Why Was the Great Wall of China Built?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Great Wall of China is one of the most iconic monuments in the world. But how much do you really know about it? In this lesson, we'll look at the history of the Great Wall, and see what inspired its construction.

The Great Wall of China

They say that good fences make good neighbors. Well, China may have taken this advice to the extreme. If you've ever heard anything about China, then you've probably heard of one of its most famous monuments. The Great Wall is a massive stone barrier that stretches for roughly 13,171 miles across northern China. They don't call it the Great Wall without reason. But who built it, and why? At first, this seems obvious: people built it to keep other people out of China. While that's true, the history is actually a little more complex.

The Great Wall is an impressive structure
Great Wall

Origins of the Great Wall

What many people don't realize when they first think about the Great Wall is that this project was not completed all at once. In fact, the Great Wall as we know it today was continuously built over a period of roughly 1,700 years.

It all began back in the 3rd century BCE when various kingdoms of ancient China were fighting for control. We call this the Warring States Period of roughly 476-221 BCE. Eventually, a leader named Ying Zheng led the state of Qin to victory, conquering the other kingdoms and founding the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). He took on the name of Qin Shi Huangdi, sometimes spelled Huangti, and began consolidating all of China under his rule, forming a unified imperial China.

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi
Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi

One of the first things that Qin Shi Huangdi did was to tear down the walls that the various kingdoms had built during the 200-year-long wars for dominance. He did this to symbolize that China was now one empire, under his authority, and therefore no city needed to defend itself against the others.

Qin Shi Huangdi then ordered the construction of a massive wall along the empire's northern border to protect China from its only threat - nomadic warriors from Mongolia. This wall stretched roughly 3,000 miles across northern China, but it was not quite the wall we think of today. It was made of compacted earth, not stone bricks, which was enough of a fortification to guard against Mongolian raiders. It was also not quite the symbol of national pride we think of today. The wall was built with forced labor from conscripted laborers and prisoners across China sent north who were subjected to brutal working conditions. It served as a monument to Qin Shi Huangdi's pride and power, but little else.

The Stone Wall

For the next millennia, various Chinese emperors expanded sections of the Great Wall, rebuilt others, and continued to use it to strengthen the northern border. However, it did not take on its current form until roughly the 14th century under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1664 CE). It took the Ming roughly 200 years to build the Great Wall as we know it today, with its stone fortifications and distinctive guard towers. But why'd they do it? Basically, for the same reason as the Qin.

Like the Qin, the Ming were concerned about Mongolian armies from the north. However, they had a unique reason for this concern. In 1271, China was formally conquered by the Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. For the next century, China was under Mongol rule. We call this the Yuan dynasty. It was during this time that the Chinese people started to really define a national Chinese culture, something that was distinct from their Mongolian rulers.

Eventually, Chinese forces led by the peasant-monk Zhu Yuanzhang managed to defeat the Mongol Yuan and restored Chinese rule over China. Zhu, remembered posthumously as the Hongwu Emperor, was the founder of the Ming Dynasty. The Ming had two major priorities off the bat: re-stabilizing China and elevating all things Chinese that had become symbols of national unity under the Yuan. The Great Wall project served both purposes and became a symbol of Chinese power and cultural authority.

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