How the Great Wall of China Works

The Rise of the Great Wall

This engraving of the Great Wall of China shows some of the treacherous terrain that the barrier winds across.
This engraving of the Great Wall of China shows some of the treacherous terrain that the barrier winds across.
Mansell/Mansell/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

When the first portions of what would eventually become the Great Wall were built, they weren't part of a large master plan to block off China from the north. Instead, beginning anywhere from the seventh century B.C. to the fifth century B.C. (the start date is disputed by archaeologists), many small walls were erected by the six different states that would eventually become China as we know it. The point of the walls was to provide protection from the often warring states as well as a variety of invaders, including the Huns.

In 220 B.C., the Qin Dynasty unified the Qin state with the six other warring states (Han, Wei, Chu, Yan, Zhao and Qi, in that order). The emperor Qin Shihuang then ordered the separate pieces of the Great Wall in the northern states to be connected. He did this to provide maximum security from the troublesome Huns. Thus, the Great Wall began to take shape in its most infantile form.

Construction on the wall, which is made out of several different materials including bricks, stone, grass, rock and earth, continued over subsequent centuries and was completed by Chinese soldiers, criminals and commoners. This imposing structure didn't come without a price, however. It's estimated that thousands upon thousands of Chinese workers died building the Great Wall, and many of them were buried inside the structure itself.

In addition to the Qin Dynasty, other dynasties were involved in the Great Wall's long and complex construction history.

  • The Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 B.C. to A.D. 24, restored the Qin Wall and ordered multiple extensions of the wall, including three sections of the Hexi Great Wall.
  • The Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) continued the wall's expansion, adding more than 620 miles (997 kilometers) to the structure.
  • Despite being short on time, the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577), added the Wall of Northern Qi, which covered hundreds of miles in many different countries and provinces.
  • The Sui Dynasty (581-608), Liao Dynasty (916-1125) and the Jin Dynasty (265-420) all continued the tradition, adding thousands of miles among them to the wall's length.

Under the Ming Dynasty, the wall underwent its biggest transformation. Next, we'll look at the reinforcements this dynasty added.