The Great Wall

The Great Wall, here thoughtfully restored, winds into the mountains and mist at Mutianyu. (Tribune photo by Alan Solomon / September 26, 2004)

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  • The Great Wall

    Location: China, from Shanhaiguan Pass near the Gulf of Bohai west to Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province.

    Builders: Began as disconnected local fortifications, unified as one Great Wall by Emperor Qin Shin Huang beginning in 221 B.C. Much of the surviving wall dates from the Ming dynasty, 1368-1644.

    Materials: Mud, stone and wood in the beginning; bricks later.

    Length: Estimates vary from around 1,500 to 6,200 miles, depending on who's counting and which sections of the wall are included. The Chinese tourism people put it at 3,950 miles.

    Chinese name: "Wall of 10,000 Li." A "li" is half a kilometer; 10,000 li--5,000 kilometers--is about 3,100 miles.

    Dimensions: Highly variable (much of it is in ruins), but generally about 26 feet high, and about 20 to 30 feet wide at the base, tapering to 12 to 20 feet at the top.

    Watchtowers: About 10,000.

    Labor force: About 300,000 during the Qin dynasty, probably millions more during subsequent expansions and improvements. Very few volunteers.

    Purpose: Mainly defense, primarily against the Mongols, Manchus and lesser tribes. Like history's other sprawling fixed fortifications, it didn't work very well.

    Myth: That it's the only manmade structure visible with the naked eye from the moon. It's not visible from space at all.

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You can't see the entire Greatness. Not really.

Any list of today's Wonders of the World will include the Great Wall of China. It belongs there as surely as do the pyramids of Egypt. And yet . . .

There are higher walls. Thicker walls. More handsome walls. Older walls. Holier walls.

In China, the Great Wall was ignored for centuries, left to crumble, recycled for building materials. In parts of the country, pigs root in sties made from the ancient bricks.

It's still revered mostly by non-Chinese.

"The Chinese are not so curious about the Wall as Westerners," said my guide, Steven Goa. "We climb the Great Wall just as an exercise, for good health, but we can see many such buildings everywhere in China."

Here's one of them: The city wall in Xian is taller and wider and, in its present form, dates from the same dynasty--the Ming (1368-1644)--as most of the current Great Wall. But people don't go to Xian to see the taller, wider wall. They go to see terra-cotta soldiers.

"In past times," said Goa, "every city in China had this kind of city wall."

Moreover, the Great Wall, designed to keep out tribes from the north, never did work very well, one more testament to the inefficiency of fixed, spread-out fortifications.

So why is the Great Wall of China on everyone's list?

Because it's real long, that's why. And when you see it snaking along a mountain ridge as far as the eye can see--and you know it keeps going and going and going beyond as far as the eye can see--it ceases to be just another pile of bricks.

Plus, it must have been a bear to build.

The original Great Wall wasn't constructed so much as it was assembled. Defensive ramparts of various sizes and designs, erected by warlords and many of them little more than earthen mounds reinforced with whatever was handy, existed through much of China in the millennium before Christ.

Around 221 B.C., the first Qin emperor (Qin is pronounced chin--begetting China), having united the region's near- and far-flung provinces, embarked on uniting this series of walls into a single Great one.

The apparent intentions: To create a barrier against marauding northern tribes and, at the same time, formally define the border of this new united empire.

Over the centuries, this Great Wall was expanded, adjusted and improved. It also, for long stretches, dissolved. In time, it became at least in the mind's eye, and the artist's, primarily a structure of relatively uniform bricks and mortar and watchtowers--this Wall we credit to that Ming Dynasty.

That's the Great Wall of China most visitors see. With visible segments miles long, and its watchtowers, following high mountain ridgelines and etched against the sky, it is, indeed, a wonder to behold.

Exactly how much there is of it, and how much of it is wonderful, remains inexact. This isn't the Great Pyramid, whose exterior can be photographed in its entirety by any amateur with a disposable camera, or even Angkor Wat, which sprawls but can nonetheless be explored in a day.

How long is it? A basic question--and unanswerable.