Extending over 21000 kilometres and built more than 500 years ago, the Great Wall is the single most important tourist attraction in China. There have been many legends about The Great Wall, some true and some not so true. If you have already planned a trip to visit this historical marvel, it is important for you to know what is right and what is not. Here are a few clarifications to set your expectation right:
The people who own it don't call it by the name the world knows. They refer to it by the term 'Cheng' which means city wall. The word is a part of the Oxford dictionary. The reason for this appellation is that the Chinese have been referring to the structure when it was broken into parts and used to guard separate cities. This was much before they were consolidated into one gigantic structure. Moreover, the Chinese use another term 'Chang' which means long rather than great. So the Chinese name for The Great Wall is 'Chang Cheng' which literally means Long City Wall.
Surprised? Yes, it's true. Most of the visited portion of the wall was built by the Ming dynasty (1358-1644) which is at max 500 years old. The older portions are around 2000 years old. built around 221 BC, but now most of those are in a dilapidated condition.
It is not one Wall, but a collection of walls. While tourists visit the most gorgeous ones, there are several wild sections which are dilapidated and off limits for commoners. In some places, there are two, three and even four walls together which overlap each other.
We know, you must be rolling your eyes while reading this. Not all of it is a Wall. While the portions near Beijing which were built by the Ming dynasty looks more like a ball, some of the other portions are merely a collection of bricks and stone and some look like mounds. The wall has fortresses, guard towers, beacon towers, barracks and many other structures as well.
It is commonly believed that the wall was built to repel the Mongols, which is not correct. History states that the beginning of the Wall took place during the reign of the First Emperor. But he died in 210 BC while the Mongols invaded only around 800 AD. The truth is, the wall was probably built to repel Xiongnu, an ancestor of the Huns. The Mongols were chased out of China by the Ming dynasty, who reigned over China at a much later date.
Contrary to the reason for building the Wall, it has never stopped anyone from invading China. The northern tribes easily overrun it. The Mongols defeated the Mings south of the Wall in 1449. The Wall was finally completed between 1571 to 1644. In 1644, the Manchus invaded China helped by a Ming general who opened the eastern gate of Shanhaiguan to let the invaders in.
Ancient legends speak of bodies of labourers buried under the Wall. Not quite true. While most of these legends followed accounts by the chief historian of the Han dynasty Sima Qian, to date, no bones have been found in the Wall as an evidence of this claim.
At least in some portions, it is pretty narrow. While the sections near Beijing have both walls and roads, many parts are significantly narrow, enough for a single person to walk. The western parts actually have no walkway at all.
While Marco Polo never mentioned it, which is why historians argue that he has never been to China, but he actually saw it. During his time, China was ruled by the Mongols who ignored the Wall. This was right after Genghis Khan invaded and destroyed many portions of China. Since the Mongols ignored the wall, it is safe to assume that Marco Polo crossed it several times while travelling from Beijing to Xanadu to meet Kublai Khan, but did not find it important to mention it.
If you have followed Robert Ripley's famous cartoon feature 'Believe it or not', you might be thinking that The Great Wall is the only man-made structure on earth visible from the moon. Well, that's not quite true. The series was made 30 years before anyone had been to space. Later on, eminent Sinologist Joseph Needham claimed that the Wall can be seen from Mars. Not true either. All this was established during China's first space flight in 2003 when Yang Liwei, the astronaut manning the flight mentioned that he couldn't see anything from up above.
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