The Emergence of the Great Wall

By Simatai Great Wall

Dong Yaohui

Jiayu Pass by La Faye / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Editor's note

The Great Wall was constructed over many dynasties throughout Chinese history. According to a survey undertaken by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China, the Great Wall we see today belongs to 13 different periods. Eventually, these were unified into eight periods, namely: Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period; Qin and Han; Northern and Southern dynasties; Sui; Tang; Five Dynasties; Song, Liao, Jin, Western Xia and Ming.

Apricot flowers on the edge of the city wall (2018-05-23) by Wu QiangSimatai Great Wall

The times of dynamic changes

The Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period were times of dynamic changes. Two countries that formed an alliance one day might meet on the battlefield the next. During this period, when the development of the Great Wall was at a pioneering point, its defensive function was born and gradually evolved.

The Great Wall is a product of the evolution of warfare, and is also related to the extent to which the economy developed during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period.

Kirin screen wall of Simatai Great Wall (2021-06-07) by Wu QiangSimatai Great Wall

In need of defense

In the Spring and Autumn period, military confrontations became increasingly complex and serious. To meet the demands of war, various vassal states competed to form and expand their own standing armies and actively built fortifications.

Yangguan Pass by Mangzhi Chichi Boluomusi / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

At this time, war was mainly fought on chariots, and strong city walls and deep, wide moats made it difficult for them to be a fully effective means of combat. As long as the defenders had enough food and could protect their water source, they could resist the enemy's attack for a long time with very few troops. There are many examples of wars fought in this way.

Jiumenkou Great Wall by Heidelberg Design / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The influence of Mozi's thought

Mozi (c. 470 – c. 391 BC, Chinese philosopher) believed that if a country wanted to make itself invincible,  it should pay attention to how it guarded its besieged cities. During the reign of King Huiwen of Qin, Mohism flourished in the Qin state, and this understanding of city defense became widely accepted over time.

Jiaoshan Great Wall by Heidelberg Design / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The way in which Qin defended its northern frontier was of great help to Mozi's disciples as they were compiling the Mohist canon. The Qin state's northern defense campaign was also influenced by aspects of Mozi’s ideology.

Open period of Simatai Great Wall (1990) by Simatai Great WallSimatai Great Wall

Seven kingdoms during the Warring States Period

Compared with the war for hegemony during the Spring and Autumn period, the annexation wars between the seven kingdoms during the Warring States Period were on a much larger scale, and their destructiveness and cruelty were more devastating. As wars became more frequent, the need to strengthen defenses became ever stronger.

Simatai Great Wall at night by Simatai Great WallSimatai Great Wall

Comprehensive defense system

Once war broke out, the vassal states would “close the gate and block the pass,” refusing entry to the enemy outside. To rapidly grasp what was going on far away, surveillance platforms were built at commanding heights near fortresses to enable observation of the enemy. Gradually, these evolved into beacon towers that could continuously relay information regarding the military situation.

Beacon towers and garrison forts formed an integrated defense line, creating a large-scale defense system. It was against this backdrop that the Great Wall came into being. 

The Great Wall provided security for larger defense zones, and each section of the Great Wall was a relatively complete fortification, with watchtowers for relaying the situation and living quarters for guards.

The construction of the Great Wall entailed not only strategic needs and economic capacity, but also technical requirements, such as construction abilities, and offensive and defensive strategies. Only when these conditions were met could the Great Wall be born.

Jiayu Pass by GraceChen938 / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

With the increasing scale and number of wars, the equipment used by the troops guarding cities became more advanced. Construction technology and defense systems were quite advanced, which provided the technical conditions for the emergence of the Great Wall.

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