Rippling across the landscape of northern China like a brown-scaled dragon, the Great Wall stretches from the desert to the sea. And like a dragon, the wall has a mythical aura and an important place in Asian culture -- and in the world.
Archaeologists disagree on when the earliest parts of the wall were built, but it may have been as early as the seventh century B.C. What is clear is that work was begun to connect various early fortifying walls during the third century B.C. This work went on into the 17th century and produced a structure that extended about 4,000 miles across China.
The Great Wall is large enough that
cartographers mark it on world maps.
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The vision of a nearly continuous wall belonged to the empire-unifying Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.). Under this emperor the Great Wall took on its present immense character. Older defensive walls separating once-rival territories were linked together to form a continuous earthen barrier against barbarian invaders from the north.
Later emperors lengthened the wall, but rulers of the medieval Ming Dynasty made it their primary enterprise, facing the wall with stone and brick and adding innovations. Near mountain passes of particularly strategic value, they erected as many as 20 parallel walls to confound attackers.
In the end the Great Wall attained a colossal scale. It averaged 22 feet thick, with enough room on top for five horse soldiers to ride side by side. The wall thus served as an elevated highway for soldiers and traders. In addition, guards in the beacon towers could send signals -- using drums, smoke from smoldering wolf dung, or cannon blasts -- all the way down the line to the emperor in Beijing.
Paradoxically, the wall wasn't a fully effective line of defense. Various invaders managed to breach the barrier. Every sentry was a potential weak spot, because sentries could be bribed. In the mid-1600s at a well-fortified mountain pass near the Yellow Sea, a turncoat general simply let Manchu horse soldiers ride through. The invaders marched into Beijing, established a new dynasty, and did no further work on the Great Wall -- which had, after all, failed to hinder their invasion. During the next three centuries, much of the wall crumbled or was overgrown.
Today many sections of the Great Wall have been reconstructed to meet the arrival of a new force of modern invaders -- some 10,000 tourists every day.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.