Discover China's History Along the Great Wall
One of the world's greatest feats of engineering reveals the ingenuity of the ancients.
"The Great Wall impresses everyone who sees it for the first time, from children to adults, from the general tourists to scholars,” says Henry Ng, the manager of the World Monuments Fund’s China projects. “The vastness of the structure helps children grasp the great achievements in human history—from the Great Wall to the great pyramids—and can help inspire them to learn more about human achievements over the millennia.”
Constructed over a period of 2,000 years, the stone sentry actually consists of many great walls, some dating back to the fifth century B.C. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, ordered these earlier long wall sections linked and extended with watchtowers to protect the new empire from marauding northern tribes. Succeeding emperors and dynasties continued the construction, spreading westward into the Gobi desert to guard the Silk Road. All together, the walls may have stretched more than 30,000 miles.
“Because the walls were defensive structures, you can learn about building and engineering skills throughout ancient China as well as its military history and strategies,” Ng says.
“The wall raised my daughter’s awareness of China’s long history,” says Beijing resident Pan Ningxin, who took her daughter Mengmeng, eight, to the wall at Badaling. “We talked about the function of the Great Wall when it was built, so she got some idea of the wars between nations and how dynasties change.”
Early sections of the wall were built from layers of rammed earth and local materials—red palm fronds in the Gobi desert, wild poplar trunks in the Tarim Basin, reeds in Gansu. Many of these sections have eroded over the centuries; the Great Legacy of an Ancient Time Wall as we know it largely dates from the Ming dynasty from the 14th to the 17th centuries. The Ming wall stretches nearly 4,500 miles from Shanhaiguan Pass on the Bohai Sea to Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi.
People of the Ming dynasty layered stone and brick over packed earth, building walls 20 feet wide at the base and nearly 30 feet high that twist along the steep mountain ridges north of Beijing. Surrounded by misty green hills with watchtowers that disappear into low-hanging clouds, the wall is a place for reflection—the sense of history and the craftsmanship required to build it permeate the ancient stones.
“We wonder about the builders, the soldiers who were stationed at some of these lonely outposts, the nearby villagers who may or may not have appreciated the garrisons near them,” says Jennifer Ambrose, who lives with her family north of Beijing and visits the Great Wall several times a month. “We explore around the wall, surprised to find remains of older walls that predate the Ming by centuries.”
Forced laborers used pulleys to haul stone slabs nearly seven feet long and weighing a ton up the steep mountainsides. Some 10,000 watchtowers and beacon towers are located every 200 to 300 yards for quick communication. While drums were the main form of communication before 200 b.c., soldiers later used fire and smoke signals to broadcast the size of an enemy force. Each tower along the wall had a ready supply of burnable materials should the need arise. During the Ming dynasty the sounds of cannon warned of approaching danger.
Children will delight in wandering the ramparts, lined with battlements and parapets and wide enough for five horses to ride abreast. “We encourage our seven-year-old son, Myles, to explore the construction as much as he can,” Ambrose says.
“To look for signs of pieces that are missing, like bars on the windows, or to try to figure out from which direction invaders were expected to come based on the slots through which archers shot. Often a visit will leave us with more questions that we try to research afterward, like, Why was the Ming wall built in this direction when an earlier wall, still visible, was built so many meters in another direction?”
With more than 4,000 miles to explore, there are hundreds of places where you can visit the wall. Sites near Beijing offer the easiest access. Skip the crowds at Badaling, and head for Jinshanling, two hours northeast of the capital, which offers stunning views and invigorating hikes. Children will love seeing the lights that illuminate a 1.8-mile section at night. An alternative: At Huanghuacheng, about an hour and a half north of Beijing, the wall skirts Jintang Lake and the crescent-shaped Huanghuacheng Reservoir. In summer, the mountain slopes are covered with huanghua (yellow wildflowers) that gave the town its name. “We most frequently go to the Huanghuacheng area because there are several access points, all rather close together, but different enough to be interesting,” Ambrose says. If you can, visit the Great Wall when it’s blanketed with snow. “The snow enhances the crenellations, making the wall look more castlelike than normal,” Ambrose says. “My son’s imagination really gets going—when we go to Juyongguan in the snow, he pretends he’s in a battle, stuffing snow into the cannon and throwing snowballs over the edge at imaginary foes.”
For a quieter, less developed area ideal for young children, visit Mutianyu, a village just over an hour north of Beijing that dates from the 16th century. “This area is forested with crown pines and also full of fruit trees on the hills and in orchards—chestnut, apple, pear, and apricot,” says Jim Spear, who has lived in Mutianyu for 17 years and runs The Schoolhouse lodgings. “My kids roamed all over the local mountains, climbed trees, picked wildflowers, and gathered wild edibles with guidance from our neighbors. This is exactly what the local kids do when they’re not busy with their studies and on vacations.”
Enclosed cable cars can transport you straight from the valley to the top of the wall. “But many of our visitors like to get off the beaten track and take walks with their kids to nearby unrestored sections of the Great Wall—what we call the ‘wild wall,’ ” Spear says. “The wild sections there are overgrown and crumbling and the ruins give one a sense of how ancient and great this civilization is.”
Know Before You Go
Insider Tip: The Great Wall was designed for protection, but don’t forget the forts that were another part of China’s defenses. The 16th-century Yaoziyu Fort, for example, is the best preserved of Huanghuacheng’s six forts. Changyucheng Village was founded 500 years ago to guard one of the wall’s most important passes.
Books for Kids:
The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy; illustrated by Mou-Sien Tseng (1992): This beautifully illustrated book tells the old Chinese folktale of seven brothers with extraordinary abilities, who band together and use their powers to challenge the emperor’s mistreatment of his workers on the Great Wall.
Books for Parents:
The Great Wall: From Beginning to End by William Lindesay and Michael Yamashita (2007): The story of Lindesay’s hike along the entire Ming wall, from the Yellow Sea to the desert foothills of the Qilian Mountains, is accompanied by Michael Yamashita’s photos.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Voices of the Pipa by Jiang Ting (2003): The elegant Chinese pipa, somewhat similar to a banjo, dates back 2,000 years in China’s history. Ting has played the pipa since childhood and won first prize in China’s national pipa competition in 1996. Here, on this album, she plays ancient and modern Chinese compositions, plus her own melodies.
Great Wall Website: This collection of essays lays out the history of the many long walls that comprise the Great Wall, analyzes the popular folktale of Meng Jiangnu, and answers commonly asked questions about the wall (such as, Is it visible from the moon? No.). Be sure to check out the Travel Guide section, which details the various sites and best times to visit the wall.
Beijing Kids: This is an essential resource for families visiting Beijing. Produced by local expat families, the website provides a directory of hotels, restaurants, and educational centers in the city; tips on family-friendly events and activities in the area; and readers’ personal experiences traveling to various Great Wall sites.
“The Great Wall of China,” In Our Time: BBC radio host Melvyn Bragg discusses the Great Wall of China with Chinese historians in this episode of In Our Time. The scholars vividly describe the differences among the many sections of the Great Wall and talk in depth about its origins.