9 - Great Wall of China - Myths

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Wednesday, 23 September 2009
The Great Wall of China is currently a symbol of Chinese National pride and has become iconic around the world. Somewhat ironically though, the one monument that China built to keep foreigners out is actually now the biggest tourist attraction in the country.

The following statements about the Great Wall of China are all true and are then explained below. Please understand, I love the Great Wall, and it is an incredible testament to the people who built it. However, there are some very common misconceptions about the wall that I wanted to address.

1. The Great Wall of China Is Not A Single Entity

The Great Wall of China should be considered much less one great wall; instead as many lesser walls, built over many dynasties, shifting and merging. Pretty much what is left of the ‘great wall’ and made iconic today is the section built north of Beijing during the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644). Very little, of the first walls joined together by Qin Shihuangdi, which were mainly mounds and small walls, remain today.

The Great Wall of Qi (齐长城 Qí Chángchéng), is the oldest existing Great Wall in China. Construction of the wall started in 685 by the state of Qi, to defend against an invasion by the Kingdom of Chu. It stretches from the area under the administration of the modern city of Jinan to that of the city of Qingdao. Its total length has been estimated at about 600 kilometres.

2. The Great Wall of China Is Not Great

The Great Wall of China, was never called great by the Chinese. The Chinese name for the ‘great wall’ is 长城 (Chángchéng) which literally means ‘Long Wall’, it is also sometimes referred to as 万里长城 (Wànlǐ Chángchéng) literally ‘Long Wall of 10,000 Li’. Though the walls are quite inspiring, they were never called ‘great’ in Chinese and only by foreign mistranslation with romantic overtones.

The Long Wall was initially formalised by Qin Shihuangdi (221-210BC) as a unification measure. This wall was mainly made out of beaten earth, and brushwood. The later (Ming Dynasty) stone ‘Great Wall’ did not really prevent invaders either, both Genghis Khan (Chengis Khan) and the Manchu’s both invaded despite stone walls. Either the walls could be avoided, by travelling until a weak point. On the other hand, with much less effort, the officials guarding the wall could be bribed. As Genghis Khan put it, “The strength of the wall depends on the courage of those who guard it”.

Maybe appearance counts for more than The Great Wall's performance.

3. The Great Wall of China Can Not Be Seen From The Moon

Probably the least surprising of the myths I am breaking here, The Great Wall cannot be seen from the moon, by the naked eye, or indeed with a camera. It is a rumour that has been spread around since 1750 by William Sturkley long before space expeditions were even conceived of, but has since spread to textbooks and trivial pursuit.

Stukeley wrote that, "This mighty wall of four score miles in length (Hadrian's Wall) is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon."

Apparently, the width of the Great Wall, viewed from the moon is about the same as that of a human hair viewed from 2 miles away. In other words, to see the wall from the moon would require superhuman eyesight: (with spatial resolution 17,000 times better than normal 20/20 vision)

4. The Great Wall of China Is Not The Only Manmade Structure Visible from Space

Similiarly to the myth above The Great Wall is not the only manmade structure visible from space, and in fact is not THE most visible from space.

In 2003, a Chinese-American astronaut Leroy Chiao, took a photograph from the International Space Station that shows the great wall. However, it was so indistinct that the photographer was not certain he had actually captured it. Cameras also have a much greater resolution than human vision rendering photographic evidence completely irrelevant to the issue of whether it is visible to the naked eye.

It is thought from a low orbit (100miles above Earth) that it is possible to just about make out the Great wall. However, it is less visible than many other manmade structures including the pyramids, airports, harbours etc. This also destroys the myth it is the ‘only’ manmade structure visible from space.

5. The Great Wall Of China Did Not Mark Boundaries Between China & Mongolia

Indeed, there is a great debate about when China first existed, and you can see in the map here that the boundaries moved often throughout these periods of instability. The word "China" was first used in 1555. It is derived from Cin, a Persian name for China, popularized in Europe by Marco Polo.

