The Great Wall of China is one of the great icons of the world. Stretching for thousands of miles along the ancient Northern borders of the Chinese Empire, a mighty fortification, wide enough to ride a horse along, dotted with great towers, it is the only human structure visible from space, and a symbol of the power, riches and ambition of the ancient Chinese Empire. None of these things are true.
How long is the 'Great Wall'
Official Chinese sources claim that the Great Wall stretches over approximately 6,400 km (4,000 miles) from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia, but stretches to over 6,700 km (4,160 miles) in total. These figures are widely cited and reported uncritically in the West, reproduced in hundreds of encyclopedias, almanacs and travel guide books. But they are wholly false - in fact there is barely more than a mile of 'Wall'.
Is it really a wall?
The Chinese for the 'wall' is revealing: in simplified Chinese, it is 长城; in traditional Chinese 長城; and in the pinyin transliteration 'Chángchéng'. What does this mean? Literally, "long city". So it is a wall, or a city?
As early as the Spring and Autumn Period, which began around the 7th century BC, the Chinese were building fortifications along their borders. During the Warring States Period from the 5th century BC to 221 BC, the states of Qi, Yan and Zhao all constructed extensive fortifications to defend their own borders. Built to withstand the attack of small arms such as swords and spears, these walls were made mostly by stamping earth and gravel between board frames.
During the Ming Dynasty a new conception of border defences emerged. The Ming had failed to gain a clear upper-hand over the Manchurian and Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the long-drawn conflict was taking a toll on the empire. The Ming adopted a new strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out by promoting settlements along the northern border of China. People were forced en masse from Eastern areas to settle on or near the earth fortifications. The Emperor believed that that people living on the border would naturally defend themselves from attacking Mongols, and would act in effect as a standing army of border guards. The settlements along the border became known as the 'Long City', and can be seen as an early example of the 'ribbon development', a term used to refer to urban sprawl along narrow corridors which emerged in developed countries in the 1920s and 1930s along major roads.
While earthworks remained the main physical barrier on the borders, in some places border settlements built West- and North-facing walls, but these were mostly temporary structures of various designs and materials, and none have survived until the modern era. Although the border was never as impermeable as the Emperors would wish, and was not able to prevent all incursions, the border settlement plan was successful overall, and the Chinese Empire survived, flourished, and expanded, encompassing the lands of the Manchurians and the Mongols. The 'Long City' was no longer a frontier colony, but became a peaceful and successful community, specialising in trade, acting as a key north-South and east-West hub for the increasingly affluent and powerful Chinese Empire.
The demise of the Long City came with the cataclysms of the twentieth century. In 1934 the Communist army of Mao Zedong was forced to retreat in the face of defeat to Nationalist forces, and conducted the famed Long March along the entire extent of the Long City, forcing all of the inhabitants to join the Communist army. The Long City was left desolate, and the buildings and fortifications rapidly fell into decay.
So what's the wall that we visit in China?
We are familiar with pictures of a great stone structure with fortified towers, winding its way through spectacular mountains. Millions of tourists take a day trip from Beijing to visit the crowded wall. Have you ever wondered why it is always the same section of wall that we see? It's because this is the only section of the wall. This showcase wall is South East of Jinshanling, is known as the Mutianyu Long City, and winds along lofty, cragged mountains from the southeast to the northwest for approximately 2.25 kilometers (about 1.3 miles). It is connected with Juyongguan Pass to the west and Gubeikou to the east. This short, but spectactular, section of wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is said to have been built in the 16th Century. However, while there are records to show that a wall was built here by a precarious Long City border settlement, it did not survive to the modern era. In fact the wall that we see today was built in the twentieth century in an attempt to promote tourism in the area, and to help to provide alternative employment for the local people, whose economy was then dominated by the growing of opium. American consultants were brought in to advise on the promotion of the area. The first suggestion, of a Genghis Khan-themed circus and adventure park, to be named Mongland, was rejected by the local people, who are historically enemies of the Mongolians. The second proposal, to build a 'Great Wall' was accepted, and the first stones were laid in the 1920s. The first structure to be completed was the gift shop, and two kilometres of wall were completed by 1933. However, as China descended into Civil War, the ambitious programme of marketing and promotion was postponed, the expected mass influx of tourists never happened, and the consultants moved on to work on the plans for Disneyland Resort in California.
In the 1950s, the Communist government promoted the myth of the Wall in order bolster a campaign to link the Communist regime with the pre-Revolutionary history of the Chinese Empire.It was in this period that the 'Great Wall' as symbol of China, and as tourist resort, was born. Interestingly, the first official tour to visit the wall took place on the same day that Disneyland Resort opened its doors, 17th July 1955.
Visitors today who attempt to trace the extent of the wall are therefore quickly disappointed. Hundreds of hikers, modern-day explorers, long-distance runners, travel writers, and sundry other self-publicists regularly arrive to trek the length of the wall. After visiting the few hundred meters of the showcase sections of wall on the official tourist trips, they find that the wall quickly peters out. Guides are available who will take gullible visitors on a lengthy trek through the Chinese countryside, at times finding remains of the border earthworks, which are presented as 'remains of the wall'. In some places, enterprising local communities have erected 'historic' walls, but these are rarely convincing as medieval structures. In fact, the guides and tourist authorities are experts at gaining sympathy for the wall and its heritage by pointing to the devastation that they claim has been inflicted on a wholly fictitious wall.
Can the Great Wall be seen from space?
China developed a space program with the specific goal of confirming that the 'Great Wall' can be seen from space. Unfortunately for the authorities and the myth-makers, no such evidence could be found. The Chinese space program was then re-oriented to achieve commercial goals, such as carrying communications satellites into orbit. The myth of the visibility of the wall from space seems to have emerged from a 1930s edition of 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' which is the first recorded instance of the claim, more than twenty years before manned space travel, and published by the Disney Corporation. However, it has been confirmed by US astronauts that it is possible to see the Belgian motorway network at night from outside the Earth's atmosphere.