A Wall For All Time

One could write a book about the vicissitudes of the Great Wall of China, and many people already have. What a story! The Qin Wall— the “wall of 10,000 li” of history and China’s first “great wall” – was a monumental endeavor that not only set a new standard in Chinese wall-building but also cost the lives of untold thousands of laborers. The Wall was the project of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified China and immediately set out to curtail invasions by the nomadic horsemen north of the border.

Next came the wall constructed by the Qin dynasty’s successors, the Han. Not only did this dynasty define what it meant to be Chinese over more than 400 years of rule, but their wall stretched so far along the northern frontier that its length was never surpassed. If primitive by later standards, the first-century BC Han Wall was solid enough to safeguard many of the travelers on the Silk Road from marauders and to fight the assaults of time; some of its remnants in Gansu Province stand tall to this day.

The Ming Wall is almost modern by comparison, completed as it was in the early years of seventeenth century. The full flower of the Chinese defensive wall system, it was built to last. And last it did, though its defensive purpose fell by the way once the Manchu (Manchurians) streamed in from the northeast and took control of China in 1644. As the Qing dynasty, the Manchu had no reason to build walls. Nor did they tear down the Wall that had been built to keep out non-Chinese such as themselves – and for that, the world can be eternally grateful.

Fall and Rise

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, villagers who lived along the Wall treated it more or less as part of the landscape and put it to practical use. Stones, bricks, and sand were seen as building materials for the taking, and the wide paths atop the Wall were sometimes planted with crops. Worse, parts of the Wall near Beijing were subjected to severe damage during the Chinese Civil War (1927–1950) and the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). For a long while, it looked as if the Wall that embodied the ingenuity and engineering skill of the Ming would fall victim to time, plundering, and neglect.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a movement began to save what had been most of the most remarkable engineering feats of all time. The government restored a roughly 4,260-foot (1,300 m) stretch of the Badaling Wall in the 1950s. Then, in the 1980s, a government campaign to restore many more sections of the Ming Wall and reconstruct others gained steam as the Chinese people united behind the effort.

The Chinese nation seeks to preserve the Ming Wall for posterity because it represents the inventiveness, resolve, and determination that are inherent to the Chinese character – the same qualities that have brought China so resoundingly into the twenty-first century. To say the world has taken notice is an understatement. Today the Great Wall, listed as a World Heritage Site since 1987, is a must-see destination for millions of people from all over the world.

In this colorful oversize volume, writer Peng Ruigao and photographer Zhai Dongfeng have captured the heart and soul of the Great Wall of China and showcased its power and glory. As you read of the imperial wall-builders and then set out on your pictorial tour of the Great Wall, may you relive the days of old, appreciate the resourcefulness wall-building required, and take your turn standing in awe of one of the grandest structures on earth.

— Page 13, China’s Great Wall (Shanghai Press & Publishing/Reader’s Digest, 2008)