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It sounds like a simple question, however answers vary from about 5,000 km (3,000 miles) to over 21,000 km (13,000 miles). What we can say is only a few hundred kilometers of wall are left today for you to see, scattered across northern China, and the length has varied greatly over the last 2,500 years...
Below we give you the background behind the figures, what is counted as the Great Wall, and how the length of the Great Wall has changed through different dynasties.
After a five-year-long survey, the total length of the Great Wall was measured. On June 5th, 2012, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that the official length of the Great Wall is 21,196.18 km (13,170.7 mi). This is the first time that China has scientifically and systematically measured the length of the Great Wall.
It's a misleading figure as some sections of different eras were built on top of or right next to each other. Also isolated sections of fortified wall defending state boundaries are included, not just China's northern border wall(s) that people generally think the Great Wall to be.
The Great Wall measured covers all the sections built by seven Warring States (475–221 BC) and at least seven dynasties from Qin to Ming (221 BC – 1644 AD) in 15 provincial-level areas: Beijing, Tianjin, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. The measured length includes 43,721 relics: walls, trenches, towers, walled fortresses, etc.
The following table gives a fuller picture of how much wall (approximately) was built when.
|Great Wall Built By||Date||Approx. Length (km)||Using Previous Walls (km)||New Walls (km)||Of Which Not Used Again (km)|
|Warring States||445–222 BC||5,000||0||5,000||2,000|
|Qin Dynasty||221–206 BC||5,000||4,000||1,000||2,500|
|Han Dynasty||206 BC – 220 AD||6,000||2,500||3,500||6,000|
|N. Wei Dynasty||385–584||1,500||0||1,500||500|
|N. Qi / Sui Dynasty||550–618||1,500||1,000||500||1,000|
|Liao / Jin Dynasty||1066–1234||3,500||0||3,500||3,500|
On June 5th, 2012, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and National Administration of Surveying and Mapping announced on April 18th, 2009 that the Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty: (1368 – 1644) was 8851.8 km long.
They measured Great Wall sections in 10 provinces: Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Beijing, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai.
They included in the length trenches and natural barriers like mountains, rivers, and lakes. Estimates of the length of actual wall come to over 6,200 km (3,900 miles). However, this includes many side branches that don't contribute to the west-to-east "length".
The shortest distance from the most westerly point of the Ming Great Wall ('The First Strategic Post of the Great Wall' in Jiayuguan) to its most easterly point (Hushan on the Korean border) is 2,235 km (1,389 mi).
The Great Wall has been called "Wan-Li Changcheng" since the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC).
Wan means 10,000, and a li is half a kilometer. So 10,000 li is 5,000 km (3,100 miles), which was a actually a good estimation of the Great Wall length in the Qin Dynasty. However it continued in use through future dynasties, despite the Great Wall becoming longer.
Wan is also popularly used to mean 'a great number' in Chinese. So, a better translation of Wan-Li Changcheng would probably be "the Great-Number-of-Li-Long Wall", or "the Great Wall" for short!
The Great Wall is a VERY long wall and hundreds of football fields would still be incomparable to its length. So we'll forget about that comparison…
Let's say instead, the total Great Wall length for all time would cross the US east to west 4.9 times!
Perhaps more usefully… The Great Wall of the Ming Dynasty would be sufficient to go across the United States' Mexican border (3,000+ km) AND the southern Canadian land border (5,000+ km, not counting the Great Lakes and Alaska)!
If you want to walk on the Great Wall to admire its majestic winding length, please see our recommended Great Wall Hiking Tours below for inspiration: