9 fascinating things you should know about the Great Wall of China

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Simply put, the Great Wall of China would be the largest man-made structure in the entire world if its numerous sections were positioned in a collective manner. Going the numerical route, the sheer volume of the wall structures account for an astronomical 34,423,725,600 cubic ft (or 34.5 billion cubic ft) – by taking the average height and width as 33 ft and 15 ft respectively. For comparison’s sake, the ancient Great Pyramid boasts around 88 million cubic ft of volume, while the modern-day Burj Khalifa accounts for around 1.1 billion cubic ft. Suffice it to say, the Great Wall deservedly demands awe from us. So without further ado, let us check nine incredible facts you may not have known about the Great Wall of China.

1) A construction that took place over more than 1,800 years –

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Yes, that is right. In fact, from the historical perspective, the Chinese people and their disparate factions had already attained some levels of expertise in wall-building by 5th century BC. And by the time Qin Shi Huang united the warring factions in 221 BC, his ambitious aim was to govern a large yet centralized state that could be defended from external threats, especially the so-called Xiongnu nomads from the north. Thus many of China’s internal lines of fortifications (originally built by the warring states) were destroyed in favor of a collective wall ‘system’ that could defend the big realm from the north. But the Great Wall of China, as we know it, was not completed during such an endeavor. Later dynasties, including the Han (till 3rd century AD) and the Sui (till early 7th century AD), not only repaired but expanded many sections of the wall system.

But the Great Wall of China took its ‘final’ form during the period of the famed Ming dynasty in the 14th century AD, which is 1,600 years after its original conception. Instigated by their defeat at the Battle of Tumu, the Ming engineers undertook a massive project that encompassed the use of stronger bricks and stone blocks instead of rammed earth. According to some estimates, the Ming were able to construct a whopping 25,000 watchtowers along the fortification system. And by 16th century, they were further able to add 1,200 watchtowers – thus bringing their total addition to an impressive 6,259 km (3,889 m) of actual wall sections. Interestingly, the Ming are also known for building an extension of the Great Wall known as the Liaodong Wall, and it was supposedly constructed to fortify the agricultural heartland of the Liaodong province from the northern intruders.

2) A collection of walls –

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Now while reading the earlier paragraph one might notice the use of the phrase ‘wall system’. This is because the Great Wall of China is not actually a single wall, but rather a collection of fortified walls and towers. And as one can comprehend from the the aforementioned history, these fortified systems were not only repaired but also rebuilt and expanded (in various manners) over a period of 1,800 years. Simply put, the Great Wall of China can be best considered as a glorious patchwork of fortifications that rather ‘evolved’ with the defensive requirements, manpower availability and economic prowess of the ruling faction of China (albeit in intermittent phases). In essence, it symbolized the dynamic scope of the nation while at the same time accounting for a gargantuan engineering feat that is arguably unrivaled in humanity’s long drawn history.

3) The great ‘highway’ of China –

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While the Great Wall of China is deservedly known for its enormous length, very few actually talk about its width. Now interestingly, along many of the top sections, the wall runs 18 ft wide, which is sufficiently broad to allow ten infantrymen or five cavalrymen to march abreast. Furthermore, the wall system itself has an average height of around 30 ft, while being complemented by periodic watchtowers that go over 40 ft in height (and were used for smoke signals). And considering the wall runs across an expansive landmass, it’s road-like credentials can’t be overlooked – especially when it came to couriers traveling in the ancient times. Simply put, the Great Wall also doubles as a fortified highway system that rather helped travelers and troops to move cross-country in incredible speed.

4) The world’s longest graveyard?

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A wall system that runs from near the Bo Hai Sea (northeast of Beijing) into the very borders of the unrelenting Gobi Desert, must account for its incredibly lengthy credentials. According to the figure announced by China’s State Administration of Cultural Relics in 2012, the wall runs across a whopping 13,170.69 miles (21,196.18 kilometers), by also including the aforementioned Ming dynasty built sections and the other crisscrossing structures. This astronomical number is actually more than twice the number flaunted by previous assessments.

Now once again reverting to estimation, it is said that around 300,000 people took part in the construction process, with most of their numbers presumably being allocated during the initial phases of the construction (in late 3rd century BC). In fact, during the Qin period, the administration officially gave harsh sentences to convicts that entailed rigorously working and toiling on the wall. These ‘forced’ laborers had their heads shaved and faces blackened, while being shackled in chains to prevent any thoughts of escaping. Suffice it to say, many of the workers died while trying to accomplice such a herculean task – and their bodies were interred to ‘cement’ the wall sections. This in turn alludes to the sober scenario on how the Great Wall of China might be the world’s longest graveyard, thus also leading to its moniker – the Wall of Tears.

