Unveiling the Architectural Marvel: Exploring the Magnificent Structure of the Great Wall

The Great Wall of China is an amazing subject. Despite its popularity and historical significance, we actually know very little about its structure. While many believe the Great Wall starts at Shanhaiguan and ends at Jiayuguan, it actually stretches across a dozen provinces, even reaching Qinghai and Heilongjiang. Additionally, while we often picture the Great Wall as being made of bricks, only 1% of the wall is actually constructed in this way. Finally, despite popular belief that the wall was a site of many battles, few were fought along its length.

In this article, we will delve into the historical significance, impressive construction techniques, and breathtaking beauty of this iconic structure.

The Length and Width

How long is the Great Wall of China?

The Great Wall spans a vast number of areas and has been built and expanded upon throughout the ages. Its statistics are truly mind-boggling. It wasn't until 2012 that we learned of its length - 21,196.18 kilometers - through professional measurements.

The Great wall of China structure

To put it into perspective, if you were to build a wall straight from the South Pole to the North Pole of the Earth, the Great Wall would be slightly longer than that wall.

How wide is the Great Wall of China?

The Great Wall at Badaling, for example, is no wider than a road. Therefore, the rumor that the Great Wall is the only man-made object on the moon visible to the naked eye is false.

Essential Structures

The wall & the Enemy Towers

The Great Wall's main architectural elements are the wall and the enemy towers, which are also its highlights. The wall's form varies depending on the mountainous terrain, while the most common type of enemy tower is the hollow brick vaulted tower. As the saying goes, "the wall was a platform with a spleen that looked askance at the four sides, the platform was five feet high, with three levels in the void, the platform housed a hundred men and was equipped with armour and clothes and food."

Beacon towers

Beacon towers are pier-shaped buildings constructed on the borderlines to transmit information about warfare. They were first developed during the Warring States period and were further formed in the Qin and Han dynasties. Beacon towers were widely distributed and located next to each other to monitor the enemy situation at all times and to transmit information quickly.

In the Ming Dynasty, the beacon towers were called Smoke Piers and were built on peaks, high hills, or locations with clear visibility. There are types of beacon towers on both sides of the Great Wall, including "fire piers outside the Great Wall" and "fire piers in the hinterland", which connected to the mainland.

There aren't as many beacons as one might expect. Too many beacons could be a waste of time and may sometimes misrepresent the enemy. Therefore, they were set up at regular intervals.

The Great Wall beacon towers

Across the country, there are several beacon sites with different shapes. In above picture, there are four beacons: Santaizi Beacon, built in the fourth year of Ming Longqing with a circular plan; Xianrendao Beacon, built in the thirteenth year of Ming Yongle, with a square plan that is narrow at the top and wide at the bottom; Hami Loudun Beacon, built around the time of Emperor Xuan of Han and perfected in the Tang dynasty; and Kizil Gaha Beacon, built in the Tang dynasty with a depression in the front caused by differentiation of the sandy soil.

The beacon had the following structure:

the Great Wall of China structure
① The scullery was a wooden structure on the top floor of the enemy platform. It provided soldiers with an indoor space where they could be sheltered from the wind and rain.
② Arrow windows were used for looking out and firing.
③ The beacon had brick eaves.
④ A spouting spout was also present.
⑤ The coupon door was an entrance.
⑥ There was a podium.
⑦ Additionally, concealed doors were installed in some hidden places on the outside of the border wall. These allowed defending soldiers to unexpectedly appear outside the wall in order to kill the enemy.

The structure of a boundary wall typically includes the following elements:

the Great Wall of China structures
① Battlements, which provide cover for defenders and allow them to fire on attackers.
② Battlements with lookout and firing positions.
③ Lookout and shooting holes, which can also be used for firing crossbows and muskets outward.
④ Water stoppers, which direct water out of the wall through a drain.
⑤ Drainage openings.
⑥ Stone chutes, from which stones are thrown down the holes and rolled down to strike the enemy.
⑦ The base of the wall.

Drainage Structures

the Great Wall of China drainage structure
The Great Wall buildings are equipped with drainage facilities, such as drains, water-retaining bricks, and spouts, to ensure timely water drainage. The drains built on the top surface of the wall allow rainwater to drain outside the wall foundations through the spouts on the inner eaves wall (Yu wall). This protects the wall foundations from long-term erosion caused by rainwater.

