Telling Great Wall Stories
Anyone interested in learning more about the culture and stories behind this important world cultural heritage site should visit the fascinating Great Wall Museum of China.
The Great Wall with its “history of 2,000 years and spanning 100,000 li” (one li equals 0.5 kilometres) is an ancient defensive barrier, which took more time and manpower to build than any other construction project anywhere in the world. The magnificent Great Wall of China has long become a symbol of the Chinese nation and one which foreign heads of states invariably visit on their first trip to the country. It is not only a bond linking all the nation’s different ethnic groups, but also serves as a bridge of friendship between the Chinese people and those from other parts of the world.
But why exactly did the Chinese people build the Great Wall over two millennia ago? During which dynasties was it rebuilt or renovated? And what roles did it play during different periods of time?
The Great Wall Museum of China is a good starting point for people who want to learn about the Great Wall and the stories behind it. Located at the foot of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, covering a total area of 10,000 square metres (sq.m) and with 3,200 sq.m of exhibition space, it is built in the style of one of the Wall’s beacon towers. Its impressive appearance signifies that it is a special museum which provides visitors with a comprehensive introduction to the history and the current situation of the Great Wall. The museum’s nine exhibition halls contain examples of all the types of cultural relics and artefacts excavated along the Great Wall.
Construction and Reconstruction
Construction of the Great Wall first began in the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century–771 BC). However, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC) more than 190 vassal states were contending for hegemony and so had walls built in their border regions to defend themselves from their neighbours. After the State of Qin conquered several other vassal states in 221 BC, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (reign: 246–209 BC) ordered the Great Wall to be built on a large scale along its northern frontier area in 215 BC to defend against the Huns. Not all these sections of the Great Wall were newly built, instead those original walls built by vassal states were torn down and the parts built by the Qin, Zhao and Yan states to guard against the nomadic tribes in the north were connected, with some new sections added. Thus, the Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty formed, “winding more than 10,000 li from Lintao (today’s Shanni County in Gansu Province) in the west to Liaodong (today’s Liaoning Province) in the east.” This was the first “10,000- li Great Wall” in Chinese history. On the “Sketch Map of the Qin Great Wall” in the exhibition hall, a line with the red lights shows the path of the Qin Great Wall from the Warring States Period.
From then on, the Great Wall was either renovated or rebuilt to varying degrees during more than 10 dynasties including the Han (202 BC–AD 220) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. The Great Wall was at its longest during the Han Dynasty, when Emperor Wu (reign: 140– 86 BC) had the Great Wall built to drive away the Huns. At that time it wound its way westward from Liaodong to Xinjiang via Yinshan ( Yin Mountains) and the Hexi Corridor, composing a total length of more than 20,000 li. Construction of the Great Wall was of remarkable historical significance as it played a key role in allowing the Silk Road to operate unhindered and guaranteed the security of the Western Han Dynasty.
When people speak about the Great Wall today, they are mostly referring to that built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Extending from Hushan Mountain not far from the Yalu River in Liaoning Province in the east to Jiayuguan Pass at the foot of the eastern part of Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province in the west, it covers a total of 8,851.8 kilometres (km). Compared with the Great Wall built during the Qin Dynasty, the Ming Wall is located further south. There were two main reasons for this shift: first, the remaining forces of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) which represented the nomadic tribes in northern China were still powerful during the Ming Dynasty, so the Great Wall had to be rebuilt further south; second, the Little Ice Age during the Ming Dynasty meant that agricultural cultivation had to be moved south towards warmer climes.
Key to the North Gate
The museum is home to a large sand table displaying the Badaling section of the Great Wall as this section is the essence of the Ming Great Wall. One common saying emphasises its strategic positioning, “It is not the Juyongguan Pass itself that is difficult to traverse, but rather the Badaling section.”
It is possible to appreciate from the sand table how the regions surrounding the Badaling section are criss-crossed with ravines and gullies, in which Guangou (Pass Valley) is accessible from both the north and south. Defensive works stretch along the Guangou and include the key sections of Nankou, Juyongguan, Shangguan, Badaling (also called Juyong Beikou) and Chadao. This defensive line effectively seals Guangou. If an enemy attempted to attack from the north, it would encounter resistance at the Chadao, Badaling, Shangguan, and finally, Juyongguan sections. In other words, the attacking force would be weakened and their space for deploying troops would be narrowed with each step forward they took. For example, an army attempting to attack the second section would have to launch an attack on the narrow mountain path between the first and second sections, leaving them unable to deploy a large force.
Thanks to the defensive works at Guangou, almost no battle was launched here during the Ming Dynasty. For example, following the Tumu Crisis in 1449, a fierce battle between the Imperial Ming and Mongolian troops took place nearby when even Emperor Yingzong (reign: 1436–1450 and 1457– 1465) of the Ming Dynasty was captured. The battlefield at that time was about only 10-15 km away from the Badaling section. However, the Mongolian army opted to take a detour to the Zijingguan section instead of attacking the Ming army at Badaling near Guangou, for the sole reason that it was extremely difficult to launch a battle at Guangou.
Situated in a strategic pass between two mountains, it is possible to control the nearby mountains from the Badaling section, which is why it has been called Beimen suoyao (“Key to the North Gate”) since ancient times. The Chinese characters “Beimen suoyao” can still be seen written on the pass gate in the west of Badaling.
In the Treasury of National Art exhibition hall, there hangs a 138-metre-long scroll painting of the Great Wall, which is arguably the most valuable item in the museum. This work displays all the wonders of the Great Wall allowing them to be admired from inside the room. Although the painting is suspended high up on the wall, dozens of important passes along the Great Wall are clearly shown, including the Badaling section and the “first pass in the east of Beijing” at the Jiumenkou section. According to museum staff, the painting contains 24 passes for anybody willing to try and count them all, although it may not be too easy to find every last one.
In addition to exhibits related to the Great Wall itself, the exhibition includes defensive weapons invented during the Ming Dynasty. For example, a bronze huochong (hand cannon) may look like a telescope, but it was in fact used to fire small cannon-balls. Small and portable, the huochong was extremely destructive and came in two forms versions—tripleand single-barrelled—the former generally being used by men with smaller frames, whilst the latter was used by stronger men.
As the Great Wall was built sectionby-section, a strict accountability system was adopted to ensure the quality of construction. For example, an employee badge on display has four Chinese characters: “Mei Qi Cai Zhi.” The first character “Mei” is the surname of the section chief responsible for the present section, and the third character “Cai” is the section chief in charge of the next section. The names of six artisans (including the section chief Mei) are engraved in smaller-size characters below, indicating that the section chief surnamed Mei had five sub-section chiefs working beneath him.
As a defensive system, the Great Wall was originally built to prevent war rather than in preparation for it, and as such it has become a symbol of peace and friendship. No large-scale battle was ever fought along the majority of the Great Wall and about 90 percent of the wall’s length has never experienced any conflict. The structure established and maintained order inside and outside, under which, people on both sides became one united family. Anyone interested in learning more about the culture and stories behind this important world cultural heritage site really should visit the Great Wall Museum of China to find out more.