Great Wall of China History

Jiayuguan Great Wall
••• Sara Naumann

The Great Wall is one of the country's most enduring symbols but the history of the Great Wall of China is more convoluted than most people realize.

How Long Did It Take to Build the Great Wall?

It's a question that everyone is curious about and is probably based on the general assumption that the Great Wall was built all in one go. But that's not the case. The Great Wall would be more aptly called the Great Walls - as what remains today is a series of walls left over from several dynastic eras in ancient China.

As you'll read below, the Great Wall - from its inception to what we see today - was under various forms of construction for over two thousand years.

What Is the Great Wall?

It is commonly thought that the Great Wall is one long wall that runs from the East China Sea inland along the mountains north of Beijing. In fact, the Great Wall winds its way across China covering over 5,500 miles (8,850km) and is made up of a number of interconnecting walls spanning China that different dynasties and warlords constructed over the years. The Great Wall that you see in most photos is the Ming Dynasty-era wall, constructed after 1368. However, the "Great Wall" refers to the many sections of wall that were built over 2,000 years.

Early Beginnings

In c656 B.C., the Chu State wall, called "The Rectangle Wall" was built to protect the Chus from strong neighbors to the north. This part of the wall resides in modern-day Henan province. This early wall actually connected small cities along the border of the Chu state.

Other states continued the practice of building walls on their borders to protect themselves from unwanted intruders until about 221 B.C when during the Qin Dynasty, the Great Wall, as we know it now, began to take its shape.

Qin Dynasty: The "First" Great Wall

Qin Shi Huang unified China into a centralized feudal state. To protect his newly established state, Qin decided a large defense barricade was needed. He sent one million soldiers and laborers to work on the project that would last nine years. The new wall utilized existing walls built since under the Chu State. The new, Great Wall, spanned northern China starting in modern-day Inner Mongolia. Little of this wall remains and was located much further north than the present-day (Ming era) wall.

Han Dynasty: The Great Wall Is Extended

During the subsequent Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 24), China saw battle with the Huns and the wall was extended using an existing network of older walls another 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) into western China, modern Gansu province. This period was the most intense building period and the longest stretch of wall ever built.

Northern and Southern Dynasties: More Walls Added

During this period, from A.D. 386-581, four dynasties built and added to the Great Wall. The Northern Wei (386-534) added about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of the wall in Shanxi province. The Eastern Wei (534-550) only added an additional 75 kilometers (47 miles). The Northern Qi (550-577) dynasty saw the longest extension of the wall since Qin and Han times, about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles). And the Northern Zhou (557-581) dynastic ruler Emperor Jingdi renovated the Great Wall in 579.

Ming Dynasty: The Wall's Importance Reaches a New Height

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Great Wall became an important line of defense again. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang began renovations at the outset of his reign. He assigned his son Zhu Di and one of his generals to repair the existing wall and build forts and watchtowers. The Great Wall of the Ming was ultimately a way to keep raiding Mongols from the north from invading and ransacking Beijing. For the next 200 years, the wall was fortified ultimately covering 7,300 kilometers (4,536 miles).

The Wall Today

The Ming wall construction is what most tourists find most interesting today. It begins at Shanhai Pass in Hebei province and ends in the west at Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu province at the edge of the Gobi Desert. There is not much to see in the last 500 kilometers (310 miles) as nothing remains but broken stones and rubble but the wall (in pre-Ming form) can be traced as you drive through Gansu Province from Jiayuguan to the Yumenguan, the entrance to "China" along the Silk Road under the Han Dynasty.