5) Sticky rice – the wonder ingredient –

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The Ming period in China (1368–1644 AD) is known for the orderly administration and social stability that was unmatched by the previous Chinese dynasties. The epoch also gave boost to numerous innovations in the field of arts, craftsmanship and even architecture. Pertaining to the latter field, researchers at the Zhejiang university have deduced that the Ming engineers apparently used a special ingredient that endowed the much needed strength to their huge expansions along the Great Wall of China. This secret ingredient in question entailed a mixture paste of sticky rice flour and slaked lime that was so stocky that it even ‘blocked’ the bricks from growing any weeds in between. This factor of ‘stickiness’ was supposedly derived from an organic component called amylopectin, which came from the porridge of sticky rice. As Dr Zhang, a professor of chemistry at Zhejiang university, made it clear –

The ancient mortar is a special kind of organic and inorganic mixture. The inorganic component is calcium carbonate, and the organic component is amylopectin, which comes from the sticky rice soup added to the mortar. This amylopectin helped create a compact microstructure, [giving the Great Wall] more stable physical properties and greater mechanical strength.

6) One-third of the Ming Wall has ‘disappeared’ –

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Credit: Dmitriy Moiseenko

According to a survey done by the Great Wall of China Society in 2014, around 74 percent of the wall is stated to be ‘poorly preserved’, while only 8 percent of the wall is in good conditions. In relation to the scope of these figures, around 2,000 km of the Ming Wall (or around 30 percent) has simply disappeared due to various factors – ranging from soil erosion to proximate human activities (like selling of bricks). And interestingly, it is one particular stretch of this very Ming Wall that has attracted most of the tourists, with the pertinent reinforcements still holding strong at Badaling near Beijing – thanks to the innovative skills of the engineers from the Ming period. But on the baleful side, the conditions are still deteriorating, mostly due to the lack of maintenance manpower that are released by the local departments.

7) Possibly ‘barely’ visible from low Earth orbit, but NOT visible from space –

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Much has been said about the Great Wall of China being visible from space (or moon); but the reality is that this statement has been debunked quite a few times. In fact, the earliest known references to this ‘myth’ actually comes from a letter wrote by English antiquary William Stukeley back in 1754. Now the reason why the visibility of the Great Wall is greatly diminished from space is because the wall generally tends to replicate the hue of the surrounding landscape soil. Moreover, given the wall’s width of 30 ft (and considering that the distance between Moon and Earth is 238,851 miles), the visibility would be akin to scenario where human hair is viewed from a distance of 2 miles away.

However, according to NASA, the Great Wall of China might ‘just’ be visible to the naked eye from the low Earth orbit (an altitude of as little as 100 miles or 160 km) – but that too in near perfect conditions. But other researchers have argued against this hypothesis by saying that the spacing of photoreceptors on the retina of the human eyes would make it nigh impossible to spot a man-made monument from even low Earth orbit.

8) The Old Dragon Head –

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Were does the Great Wall of China end? Well to answer your question, the above image should be more than sufficient. It ends in the sea. To be more specific, the wall meets the Bohai Sea near Shanghaiguan in Qinhuangdao City about 300 km (186 miles) east of Beijing. This ending (or beginning – according to one’s perspective) junction is known as Laolongtou or the Old Dragon’s Head, and it was originally built by the Ming dynasty in 1579 AD. Unfortunately, in the events of the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the Japanese forces bombarded the area, thus destroying the junction in the process. But it was rebuilt once again in the 1980s by the effort of the Chinese authorities, thus resulting in a 23-m extension into the sea. And for the name itself, this wall section apparently looks like a giant dragon who is dipping its head into the water.

9) The Great Wall of China is not entirely explored –

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Illustration by Ren Chao, National Geographic, China.

While previously we had talked about how some sections of the Great Wall of China are ‘disappearing’, the silver lining pertains to how a few sections of this massive engineering feat are yet to be discovered. For example, with the aid of Google Earth, a research team in 2011 identified an almost 100-km (62 miles) stretch of defensive patchworks in a restricted border area in southern Mongolia. Rising substantially to heights of around 9 ft in some places, these antediluvian works were called the Wall of Genghis Khan. But the researchers on further analysis found that these remnant walls were not in any way related to the famed ruler of the Mongols, but rather served as extensions of the Great Wall of China.

The team was specially interested in finding two separate stretches of the wall, with one section composed of wet mud and a woody desert shrub called saxaul, and the other section constructed from black volcanic rock blocks. Intriguingly enough, radiocarbon dating has revealed that the walls were mostly constructed in between the 11th and 12th century AD – a period which pertains to the Western Xia dynasty. So simply put, this northwestern Chinese kingdom was responsible for adding to the legacy of the Great Wall of China, or was at least instrumental in rebuilding portions of the defensive works that were already founded by the 1000-years older Han dynasty.

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