The Great Wall of China is famous in North America, and many tourists would like to travel there. However, most North Americans don’t know very much about Chinese history. That is changing now, as China is becoming an important subject for study in the West.
The settled communities of China were targets for nomadic raids since earliest times. For much of its early history, China was not fully unified. However, Shih Huang, who died in 210 B.C., united the whole country. Then he set about defending China from the northern nomads. It seems likely that there had been defensive walls in the north before. However, Shih Huang had a wall constructed across the entire north of China. This defensive wall extended for almost 2,000 miles and had 25,000 towers. Such walls were very expensive to build. They also required huge numbers of men to construct them, and later to defend them.
Even so, the Great Wall did not stop nomadic invasions altogether. Not long after Shih Huang’s death, a tribe called the Huns crossed the wall. The Emperor Hu Ti, who expanded Chinese power beyond the Wall, defeated them.
Centuries later, the Mongols to the north of China were united under Genghis Khan. The Mongols attacked China, and Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, became the first non-Chinese emperor of China in 1279. Eventually, the Chinese rebelled and overthrew their Mongol rulers. Nonetheless, the Mongols remained a threat. In 1449, they destroyed a Chinese army and captured the Emperor.
A new Great Wall was begun to keep the Mongols out. This is the wall which tourists visit today and which is pictured on Chinese stamps. Construction continued for 200 years. While some parts were built of packed earth, much of the wall was built of stone, brick and rubble. This is why it took so long. Stones had to be quarried, and bricks baked and carried to the site. Labourers, peasants, soldiers and criminals were forced to work on the wall. Large and small forts and watchtowers carefully guarded the wall. Nearly a million soldiers were stationed along it.
The Chinese defenders lit fires when the enemy was sighted. Plumes of smoke and cannon shots told that the enemy was advancing and how many there were. By 1644, the new wall was almost completed.
That same year, however, an internal uprising overthrew the Emperor. This revolt was partly caused by the high taxes demanded to pay for the wall. The Emperor’s men invited the nomadic Manchu tribe to come through the gates in the wall to help put down the revolt. The Manchus came; but they stayed, and ruled China for several hundred years.
Since the Manchus ruled both north and south of the wall, they did not care about maintaining it. Many parts fell into disrepair, and some completely disappeared. Today the parts that remain are a major tourist attraction. The Great Wall of China is one of the wonders of the world. Even if it didn’t really succeed in its purpose of keeping the northern nomads out of China.