The Great Wall of China

Most of the Great Wall of China that stands now was built in the second half of the 16th century during the Ming dynasty to connect the principal garrison points of the Ming defensive system against Mongol attacks.

Being northern nomads the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty had no need for the Great Wall as a defense barrier. In 1368, a Chinese rebel, Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yuan-chang), ended the Yuan dynasty, established the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and gained complete control of both Inner and Outer Mongolia almost to Lake Baikal and to Hami in the northwest.

His son Yongle (Yung-lo), the third Ming emperor, was also a seasoned commander and personally led five campaigns into Mongolia in the early 15th century. Then he chose a defensive posture against the approximately 2 million Mongols whose homeland stretched from northwestern Manchuria, across Mongolia and modern Xinjiang (Sinkiang).

Mongols still nurtured the dream of rebuilding the empire of Genghis Khan but fortunately for the Ming, they were divided and often warred with one another. In a pattern that went back for 2,000 years, the sedentary Chinese and their nomadic northern neighbors had conducted official trade under the tributary system.

Thus Mongol chiefs were enrolled as Ming vassals, paid tribute, and received gifts in return. Mongols also sold livestock, especially horses, to the Chinese in exchange for Chinese raw materials and manufactured goods such as silks, tea, and metals.

The great wall now days
The great wall now days

After his conquests, Emperor Yongle (r. 1402–24) decided to withdraw to an inner line of defense and divided the northern border into the Nine Defense Areas, each guarded by a garrison along a line that eventually became the Great Wall. It stretched from Shanhaiguan (Shanhaikuan) or Mountain Sea Pass in the east to Jiayuguan (Chiayukuan) 1,500 miles to the west.

It was a gigantic project. Stone was used for the lower courses, facing, and gates, while rubble filled the core. Huge kilns fired large bricks where stone was not available; bricks were also used for the towers and crenellations.

Although not uniform throughout most of the wall measured 35 feet high and 25 feet wide at the top with towers every half a mile or so that reach to 50 feet. Where the land is mountainous the wall followed the crest of the ridges; it blocked roadways and damned rivers.

Since the Ming capital Beijing (Peking) was close to the wall (one day’s ride), more than a hundred passes or barriers with monumental gateways guarded strategic points along the eastern section to the sea at Sanhaiguan. At the western terminus at Jiayuguan (Chiayukuan) at the northwestern tip of Gansu (Kansu) province another formidable fortress marked the starting point of the Silk Road.

The Great Wall was Ming China’s inner line of defense against the nomadic Mongols in the north and wall building continued to the end of the dynasty. Yet it was not totally effective because the Mongols were able to breach or bypass it. Its building exhibited sophisticated technology and consumed vast resources.