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7 facts about the Great Wall of China

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Often considered one of the seven wonders of the world, the Great Wall of China is the world’s longest man-made structure. Here are seven lesser-known facts.

It’s high on the list of things to see on a tour of China, but beyond the oft-quoted facts such as its official length (5,500 miles according to many sources), most of the millions of visitors to the Great Wall of China don’t know much about it. Here are some facts with which to regale your travelling companions on your trip to this spectacular monument.

The Great Wall of China became a UNESCO protected world heritage site in 1987

1. It started off as several walls

Its name these days belies the fact that the Great Wall started life as several different walls. China was previously comprised of a number of smaller states, and their rulers built walls to protect their borders. This was happening incredibly early, in the 7th century BC. Eventually, these regional walls were joined and reinforced - and subsequently rebuilt, maintained, restored and so on - to form what you see today. The earliest of the major walls was built in 260-210BC by the Qin dynasty, but the majority of what survives today was built by the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.

Before unification China was a series of states and the rulers built walls to protect their borders

2. It didn’t do a very good job of keeping invaders out

Back in the early 13th century, the Great Wall of China was yet to be unified into one continuous wall. That meant that there were plenty of gaps ready to be exploited by invaders such as the infamous Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. He and his troops simply went around the wall and successfully invaded China, and the Mongols ruled China until their defeat by Ming in 1368.

A remote section of the Great Wall at Jiayugan

3. It’s had many uses

Its primary role these days is as a tourist attraction, but the Great Wall has had many different uses in times gone by. The presence of watch towers and barracks along the wall is a reminder of its defensive purpose, but it’s also been used for the transportation of goods, and as a border control.

Travel Indochina tour leader plays a quick game of Frisbee on The Great Wall

4. The great philosophers and novelists thought it was pretty great

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote about the Great Wall of China, describing it as “a monument to fear”. He also decided that the pyramids of Egypt were “childish” in comparison. Franz Kafka (of Metamorphosis

fame) even wrote a short story about the Great Wall, in which a mason involved in the building of it looks back on his life.

French Philosopher Voltaire was a big fan. Credit: Getty Images / The Guardian.com

5. If you’re wondering why some of the Wall is in bad shape…

...it’s partly because, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1978, people were actively encouraged to take bricks from the Wall for use in building their homes and farms. This is because the Wall was viewed as a symbol of despotism.

The Cultural Revolution took its toll on the Great Wall, too

6. The Wall has been a battle scene as recently as the 20th century

We’ve already touched on the defensive role of the Great Wall, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s been the scene of a battle as recently as 1938. This battle took place as part of the Sino-Japanese War, between the Empire of Japan and the Republic of China. Bullet marks in the Wall, at Gubeikou, attest to the Wall’s role in this conflict.

Bullet marks in the wall can still be seen

7. It isn’t really visible from Space

Sadly it’s just a myth that the Great Wall of China is visible from Space. It all started back in 1754 when an English historian wrote in a letter words to the effect that the Great Wall is so mighty that it would be visible from the Moon. Of course, nobody had actually been to the Moon at that point, and astronauts report that it is not the case. In fact, it’s not only not visible from the Moon; it’s not even visible to the naked eye from the International Space Station (you need a pair of binoculars and a particularly clear day to stand a chance of seeing it, apparently).

Alas, it is not visible from space. Photo credit: NASA.com

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