Beasts of Prey

the Great Wall of China structure - beasts prey
Traditional Ming and Qing dynasty buildings are adorned with beast-shaped ornaments at both ends of the roof ridge. These ornaments usually feature two animals with their mouths open, holding the ridge in the shape of a fire extinguisher. Conversely, on the main ridge of the Great Wall, the enemy buildings, such as the Guancheng Building, are decorated with beasts facing outwards, with their backs to the main ridge, giving the impression of a high and distant view.

Water Gates

the Great Wall of China structure - water gates
At the intersection of the Great Wall and a river, you will often find water gates with double holes shaped like round arches. These are also known as "water gates." Gates are used to control the amount of water inside and outside the gates during periods of high and low water. Some of the more famous water gates include Jiumengguan Great Wall, Badaling Water Gate Great Wall, and Huangyaguan Water Gate, as well as the HuangYiGuan Great Wall Water Gate.

Weapons used to defend the Great Wall

the Great Wall of China structure - weapons
Mencius used the phrase "when a city is fought over, people are killed in the city" to describe the horrific siege. Whenever battles were fought on the Great Wall, a large number of defensive weapons came into play. As shown in the hypothetical map of the Great Wall, these weapons ranged from a variety of close-combat cold weapons like swords, spears, and clubs, to long-range weapons like bows and arrows, flying hooks, and even more sophisticated armor and shields for soldiers. Long-range firearms were also used, including powerful guns such as the Frontier and even "bombs" fired from artillery.

Wooden Head

the Great Wall of China structure - wooden head
The Wooden Head is an ancient device used to block gaps in city walls during defensive battles. It consists of thick wooden planks shaped like battlements, measuring 6 feet high and 5 feet wide, with two wheels underneath for mobility. When the wall or battlement was damaged, the Wooden Head was pushed to the damaged area to plug the gap. The boards have holes in them like battlements for observation and firing.

Wooden Standing for Defending the City

the Great Wall of China structure - wooden standing
Wooden stands are used for defending the city, along with shields. There are two types of shields, wooden and bamboo, which are usually 5 feet high and 3 feet wide. They are used for patrolling the city and for shielding themselves from enemy fire on enemy buildings. This helps to stop enemy rockets and artillery from causing damage.

What is the Great Wall of China Made of?

Many people thought that the Great Wall was entirely made of bricks, but most of the wall was not so "noble." It was only during the Ming Dynasty that the Great Wall was constructed with bricks. In key fortified areas, bricks were used in large quantities due to the significant amount of manpower and resources needed to produce them. The remainder of the Great Wall was primarily constructed with earth, stone, and timber.

To Build or Not to Build, That is the Question

The human and material costs of building the Great Wall were very high, regardless of the materials used. However, it was necessary for maintaining the peace of the border. This is why not every dynasty built the Great Wall. The Qin, Han, and Ming dynasties were the largest builders, while the Tang and Qing dynasties largely ignored it.

During the early days of the Qin Dynasty, 300,000 civilians were drafted to serve on the Great Wall, causing great public anger and even the legend of "Meng Jiangnv bringing down the Great Wall with tears". Eventually, the Qin dynasty died in the second century. In the face of this dilemma, successive generations have been torn as to whether to build the Great Wall or not. >> Read 5 Most Famous Legends of the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall was an impregnable psychological defense, although a costly one. Without the Great Wall, nomads would have faced few obstacles to their plundering of the borderlands.

Multiple Functions of the Great Wall

The Great Wall's main historical role has not been one of warfare, but of integration and exchange. As early as the Han Dynasty, people from both inside and outside the Great Wall actively traveled between the regions. The Ming Dynasty set up horse markets, but peaceful mutual trade between farmers and herdsmen had already begun earlier. Han merchants sold silk, cotton, rice, and salt, as well as various household items, in exchange for cattle, sheep, horses, and leather products from nomadic merchants.

Keep reading:

  • Must-Knows of Visiting the Great Wall: A Comprehensive Guide to a Memorable Experience
  • 30 Facts About The Great Wall Of China

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