguan City in Gansu Province.

The Great Wall of China is as long as the Nile River (six Great Walls could stretch around the entire earth) and contains an estimated 400 million cubic yards of material, enough to build 120 pyramids equal in size to the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and enough to build all the buildings in Scotland and England in 1793. A saying in China goes:"You are not a true man if you have not been to the Great Wall."

The Great Wall is probably China's greatest cultural icon. It comprises walls, passes, watchtowers, castles and fortresses. The walls are made of large stone blocks. The most comprehensive and technologically advanced survey to date---a two-year mapping project finished in 2009, using GPS and infrared technology---determined the wall stretches for 8,851.8 kilometers and includes 6,259.6 kilometers of actual wall, 359.7 kilometers of trenches and 2,322.5 kilometers of natural barriers such as mountains and rivers.

Books: The Great Wall, China Against the World by Julia Lovell, a professor at Cambridge Cambridge (University Press (2006); The Great Wall of China from History to Myth by Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania professor (Cambridge University Press, 1992); The Great Wall of China by Daniel Schwartz. Web Sites: Wikipedia article ; UNESCO World Heritage Site website

Names and Claims and the Great Wall of China

The Chinese word for the Great Wall of China has traditionally been changcheng, which literally means “long wall” or “long walls.” When it was being built the walls were known by at least ten different names The Ming usually called them bianquing (“border walls”).

The term Great Wall was coined by Europeans and began to be widely used towards the end of the 19th century. Before that it was referred to by foreigners mostly as the “Chinese Wall.” Only in the 20th century after Westerners began calling it the Great Wall did the Chinese start calling it something similar: Wanli Changcheng (literally “10,000 li long wall”).

Many of the claims made about the Great Wall are untrue. It is not a single wall. It did not halt the Mongol invasion. And, it cannot be seen from the moon. "Although we can see things as small as airport runways," space shuttle astronaut Jay Apt wrote in National Geographic, "the Great Wall seems to made largely of materials that have the same color as the surrounding soil. Despite persistent stories that it can be seen from the moon, the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up!"

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NASA radar image of the Great Wall

The source of the claim that the Great Wall can be seen from the moon is a 1925 National Geographic article which began. “According to astronomers, the only work of man’s hands which could be visible from the moon is the Great Wall of China.” Some also attribute the claim to a letter written in 1874 by English antiquarian William Stukely. In it he stated that Hadrian’s Wall is exceeded in length only "by the Chinese wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may discerned be at the moon.”

Composition of the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall is many different walls built at different times by different dynasties. Most sections are composites of fortifications built by several dynasties, with most of the work done during the Ming dynasty. Through much of its history---and even today---many Chinese had little interest in or affection for the Great Wall..

Some sections are made of stone and have crenelated watchtowers with vaulted ceilings and arched windows.. Others are little more than crumbling piles of mud brick with animal shelters carved in them. Most sections are made of tamped earth. Long sections run across the tops of mountains and ridge tops, incorporating natural barriers such as cliffs and steep slopes. The Great Wall has outlived its usefulness for several centuries now and until fairly recently had been left to crumble into dust. Its only real use today is as a tourist attraction.

There are two main sections: the stone walls built as lines of defense around Beijing and the walls made mostly of tamped earth further to the west. The concept that the Great Wall is a continuous wall made of stone is derived largely by marrying the stone Ming walls that one sees north of Beijing, built between the 14th and 17th century, with descriptions of a 3.000 mile built in the 3rd century B.C. under Emperor Qin Shihuang.

Even today its is not clear what qualifies as a section of the Great Wall and what doesn’t. Some say that a section has to be a part of a 100 kilometer long chain to qualify. Other say any border fortification can be included. A satellite survey determined there were 390 miles of walls just in the Beijing area. Field work has determined that there is much more than that.

Uses of the Great Wall of China

Fortifications and walls were solidified into the Great Wall of China to keep invaders from the north out. But keeping the barbarians out of China was not the only reason for the wall. It was also built for land grabbing purposes. According to historian Julia Lovell, author of a book about the Great Wall, it extended “hundreds of kilometers from the farmable land” in order to “police people” and “control lucrative trade routes.” 20080320-Great-Wall-steps Nolls.jpg
Great Wall tower

At one time more than 40,000 watchtowers were strung along the Great Wall. Messages were relayed back and forth between northern China and Beijing using signals made from gunpowder blast at the watchtowers. The Mongols by contrast used smoke signals made from burning animal dung to send messages.

