How Long Did It Take To Build the Great Wall of China: Explained!

Those were the ancient times. Around 221 B.C., Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of this wall. Did he know that it would be the longest wall ever made in the world? Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t.

It’s not a single wall; it’s a collection of fortification system that was built across the northern Chinese borders for safety. The wall is over 21,000 kilometers long (21,196 to be precise). One can only imagine how long that took to build such an extraordinary piece of architecture, that too at a time when technology was barely acknowledged.

Building something like that today is much easier and quicker because of all the resources we have. The modern technology has made everyone’s lives easier; our latest architectural projects are proof of that.

Since we’re talking about a time when building something like this was considered to be impossible by so many, it took over 2000 years to complete. By looking at that number alone, you can guess that it’s impossible to tell exactly how many man-hours or manpower it took to make this happen.

But if you want to know a few more details about what happened in these 2000 years, we need to dive into the history books.

The Qin Era

Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor of China who successfully brought the nation together. He was the one who initiated the task of building such a wall in the first place. Compared to today, the resources were not looking great when this initiative was going underway. But the Chinese weren’t completely inexperienced when it came to wall-building.

“Build and move on”- this phrase was the motivation the builders and the people of China needed. At that time, it was extremely difficult to move the resources from one place to another since the transportation system was very poor. The builders tried to rely on the local resources as much as they could. They used heavy stones from the mountain ranges. The task was dangerous but they didn’t stop. It took about 20 years for around 500,000 workers to complete the first great wall of Qin.

It happened almost 22 centuries ago so the records are bound to be misinformed. Many history books suggest it took more than a million people to build and guard the first wall.

Some say it was 1.5 million, some say it was 2 million. Whatever the exact number might be, it was a dangerous task. Many builders lost their lives, the exact estimation is impossible to find but many researchers believe over a million lives were lost in 20 years to build the Qin wall.

The Han Dynasty

After the Qin era, it was the Han dynasty taking the reins of building the great wall. During this time (from 206 BC to 220 AD), the longest portion of the wall ever was built. It covers around 10,000 kilometers of the wall which is almost half of its length. Emperor Gaozu built the wall to protect his region against the Mongol Empire of that time.

The Han dynasty part of the wall was mostly built by 121 BC. A beacon tower was built after every 5 kilometers where soldiers would stay to keep watch. The soldiers were posted to send alerts and messages in times of crisis.

The Sui Dynasty

After the fall of the Han dynasty, China was ruled by warlords. Under the rule of the Western Jin Dynasty, many parts of the first great wall were rebuilt. The years were 265-316; it was a long time since the first emperor started building the great wall. Many portions of the wall were damaged.

The towers built by Han were also crumbling apart. All the warlords came together in the Western Jin Dynasty for a short period of time when huge parts of the wall were being rebuilt.

Around the year 420, Xianbei emperors decided to strengthen their defenses and started expanding the wall. They also built an inner wall and Six Frontier Towns that could protect them from northern invasions. The Northern Qi and Northern Zhou built a strong foundation of the Sui dynasty. During this time, the great wall built 7 times.

The wall was expanded for over 300 kilometers in the year 585. Around 30,000 laborers were assigned to make this possible. After two years, another large section of the built which needed over 100,000 workers to finish. When Emperor Yang mounted the throne in 604, he moved the capital to Luoyang. Around the capital, he built a moat which covered around 1,000 kilometers of area.

The construction didn’t stop after that. It went on in 607 and 608 until the wall expanded to the Gansu and Qinghai Provinces. All of this is part of the Sui dynasty.

Tang Dynasty

Spanning from the year 618 to 907, several emperors ruled China. But apart from rebuilding some of the walls to protect them from invasions, no major construction of the great wall could be seen in these 300 years.

The Tang Empire gained power over the years and was a force to be reckoned with but they did not continue what their ancestors had started.

The Tang Dynasty believed in its military strength. They didn’t opt for investing their resources into building a wall for defense. They were proud of their military and put their faith it the military’s ability to protect them from any attack. Hence the great wall remained untouched during this time.

Song Dynasty

From 907 to 1368, China saw the rise and fall of its emperors dramatically. There was a conflict between the emperors of Song and Liao dynasty with the Jurchen Jin dynasty in the northeast.

The Song dynasty along with Liao was defeated by the Jin dynasty which caused them to look for new ways to defend themselves. That’s when they discovered the great wall and its importance. The Song dynasty started to build walls to strengthen their defense against Jin.

Along the walls, Song built around 500 passes and fortresses to protect themselves against the attacks of the Jin emperors. Not just these fortresses, the Song dynasty managed to create a cooperative defense system by establishing water defenses, moats, and military forts all around the wall.

The Ming Dynasty

From 1368 to 1644, these 200 years are known as the Ming dynasty. This is when the greatest construction of the wall was ever seen. Compared to the first wall of Qin, the resources were easier to find so many centuries later.

The builders became adept at their work. They built the most solid and strongest part of the wall during that time. The Ming wall is also considered to be the last complete wall of the great wall.

The Ming dynasty came in power after they successfully managed to overthrow the Yuan dynasty in 1368. The Ming drove the Mongols out of their territory but they continued to attack the Ming from the northern area.

Also, the Jurchen from the northeast weren’t so low in their military when Ming was in control. The Jurchen often threatened Ming and almost breached the borders. With so many threats dwindling around, Ming decided to use the great wall to make their defenses as strong as possible.

The wall spans around 9,000 kilometers in northern China. The actual inner wall is a little less than 4,000 kilometers in length.

The great wall of Ming is the one we have seen now and the one people visit throughout the year. The unique structure and design are truly magnificent. The wall brings together cultures that were torn apart by time. It took 200 years in the Ming dynasty to build the great wall. The decades spent into building and strengthening the defenses did not go in vain as the wall still stands tall with glory.

A Journey of Over 2000 Years

From Qin to Ming, the great wall was built in more than 2000 years. Many parts of it were destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Many emperors used the wall to protect their people from outside threats.

The wall carries the cultural touch from those ancient eras. Many questions remain; researchers are spending years uncovering the countless mysteries the wall holds.

An ancient myth has been passed down from mouth to mouth, that the Great Wall of China is the only monument visible from the moon. This is nothing but a myth. But the myth has been around for way too long; many people actually consider this a fact.

Final Thoughts

The dynasties discussed above are not the only ones, many still remain. A 2000 years long history cannot be summed up in a single document. There might be a debate about a lot of these historical records concerning the great wall, but everyone can agree on one point – the wall has been here for centuries and they wish it remains the same for more centuries to come.

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