Did the Great Wall guarantee China’s safety?

The Great Wall

With construction spanning about two millennia, the Great Wall of China, which measures around 21,000 kilometers (13,000 miles), was primarily built as a defense mechanism against invasions, particularly from nomadic tribes in the north such as the Mongols.

But just how well did the colossal wall function? Did it keep China’s northern frontier safe from the Mongol warlords?

World History Edu provides answers to above questions about the wall, which averages around 25 feet (7.8 meters) in height.

But first, here are some of the advantages the wall accrued to China in general:

Physical Barrier

The most obvious role of the Great Wall was as a physical barrier. It was designed to prevent or slow down invasions by forces that would have to scale, breach, or circumnavigate it. This would both delay enemy forces and make a covert invasion much more difficult.

Basically, it was meant to keep nomadic and so-called barbarian tribes from entering China.

Watchtowers & Signal Towers

The Wall was equipped with watchtowers and beacon towers at regular intervals. Soldiers stationed in these towers would keep an eye out for enemy troops. If invaders were spotted, they would light a signal fire or emit smoke during the day to alert other towers and send a warning across long distances in a short amount of time.

Control of Trade Routes

The Wall also served to control trade along the Silk Road. This was important for preventing smuggling and controlling immigration and emigration.

Psychological Deterrent

In addition to its practical uses, the Great Wall also served as a psychological deterrent, demonstrating the strength and resilience of the Chinese Empire. Its very presence symbolized a well-organized, powerful empire that could construct such a massive defensive work.

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Territorial Claims

The Great Wall helped demarcate political boundaries and assert the extent of Chinese territorial claims.

Strategic Maneuvers

While the primary purpose of the Wall was defensive, acting as a barrier to invaders, it could also be used as part of strategic maneuvers designed to trap or outmaneuver enemy forces.

In the specific instance mentioned from 1428, a Chinese general used the Wall to his advantage against Mongol armies. By directing or luring the enemy towards the Wall, the Chinese forces were able to trap the Mongols between their own troops and the impenetrable barrier of the Wall.

Without an escape route or the ability to flank the Chinese forces, the Mongols would have been in a compromised position, giving the Chinese troops a significant advantage.

The Mongols’ movement and options would have been severely restricted, making it easier for the Chinese forces to predict and counter their actions, ultimately leading to their defeat.

Was the wall impenetrable?

There is no doubt whatsoever that without the Great Wall, many of China’s enemies, especially the Mongols, would have simply strolled into the country.

However, the wall was not 100% impenetrable as history shows. One needs to look no further than the fact that the wall isn’t a contiguous structure. This and many other reasons were why the wall, on a number of occasions, did little in preventing enemies from invading China.

The first major breach of the wall was made by none other than the Mongol Empire. The Mongols, under the leadership of the fierce conqueror and warlord Genghis Khan and his successors, were able to breach the Great Wall during the 13th century. They went on to establish the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from 1271 to 1368.

About four centuries later, the Manchus, who lived to the northeast of the Great Wall, were able to cross it by persuading a Ming general, Wu Sangui, to open the gates of the wall at Shanhaiguan. This led to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912).

These breaches of the wall were successful due to a combination of military strategy, such as siege warfare, alliances, and in some cases, treachery from within.

While the Wall could slow down invasions and provide a line of defense, it needed to be effectively manned and maintained, and ultimately, it was only as strong as the political and military systems supporting it.

Therefore, although the Great Wall was a formidable defense mechanism, it was not entirely impenetrable. Its effectiveness was highly dependent on the strength, vigilance, and resources of the Chinese state at any given time.

How the Great Wall instilled a lot of pride among Chinese

While the Wall was originally constructed as a defensive structure, it also represented the immense wealth, skill, and ambition of the Chinese empires that built it.

The scale, complexity, and longevity of the Wall highlight the architectural and engineering capabilities of ancient China, demonstrating their advanced understanding of materials, terrain, and defensive design.

Furthermore, the Wall showcases the resources at the disposal of the imperial powers that constructed it. It would have required vast amounts of manpower and materials, indicating the wealth and organizational ability of these empires.

In modern times, the Communist Party of China has adopted the Great Wall as a national symbol, using it to evoke a sense of patriotism and national identity. It serves as a visual representation of the nation’s ancient heritage, resilience, and ingenuity, helping to foster a sense of national pride and unity.

The Great Wall’s image is often used in official propaganda and public imagery, and it remains a popular site for both domestic and international tourism. This indicates the ongoing cultural and symbolic importance of the Wall in contemporary China, beyond its original defensive purpose.

The Great Wall played a significant role in solidifying Chinese identity. The massive structure, which required immense collective effort to build and maintain, symbolizes the unity and perseverance of the Chinese people. Image: A quote often credited to Mao Zedong

Interesting facts about the Great Wall

Unbeknownst to many people, it took 9 different imperial dynasties before the Great Wall managed to reach its present length. So, there were notable ones like the Zhou Dynasty, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, and Ming Dynasty.

During the Ming era, fortifications and other complementary structures were reinforced and new ones added to the wall. Famous Ming general Qi Jiguang is credited with taking the wall to new heights (not literally) by adding sections and new watchtowers and bridges. Many of the new wall structures were built around Beijing.

Here are a few more interesting facts about the wall:

  • The name of the wall in China is Chang cheng 长城, which means long walls.
  • In 1987, the wall was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also one of the Modern Day Seven Wonders of the World. It is on the list with equally spectacular structures like Machu Picchu, Taj Mahal, Colosseum, and Christ the Redeemer.
  • The Mongols weren’t the only people that the Chinese wanted to keep out of their territory. The likes of Manchus and Turks also possessed palpable threat to China.
  • It’s generally accepted that the first blocks of the wall were erected around 700 BC in the far north region of the country. These were likely local fortifications designed to protect individual states or territories from northern invaders.
  • However, it wasn’t until Qin Shi Huang came to power in 221 BC that the project of creating a unified Great Wall began. Qin Shi Huang is known as the first emperor of a united China, having successfully conquered and combined several warring states. His reign marked the beginning of the Qin Dynasty and was characterized by sweeping reforms, including the standardization of measurements, currency, and written language.
  • To protect his newly unified empire, the emperor ordered the connection of the preexisting northern walls. These defenses were meant to keep out nomadic tribes from the Mongolian region to the north. This would have been a massive undertaking, requiring the labor of hundreds of thousands of workers, many of whom were peasants.
  • After the initial formation of the wall under Qin Shi Huang, successive emperors during different dynasties further extended and fortified the structure, shaping it into a more cohesive and complex defense system. Notably, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the wall underwent major enhancements, which included the addition of watchtowers and beacon towers.
  • These beacon towers served a critical communication function. Soldiers stationed in these towers would keep a watchful eye for enemy troops and in case of any forthcoming invasions or raids, they would light a signal fire. This was a fast and effective way to relay messages across long distances, allowing the military to respond rapidly to threats.
  • By the 1300s, during the time of the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall started to take the form that we recognize today. It was during this time that many of the most iconic sections of the wall, including those often visited by tourists today, were constructed or reconstructed using durable materials like brick and stone, replacing the earlier sections made from tamped earth or wood.
  • Due to some of the major breaches that the wall suffered, there some political commentators that saw the structure as somewhat of an ineffective fortification.

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