China’s Great & Crumbling Wall

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling

The Great Wall of China was built to protect the country from northern invaders. From ancient centuries to the 1930s, millions of soldiers defended the wall.

Today, concerned preservationists cite a new threat. It is not military but, rather, constant deterioration from both natural and human forces.

China’s Wall, Past and Present

Ancient warrior states in what is now China clashed among themselves and with outside hordes. Many walls were built across mountain and desert frontiers.

Ying Cheng, a Third-Century-B.C. leader, subdued rival states and determined to connect the fragmented walls. The task never was completed, but Cheng’s “great wall” was the precursor of what today is called the Great Wall of China.

A popular misconception is that the spectacular ribbon of stone and earthwork frequented by tourists today is Cheng’s wall. Very little of the Cheng wall, in fact, is left standing.

The Great Wall is not a solid thread that negotiates thousands of miles of northern China terrain. In some places, it extends contiguously for many miles. In others, a series of roughly parallel walls overlap. Gaps and ruins mar the length of it.

The Ming Dynasty Wall

What today is called the Great Wall of China is much more recent. It was built mainly during the Ming Dynasty (1300s-1600s A.D.). At the time, the Ming leaders faced a severe military challenge from Mongolian forces to the north.

Like the Cheng wall before it, the Ming wall left much to be desired as a defense. Without much difficulty, invading Mongols found penetration points at crumbling breaches and incomplete stretches.

Wall vs Time — A Losing Struggle?

Over the centuries, elements of nature have worn down the Great Wall. Erosion has been brought on by floods, sandstorms and earthquakes.

During the 1960s, Chinese soldiers in Mao Tse Tung’s regime compounded nature’s gradual assault on the wall. They flagrantly destroyed parts of it in the government’s frenzy to cast down all things traditional.

Since then, an additional stressful impact has come from outside the country. Tourism increased greatly after China became more open to international cultural exchanges in the 1970s. The Great Wall probably is the country’s greatest attraction.

Chinese geologists and other scientists have estimated that two-thirds of the original wall has been damaged significantly. Some of it has been lost forever.

Saving the Great Wall of China

Preservationists include a few organizations but at root seem to be spearheaded by villagers who live along the wall. Some of them patrol sections of the monument, striving to curb tourist abuse. They urge stronger government regulations to protect the battered structure.

Some progress is being made. The government has restricted certain commercial activities that have degraded the wall. Damaging the wall can be punished by heavy fines.

A 10-year survey begun in 2006 is intended to define the wall precisely and evaluate its condition. After determining the scope of what’s been destroyed, officials hopefully will be able to forge a comprehensive strategy for protecting the remainder.


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  3. Larmer, Brook. “The Great Wall of China Is Under Siege.” Smithsonian Magazine (August 2008).
  4. Schafer, Edward H., et al. Ancient China. Time-Life Books (1967).