Its silhouette winds along the mountains. Before my eyes, the famous Chinese wall forms a rocky white line that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. And for a good reason. This stone dragon has its source in the sea to the east, crosses China's arid deserts, and sits on top of the mountains. Recently rebuilt in places or reduced to ruins in other sections, the Great Wall of China has a history as long as the distance it covers — nearly 20,000 kilometers.
Its construction began over 2000 years ago to protect the newly unified empire from nomadic incursions. In Border, it will also serve as an ethnic marker, distinguishing China from other northern nations. The technical feat, titanic work, nevertheless experienced centuries of abandonment before being finally rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Ming dynasty.
Born in the pain of the workers who built it, the wall became one of Earth's most emblematic monuments. However, the wall twice failed to fulfill its role of protecting the empire from invasions. So what is its history?
Qin Shi Huang unites China: the Great Wall of China will be born.
We are in the 3rd century BC. China was back then a territory divided into seven powers and torn by wars. This is the so-called 'Warring States' period. After years of bloody military campaigns, the Qin kingdom gained the upper hand and succeeded in conquering all the others in 221 BC The prince of Qin had thus just united the Chinese country by force.
This conqueror then found himself at the head of an immense territory. He proclaimed himself Emperor of China titled 'Qin Shi Huang' or 'Shi Huang Di' (which means the first emperor) and founded the Qin Dynasty. As brief as it was violent, this dynasty had such a great impact on China's history that it gave its name (Qin is pronounced 'China').
This first emperor will have an extraordinary tomb built, guarded by thousands of terracotta warriors and horses (find out more about Qin Shi Huang's tomb in Xi'an — Terracotta Warriors).
Emperor Qin built the first Wall of China in the 3rd BC.
Now unified, China is subject to a threat from the North, the warriors of Mongolia's steppes. Since the 4th century BC, the Xiongnu, nomadic horsemen as skilled with the bow as in the combat on horseback, regularly launch raids against northern China's states. Attacking by surprise, they spread terror. Although few, these horsemen posed a real threat and forced China to adopt a defense strategy.
The newly formed empire of Qin Shi Huang is not immune to these attacks from the steppes. The emperor then decided to build a new defensive wall, connecting already existing sections. Indeed, Yan and Zhao's states had already built fortifications against other enemy kingdoms in the middle of the desert. The defenses were approximately 5,000 kilometers long. These are the beginnings of the great wall.
Built initially of beaten Earth, the wall was nearly 6 meters high. The Earth was compressed until it turned into a hard material like stone. Amazingly, pieces of these sections have come down to us, proving their solidity. Between each layer of Earth was a layer of reed, which served as a binder.
The wall was equipped with a defensive post system as the soldiers fired at the attackers. There was also an ingenious system of communication thanks to the signal towers. Lookouts could transmit coded messages using flags or lights to prevent imminent invasions. Only a few fragments of this first wall remain.
Beyond its defensive role, the wall also served as a military base from which the Chinese could attack the northern territories. Its construction required the mobilization of thousands of workers. Qin Shi Huang found this workforce among a people barely recovered from the violence caused by the wars between the kingdoms.
The fall of the Qin dynasty
When Qin Shi Huang died in 207 BC, his dynasty collapsed. His tyrannical and violent policy led to insurrections, which broke out the day after his death. One of the leaders, Liu Bang, proclaimed himself emperor titled Han Gaozu and founded a new dynasty Han (206 BC — 220 AD). The Han emperors would rule over China for nearly four centuries.
This dynasty consolidated the wall and added new sections. Under this prosperous empire, the wall also served as customs. But new threads appeared, and the wall was extended to the sea. For several centuries, the wall thus fulfilled its protective role. But everything changed in the 13th century. China and its wall were going to have to face a formidable adversary. The famous Genghis Khan.