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Admiring the Great Wall of China

Q: Which is the only manmade structure can be seen with the naked eye from the Moon?

Were you thinking it was the Great Wall of China? Really? Sorry, wrong answer. Many astronauts, including the Chinese spaceman Bai Li, have categorically stated that the Great Wall cannot be seen from the Moon.



Though this urban myth has little basis in fact, its persistence is easy to understand: If there were any manmade structure that would qualifies for the distinction of being visible from space, the spectacular Great Wall of China w would definitely be one of the main contenders. 

A gargantuan accomplishment

The Wall itself is physically breathtaking, snaking its winding way from the eastern province of Hebei, through Shanxi and Shaanxi, before ending in the northwest province of Gansu. Running in an endless line along ridges and mountains, the Wall’s length is interrupted only by lonely watchtowers and heavily fortified passes. Rising anywhere from 15 to 30 feet above the ground, it offers amazing views of the country it protects.


In Chinese, the wall is poetically known as ‘The Wall of Ten Thousand Li’. A li is the Chinese measurement of distance, and is about one third of a mile, making the wall about 6, 000 kilometres as the crow flies. For someone thinking about walking along the Great Wall however, the distance is much, much longer. If the Great Wall were to be straightened, it would be almost 15, 000 kilometres long. Each and every inch of the Wall was built by human hands, making it one of the greatest human achievements in history and qualifying it as one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. 

Of course, these numbers don’t mean seem so grand in writing, but the reality is something else again. One of the best ways to appreciate the sheer physical dimensions of the Great Wall is to join the annualGreat Wall Marathon, held on an intact section of the wall at Huangyaguan. The route takes the participants along the top of the wall and then along the road through picturesque villages and rice fields, but the sections involving the wall, though short, are the most arduous. There are steep ascents, even steeper descents and more than 3700 steps to climb. There are no flat sections along the wall and the stair are so steep that most people — yes, even the elite marathoners — walk. In fact, race rules absolutely prohibit running along some sections of the wall, as the steep gradient combined with a long, unprotected drop on one side, makes the possibility of tripping and dying an unpleasantly near possibility. More than a few runners have dropped out, rather than face the Wall. Despite the difficulty of the course however, it is quickly becoming a popular marathon.

A History of A Thousand Years

The sense of grand scale surrounding the Wall extends to its history. The Great Wall was begun more than 2, 000 years ago. At that time, the Roman Empire was still on its relentless march of colonization across Europe; Jesus Christ was just beginning to preach his gospel to his first listeners; and the first basket loads of earth were being placed for the foundations of the wall. 

In the beginning, there was nothing great about it. China of that time period was a chaotic mix of independent states warring constantly with each other — which was why the time was known as the Warring States Period. The states of Yan, Zhao and Qin were constantly at each other’s throats and each state built its own defensive walls to protect itself from attack. Finally, Qin proved victorious in the struggle, annexing both Yan and Zhao to create the new empire of China. The fighting wasn’t ended however, because the nation was still threatened by marauders from the northern steppes, the Mongols. To protect the empire from the threat, the newly crowned Emperor Qin Shi-huang decided to join all the individual defensive walls from the obliterated states into a single defensive fortification and thus the Great Wall was born. 
This early Great Wall was built with the forced labour of millions of men, many of them ripped from their families to serve on the construction crews. Armies stood guard over the workers to ensure they continued with the arduous task. The Wall was built of many different materials, depending on what was available. Around Beijing and the more mountainous regions, it was constructed with granite or marble blocks. Further to the west, in the Gobi Desert where everything but sand was scarce, the Wall was built of rammed earth. The work was backbreaking and continued at a relentless pace in blistering summer and freezing winter. It was finished in the amazingly short span of ten years, but thousands died from the harsh working conditions. Tradition has it that their bodies were placed in the wall itself, earning it the additional nickname, “the longest cemetery on Earth”.

The wall has also spawned many legends showing the brutal conditions the workers endured and the most famous of these tales is that of Meng Jiangnu’s story and the Jiayuguan Pass. The story was said to have happened during the Qin Dynasty. Meng Jiangnu had just been wed to Fan Qiliang, a kind and gentle intellectual. Unfortunately, her husband was caught by Qin officials and sent to build the Great Wall. Meng Jiangnu heard nothing from him after his departure and set out to look for him, but by the time she reached the Great Wall she discovered that her husband had already died. Hearing the bad news, she cried her heart out and her cries brought down a section of the Great Wall.

The Downfall of the Great Wall


This early Great Wall stood guard on the northern border for hundreds of years but despite the huge human cost of construction,  the Wall was never totally successful in preventing a northern invasion. Many sections of the wall were unmanned, as it was simply too expensive to keep the entire length of the wall garrisoned. The wall was also only 30 feet high at its loftiest point and relatively easy to scale. The wall was only successful in preventing the invaders from bringing their dreaded cavalry units into China. Many Mongol invasions simply swept over the wall, and then back again, without their horses. In fact, one invasion was so overwhelming that the Mongols became established as the Yuan dynasty.


It was only during the Ming dynasty that the Wall became a more successful defence against the marauders. Having experienced the widespread destruction that followed a Mongol invasion, the new rulers were eager to prevent a repeat of the experience. They had the Wall faced with strong marble or granite blocks and equipped with improved defensive structures along its length. This time, millions of workers were drafted into the construction and hundreds of thousands more died. For a short time after its strengthening, the Great Wall lived up to its name and was impassable to any threat from the north. The Wall produced during the Ming dynasty is the wall seen today.


Unfortunately, as with all dynasties, over time the Ming rulers became weak and ineffectual. Under their reign, there was great civil unrest. There was also the ever-present foreign threat, for the northern steppes had become home to vast armies of Manchu warriors. The only thing that stopped these fierce marauders from taking the riches of the weak Chinese nation was the Great Wall – which they were able to pass when the Ming General stationed at the pivotal Shahaiguan Pass threw in his lot with the Manchus and opened the gates. Legend has it that it took three days for the Manchu armies to pass. The Manchu swiftly took over the Imperial throne and put in place the Qing dynasty. After their ascension, they saw little reason to maintain the wall since the people it had been built to keep out were now ruling the country and so they left the Great Wall to fall on its own. 

A monument forgotten

It remained in that state, neglected and forgotten and today, much of the Great Wall is in ruins, heaps of stone and earth almost unrecognizable as anything more than an untidy mound. Far to the west in the Gobi desert, where the Mings never bothered to face the earthen walls with protective granite slabs, much of the Wall has crumbled back into the sands from which it was made. Near rural villages, it served as a convenient quarry and the villagers remove most of the facing granite blocks. Often, small children play along the crumbling stones. Yet some lengths of the Great Wall remain almost perfectly preserved. Even in the harsh climate of the far western regions, where the Wall is built only of rammed earth, it was so well constructed that some sections of the Wall can still be seen.

It was only during the late twentieth century that the Great Wall was recognized as a colossal human achievement and restoration once again began. It was finally designated a World Heritage Site in 1998 and today one of its best preserved sections lies in Badaling, about 80 km outside of Beijing. This section of the Great Wall is visited by thousands of tourists every day, who come to gasp at what many still think is the only man-made object visible from the Moon.

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