Why the Great Wall Was Built

2,300 years ago the first sections of the Great Wall were built to keep outsiders out, but ironically it is now rebuilt to draw tourists in.

Over the centuries, the Great Wall has been built and rebuilt for three main purposes: as kingdom border defenses, to defend China's northern border, and for tourism. Read on to see why China built, or did not build, the Great Wall in different historical periods.

2,600 Years Ago — Walls Were Built to Defend Warring States

Warring States Great Wall MapThe Great Wall and State Walls in the Warring States Period

Before the unification of China in 221 BC, 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 7th 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 walls of the three northern states, which eventually formed parts of the first Great Wall, were not built until the 4th century BC:

221 BC — The Great Wall Was Joined Together to Protect China's North

The Great Wall kept out northern tribesThe Great Wall prevented northern invasion.

After the unification of China in the beginning of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 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).

Hungry for rich farmland, the northern tribes often attacked the Qin Empire. Their land was arid by comparison.

To the east of the Great Wall is sea, and to the west is desert, and to the north were “ungovernable” tribes. That’s why Qin Empire built the Great Wall, fixing China’s northern border.

This Great Wall linked walls from today's Gansu Province to North Korea.

202 BC — The Great Wall Was Expanded to Protect the Silk Road

The Silk Road and the Great WallHan Wudi extended the Great Wall west 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.

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 section.

581–1644 — The Great Wall Was Strengthened in China’s Flourishing Dynasties

The following dynasties — Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), and Song (960–1279) — 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.

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.

From 1644 — The Great Wall Was Not Rebuilt for 300 Years

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!

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.

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.

From 1957 — The Great Wall Was Rebuilt for Tourism

The Jinshanling Great Wall sectionThere is beautiful scenery and interesting Great Wall architecture at Jinshanling.

The Great Wall wasn't rebuilt again until the restoration of the Badaling section in 1957 under the direction of Chairman Mao, who's famous for saying, "Until you reach the Great Wall, you're no hero."

Since then other sections like Mutianyu (the best-restored section), Juyongguan (an important fort), and Huangyaguan (World Heritage, but few visitors) have been restored for the benefit of tourists interested in China's Great Wall history. The Jinshanling section has restored Great Wall and original Ming Great Wall.

Read more about How to Visit the Great Wall of China — Insider Guide.

Touring the Great Wall with Us

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