Jun 21, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Medieval Word - Part IV

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is not a continuous wall but is a series of short walls that often follow the crest of hills on the southern edge of the Mongolian plain. Known as "long Wall of 10,000 Li" in China, it extends about 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles).

Before the use of bricks, the Great Wall was built from rammed earth, stones, and wood. During the Ming Dynasty, however, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime, and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. As well, bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth. Stone can hold under its own weight better than brick, but is more difficult to use. Consequently, stones cut in rectangular shapes were used for the foundation, inner and outer brims, and gateways of the wall. Battlements line the uppermost portion of the vast majority of the wall, with defensive gaps a little over 30 cm (12 in) tall, and about 23 cm (9.1 in) wide.

During the Warring States Period, from the 5th century BC to 221 BC, the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan and Zhongshan 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.

Qin Shi Huang conquered all opposing states and unified China in 221 BC, establishing the Qin Dynasty. Intending to impose centralized rule and prevent the resurgence of feudal lords, he ordered the destruction of the wall sections that divided his empire along the former state borders. To protect the empire against intrusions by the Xiongnu people from the north, he ordered the building of a new wall to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire's new northern frontier.

Transporting the large quantity of materials required for construction was difficult, so builders always tried to use local resources. Stones from the mountains were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used for construction in the plains. Later, the Han, Sui, Northern and Jin dynasties all repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great Wall at great cost to defend themselves against northern invaders. It is estimated that over 1 million workers died building the wall.

The Great Wall concept was revived again during the Ming Dynasty, following the Ming army's defeat by the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu in 1449. 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 constructing walls along the northern border of China. Acknowledging the Mongol control established in the Ordos Desert, the wall followed the desert's southern edge instead of incorporating the bend of the Huang He.

Unlike the earlier Qin fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger and more elaborate due to the use of bricks and stone instead of rammed earth. As Mongol raids continued periodically over the years, the Ming devoted considerable resources to repair and reinforce the walls. Sections near the Ming capital of Beijing were especially strong.

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall helped defend the empire against the Manchu invasions that began around 1600. Under the military command of Yuan Chonghuan, the Ming army held off the Manchus at the heavily fortified Shanhaiguan pass, preventing the Manchus from entering the Chinese heartland.

The Manchus were finally able to cross the Great Wall in 1644, when the gates at Shanhaiguan were opened by Wu Sangui, a Ming border general who disliked the activities of rulers of the Shun Dynasty. The Manchus quickly seized Beijing, and defeated the newly founded Shun Dynasty and remaining Ming resistance, to establish the Qing Dynasty. Under Qing rule, China's borders extended beyond the walls and Mongolia was annexed into the empire, so construction and repairs on the Great Wall were discontinued.

Restoration and rebuilding took place in the 20th century and in 1987 the Great Wall of China was made a World Heritage Site. While some portions north of Beijing and near tourist centers have been preserved and even extensively renovated, in many locations the Wall is in disrepair. Parts have been destroyed because the Wall is in the way of construction. Sections of the Wall are also prone to graffiti and vandalism.

More than 60 km (37 mi) of the wall in Gansu province may disappear in the next 20 years, due to erosion from sandstorms. In places, the height of the wall has been reduced from more than five meters (16.4 ft) to less than two meters. The square lookout towers that characterize the most famous images of the wall have disappeared completely. Many western sections of the wall were constructed from mud, rather than brick and stone, and thus are more susceptible to erosion.

Most people are familiar with the claim that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space with the naked eye. One of the earliest known references to this myth appears in a letter written in 1754 by William Stukeley (who pioneered the investigation of Stonehenge). He wrote that, "This mighty wall of four score miles in length (Hadrian's Wall) is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon."

The claim was also mentioned by Henry Norman in 1895 where he states "besides its age it enjoys the reputation of being the only work of human hands on the globe visible from the moon." The issue of "canals" on Mars was prominent in the late 19th century and may have led to the belief that long, thin objects were visible from space. The claim that the Great Wall is visible also appears in a 1932 Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon and in Richard Halliburton's 1938 book Second Book of Marvels.

The truth is, from a low orbit of the earth, many artificial objects are visible on the earth, such as highways, ships in the sea, railroads, cities, fields of crops, and even some individual buildings. Therefore, while at a low orbit, the Great Wall of China can certainly be seen from space.

However, when leaving the earth's orbit and acquiring an altitude of more than a few thousand miles, no man-made objects are visible at all. NASA says, "The Great Wall can barely be seen from the Shuttle, so it would not be possible to see it from the Moon with the naked eye." Furthermore, from the moon, even the continents are barely visible.

Whether it can be seen from space or not, the Great Wall of China is still a most awe inspiring Wonder of the Medieval World.

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