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The Great Wall of China

by Damian Zimmerman
December, 1997


1. Abstract:

The Great Wall stretches for 4,160 miles across North China. It is the only man-made structure that can be seen from the moon with the naked eye. Its construction started as far back in Chinese recorded history as the so-called Spring and Autumn periods (770-476 B.c.) and the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.). Rival feudal kingdoms built walls around their territories to keep out invading nomadic tribes from the north. When Emporer Qin Shihuang unified China, he started to link up and extend these walls.

Prisoners of war, convicts, soldiers, civilians and farmers provided the labor. Millions died for this cause, and many Chinese stories speak of parted lovers and men dying of starvation and disease. Thousands of bodies have been discovered buried in the foundations of the wall, or used to make up its thickness.

The Great Wall crosses plateaus, mountains, deserts, rivers and valleys, passing through five provinces and two autonomous regions. It averages about 20 feet wide and 26 feet high. Parts of the wall are so broad that 10 persons can walk across it side by side. Materials used for the wall, were whatever could be found near by; clay, stone, willow branches, reeds and sand.

Parts of this wall can still be seen in remote parts of China. What most visitors see of the Wall now was restored in the Ming dynasty, when stone slabs replaced clay bricks. It took 100 years to rebuild, and it is said that the amount of material used in the present wall alone is enough to circle the world at the equator five times.

The Great Wall, known in Mandarine as "Wan-Li Ch'ang-Ch'eng" (10,000 Li Long Wall), is one of the largest building construction projects ever carried out. It streches approximately 4,000 miles (6,400 km) west to east from the Jiayu Pass (in Gansu Province) to Po Hai at the mouth of the Yalu River (in Liaoning Province).

2. Description:

The Great Wall started as earth works thrown up for protection by different States. The individual sections were not connected until the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Qin Shihuangdi, known as the First Emperor of Qin, began conscripting, forcing, peasants, enemies, and anyone else who was not tied to the land to go to work on the wall. He garrisoned armies at the Wall to stand guard over the workers as well as to defend the northern boundaries. The tradition lasted for centuries. Each successive dynasty added to the height, breadth, length, and elaborated the design of this mamoth structure, mostly through forced labor.

Parts of the vast fortification dates from the 4th century BC. In 214 BC Shih Huang-ti, the first emperor of a united China, connected a number of existing defensive walls into a single system fortified by watchtowers. The towers served both to guard the rampart and to communicate with the former capital, Hsien-yang, near Sian, by signal--smoke by day and fire by night. Alarm was raised by means of smoke signals, at night by fire. Smoke was produced by burning a mixture of wolf dung, sulfur and saltpeter. Shots were fired at the same time. Thus an alarm could be relayed over 500km within just a few hours. The principal enemy against whom the Great Wall was built were the Hsiung-nu, the nomadic tribes of the northern steppes.

It was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that the Wall took on its present form. The brick and granite work was enlarged, and sophisticated designs were added. The watch towers were redesigned and modern canons were mounted in strategic areas. The Portuguese had found a ready market for guns and canons in China, one of the few items of trade that China did not already have in abundance. The Ming Emperors, having overthrown the Hun dominance and having expelled their Mongol rulers of the North devoted large portions of available material and manpower, and money to making sure that they did not return.

Throughout the centuries, armies were garrisoned along the length of the Wall to provide early warning of invasion and a first line of defense. Great piles of straw and dung used to build smoke-signal fires(see photo) have been found during excavations. There must have been small garrison towns scattered along the length. There were not many farms or trade towns to provide ease, relaxation and food for soldiers and workers. The supply trails were over mountains along narrow paths. To bring supplies to the top, ropes were slung over posts set in the Chinese side of the wall and baskets were hauled up hand over hand. Supplies must have always been short and chancy, particularly in the winter.

History seems to suggest that the wall worked well. Only when a dynasty had weakened from within, were invaders from the north able to advance and conquer. Both the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368) and the Manchurians (Qing Dynasty,1644-1911) were able take power, not because of weakness in the Wall but because of weakness in the government and the poverty of the people. The fact is, that the cost of the wall's construction bankrupted Dynasty after Dynasty. Invaders, such as the Mongols, took advantage of rebellion from within and stepped into the void of power without extended wars.

Over the past few centuries, the Great Wall has served as a source of building materials for local farms and villages. Aerial photos show that in sections, only the top battlements show -- the center of the wall has filled with sand and silt. The same brutal isolated conditions which made the Great Wall a triumph of engineering and determined planning make restoration problematic and slow.

Started in the Zhou dynasty (1134BC to 250 BC). The purpose of this structure was to stop the 'barbarians' from crossing the northern border of China. More than 4600 years ago, there had been continuous violent conflicts between the agricultural Han Chinese on the south and the Non-Han Chinese the herdsmen on the north, along the ill-defined ecological border of North China. Pillagings and plunderings committed by the Non-Han Chinese from the north were unabated as time passed. This menace resulted in increasing the defense efforts to stop the Non-Han Chinese. Yan, Zhao and Qin, the three northern vassal States of the Han Chinese during the Zhou Dynasty (1134BC to 250BC) started to erect walls along their northern frontiers to protect themselves.
The State of Yan, whose capital is the present day Beijing city, existed from 766BC to 222BC, erected a long wall along its northern frontier from Liaoning Peninsula to the north of Beijing city in Hebei province.

