Telling Great Wall Sto­ries

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Yi Edited by David Ball

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.

Charm­ing Collection

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.

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