The wall morphed and changed shape through the dynasties, and is thought to have been built as a defensive structure to keep out the threat from the North. The mounds and wooden fortifications that would have been there initially certainly were defensive but not the boundary between ‘China’ and ‘Mongolia’ both of which did not yet exist. The problem with the Western perception of countries is that there were much more rigid boundaries in Europe at this time.

The people of Mongolia during this time were very much nomadic and this causes problems when bringing up the idea of countries and boundaries let alone marking them with incomplete walls. So the walls themselves cannot have been (at least intially) defensive boundries between China and Mongolia.

6. David Copperfield Did Not Walk Through The Great Wall Of China

He is an illusionist and is good at what he does, but no, he never walked through the great wall. All you see is him disappearing then his body double re-appearing. Clever, yes. but breaking through the Great wall, no. Once again, despite what is said in the commentary, Great Wall being the only visible manmade structure from space. No.

7. The Great Wall Of China Is Not One Of The Seven Wonders Of The World

Well actually it is, but not one of the first seven wonders of the world heralded by the ancient Greeks. However the Great Wall is typically included in the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World.

8. The Great Wall Is Made From The Bones Of Those That Built It

It is common to hear that the mortar used to bind the stones was made from human bones or that men are buried within the Great Wall to make it stronger. However, the mortar was actually made from rice flour; no bones, human or otherwise, have ever been found in any of the Great Wall's walls. It is thought that many thousands of people died in the walls’ construction. It has been known to some as the longest graveyard in the world.

9. It Is Only Possible To See The Great Wall in Beijing

Some people are mistaken and think that you can see the Great Wall anywhere in China. Although this is untrue, the most common tourist sites are just outside of Beijing to the North. There are four main tourist areas of the iconic Ming Dynasty Wall. Badaling section, Mutianyu section, Simatai section and Shixiaguan section (All of which are near to Beijing).

There are many other places to catch a glimpse of the wall though. I won’t pretend to know them but I would suggest if you are interested in visiting and do not want to get ripped off or find yourself crowded amongst tourists. I recommend visiting this forum which has an awful lot of information about where you can see the wall in its various states.

For more information and history about the Great Wall of China, I recommend http://www.greatwall-of-china.com/
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  1. Ramses Says:
  2. Good post, some things I didn't know. I knew people said it's visible from space, but some claim it's visible from the moon? Ha!

    In Dutch we just say Chinese Muur (Chinese Wall), so we don't say great either :-).

  3. Thanks for the comment, very interesting that is seems that only the English/American have called it 'great' and give it that almost bombastic overtone.

    Seeing it from the moon was something I had never thought of, but is incredibly silly when you see that picture isn't it. How small the Earth is from the moon.

  4. Magnus Says:
  5. Great post. Love the video of David Copperfield... so crazy. How do the Chinese think of that?

  6. Thanks Magnus, took a little while to compile, David Copperfield was really big in the 90s. Did lots of massive stunts, but I think now the illsusionist of our time is Derren Brown who really puts forward a much more engaging show.


  7. Matthew Says:
  8. While David Copperfield may not have walked through the wall, my brother and I witnessed a vendor leap over the wall to sell goods. We still have no idea how he made it up the nearly sheer cliff on both sides.

  9. Matthew, that sounds like quite something. I've heard of people that would do anything for a sale.

    Do you know which section of the wall you were visiting at the time?

  10. Puerhan Says:
  11. Yeah the wall might not have kept many out too successfully, but it was a great unifying project for the men across the whole kingdom. After Qin Shihuangdi unified the many kingdoms war was over. He needed another big project to keep people (well men mostly!) busy so that no rebellion-minded groups had a chance to grow in the population. :-)

  12. Interesting point you make Puerhan. :)

    Something this epic is a great project to keep the minds from straying I suppose. Makes me think about the Stalin work camps though.

  13. Matthew Says:
  14. Charlie,

    That was at the Badaling section, in the direction fewer tourists take (west?), at the very end where there's a wall telling visitors that they can't go any further. Other than that vendor, Mutianyu was a much better trip--far fewer people once you hike a little bit.

  15. Yeah Matt, I have heard from many sources that the non-tourist sites are much much more interesting to visit.


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