Fun fact: The Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from outer space.
Many tourists flock to visit the Great Wall of China each year, but not many may know much about its history. The section of the Great Wall of China that most of us are familiar to was built during the Ming Dynasty, 600 years ago. However, the first sections of the wall were actually built during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and they were primarily used to defend the states from invasions from the states around them.
Later on during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor, pushed for the expansion of the wall. He wanted to impede the attacks of the nomadic people and at the same time portray an impression that his kingdom is expanding. The construction process demanded an enormous amount of human labour and raw materials: He commanded his 300,000 men-strong army, together with approximately 500,000 peasants and criminals to build this defence system with local earth, stone, timber and bricks. No machines were used to build the wall and materials were passed down from person to person. To transport food and raw materials, goats and donkeys were used. These workers were subjected to harsh weather conditions and little care was shown towards the welfare of the workers. The expansion of the wall took 12 years to complete.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), more walls were built to prevent the nomadic warriors from invading their territory.
The walls that we see in China today were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and what prompted the Ming Jiajing emperor to built these walls was due to the Mongol tribes at that time. They experienced an attack from the Mongols, which not only killed 18 soldiers but also ambushed another group of soldiers who followed the tribe back to their base camp.
We believe that the Great Wall of China, as much as it’s an elephantine structure, is not just simply brick and stone, but rather, it is a physical manifestation of a more intangible reality: the Chinese’s firm belief in self-preservation.
Wall-building during the Warring States period, the Qin and Han Dynasty of Ancient China was highly motivated by the fear of an invasion; the walls erected served to protect the Chinese population from the outside threats such as the Xiongnu. Clearly, a large section of Chinese history recounts the constant times China was ravaged by wars and it is no doubt that the Chinese began to associate the wall with safety: it began to be a symbolic representation of safeguard for its people in unfavourable times and the solution to the ever-present threat of the degradation/desolation of the Chinese culture.
On top of this, the wall also served to remind the Chinese of the need for unification and its benefits. The unification of China during Qin Shi Huang’s reign enabled the Chinese armies to be stronger and more effective in eliminating its enemies. Further successes soon followed: the establishment of the wan-li-ch’ang-ch’eng (ten-thousand meter long wall) demanded a single strong, centralised government to see to its completion of this single goal; the standardization of laws (eg. measurements and currency) was inevitable; and the military’s expansion forced it to be more innovative (eg. lamella armour and crossbows). In sum, unification encompassed breakthroughs in military prowess and political structure that indubitably served to bring about social stability and preservation of the Chinese society.
The Chinese society had, over multiple decades, been shaped by wars and a strong sense of identity was formed. Unavoidably, embedded in their paradigm is an ideology that the protecting one’s interest, culture and existence; rooted deeply is that of self-preservation.
(Another reason could be that the Emperors were pretty certain the Mongols and the Xiongnu did not have this guy on their team)
Furthermore the ideology and teachings of Confucius (551-479 BCE)were prevalent throughout the era when the wall was being constructed or expanded, mainly the Warring States Period, Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty (although the Confucian teachings were heavily discouraged and discarded during the Qin Dynasty by Emperor Qin, they were reinstated as the state ideology during the Han Dynasty). The teachings of Confucius, which developed during chaotic times of the Warring States Period advocates a strong aversion to conflict, as well as an emphasis to avoid using violence or hostility to solve problems.
Thus the construction of the Great Wall portrayed that the Chinese chose a relatively passive deterrence strategy to deal with the hostile threats that they were facing, as compared to adopting more aggressive methods such as the building up of an army or invasion of the hostile territories. Building a defensive wall embodies a symbolic meaning which is, to avoid all opportunities that may lead to engagements of conflict; passivity was not an action of weakness but strength. If the Chinese adopted a more hostile approach of invasion, it would not align to the ideology of the Confucian culture present during that era, as it utilises violence as solution. Whether the intention to adhere to the teachings of Confucianism was conscious or not, we believe that it would at least be influenced by those teachings and their beliefs. The construction of the Great Wall ultimately, symbolically shows another aspect of how China focuses on the ideology of self-preservation with respect to their culture and ideologies.
(Another example of how culture is being preserved on the Great Wall)
The finished Great Wall of China indeed took many years and people to build and the common goal to survive the onslaught of natural disasters and wars, we believe, was what brought a people together. Therefore, we believe that the Chinese take much pride in who they are and their culture for they truly have overcome many trials of various natures - the wall is testament to their resolve.
We believe that modern China is not backward or reluctant to change by opening up it’s borders, but rather, this is a people that has recognized that the outside world - the one beyond its walls - is harsh, brutal and is always ready to attack for political, military and economic purposes. China currently is “closed up” because wisdom compels her to continue to protect herself from, well, us - the globalized world and the systems in which we dictate what is progress. The very essence of Chinese culture is therefore preserved by not fully conforming to existing social norms that are associated with globalization.
The greatest wall of China is, therefore, not the esteemed man-made wall that divides geographically, but rather, we believe it is the intangible one named Wisdom that exists in the minds of the Chinese people.
(Evidently it is not as easy as it looks if it is still standing up till today)