A Project of Two Thousand Years: Part Two

This is the second part of a research paper on the Great Wall of China.  To read part one, click here.Great Wall of ChinaSeparating the Great Wall from previous Chinese walls was the fact that the Great Wall was a series of towers linked by walls.  This tower system was new to the Chinese, whose previous projects had been smaller, un-manned walls.  Now, however, the wall was manned with soldiers, and along the top of the wall there ran a dirt road wide enough for four mounted riders to travel on side by side.  The famous Roman wall called Hadrian’s Wall in Britain had a similar design to the Great Wall of China, including towers, forts, gates built into the wall, and housing for soldiers.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

Watchtowers constituted an important part of the Great Wall.  They were placed two bow shots apart so that archers stationed in the towers could shoot any enemies who were between the towers.  These towers were around 40 feet square at the base, and then they narrowed to 30 feet square at the top with a height of 40 feet.  Towers were built with brick, unlike large sections of the early Great Wall which were built with packed earth (DuTemple 38).  Chinese soldiers inhabited these structures, which usually had three levels and were stocked with weaponry, food, and water.

When Chinese soldiers spotted enemies and needed reinforcements, they used signals to call for aid.  They used smoke signals during the daytime and beacon fires at night.  The Chinese even organized a special signal code.  For example, one signal meant that only one hundred soldiers were attacking, and five signals indicated that more than ten thousand enemy soldiers were attacking.  Thus, the nearby outposts and towers knew how many soldiers to send in response (DuTemple 40).

To shoot enemies, archers used ladders and climbed to the top of the tower where there was a platform and a crenellated parapet that was used not only to keep the archers hidden from the enemy, but also to keep the soldiers from falling off the tower.

In addition to the towers along the wall, there were outposts placed north of the wall.  The Chinese used these outposts to give the Chinese soldiers on the wall more warning of coming attacks.  Most of the time, the outposts had several hundred soldiers and were well-stocked with provisions in case they were cut off from the wall.  Outposts sent messages with smoke signals and beacon fires, just like the watchtowers on the Great Wall.

Of course, the Great Wall not only needed towers and outposts, but it also needed gates.  The Chinese usually placed gates near important mountain passes.  In other walls around the world, gates were often the weakest points in a wall, but in the Great Wall, the gates were so heavily fortified and well-defended that they were the hardest places to attack.

The Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert

During the eleven-year reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the first 3,000 miles of the wall were built (DuTemple 34).  Historians speculate that the Chinese built the wall from east to west, so Qin Shi Huangdi’s wall probably began near the sea and then went westward towards the Gobi Desert.

Building the first wall was far from easy.  Working conditions during Qin Shi’s reign were inhumane, and historians estimate that over a million workers died while building the first wall (DuTemple 6).  So many workers died on the project that the Emperor ran out of men, and he forced Chinese women and children to take the men’s place (DuTemple 32).

Workers lived in shelters beside the wall.  They were lucky if they received any food, and their clothes turned to tatters because they didn’t have anything to replace them with.  Most of the workers on the wall were peasants, farmers, and criminals.  Many Chinese who resisted the emperor were sent to work on the wall as punishment.

While the Chinese were busy building the wall, General Meng Tien and an army of 300,000 men were busy trying to fight off thieves who ambushed the supply trains and northern barbarians who attacked the workers on the wall.  Because there were so many robbers in China and so few soldiers to protect supplies, supply routes were often cut.  When supplies trains did survive the rough travel and thieves, they delivered their provisions to base camps where there was temporary housing for soldiers.  During the wall’s construction under Qin Shi Huangdi’s reign, General Meng Tien established thirty-four base camps along the wall’s course.

Great WallSurprisingly, the Chinese actually had a reason for why they built the Great Wall in such a wandering course.  According to a Chinese belief called Feng Shui, veins which carry earth’s wind and water run underneath the earth’s surface.  When these veins were cut, the Chinese believed that calamities and disasters would occur, such as earthquakes and floods (DuTemple 36).  This belief led General Meng Tien to choose the Great Wall’s course with extreme care so that it did not cross any veins.

All construction on the wall stopped for a long time following Qin Shi Huangdi’s death in 210 B.C.  Four years later, the Qin dynasty ended and a group of Chinese from the Han region took control of China (DuTemple 46).

To be continued…