The Great Wall

The word “Chang Cheng” Became one of my most used in China, as well as one of the first that I learned to say. This was the Chinese word for the wall, which if translated literary means endless structure of some 10 000 Li in length (1 Li is equivalent to 500m). Thus the perceived distance of the wall being some 5000 km. As we progressed with our journey, our phrase then quickly changed to “Nali yo Chang Cheng” Which means, “where is the wall?”

No one knows when the wall building exactly started, one fact remains is that the great wall of china was built over hundreds of years primarily as a northern defense system for the Chinese to ward off invasion and attacks from the Mongol and other marauding hoards from the north. Wall building has been going on in China as far back as the 5th century BC, but on a small scale. During the Qin dynasty of 200 -220 BC the wall building started to accelerate, it was not until this that the numerous bits of separate wall were connected to form a more resilient defensive system and a symbol of power. It was not until the Ming Dynasty of 1368 – 1644 that wall building on the great wall or northern defense system was done on any massive scale.

It was in 1279 that the feared Genghis Khan’s grandson Khubilai Khan once again invaded and overthrew the last emperor of China, and years of hardship followed. This was then followed by another Chinese uprising and the reclaiming of the throne, Zhu Yuanzhang then proclaimed him emperor naming his Dynasty, Ming. During this phase of wall building sophisticated plans were used, bricks and mortar (which was a mix of glutinous rice porridge and lime was used to bind the bricks). Passes were build in crucial strategic areas as well as this the wall was divided into nine different zones each under a controlling garrison with headquarters in that area (Jiayuguan pass being the start).

In some circles the wall is recognised as one of the 7 construction wonders of the world. Its length and size of the undertaking, the century of construction time as well as the variation of terrain that the wall follows as well as the diverse forms of material used to build it and then the millions of man hours used to do this and finally the array of different architectural styles used. The wall was renovated some 18 times during the Ming dynasty as well as over 1000 km of new wall was added. This now became an intricate defence system of walls, passes, watchtowers, block houses, forts and natural defences such as rivers, mountains and canyons. This system enabled the emperor to remain in contact with the military as well as the provinces and carry out an effective control of its borders.

When journeying along the wall the shear magnitude of this undertaking never ceased to amaze me. I always wondered how, why and what had driven a nation to this, or was there a deeper rooted reason for this. Since the wall building started in earnest the Chinese nation seemed to have remained in isolating, its culture and growth culturally, seemed to slow. Was the wall building and common enemy used to keep the infighting with in the nation at bay as well as a tool of control. This obsession of the wall building as a symbol of power seemed to kill the spirit of the Chinese. No one can deny what a witness to military might and human endeavour the great wall stands for, now but a mere relic of its past, destroyed by the very workers who build it, and at what cost? To me the wall in the Northwest stands in the way to agricultural and industrial expansion and is not looked on as anything but a hindrance to the locals. In areas that our journey took us, we were whiteness to massive earth moving machinery smashing through the wall, soil being mined from the wall being used for filling as well as being used to build irrigation trenches. In the mountainous areas, rock was used to build terraces for crop farming, as well as hundreds of km of bricks being skinned from the wall and used to build villages. In the East it now seems to be hailed as one of the greatest treasures of Chinese history and is being rebuilt on a massive scale. This I saw has also posed a massive problem as sections that have been restored have not been done to replicate as it was, in areas that should have been mud packed wall there is now rock, in other areas that were packed stone it is now brick and mortar. During the last month or our journey a state decree was passed banning anyone from traveling on any section of “Wild Wall” except in designated tourist areas. What happens now only time will tell.

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