Dividing Lines: The Great Wall and the Troubling Complexity of Borders and Barriers

It wraps around the earth, undulates over mountainous hills, and snakes across the Chinese countryside. Some say you can see it from space. You cannot, but that myth adds to its allure. Yes, that’s right. Today we’re talking about the Great Wall! It is one of the world’s most famous landmarks and the largest construction project ever undertaken in global history! How, when, and why did it begin? 

For starters, The Great Wall wasn’t initially a singular project. During the Spring and Autumn periods (8th-5th centuries B.C.E.) and the subsequent Warring States period, the Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Han, Yan, and Zhongshan states all perfected their art of wall-building to stave off invaders(1)! Many had constructed extensive fortifications mainly out of rammed earth and stone. 

It wasn’t until King Zheng Qin conquered his final opponents and unified China in 221 B.C.E. that the “Great Wall” became a singular project. Qin imposed centralization and ordered the destruction of wall sections on the borders of former states (hoping that would prevent a resurgence of feudal lords). Qin’s guiding principle and philosophy was to “build and move on”(2). Patch up the missing links. Most builders used local resources (e.g. mountain dwellers used mountain stones and plain dwellers used rammed earth). 

The later Han, Sui, and other Northern dynasties all rebuilt, repaired, and expanded various sections, while the Tang and Song dynasties withheld any contributions to the whole enterprise(3)(4). The Xianbei-ruled Northern Wei, Khitan-ruled Liao, Jurchin-led Jin, and Tangut-established Western Xia all built their own border walls(3). 

During the 13th century Ming Dynasty (renowned for its art and ceramics), China revived their construction efforts in full. The Oirats defeated them at the Battle of Tumu, and so the nation found itself in a shaky, struggling state! But they buckled down and erected stronger and more elaborate sections. Using brick and stone (instead of rammed earth), the Chinese constructed 25,000+ watchtowers(5). The Ming builders focused special attention on the section near Beijing and enclosed the Liaodong province with the Liaodong Wall. 

Great Wall of China

Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Shanhai Pass and Wall initially helped thwart the Manchu invaders…that was, until they crossed over into Beijing in 1644 (during Beijing’s short-lived Shun dynasty). Despite Wu Sangui’s diplomatic efforts, the Manchu captured the national capital and consolidated rule under the new Qing Dynasty(6). Qing Dynasty China extended the nation’s borders into Mongolia, and they discontinued the Great Wall construction project(6). 

While European explorers like Giovanni de Pian del Carpine, Marco Polo, and Odoric of Pordenone never mentioned the Great Wall, North African traveler Ibn Battuta (who visited China during the Yuang Dynasty c. 1346 C.E.) did hear of it (7)(8). Accounts began to circulate when European travelers reached China by ship in the 16th century, and, in 1605, Portuguese Jesuit brother Bento de Gois, viewed the site in person near the northwestern Jiayu Pass in India(9). Once China opened its borders to foreign merchants and visitors following the First and Second Opium Wars, the Great Wall became a national tourist attraction (10). 

The wall- comprised of stone, bricks, tiles, and lime- stretches at least 13,171 miles and averages 25.6 – 46 feet (7.8 – 14 meters) in height(11). Many builders held pieces together with sticky rice mortar (a mixture of sticky rice soup and slaked lime)(12)(13). Others added barracks, stables, and armories near the wall’s inner surfaces, and, contrary to what one legend espouses, no human bones or body parts were used in the construction of the wall(14))15)(16)! At least 10 million people visit the Great Wall every year(17)! 

Walls, walls, walls…we decorate and design them, but as a talking point for social conversations, they are extremely uncomfortable to broach! The clearest and most recent example of this is in the United States, where, during the Trump administration (2016-2020), “build that wall” became a tiresome refrain. 

The United States is of course one of the major immigrant-welcoming countries in the world, and yet many of its citizens are quite cagey about that. Not legal immigration, but illegal immigration…even when the circumstances are emergency-based. This was very much the crux of the controversy during the Trump era. No one likes moving…even when all is well. But they especially don’t like doing so when they have to do so out of danger and desperation (to escape warfare, poverty, gangs, e.g.) The random person who breaks into your home is a much different case than the person who collapses on your front porch, bleeding to death and crying for help! 

Castle walls as a primitive defense system.

