Interesting Facts About the Great Wall of China

Is the Great Wall Visible From Space and Other Common Questions

The Great Wall of China

Fei Yang / Getty Images

 

Some of these facts about the Great Wall of China will surprise you. Myths have been perpetuated for decades about the grand structure.

The Great Wall is certainly one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. It's the longest man-made object on earth, a top UNESCO World Heritage Site in Asia, and a requisite for any visit to mainland China. But unless you're blessed with better-than-an-eagle vision that can rival modern optics, astronauts will confirm: the Great Wall of China actually isn't visible from space!

Is the Great Wall of China Visible from Orbit?

Under perfect conditions, maybe, but it's doubtful. Despite the long-running myth that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space, astronauts disagree. Funny enough, they get asked about the Great Wall a lot. Astronauts have mistaken other features for the wall in the past, but so far weren't able to see the structure without the aid of technology.

While in low orbit, an astronaut did manage to grab a picture of the Great Wall. When zoomed in, the Great Wall of China was indeed visible. But pointing a powerful camera sensor at the structure and getting lucky doesn't technically mean that it was seen with the naked eye.

Although waterways and many man-made objects — including some highways — are visible from a low orbit, NASA says that entire continents blend together when viewed with the naked eye from space. Adding to the problem is the wall's natural camouflage. The Great Wall was constructed using local materials of similar color to the surrounding terrain, making it indistinguishable.

Why Did People Think the Great Wall Was Visible From Space?

Back in 1754, way before space travel was possible, an English clergyman wrote that the wall is so long that it must be visible from the moon. Sir Henry Norman, an English journalist, decided to make the same claim in 1895. Both were impressed by the wall, but neither knew very much about space.

For decades to follow, the idea that the Great Wall of China must be visible from space was propagated by writers. Eventually, the notion became common belief and wiggled its way into textbooks.

Is the Great Wall One Continuous Structure?

Absolutely not. The Great Wall is actually a discontinuous network of walls and segments with spurs and offshoots. The sections were built over centuries; some were only connected by simple berms and earthworks. Sometimes geological features were used to chip away at the insurmountable task of constructing such a landmark. In some places, all that remains are battlements and small towers; the bricks of the wall were carried away and repurposed long ago.

Keep in mind that the Great Wall isn't completely linear in shape; it has branches, trenches, fragments, and sometimes even redundancy.

The Ming part of the Great Wall can be roughly drawn, however, historians disagree over which of the other segments should count as part of the original structure. All the defensive walls get lumped together under one name. Good thing: Calling the structure "The Many Wall Segments of China" just wouldn't have the same ring to it!

How Long Is the Great Wall of China?

Because the Great Wall is made up of many segments, many of which have eroded or were destroyed, getting an accurate measurement is difficult. GPS, ground-penetrating radar technology, and satellite imagery have all been leveraged to determine just how long the wall really is. An additional 180 miles of the wall covered by sandstorms weren't discovered until 2009!

One survey put all of the pieces of the wall combined to total over 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers) long. An estimate for the "Ming Wall" — the most continuous part of the Great Wall of China — is around 5,500 miles (8,851 kilometers) long.

An estimated 22 percent of the Ming Wall has disappeared.

Is the Great Wall One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World?

Despite the age and size, the Great Wall of China never made it on the original list of seven wonders. Perhaps that's a good thing: the only remaining ancient wonder that has not been destroyed is the Great Pyramid at Giza!

The Great Wall of China was later added to the so-called "New Seven Wonders of the World" by winning a poll conducted online and by telephone in 2007.

Did the Great Wall Protect China?

Unfortunately, the hard labor and monumental effort didn't pay off in terms of national defense. The Great Wall never managed to keep out invaders from the north. It only slowed them down a little. In fact, Manchurian nomads regularly made raids over the wall for years. They eventually controlled parts of China for 250 years.

Despite ultimately failing strategically, the wall did serve as a highway system for moving troops and goods through tough terrain, and signal towers provided an important communication network. Before telephone and internet access, the wall was the closest thing to a communication network that existed on earth. Although raiders could circumvent the wall, it did provide numerous observation posts. This functioned as an early warning system to alert others that trouble on horseback was coming.

The Great Wall of China was a minor annoyance in the way for invaders throughout China's history, but it did provide jobs and wealth redistribution. It was frequently used as an outlet for banishing prisoners to go work in labor camps.

How Old Is the Great Wall of China?

Construction of early parts of the wall began over 2,000 years ago, however, what we consider to be the Great Wall of China was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century to keep out Mongol raiders.

Did the Enemies of China Destroy the Great Wall?

No. The greatest damage to sections of the Great Wall came from farmers who took away fertile soil to use for planting (much of the wall began as rammed earth). The shaped bricks and stones were valuable. Many were salvaged from sections of the wall and used to construct roads!

Villagers were encouraged to take materials from the wall during China's Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976.

Is it Possible to Hike on the Great Wall?

Yes. Some adventurous travelers have even walked or cycled the entire length of the wall. Much of the Great Wall is in ruins, however, tour companies offer opportunities to camp on top of remote stretches of the wall.

Many lengths of the wall are closed off permanently for restoration work or archaeological studies. The Chinese government has been criticized for preventing access to segments of the Great Wall, not out of concern for the landmark, but to funnel tourists to more popular sections of the wall such as Badaling where tacky souvenir stalls compete for space. Without some restrictions in place, uncontrolled tourism can destroy ancient landmarks. Sections of the wall have been defaced with carvings.

Is the Great Wall Busy?

Make no mistake, some parts of the wall are crammed with visitors. If you visit any stretch of the Great Wall within striking distance of Beijing, particularly Badaling, you'll be in the company of hundreds thousands of other visitors, Chinese and foreign. You'll be asked to pose for photos in groups, so you may as well learn how to say hello in Chinese! Alternatively, you can politely decline.

The wall is incredibly busy during big holidays in China such as National Day and Chinese New Year.

The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is also a popular place to see the impressive structure.

Other Interesting Great Wall of China Facts

  • Mao Zedong is quoted as saying once: "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man."
  • Dried wolf dung was burned by sentries along the wall to send smoke signals about enemy movements that were then relayed back to leaders. Flags were also used to signal other towers within eyesight.
  • Sections of the Great Wall are purported to contain the remains of workers who perished on the project. Despite the great loss of life while building the wall, archaeologists have not uncovered many human remains.
  • Parts of the wall contain bullet holes from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945).
  • The wheelbarrow is among China's many inventions gifted to the world over the centuries. It was used to move materials while building the Great Wall.
  • President Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China included a tour of the Great Wall at Badaling, a popular part of the wall around 50 miles north of Beijing.
  • The Badaling stretch of the Great Wall, was used as the end of the cycling course for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  • More than 25,000 watchtowers were constructed along the wall throughout history.
  • Being sent away to work on the wall was an extremely dreaded sentence and was often the punishment for corrupt officials and upper-class criminals who fell out of favor of the court.