The rise and fall of China's Great Wall: the race to save a world treasure - Special Report Current Events, Sept 27, 2002
Save a personal copy of this article and quickly find it again with Furl.net. It's free! Save it. MADE OF BRICK, STONE, and dirt, the Great Wall twists and turns across China's landscape like a giant dragon. It seems to rise out of the sea at Bo Hal gulf, a place known to local people as Laolongtou, or "the old dragon's head." The wall then stretches across the plains, crawls along the sides of mountains and scales their peaks as it spans the Asian countryside.
This ancient wonder, built entirely by hand, often overwhelms visitors. On a trip to the wall in 1909, French scholar Auguste Gilbert de Voisins said, "Nothing stops it, nothing gets in its way; seeing it at this point, one might believe it to be eternal."
Today, however, neglect, misuse, and modernization threaten the giant dragon. Although the wall once stretched nearly 4,000 miles across China's northern border, only about 1,500 miles of China's Great Wall remain. The rest has fallen apart and disappeared.
This year, the World Monuments Fund placed the Great Wall on its list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The group hopes to protect what's left of the wall and to encourage the Chinese government and others to save the historic structure. According to a World Monuments Fund report, "[The wall] was built to protect China; now China must protect it."
The Great Wall of Qin
China's Great Wall didn't start out so great. Begun nearly 2,300 years ago, the structure was a series of small fortifications. As early as 600 B.C., people in China built small walls around their homes and cities for protection. Soldiers guarded the gates around the city walls during the day and swung the gates shut at night.
During the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), leaders struggling for control of China built walls around entire kingdoms. Soldiers occupied forts and towers on the wall and fought to protect the borders of the independent states.
In 221 B.C., Qin Shi Huangdi unified the kingdoms and became the first emperor of China. Qin Shi Huangdi gave orders to build the chang cheng, or "long wall," to protect China from northern nomads who were trying to invade China. Laborers built the wall by joining walls constructed earlier and extending the length of the wall to nearly 3,100 miles.
With the help of General Meng Tian, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered 800,000 men--soldiers, prisoners, and peasants--to build the wall. Where stones were plentiful, workers used stones to build parts of the wall. Where stones were scarce, workers used dirt.
To build the wall, laborers dug up large amounts of dirt and carried it to the wall. The workers then piled dirt into wooden frames about 6 inches deep. They used wooden instruments to pound the dirt until it became a solid mass. This process was repeated until the wall reached a desired height. Workers then moved the wooden frames to the next section of the wall and began the process again.
According to legend, Qin Shi Huangdi condemned workers to death for making the slightest construction errors. Today, few traces of the Qin wall remain. After Qin Shi Huangdi's death in 210 B.C., workers abandoned the wall and it eventually crumbled into ruins.
The Ming Fortress
Nearly all of Qin Shi Huangdi's successors built walls along China's northern frontier. The fortifications, however, never fully protected China from invasion. During the early 13th century, Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongols, a nomad group from the north, united several nomad armies and conquered much of Asia.
In 1279, Genghis Khan's grandson, Kubilai Khan, overthrew the Chinese emperor and established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Yuan emperors did not maintain the old wall or build a new one, so the wall began to fall into ruins.
After Khan died in 1227, a Chinese farmer named Zu...