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Who Built the Great Wall of China, When and Why

It's well known that "Emperor Qin built the Great Wall". But the history of the Great Wall is not that simple. Emperor Qin was not the first to build the Great Wall... or the last. There are many sections in different places, built with different materials, and built in different dynasties.

who built the great wall

When the Great Wall was built

Dynasty Who built
The (Pre-) Warring States Period (770–221 BC) Overlords built walls
The Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC) The First Emperor of Qin linked the Great Wall
The Han Dynasty (206BC–220AD) Han Wudi extended west to Yumen Pass
The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) Qi Jiguang rebuilt the Great Wall

The (Pre-) Warring States Period — Overlords Built Walls

A Qi State duke first built walls to prevent invasion from other states.

Before the unification of China, there were many warring states. Battles between states happened frequently to expand territory. Therefore, the princes and overlords began to build high walls to keep intruders out in the Seventh Century BC.

According to historical records, the Qi State was the first state to build such walls in 656 BC. During the Spring and Autumn Period, Qi Huangong (Duke Huan of Qi) became a Qi overlord (reigned 685–643 BC; mainly in today's Shandong Province). He ordered that walls be built to prevent incursions by the Chu State, south of Qi. The walls of Qi were mainly built with flat stones.

From then on, princes and overlords from other states began to build walls on their borders, and high mountain watchtowers to defend against invasion, mostly during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). 

The Qin Dynasty — The First Emperor Linked the Great Wall

why built the great wallThe Great Wall was built to prevent invasion from northern nomadic tribes.

Emperor Qin unified state walls to secure China's northern border. 

After the unification of China in the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC), China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang (you must have heard of his Terracotta Army), linked the walls of the three northern states (Qin, Zhao, and Yan). This formed the first "Wan-Li Changcheng" (万里长城 'Ten-Thousand-Li Great Wall' i.e. the first '5,000-Kilometer Great Wall': a li is half a kilometer).

This Great Wall linked walls in today's Gansu Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, Inner Mongolia, Hebei and Liaoning provinces, and North Korea.

The Han Dynasty — Emperors Expanded the Great Wall

silk road and the great wallHan Wudi extended the Great Wall west to protect Silk Road trade.

The Han Great Wall was extended to protect Silk Road trade.

When Han Gaozu became emperor in 202 BC, he ordered strengthening of the Great Wall, as northern nations were China's primary threat.

A later emperor, Han Wudi (ruled 141–87 BC) opened the Silk Road for exporting silk to the west, thus the Great Wall was extended west to Yumen Pass and the Dunhuang Great Wall.

Sui, Tang, Song, and Yuan Emperors Modified the Great Wall

After the re-unification of China, the emperors of the following dynasties — Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), Song (960–1279), and Yuan(1115–1234) — rebuilt, modified, and extended the Great Wall to protect the Chinese Empire from northern invaders. Today, in some areas, two walls built in two different dynasties can be seen running side by side.

The Ming Dynasty — Qi Jiguang Rebuilt the Great Wall

jinshanling great wallBeautiful scenery of Jinshanling Section

Most of today's Great Wall was built or restored in the Ming Dynasty.

In order to consolidate the northern border, after reclaiming China from the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) never stopped building the Great Wall.

The most well-known sections (Simatai, Mutianyu, Jinshanling, Badaling, etc.) were all built or strengthened by Qi Jiguang (1528–88, a hero general who also saved China's coastlands from Japanese pirates).

The Ming Great Wall runs from Jiayuguan on western China's Silk Road to Shanhaiguan on eastern China's Bohai Gulf coast.

The Qing Dynasty — The End of Great Wall Building

Emperor KangxiEmperor Kangxi

The emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) didn't build the Great Wall and even forbade it: they were Manchurians, who the Great Wall was built to keep out.

It's said that when Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) saw the Great Wall, he reasoned that the era of Great-Wall-building emperors and enmity with northern neighbors was over. Moreover, Great Wall construction cost lots of money and manpower, which was bad for his people. He believed that the only way to protect China was to gain international support, instead of border battles.

So second Qing Emperor Kangxi ordered that the Great Wall never be built, and there was almost no Great Wall built from the end of Ming Dynasty.

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We also have more detail on the history of the Great Wall.

Famous Great Wall Sections near Beijing, and more... Read about different features of the various sections, and find the best places for you to visit.

If you are planning a Great Wall tour to explore this spectacular historical construction, we recommend for inspiration our 1-Day Simatai-West-to-Jinshanling Great Wall Hiking Tour .

Or just tell us your interests and requirements, and China Highlights will help you create your own Great Wall tour.