Simply put, the Great Wall of China would be the largest man-made structure in the entire world if its numerous sections were positioned in a collective manner. Going the numerical route, the sheer volume of the wall structures account for an astronomical 34,423,725,600 cubic ft (or 34.5 billion cubic ft) – by taking the average height and width as 33 ft and 15 ft respectively. For comparison’s sake, the ancient Great Pyramid boasts around 88 million cubic ft of volume, while the modern-day Burj Khalifa accounts for around 1.1 billion cubic ft. Suffice it to say, the Great Wall deservedly demands awe from us.
But beyond just numbers, the Great Wall of China has its incredible legacy, with numerous dynasties and rulers playing their important (and sometimes brutal) roles, often complemented by interesting engineering and technological innovations. To that end, Simple History has presented a rather simple animation that presents the short history of arguably man’s greatest constructional project.
In any case, we wanted to expand upon some of the few features showcased in the animated video that would give us a more comprehensive idea about the sheer scale of the Great Wall of China and the engineering ingenuity behind it.
1) A wall that was built over 1,600 years –
As the video fleetingly mentions, Qin Shi Huang was the mastermind behind the original project of constructing a great wall. He had united the warring factions of China in 221 BC, and his ambitious aim was to govern a large yet centralized state that could be defended from external threats, especially the Xiongnu nomads from the north. Thus many of China’s internal lines of fortifications (originally built by the warring states) were destroyed in favor of a collective wall ‘system’ that could defend the big realm from the north. But the Great Wall of China, as we know it, was not completed during such an endeavor. Later dynasties, including the Han (till 3rd century AD) and the Sui (till early 7th century AD), not only repaired but expanded many sections of the wall system.
But the Great Wall of China took its ‘final’ form during the period of the famed Ming dynasty in the 14th century AD, which is 1,600 years after its original conception. Instigated by their defeat at the Battle of Tumu, the Ming engineers undertook a massive project that encompassed the use of stronger bricks and stone blocks instead of rammed earth. According to some estimates, the Ming were able to construct a whopping 25,000 watchtowers along the fortification system. And by 16th century, they were further able to add 1,200 watchtowers – thus bringing their total addition to an impressive 6,259 km (3,889 m) of actual wall sections. Interestingly, the Ming are also known for building an extension of the Great Wall known as the Liaodong Wall, and it was supposedly constructed to fortify the agricultural heartland of the Liaodong province from the northern intruders.
2) The world’s longest graveyard?
A wall system that runs from near the Bo Hai Sea (northeast of Beijing) into the very borders of the unrelenting Gobi Desert, must account for its incredibly lengthy credentials. According to the figure announced by China’s State Administration of Cultural Relics in 2012, the wall runs across a whopping 13,170.69 miles (21,196.18 kilometers), by also including the aforementioned Ming dynasty built sections and the other crisscrossing structures. This astronomical number is actually more than twice the number flaunted by previous assessments.
Now once again reverting to estimation, it is said that around 300,000 people took part in the construction process, with most of their numbers presumably being allocated during the initial phases of the construction (in late 3rd century BC). In fact, during the Qin period, the administration officially gave harsh sentences to convicts that entailed rigorously working and toiling on the wall. These ‘forced’ laborers had their heads shaved and faces blackened, while being shackled in chains to prevent any thoughts of escaping. Suffice it to say, many of the workers died while trying to accomplice such a herculean task – and their bodies were interred to ‘cement’ the wall sections. This in turn alludes to the sober scenario on how the Great Wall of China might be the world’s longest graveyard, thus also leading to its moniker – the Wall of Tears.
3) The ‘secret’ ingredient –
The Ming period in China (1368–1644 AD) is known for the orderly administration and social stability that was unmatched by the previous Chinese dynasties. The epoch also gave boost to numerous innovations in the field of arts, craftsmanship and even architecture. Pertaining to the latter field, researchers at the Zhejiang university have deduced that the Ming engineers apparently used a special ingredient that endowed the much needed strength to their huge expansions along the Great Wall of China. This secret ingredient in question entailed a mixture paste of sticky rice flour and slaked lime that was so stocky that it even ‘blocked’ the bricks from growing any weeds in between. This factor of ‘stickiness’ was supposedly derived from an organic component called amylopectin, which came from the porridge of sticky rice. As Dr Zhang, a professor of chemistry at Zhejiang university, made it clear –
The ancient mortar is a special kind of organic and inorganic mixture. The inorganic component is calcium carbonate, and the organic component is amylopectin, which comes from the sticky rice soup added to the mortar. This amylopectin helped create a compact microstructure, [giving the Great Wall] more stable physical properties and greater mechanical strength.
4) Still not explored –
Few sections of this massive engineering feat are yet to be discovered. For example, with the aid of Google Earth, a research team in 2011 identified an almost 100-km (62 miles) stretch of defensive patchworks in a restricted border area in southern Mongolia. Rising substantially to heights of around 9 ft in some places, these antediluvian works were called the Wall of Genghis Khan. But the researchers on further analysis found that these remnant walls were not in any way related to the famed ruler of the Mongols, but rather served as extensions of the Great Wall of China.
The team was specially interested in finding two separate stretches of the wall, with one section composed of wet mud and a woody desert shrub called saxaul, and the other section constructed from black volcanic rock blocks. Intriguingly enough, radiocarbon dating has revealed that the walls were mostly constructed in between the 11th and 12th century AD – a period which pertains to the Western Xia dynasty. So simply put, this northwestern Chinese kingdom was responsible for adding to the legacy of the Great Wall of China, or was at least instrumental in rebuilding portions of the defensive works that were already founded by the 1000-years older Han dynasty.
The article was mostly composed from excerpts of our previous article – 9 Fascinating Things You Should Know About The Great Wall Of China.
Video Source: Simple History (YouTube)