And thus, that is where the friction lies. For eons, humanity has built giant walls— the ones that surround castles, palaces, and forts—to keep out invaders. During Trump’s tenure, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” featured a storyline in which young men who dress in all black swear to guard a 700+ foot high wall of ice from “wildlings” (Hadrian’s Wall in real life inspired the giant wall of ice). Conflict occurs when Commander Jon Snow urges his men to let in those from the other side of the wall seeking refuge from an even bigger threat. I guess art imitates life…life imitates art. 

Walls certainly have a strong capacity to send the message: “We don’t trust you. We don’t care about you. Go away!” And yet walls, barriers, and borders are still necessary, at least to a certain degree. Our homes, office buildings, and other public and private structures all have walls, roofs, doors, gates, fences and other devices.  Those of course shield us from the elements and keep out predatory people and animals. Our computers maintain firewalls and passcodes, and our immune systems combat foreign pathogens in our bodies. 

But that gray area…that area of deadlock…that morally complex zone…that’s the uncomfortable part, and strident differences in political beliefs/temperaments only add fuel to that fire. One of the core differences in political beliefs is personality, and especially personality as it pertains to borders and boundaries (of all types). 

It’s easy to imagine that the creative, highly open person is thrilled to engage every thought that enters their head. Sometimes…but more often than not people don’t feel that way. Anxiety is the flip side of creativity, and floods of (intrusive) ideas and emotions frequently resemble Pandora’s box more so than some delightful, proverbial buffet of curiosity and wonder. Walling hell of of your head is deeply important and necessary! 

Therein lies the annoying reality. The more we try wall something off, though, the more it raps at our door, and eventually it’ll grow strong enough to burst through (a la the three little pigs). So we can’t wall everything out and yet we don’t want to let everything in. So what do we do? Create borders- physical or otherwise- that are strong enough that we can manageably maintain and make proper determinations about what lies beyond them; keep the bad guys out and the good guys in. The walls that can do that are the greatest walls! 


[1] 歷代王朝修長城 (in Chinese). Chiculture.net. Retrieved October 24, 2010

[2] Burbank, Jane; Cooper, Frederick (2010). Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 45.

[3] Waldron, Arthur (1983). “The Problem of The Great Wall of China”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies43 (2): 643–663

[4] Coonan, Clifford (February 27, 2012). “British researcher discovers piece of Great Wall ‘marooned outside China'”The Irish Times. Retrieved February 28, 2012.

[5] Szabó, József; Dávid, Lóránt; Loczy, Denes, eds. (2010). Anthropogenic Geomorphology: A Guide to Man-made Landforms.

[6] Elliott, Mark C. (2001). The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China. Stanford University Press.

[7] Ruysbroek, Willem van (1900) [1255]. The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55, as Narrated by Himself, with Two Accounts of the Earlier Journey of John of Pian de Carpine. Translated from the Latin by William Woodville Rockhill. London: The Hakluyt Society.

[8] Haw, Stephen G. (2006). Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the realm of Khubilai Khan. Volume 3 of Routledge studies in the early history of Asia. Psychology Press.

[9] Yule 1866, p. 579This section is the report of Góis’s travel, as reported by Matteo Ricci in De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas (published 1615), annotated by Henry Yule)

[10] Waldron, Arthur (1990). The Great Wall of China: from history to myth. Cambridge England New York: Cambridge University Press. 

[11] https://www.chinadiscovery.com/great-wall/facts/how-big-is-the-great-wall-of-china.html

[12] “Sticky rice porridge and the Great Wall of China”World Archaeology. July 6, 2010. Retrieved July 6, 2022.

[13] Boissoneault, Lorraine (February 16, 2017). “Sticky Rice Mortar, the View From Space, and More Fun Facts About China’s Great Wall”Smithsonian. Retrieved July 6, 2022.

[14] Nanos, Janelle (November 12, 2010). “Slide Down the Great Wall of China”National Geographic. Retrieved July 6, 2022. “[…] (in fact, there have been no bones, human or otherwise, found in the Wall, though a great number of workers did die while toiling to build it).”

[15] Horsford, Simon (February 17, 2017). “Five myths about the Great Wall of China”The TelegraphISSN 0307-1235. Archived from the original on February 20, 2017. Retrieved July 6, 2022. “No bones or indeed other indication of human remains have been found in the Wall.”

[16] Turnbull, Stephen R (January 2007). The Great Wall of China 221 BC–AD 1644. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-004-8.

[17] https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-tips/the-great-wall-of-china#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%20more%20than%2010,world’s%20most%20popular%20tourist%20attractions.