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The Great Wall: Q&A

Q: Who first proposed the building of the Great Wall? What was the original motive of the construction?

Updated: Nov 1, 2022 www.chinaservicesinfo.com Print
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From different perspectives, we can give three different answers to these two questions -- who built the Great Wall first, and why? They will be introduced respectively below in chronological order.

First, according only to historical records, the ruler who first ordered the construction of the Great Wall in Chinese history was King Xuan of Zhou (r. 827-782 BC), a monarch of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC), whose personal name was Ji Jing. He ordered General Nan Zhong to build a wall at Shuofang to defend against the Xianyun forces, a nomadic tribe to the north of the central area of ancient China during the Zhou period. The construction of this part of the Great Wall only exists in the records of the Classic of Poetry/Book of Songs (Shi Jing), as no remnants of the wall have been found to be extant.

A bird's eye view of the remains of the Great Wall dating to the State of Chu, on Xingshan Mountain, Dengzhou, Henan province. Of all the Great Walls with definite remains, the earliest one is the Great Wall of the State of Chu.[Photo/VCG]

Secondly, of all the Great Walls with definite remains, the earliest one is the Great Wall of the State of Chu (c.11th century - 223 BC), which was built on the orders of King Cheng of Chu (r. 671-626 BC).The Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) in China were periods of national division. There were so many wars between the vassal states that their kings constructed walls to protect their separate lands. Among them, the Great Wall of the State of Chu is the earliest as confirmed by archaeological research .It is known as the "father of the Great Wall”. The sites identified as those of the Chu Great Wall were found in what is now Henan and Hubei provinces of China.

A sign containing remains of the Great Wall of the State of Chu, located in Wuzuoyao village, Pingdingshan city, Henan province.[Photo/IC]

The third answer is the Shihuang Emperor of Qin(r. 221-210 BC), whose personal name was Ying Zheng. He was the founder of the Qin Dynasty(221-206 BC) and the first emperor of the unified ancient China. The emperor commanded the construction of the “Ten-thousand-li-long Wall”(Wanli Changcheng) to connect the defensive walls which had been built separately by various vassal states during the preceding period of division in China, the Warring States Period. This long and continuous wall is what most Chinese people and some Chinese history textbooks identify as the earliest “Great Wall of China”. It was also the first complete defense system built across the Central Plains of China against the nomadic forces of the north.

A section of the Great Wall dating back to the Qin Dynasty in Guyang county, Baotou, north China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, September 7, 2008 [Photo/IC]

Since the Shihuang Emperor of Qin, almost all the dynasties that ruled the Central Plains of China built their own Great Wall. More than ten dynasties, such as the Han, Jin, Northern Wei, Eastern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Qi, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Song, Liao, Jurchen-Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing, all built a Great Wall on different scales. Among them, the Han, Jurchen-Jin and Ming dynasties built the largest parts of the Great Wall, which by 2006 had been estimated at 5,000 or 10,000 kilometersin length each, subject to ongoing research.

From the perspective of the ruling nationalities who built the Great Wall, not only the Han, but also other ethnic groups were responsible. The Jurchens, who ruled the Jin Dynasty, are a good example. They built Great Walls and trenches against the Mongolian cavalry farther north. The tradition of ancient Chinese rulers building some portion of the Great Wall lasted for more than 2,000 years.

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