The Chinese also used the wall as an elevated highway to move troops and equipment through rugged terrain. Some sections of the wall are wide enough to accommodate five horsemen or 12 armed soldiers walking abreast. Emperors sometimes led entire armies along the top of the wall.

Many people live near the wall and continue to use it today. Some have their houses built into it. One family with a house with 20-foot-thick walls told National Geographic it is “very warm in the winter, cool in the summer.” Some villages are entirely enclosed in high-walled forts and have the characters for “fort,” “barracks” or “checkpoint” in their name. In other places holes have been pinched in the wall to allow sheep to pass and stones have been cannibalized as construction material and even sold to tourists at a price of $10 for one 10 kilogram stone.

Early History of the Great Wall of China


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Early Great Wall

The first sections of the Great Wall were built between 770 and 450 B.C. by small independent, often warring, kingdoms. It was first thought that the fortifications were built by small Chinese kingdoms to protect their irrigated lands along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers from steppe nomads to the north because the first walls were built roughly on a line originally thought to separate the fertile river valleys of the south from the steppe to the north. This was not always true, however. Sections of wall rose and fell with provincial states and were defined by a number of factors.

Beginning in 221 B.C., existing walls were linked together and reinforced under orders from Emperor Qin, the first emperor of unified China. Hundreds of thousands of workers took part in the project and perhaps tens of thousands of them died. Many were political prisoners who were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. The wall itself was made mostly from compacted earth. The 180 million cubic meters of material used now lies at core of many sections of the wall.

As invaders from the north became stronger the fortifications of the Great Wall of China were built up to keep them out. If the Great Wall was breached, the Chinese believed, the invaders would assimilate themselves into the Chinese way of life once they realized its "superior attractions." For over a thousand years this strategy worked. After a period of disruption, invaders usually married Chinese women and were in fact absorbed. The dynasties that ruled China for the most part took over after power struggles within the empire.

The main threat in the early years of the Great Wall came from the Hu, a horse-riding nomadic people from Central Asia. They were mentioned in records relating to the Warring States period (303-221 B.C.) and the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.). The Hu had no interest in assimilation and easily skirted the wall.

Subsequent dynasties continued to rebuild and restore the walls, and occasionally criminals and political prisoners were thrown threw the gates and left to survive on their own in the north. During the Han dynasty so many trees were felled for scaffolding an ecological disaster occurred. The Tang dynasty kept the barbarians at bay by encouraging trade and cultural exchanges rather than building walls. In the 13th century, the walls failed to stop Genghis Khan, who reportedly said, "the strength of the wall depends on the courage of those who defend it." He reportedly breached it by bribing a sentry.

Great Wall of China Under the Ming Dynasty

The most famous and impressive sections of the Great Wall were built from mud, brick and stone during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The Ming emperors devoted a huge amount of resources and manpower to the project. Stones weighing over a ton were shaped, moved and heaved on top of each other. Over 60 million tons of bricks and stone slabs were used.

The Ming built their walls as lines of defense with as many as four rows of fortifications in strategic areas. They used durable materials and construction methods, intending to make something that lasted. Stone was quarried in the Beijing area. The mud bricks were made of soil, straw, tamarisk, egg yolk and rice paste. The earth was tamped with large chunks of rock and special tools.

The project took over a 100 years to complete. At one time, nearly one in every three males in China was conscripted to help build it. Towns along the wall became industrial areas for firing bricks, blasting rocks to make fill and sharpening stones. Army units were put to work on a rotating basis so no one unit would be overworked and rebel.

The towers and walls were often made separately with the towers being made first from brick that was carried in. Wall sections were built between the towers, first with local stone, and later with materials that were carried in. Construction was usually done in the spring when the weather was good but the Mongols were not active (they usually raided and attacked in the fall after their horses had been fattened up on summer grass). In some places tablets identify when a given wall section was built and name the officials involved in building it.