The State of Zhao, whose capital is the present day Han Dan Xian in Hebei province, existed from 453BC to 228BC, also constructed a long wall along its northern frontier from the north of Beijing city to the bank along the great bend of Huang He (Yellow River).

The State of Qin, whose capital is the present day Xi An city in Shaanxi province, existed from 777BC to 207BC, also decided to build a long wall in its northern frontier from the bank of the Yellow River to the plateau of Long Xi in Gansu province.

In 246BC a very intelligent, clever, capable and harsh man became the ruler of State of Qin. His surname was Ying and his personal name was Zheng (259BC to 210BC). He had a vision that one day he would conquer all the other States in the land and unite this vast land into one big whole country. He accomplished his vision in 221BC after he had conquered and subjucated all the other States in the land. He adopted the title First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang Di). He established the Qin Dynasty (221BC to 207BC). He introduced the Qin administrative system through out the land. He divided his empire into 36 Prefectures. He unified weights and measure, standardized the coinage and even unified the axle lengths of the wagons. He was extravagant and rude to his subjects. He built roads, canals and many big palaces.

Simultaneously the various tribes of Non-Han Chinese in the north also united themselves as a large political union which was an antagonist to the Qin Empire. The strife intensified between the Han Chinese farmers and the Non-Han Chinese nomads. At times the Qin armies drove their nomadic rivals back to the desert. In order to secure the northern frontiers in 214BC Emperor Ying Zheng ordered his greatest general Meng Tian, to mobilize all the able-bodied subjects in the country to join up all the walls previously built, and those erected by the States of Yan and Zhao. Thousands upon thousands of men were conscripted and forced to march north to work on the construction. Up in the mountain wilderness, dressed only in rags in the bitter cold northern winter, hungry and weary, they were drudgering. Brutal beatings from the supervisors made the work even harder to bear. These unfortunate labourers were forced to work till they were ill with exhaustion and then died.

When all the old walls were connected together it became a long, long wall and it was called, "Wan Li Chang Cheng " (Ten Thousand Li Long Wall). It became a permanent barrier separating the agricultural Han Chinese on the south of the Wall from the Non-Han Chinese the nomadic cattle-raisers on the north.
What remains of the Great Wall today can be devided up into sections. The Mutianyu(north-east) section was built for watching and shooting at an invading enemy. It consists of several battle forts spread about 50 meters apart. to the east, there is the Gubeikou section, where the smoke alarms were set. The Badaling(west) section is probably the best preserved of all of the sections, and the Jinshanling Section is known for its detailed architecture. Finally, the Sumatai section, east of Jinshanling, is 3,000 miles long, resting mainly on a mountain ridge surrounded by sharp rocks. This section contains 35 well preserved battle forts.

3. Duration:

The wall was percieve as a useful deterrent to foreign invasion for until the Qing Dynasty, or from about 450 B.C. to the mid 1600's , through its various stages of construction.

4. Location:

a. State--China.

II. Environment

5. Type of Environmental Problem:

a. Source Problems: China was threatened for centuries by invaders from its poorly defined, and poorly defended northern border. Successive Chinese Emporors perceived nomadic tribes of the North, such as the Han Chinese, and the Mongols, to be barbarians, at odds with Confucianist teachings. China wanted to protect its enormous wealth, and culture through isolation.

6. Type of Habitat:

a. The wall stretches through several habitats in China. Most of the wall winds through small mountain ranges of moderate to temperate climate. The wall also rests on large steppes and plateaus.

7.Act and Harm Sites:

Combinations of Act and Harm Sites

(modified from Christopher Stone,The Gnat is Older than Man, 1993,p.37.)
Site of Act Site of Harm
(1)China China

8.Strategic Environmental Interest:

a. Border Conflict

III. Conflict

9. Type and Level of Conflict:

a. Interstate [threat]

10. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

a. Direct:

11. Outcome of Dispute:

a. Yield:
Initially, the wall served as a significant deterrent to invasions. However, the large size of the structure, and the fact that its construction bankrupted the Ming Dynasty, made it impossible to maintain. Consequently, there are many large holes in the wall, where it was subsequently breached.

12. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities):

The wall was heavily garrissoned and armed with canons, particularly in the Qin dynasty. While there are few records of military losses from that time, it is estimated that somewhere in the range of 2 to 3 million Chinese died over the centuries that it took to complete the wall. Most of those were forced labourers, who died during the dangerous work of building the structure. However, those who were stationed at the wall, were subject to the hazards of the uneplored Chinese North. Many died from random attacks by Mongol bands, bandits, and wild animals, hunger, and disease.

13. Level of Strategic Interest:

a. State/Regional

14. Actors:


15. Prevention:

Alternatives to the construction of the wall, would have been to weather constant invasions from the North. The wall most likely did not have to be added on to generation after generation. Some Emporors simply felt that adding onto the wall, and completing such a giant structure, would demonstrate their greatness and power to their subjects and the outside world.

IV. Related Information and Sources

16. Related ICE and TED Cases:

  • GAZA
  • 17. Relevant Websites:

    The Great Wall Homepage

    18. Relevant Literature:

    Jag, Roberts, A History of China. Alan Sutton Publishing:New York, 1996.
    McNeese, Tim, The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall of China; Building History Series. Lucent Books:New York, 1997.
    Peng, Xinwei, A Monetary History of China. Western Washington University Center:Washington, 1994.