The Great Wall of China, known as the “Ten Thousand Li (1Li is 0.5kilometer) Wall,” stretches from Shanhaiguan in Hebei Province to Jiayuguan in Gansu Province. While every Chinese person can talk about the Great Wall, many may not know its true length, often confusing walls built in different eras. Despite its title of “Ten Thousand Li,” the Great Wall is even longer.
Historical records show that over 20 vassal states and feudal dynasties built sections of the Great Wall over time. If you add up the walls constructed in various eras, it spans over 100,000 Li, with the Qin, Han, and Ming dynasties each contributing more than 10,000 Li.
Due to its age, many earlier walls are incomplete, and the best-preserved section is the one built during the Ming Dynasty. In a narrower sense, this is often what people refer to as the Great Wall. In April 2009, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the National Administration of Surveying and Mapping jointly announced that the Ming Great Wall runs from Hushan in Liaoning to Jiayuguan in Gansu, passing through 156 counties in 10 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. Its total length is 8,851.8 kilometers, including 359.7 kilometers of trenches and 2,232.5 kilometers of natural barriers.
According to a survey by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in June 2012, the total length of the Great Wall throughout Chinese history is 21,196.18 kilometers. This is the first scientific and comprehensive measurement of the Great Wall’s total length, confirming the previously determined length of the Ming Great Wall while conducting detailed and comprehensive resource surveys of the Qin, Han, and early Great Walls.
From the 7th century BC to the mid-17th century, this 21,196.18-kilometer journey encapsulates the wisdom and hard work of ancient Chinese, representing the spirit and civilization of the Chinese people. Even today, we can still see the great will and strength of the Chinese nation in the remnants of the Great Wall.
Pre-Qin Era: Shorter Walls, Different North and South
The history of Great Wall construction can be traced back to the Western Zhou period, with the famous legend of King You of Zhou using beacons as the earliest reference to the Great Wall. During this time, the Great Wall had both northern and southern sections, built to defend against attacks from other vassal states. In the Spring and Autumn period (7th century BC), the state of Chu constructed the “Chu Fangcheng” to defend against invasions.
Given the proximity of the powerful states of Qin, Zhao, and Yan to the northern border, they built the “Ju Hu Wall” in addition to the walls built to defend against other vassal states. At this stage, the Great Wall had varying lengths and directions, ranging from a few hundred kilometers to 1,000-2,000 kilometers.
Today, the Chu Great Wall’s remnants can be found mainly in Nanzhao County and Fangcheng County in Nanyang, Henan Province. It extends from Xiaoleigutai Mountain in the east to Daxiaoleigutai Mountain in the west, with a height of 1-1.5 meters and a width of about 4 meters, covering a total length of 500 meters, providing essential physical evidence for the study of the Great Wall’s history.
Qin Dynasty: “Winding Over Ten Thousand Li” from Lintao to Liaodong
In the 26th year of Emperor Qin Shihuang’s reign, the Qin Dynasty unified six states, creating the first centralized multi-ethnic state in Chinese history. To secure the safety of this unprecedented empire, Qin Shihuang initiated a massive project: building the Great Wall. The Qin Great Wall, known for its stone construction, connected and expanded the walls previously used for mutual defense among vassal states, extending from the northern border of Qin, Zhao, and Yan.
Since the construction of the Great Wall by Emperor Qin Shihuang, it became known as the “Ten Thousand Li Wall.” The description in “Governing the Empire by Securing the Border: Against the Huns,” which reads, “It repelled the Xiongnu for over seven hundred Li, causing the Huns not to come south and graze their horses and the people not to dare to bend their bows in complaint,” vividly illustrates the effectiveness of the Qin Great Wall.
Today, well-preserved remnants of the Qin Great Wall can be found in the territory of Guyang County, Baotou City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, with a total length of around 120 kilometers. The Qin Great Wall was mostly built on the northern slopes of mountains, adapting to the terrain. Even today, in some places, you can see the Great Wall following the natural contours of the land, resembling a winding dragon. Traces of ancient beacons and guard posts are still visible in some segments.
Han Dynasty: Expelling the Xiongnu, From Defense to Offense
During the Han Dynasty, the Great Wall had aged, and the northern garrisons had become sparse. The powerful Xiongnu took advantage of this and repeatedly penetrated the Great Wall, raiding the interior. However, the remnants of the Qin Great Wall still served some defense purposes.
Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, in his efforts to expel the Xiongnu, repaired the Great Wall built by the Qin Dynasty’s Meng Tian. Additionally, a new wall called the “Outer Great Wall” was constructed, stretching from Daiwan Ershicheng in the west to the northern bank of the Yalu River in the east, with a total length of nearly 10,000 kilometers. Unlike the Qin Great Wall, which used stone, earth, wood, and tiles, the Outer Great Wall was typically constructed with locally available materials like sand and stones.
In Han Dynasty records, the Outer Great Wall is referred to as the “Sai” and its eastern section as the “Guanglu Sai,” while the western section is called the “Juyan Sai.” Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty built these walls to serve as a base for farming and horse breeding, to defend against and launch attacks on the Xiongnu. This played a significant role in maintaining the safety of the Western Han Empire, ensuring the Silk Road’s security, and holding historical significance.
The remnants of the Han Great Wall are located on the Ulaan Taiga grassland. There were two Great Walls, one to the north and one to the south, known as the “Outer Han Great Wall” and the “Inner Han Great Wall.” The walls mostly consisted of tamped earth, as stones were scarce in the grassland. Over two thousand years, many sections have been used as roads by modern people. Today, due to natural and historical factors, the best-preserved segment of the Inner Han Great Wall is in the western part of the Hexi Corridor. Despite centuries of wind and rain erosion, it still stands in the midst of the Gobi Desert, presenting a spectacular sight.
Tang and Song Dynasties: Still Valuable, Never Absent
The construction of the Great Wall during the Tang and Song dynasties may seem less significant, but it should not be underestimated. The notion that the “Tang Dynasty had no Great Wall” has become a consensus in the academic community. However, the Tang Dynasty did build a Great Wall, not for defense against external threats but for unification. In the early years of the Tang Dynasty, there were 14 separatist regimes coexisting with the Tang court. To resist their invasions and threats, the Great Wall from Pingcheng to Lukou was constructed.
The Song Dynasty’s Great Wall runs from Qingcheng Mountain in Kelan County, Shanxi Province, to Heye Ping Mountain. This well-preserved 38-kilometer section of the Song Great Wall in Kelan County fills a gap in the research of the history of the Great Wall in China.
Ming Dynasty: Repair, Expansion, and Well-Preserved Remnants
The Ming Dynasty was the last dynasty to undertake major construction on the Great Wall. Distinct from the “Ten Thousand Li Wall” of the Qin Dynasty, the Ming Great Wall is often referred to as a border wall. To strengthen the northern border defenses, the Ming Dynasty continuously undertook extensive construction on the Great Wall during its more than 200-year rule. The construction process of the Ming Great Wall can be divided into three phases: early repair, massive expansion, and later reconstruction. In addition to the “Outer Great Wall,” the Ming Dynasty built the “Inner Great Wall” and the “Inner Three Passes Great Wall.” The “Inner Great Wall” was based on the wall constructed by the Northern Qi Dynasty, starting from the west of the Pian Pass on the border of Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, moving eastward through Yanmen Pass, Pingxingguan Pass, and entering Hebei. It then continued northeast through Laiyuan, Fangshan, Changping, and other counties, reaching Juyong Pass. From there, it headed north and east to the Four Seas Pass in Huairou, where it connected with the “Outer Great Wall.” The area around Zijingguan Pass was at the center of this network, running mainly from north to south. Additionally, numerous “fortified cities” were built, with the area around Yanmen Pass boasting as many as 24.
The Ming Great Wall, with a total length of 8,851.8 kilometers, extends from Hushan in Liaoning to Jiayuguan in Gansu. This era left behind numerous renowned relics and landmarks, including Badaling, Juyongguan, Shanhaiguan, Jiayuguan, and Mutianyu, among others.
Qing Dynasty: Inheriting and Continuing the Tradition
Even in the Qing Dynasty, despite Emperor Kangxi’s decree of “not repairing border walls,” the construction of the Great Wall never ceased. The Qing Dynasty expanded the construction range, primarily including all provinces north of the Huai River and particularly densely in the areas north of the Yellow River. Wang Anding, a Qing-era author, wrote in his work “Records of the Xiang Army” in Chapter Sixteen, “Suppression of the Bandits,” that “The construction of the Qing Great Wall continued the practice of building the Great Wall by the three Jin, Yan, and Qi states, all the way to the Qin Dynasty, to guard against enemy strategies involving horses.” The Qing government carried out significant repair and maintenance on critical passes and sections of the Great Wall, such as Shanhaiguan, making it a massive and well-fortified military complex. During the Shunzhi and later periods, large-scale Great Wall passes were constructed, with the “Dajingmen” near the northwest of Hebei being one of the largest of the Qing Dynasty’s Great Wall fortifications.