China’s Last Line of Defense

The Tragedy of the Great Wall

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Image Description: Rolling green hills and a white smog cover the frame. There is a clear line across the top of the hills that is the Great Wall with medieval looking brick towers.

Protection of a New Nation

Although there is not one, single, dynasty that built the wall, its beginning construction is usually credited to the Qin dynasty. First made up of piles of earth and stone, the Great Wall known today was originally a collection of several small ramparts. The Warring States period (475–271 BCE) saw the beginning of construction of the Great Wall, before unification by the Qin (Williams 76). China was originally composed of several warring city-state-like areas. Each ruler had erected their own barriers to protect their area from invading forces. Before the Qin dynasty, one single wall was both impractical and improbable. The Qin were a leading force in the Asia, and when they conquered enough land and kingdoms, they established the Qin dynasty in the area that is now known as the China. When the Qin dynasty finally unified China, they combined the area’s first attempts at defense in the 3rd century BC into a blend of one wall that would protect the empire from invasion (“Great Wall of China”). When the Qin dynasty began, the primary threat to the new country was attack from the Mongols. The nomadic warriors could not be pinned down to a specific location, so they couldn’t be conquered. They seemed to come from nowhere, galloping in on horses with their longbows to pillage wherever they went. The dynasty took the walls that had previously been used as defense against other warring states and strengthened them to defend the new nation from northern tribes (Smith 103). Although their idea was noble, the feat they undertook was much more difficult than they could have imagined.

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Image Description: A hill with old fashioned brick stairs climbing the side. Guard towers rise out of the white smog.

The True Creation of an Icon

Although the beginnings of the Great Wall were in the Qin dynasty, the Ming dynasty created the modern wall tourists see today. After the Mongols successfully invaded and took over China, the wall was left to rot in the sun. However, when the Ming overthrew the Mongol empire, the new dynasty recognized the importance of rebuilding and maintaining their greatest defense against the Mongols. As Pingfang states, “the parts of the Great Wall that we see above ground today, which stretch from Jiayuguan in the west to Shanhaiguan in the east…were all constructed in the Ming period” (Pingfang 259). Because of the wall’s state of decay, it almost had to be completely rebuilt. A real defense was needed against invasions, so the construction began. The stonework associated with the wall today was not even laid until the fourteenth century. In fact, a majority of the present wall dates from 1368–1644. (UNESCO). The construction had to completely redesign the wall to truly fortify and protect the mountains it guarded. According to Williams, “this period saw the addition of those stone-faced walls that most people envisage when the Great Wall is mentioned, and their extension to the sea” (Williams 77). There is so little of the original, Pre-Ming dynasty wall left that tourists will travel far outside of the city to see un-reconstructed areas. All tourist sections of the wall are remnants of the Ming dynasty.

A Lasting Symbol

Although the wall represents years of war and death, it is still an enormous symbol of Chinese culture, heritage, and history. Its cultural importance stems from both ancient and modern influences. The Wall has captured the hearts of visionaries and artist alike (Smith 103). The wall’s scale and mystique has left a lasting impression on everyone who has visited it. Artists such as Voltaire even compared the wall with the magnificence of the Great Pyramids. The symbol leaves visitors awed by China’s past military and engineering success while also presenting the strength of Chinese culture today. It also was a source of Chinese nationalism, inspiring unification of the nation after Mao Zedong’s death (Smith). The great leader’s death struck the nation, but the reminder of their past unification became the new symbol of solidarity for the country. Additionally, the Wall’s historical importance has led to international attraction from tourists and history buffs. Designated a World Heritage site in 1987, The Great Wall draws tourists with its unique cultural, historical, and national importance to the Chinese people (Su, Ming, and Wall 1068). It is understandable that the wall is considered a great wonder of the modern world. In fact, its 2007 designation as a member of the New 7 Wonders of the World has earned China “[$7.432 Billion] in increased tourism, and which inspired the 2009 visit from US President Barack Obama” (Smith). A representation of the great force of Chinese culture and nationalism, it has earned global recognition of its importance as an artifact of human ingenuity.

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Image Description: In front of frame is a crumbling wall with white glue like mortar between the bricks. In the background are green, tree covered hills with further extensions of the wall disappearing into white smog.
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Image Description: Framed by a brick archway is a view of green hills covered with trees. The Great Wall stretches far into the distance and into the white smog.


The Great Wall has an incredible history from its original construction, to its reconstruction under the Ming, and finally to its current preservation today. Unfortunately, even though it holds incredible amounts of historical and cultural importance, the Wall is not being properly preserved as a cultural heritage site. Even sections that are being restored are not built with original materials, but with fake stones and modern glue. The scale of the wall is daunting to care for, but after visiting un-restored sections of the wall myself the devastation of renovation to this site is already clear. During my visits I would see mounds of plastic bottles and trash littering the path which greatly detract from the amazing views seen from the tops of guard towers. Around the entrances are gauntlets of tourist stores and attractions, distracting from the majesty that sits at the top of the climb. A veil of smog coating the air makes it extremely difficult to breathe while making the already lengthy climb. The wall’s ability to bring China together as a nation has inspired the world’s respect of China’s culture, but without true preservation the wall can also show the inadequacy of the current leadership to respect their nation’s past.

Works Cited

Smith, Nick. “Classic Project.” Engineering & Technology (17509637) 7.12 (2013): 102–103. Print.

They/Them Pronouns | 中文名字: 柯梅 | Recent graduate with a Master of International Affairs | Working in civilian military, security, and intelligence analysis

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