Protector of the People: The Great Wall of China

Wherever you travel, you need to take safety precautions and be aware of your surroundings. China is no different. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Wherever you travel, you need to take safety precautions and be aware of your surroundings. China is no different. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

If the Yantze River and the Yellow River are said to be a giant’s veins, then the Great Wall of China is no doubt the sword of the giant, protecting the great Middle Kingdom.

Reference to the Great Wall will often lead people to think of Qin Shi Huang. He was the first emperor of China, who engineered the construction of the wall. People may also think of the beautiful widowed Lady Meng Jiang, whose tears collapsed a section of the wall. However, these stories are set in the Qing Dynasty, merely a short episode in the long life of the wall.

With a history of over 2,500 years, the Great Wall has seen the rise and fall of China’s dynasties and societies both inside and outside its borders. Initially constructed and then unified as a defensive bulwark against northern attack in the Spring and Autumn period, the wall is now a tourist hotspot brimming with sightseers from around the globe.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Frontier defence

Historically, the northern nomadic tribes were a threat to the Chinese Han people. So Chinese rulers decided to construct various fortifications to form a northern frontier defense.

In 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified China, fending off the threat from the northern tribes and securing stability for the Chinese Han. He embarked on one of humankind’s largest construction projects — the building of the Great Wall. With hundreds of thousands of workers engaged to connect the old walls along the northern frontier, the completed wall ran from Lintao County to the Liaodong Peninsula, stretching thousands of miles and earning the title of the “Ten-Thousand-Mile Long Wall,” or the Great Wall.  However, the human cost of this enormous project was high.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of workers died building the wall. A number of folktales emerged from these tragedies, including the legend of Lady Meng Jiang. In this story, Lady Meng Jiang traveled thousands of miles in search of her husband, who was sent to work on the Great Wall, to provide him with warm clothes. Upon reaching the wall, she discovers that he had already died. Her tears caused part of the Great Wall to collapse, revealing her husband’s body.

The sections of the wall still intact today are largely remnants from the Ming Dynasty.

The sections of the wall still intact today are largely remnants from the Ming Dynasty. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Construction work undertaken across the various dynasties has ensured the survival of the Great Wall until the present day despite years of battering and natural deterioration. The sections of the wall still intact today are largely remnants from the Ming Dynasty.

The Great Wall served its defensive purpose up until the fall of the Ming Dynasty, when general Wu Sangui opened its gates to allow the Qing army to pass into China, marking the beginning of 276 years of Qing rule by the Manchus. During the Qing rule, China’s borders extended beyond the Wall, so the structure lost its existential purpose.

One man can hold the pass against 10,000 enemies

The Great Wall consists of three main components: passes, walls, and beacon towers.

Passes are the main gates to the wall. They are located at key positions, such as intersections with trade routes. They also formed the major strongholds along the wall. The Chinese idiom “one man can hold the pass against ten thousand enemies” illustrates the strategic importance of this defensive structure. Passes that run along the wall can be found many times, with differing sizes and levels of fortification. However, there are 13 famous passes that remain today.

Shanhai Pass

The Shanhai Pass is located in Qinhuangdao City in Hebei Province. Constructed in 1381, sitting south of the Yan Mountain and north of the Bohai Sea, it was named the Shanhai Pass, which literally means the “Mountain and Sea Pass.”

The Shanhai Pass marked the entry point to the east coast and was the most important pass of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty. It has historically been known as the “First Pass Under Heaven.”

The current Juyong Pass was built in 1368 and has been known as ‘The Greatest Pass Under Heaven’. (Image: Dennis Jarvis via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The current Juyong Pass was built in 1368 and has been known as ‘The Greatest Pass Under Heaven.’ (Image: Dennis Jarvis
via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Juyong Pass

The current Juyong Pass was built in 1368 and has been known as “The Greatest Pass Under Heaven.” Located in the Changping District of Beijing municipality, the Juyong Pass is an ancient mountain pass first constructed by the Yan State during the Warring States Period. It was linked to the Great Wall of China in the Southern and Northern dynasties.  Situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, it has long been a military stronghold protecting the northern access point to Beijing.

A different kind of sword

While the Great Wall of China has now become an iconic Chinese landmark attracting tourists from all corners of the world, another wall has been erected with the opposite effect — the Great Firewall of China. Such a wall has been constructed to “protect” the Chinese people from the West’s “interference.”  If the Great Firewall can similarly be described as a sword, then it may not be one that is wielded for the people’s protection, but one that cuts them off from “freedom of thought.”

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