Hundreds of thousand of people died from severe weather, starvation and exhaustion while building the Great Wall of China. Many women were widowed and children left without fathers. A popular Ming era song went: "If a son is born, mind you don't raise him! If a girl is born, don’t feed her dried meat. Don't you just see below the Long Wall, dead men's skeletons prop each other up.”

Great Wall of China Under Attack

While many scholars say that the Great Wall was no better than the Maginot line which failed to stop the Nazis from entering France, others say it served its purpose well. In the early years of the Ming dynasty the Chinese military often went on the offensive and pushed Mongol settlements away from the walls. Later the Chinese bribed Mongol leaders or set up lucrative trade opportunities to keep them from attacking. Many sections of the wall were built in the late Ming era when the Ming army was too weak to fight and the emperors were too proud to negotiate.

In a typical defense the Chinese used crude cannons, arrows cudgels and stones to defend against Mongol attacks. There were regulations about how many stones could used in a defense and how they would be carried to the wall. In some sections you can still see piles of stones ready to be used in the next attack.

The Mongols liked to approach the walls at night on horseback, in small groups. They followed ridge lines because they were concerned about ambushes. They were not interested in occupying land. They were raiders, who penetrated into Chinese territory and returned as quickly as possible. Often their objective was to steal livestock, valuables and Chinese people, who were forced into families, with the men trained to be spies behind Chinese lines while their wives and children stayed in Mongolia as hostages.

A major attack occurred in 1550 when the Mongols breached a crude section of stone wall and pillaged for two weeks, killing and capturing thousands of Chinese. After that more sturdy walls made with mortar were built. In 1576 there was another major Mongol attack. This time they penetrated through an area so rugged and remote building a wall was not considered necessary. During this raid the Mongols killed an estimated 20,000 Chinese. Another major campaign of wall building followed. After that the Chinese for the most were able to hold back the Mongols. At Shuitou, the Chinese withstood an attack by thousands of Mongols.

Only about a third of the Ming Dynasty wall remains intact. Because of the high quality of the construction, some wall sections today look pretty much as it did in the Ming Dynasty.

Later History of the Great Wall of China

The Qing Dynasty let the walls deteriorate, in part because they were Manchu horsemen which the walls had been designed to keep out, plus they controlled territory far north of the wall. Into the 20th century the Great Wall was held in relatively low regard and was only given a boost when China needed a dose of nationalism to raise its esteem during bad times. Both Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong used the wall as symbols of Chinese strength, pride, hard work and greatness. During the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s large parts of the wall were torn down by crowds chanting, "Down with the Four Olds" to make barracks and houses.

Although large sections of the Great Wall have been restored for tourism, much of it is has collapsed, been claimed by weather or been carted off as building materials for peasant huts, pigpens, roads, buildings and reservoirs. When asked what happened to missing sections many villagers will tell you they were dismantled to keep the Japanese from using them as observation posts and machine gun nests.

The mud sections have largely disintegrated. Some sections have been covered by desert sands or have collapsed due to the continuous freezing and thawing of the wall's foundations. Other sections have been fouled with graffiti or Communist party slogans. There are sections that been torn to make way for construction and had stones removed to build roads. Other sections have been developed and fixed up for tourists in nightmarish ways.

After the Cultural Revolution ended some sections were reportedly rebuilt by the same people who tore them down. A Deng Xiaoping era slogan went: "Let us love our China and restore our Great Wall!" In recent years the Great Wall has become quite popular. There are Great Wall tires, Great Wall wine, Great Wall cigarettes, Great Wall rockets and Great Wall computers.

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Great Wall map

Great Wall of China Today

Most of the sections visited by tourists were built in the Ming Dynasty and have been restored in the 20th century. Entire army units have been put to work rebuilding sections. Kilns have been set up to bake bricks. Rock faces have been dynamited to produce material for fill. Many sections have been rebuilt using ancient techniques and mortar according to ancient recipes. Laborers that do the rebuilding are paid about $3 a day.

Peasants continue to carry away stones and bricks from the wall in remote locations and use them to build houses and shelters. The problem is serious enough that the World Monument Fund added the wall to its list of “most endangered sites.” Organizations like the International Friends of the Great Wall have been established to help preserve it.

