How Was The Great Wall Built?

The basic composition of manpower and funds for the construction of the Great Wall

By Simatai Great Wall

Dong Yaohui

Simatai Great Wall building - character brick by Simatai Great WallSimatai Great Wall

Overview of the Construction

The construction of the Great Wall was a large-scale project that required a great deal of manpower and material support. The personnel and funds for the construction of the Great Wall were very important basic conditions. They also required a large number of troops to guard the Great Wall and strong logistical support. To date, there hasn't been much success in researching the personnel, costs, and management of Great Wall construction. There are few historical documents that contain records of the sections of the Great Wall that were built before the Ming Dynasty.

Bricklayer on the Great Wall (2021-05-11) by Gubei WtownSimatai Great Wall

How much manpower did it take to carry building materials for such a large project? In ancient times, the only ways to transport a large amount of bricks, lime, and stones to a construction site on a mountain involved either animals or people carrying the materials on their backs and shoulders. We still lack a full understanding of the overall circumstances around the Great Wall’s construction, from the design stage to the construction stage. At present, when discussing the personnel and funds for the construction of the Great Wall, we don’t have many details.

General Feng Sheng by DreamCont / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

 Military soldiers, civilian men and prisoners were main sources of manpower 

According to records found in literature and an analysis of large-scale civil engineering construction projects from past Chinese dynasties, the people used to build the Great Wall throughout history would have mainly come from the following three groups. First, the army – that is, the foot soldiers guarding the border. Second, civilian workers. Third, all kinds of prisoners who were being punished for breaking the law.

Huangya Pass Great Wall in sea of clouds by Laojiang / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

The Army

The main force used to build the Great Wall in past dynasties was the army. General Meng Tian was directly responsible for the Great Wall built by Qin Shihuang. After Meng Tian led 300,000 troops to force the Huns to retreat, it took nine years for the troops to complete the construction of the Great Wall.

The use of soldiers to build the Great Wall was most prominent during the Ming Dynasty. Building the Great Wall was an important duty for those who defended the border. Every time construction on the Great Wall took place on a large scale, a great number of border guards were used.

Yangguan Pass by DreamCont / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Civilian workers

Each of the dynasties that built the Great Wall recruited a large number of civilian workers. Every time the Great Wall underwent construction, the number of civilian workers recruited was often in the region of hundreds of thousands, and nearly reached one million at its peak. When Qin Shihuang built the Great Wall, he not only used 300,000 troops, but also summoned more than 500,000 civilian workers from all over the country.

In the case of a serious shortage of manpower, the courts would also adopt recruitment methods to resolve the issue of insufficient manpower.

In view of this excessive use of civilian power, many officials raised objections at the time. 

Jiumenkou Great Wall by Heidelberg Design / TuchongSimatai Great Wall

Prisoners

Throughout past dynasties, prisoners were assigned to the borders as a supplementary source of manpower for Great Wall construction. During the Qin and Han Dynasties, there was a special punishment: a sentence of four years primarily served building the Great Wall. 

Many of the laborers who participated in the construction and repair of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty were prisoners. 

The Governor of Shuntian suggested that the number of years in prison handed out for some light sentences should become years of service building and engineering at the borders. There is no record of the implementation of this proposal. At that time, in order to make up for the shortage of construction personnel at the Great Wall, a lot of thought was certainly put into the use of prisoners. Building the Great Wall was very hard work, and it is certain that many people lost their lives to it. Therefore, generally speaking, farmers were unwilling to participate in construction that was also undertaken as a criminal punishment.

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