For centuries, the Great Wall of China has been one of the world’s most famous and most impressive monuments. Everyone seems to know something about it, but few people have taken the time to learn the full story of this amazing construction. To start with, it must be noted that there are actually two distinct structures that can be called “the Great Wall.”
The Original Great Wall Vs. The Modern Great Wall
Chinese settlements have been erecting walls to protect themselves for over three millennia. In the Warring States period, (403-221 BC) the country was split into many smaller factions that vied for control of China as a whole. The eventual victor was Qin Shihuangdi, who united the entire country and became China’s first emperor in 221 BC. One of Shihuangdi’s greatest accomplishments was the creation of the original Great Wall to protect his new empire’s northern border.
Over the centuries, this structure fell into disrepair, and it was almost completely gone by the 17th century. In that period, a new and powerful dynasty, the Ming, resurrected the first emperor’s idea of large-scale fortifications and built a new interconnecting series of northern walls to defend China from the Mongols. This is the wall that survives to the present day.
Common Great Wall Misconceptions
As noted above, today’s Great Wall is not actually a single, unified structure. The fortification as a whole is made up of many different walls and towers, with areas of gap and overlap spread along the overall length.
Perhaps the most commonly repeated misconception regarding the Great Wall of China is that it is visible from outer space. Decades of space flights have confirmed that this is not the case; the wall cannot be seen from orbit with the naked eye. Powerful satellite imagery — using both natural light and radar — can reveal much about the nature of the Wall, though.
Surprisingly, the overall length of the Great Wall is also commonly misreported. Figures range everywhere from 1,500 miles (2,400 km) all the way to 4,000 miles (6,400 km). This is because there are multiple structures constructed over hundreds of years that can all be considered part of the larger fortification. The general dimensions of the wall itself are more firmly established, though. They range from 25 ft (7.6 m) high by 30 ft (9 m) wide at the most massive points down to more modest dimensions. The highest, thickest parts of the wall can be found in the vicinity of Beijing.
How The Wall Became “Great”
Even though building, expanding, and maintaining the Wall was an enormous undertaking, the Chinese did not consider it to be a single monolithic entity. It was only when visitors from Europe first began to understand the scope of the monument that it began to be referred to as “The Great Wall.” In these early days, few visitors explored more than a little bit of the fortifications at a time, and it was easy to assume that all of the lengthy northern walls were part of one gigantic structure. By the time the Western World understood the reality of the situation, the name “Great Wall” had already stuck.
The Great Wall In The 21th Century
After standing for centuries, the Great Wall faced its greatest challenge — from within China — during the Cultural Revolution. In accordance with Chairman Mao Zedong’s teachings, the Communist Party sought to erase much of China’s cultural heritage. This included tearing down many parts of the Wall, especially around the capital. Thankfully, opinions changed with the end of the Revolution, and today many lost sections have been rebuilt.