A 13,000 mile dragon of earth and stone winds its way through the countryside of China with a history almost as long and serpentine as the structure. The Great Wall began as multiple walls of rammed earth built by individual feudal states during the Chunqiu period to protect against nomadic raiders north of China and each other. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang unified the states in 221 BCE, the Tibetan Plateau and Pacific Ocean became natural barriers, but the mountains in the north remained vulnerable to Mongol, Turkish, and Xiongnu invasions. To defend against them, the Emperor expanded the small walls built by his predecessors, connecting some and fortifying others.
As the structures grew from Lintao in the west to Liaodong in the east, they collectively became known as The Long Wall. To accomplish this task, the Emperor enlisted soldiers and commoners, not always voluntarily. Of the hundreds of thousands of builders recorded during the Qin Dynasty, many were forcibly conscripted peasants and others were criminals serving out sentences. Under the Han Dynasty, the wall grew longer still, reaching 3700 miles, and spanning from Dunhuang to the Bohai Sea. Forced labor continued under the Han Emperor Han-Wudi , and the walls reputation grew into a notorious place of suffering.
Poems and legends of the time told of laborers buried in nearby mass graves, or even within the wall itself. And while no human remains have been found inside, grave pits do indicate that many workers died from accidents, hunger and exhaustion. The wall was formidable but not invincible. Both Genghis and his son Khublai Khan managed to surmount the wall during the Mongol invasion of the 13th Century. After the Ming dynasty gained control in 1368, they began to refortify and further consolidate the wall using bricks and stones from local kilns. Averaging 23 feet high and 21 feet wide, the walls 5500 miles were punctuated by watchtowers. When raiders were sighted, fire and smoke signals traveled between towers until reinforcements arrived.
Small openings along the wall let archers fire on invaders, while larger ones were used to drop stones and more. But even this new and improved wall was not enough. In 1644, northern Manchu clans overthrew the Ming to establish the Qing dynasty, incorporating Mongolia as well, Thus, for the second time, China was ruled by the very people the wall had tried to keep out. With the empire’s borders now extending beyond the Great Wall, the fortifications lost their purpose. And without regular reinforcement, the wall fell into disrepair, rammed earth eroded, while brick and stone were plundered for building materials.
But its job wasn’t finished. During World War II, China used sections for defense against Japanese invasion, and some parts are still rumored to be used for military training. But the Wall’s main purpose today is cultural. As one of the largest man-made structures on Earth, it was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1987. Originally built to keep people out of China, the Great Wall now welcomes millions of visitors each year. In fact, the influx of tourists has caused the wall to deteriorate, leading the Chinese government to launch preservation initiatives. It’s also often acclaimed as the only man-made structure visible from space.
Unfortunately, that’s not at all true. In low Earth orbit, all sorts of structures, like bridges, highways and airports are visible, and the Great Wall is only barely discernible. From the moon, it doesn’t stand a chance. But regardless, it’s the Earth we should be studying it from because new sections are still discovered every few years, branching off from the main body and expanding this remarkable monument to human achievement.