Sandstorms in northwest China are blamed for reducing sections of the Great Wall of China to dust and dirt in remarkably short periods of time. The problem is particularly severe in Gansu Province where many sections are made of from mud and mud brick rather than brick and stone. One three mile section in Minqiin County in Gansu that was built in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.0 A.D. 220) is “rapidly disappearing” and may be gone in 20 years.

The modern world has caught up with some sections of the Great Wall. One seven-mile section in Gansu that was unbroken when it was photographed by the archeologist Aurel Stein in 1910 is now crossed, according to Great Wall expert William Lindesay, by “two rail lines, 17 power lines, the west-to-east gas line, 15 dirt roads, one main road, an abandoned main road and the G-312 expressway which is actually routed under the Wall.”

In December 2006, a the first nationwide law was enacted to protect the Great Wall from practices such as removing bricks to build homes and pigsties, carving one’s name into the wall and holding all night parties that leave the walls smelling of urine and littered with garbage. A construction company in Inner Mongolia was fined $64,000 for removing a section that was in its way.

Some people have tried to hike the entire Great Wall. The American missionary and explorer William Edgar Geil traversed the length of the Great Wall between 1907 and 1908. William Lindesay, a British geologist and marathoner, ran and hiked 2,470 kilometers of the wall in 1987 and would have done more but was deported. He later moved to Beijing, wrote four books about the wall and founded Friends of the Great Wall, a small organization oriented primarily towards conservation.

With the Great Wall as famous as it is it is surprising how little it has been studied. David Spindler, a 6-foot-7 American independent scholar, is regarded by some as the premier expert of the wall. He has hiked much its length, often bushwhacking through brambles and thorns with a special outfit that includes a face mask made from the leg of a pair of sweat pants. Dong Yaoshi, a former utility worker, hiked thousands of miles of the wall beginning in 1984 and founded the Great Wall Society of China. Dong Feg, a policeman at Beijing University, is regarded a the most active Chinese researcher today. He runs and discovered that breaks in the wall are there because they lie along dragon lines, important for the feng shui of Beijing.

Tourism and the Great Wall of China

By some measures the Great Wall of China is China’s most-visited tourist attraction. About 10 million tourists visit the Great Wall every year with the majority of them going to the Badaling section which has received 119,000 people in a single day. The Great Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In recent years the government has been taking a more activist role in preserving it, banning hiking on unrestored section and rebuilding parts that have been crumbling. In 2005 the entrance fees to the Great Wall sections near Beijing were substantially raised to as high as 80 yuan ($9.60). The money is supposed be used for upkeep and restoration.

Many dignitaries and celebrities including Richard Nixon, George Michael have been photographed at the wall. On his only visit to China in 1982, Andy Warhol wrote: “I went to the Great Wall. You know, you read about ir for years. An actually, it was rally great. It was really, really, really great.”

A number of events have been held there. In 2004, a rock concert headlined by Cyndi Lauper was held on a revolving stage set on a watch tower. In 2006, the Johnnie Walker Golf Classic teed off from the wall at Juyongguan Pass. In 2007, the wall was used as a catwalk for a Fendi and Karl Lagerfield fashion show.

All-night raves have been held o the wall. Every spring the Great Wall Marathon is staged at a section of the wall 130 kilometers from Beijing. In some of the steeper sections many participants walk. In 2002, a stunt cyclist died trying to jump the Great Wall. In 2007 a skateboarder successfully leapt over it.

There are special places near the Great Wall where celebrities and rich people can stay. Commune of the Great Wall (at the foot of the Great Wall near Badaling) is collection of fanciful homes, each designed by a respected Asian architect. The one designed by Californian-trained Yung Ho Chang is made of packed earth. The one designed by Shigeru Ban is made of laminated bamboo. Originally called Architectural Gallery, it was designed to be a weekend escape. The houses were put on the market for $1 million each, There were few buyers and it new serves as a convention center and tourist attraction as well as a place for the rich and famous.

Image Sources: 1) Great Wall, Nolls China website; 2) NASA; 3) Great Wall tower, Nolls China website ; 4) Early Great Wall, Ohio State University; 5) Wall attack, University of Washington; 6) Wall-mounting ladder, University of Washington; 7) Great Wall map, Dr. Robert Perrins; 8) Grand Canal.

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), UNESCO, Rough Guide for Beijing, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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