Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Following the Great Wall of China


The Lesson


A view of a portion of the Great Wall of China, which stretches across some 1200  miles of northern China.

A view of a portion of the Great Wall of China, which stretches across some 1200 miles of northern China.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The famous Great Wall of China, which was built to keep the China’s horse-riding neighbors at bay, extends more than 2,000 kilometers across China, from Heilongjiang province by Korea to China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang. The wall that is so well known today is predominantly a product of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), though the building of fortified walls to protect territory along the northern frontier stretching from Manchuria to Central Asia is a practice whose roots go back to the Qin dynasty of the 3rd century BCE. This lesson will investigate the building of the Great Wall during the Ming Dynasty, and will utilize the story of the wall as a tool for introducing students to one period in the rich history of China.

Guiding Questions

  • What does the history of the Great Wall tell us about Chinese history and culture?
  • What can we learn about China and its neighbors from studying the Great Wall?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson students will be able to

  • Be more familiar with Chinese geography by mapping the path of the wall.
  • Explain the construction of the Great Wall as a product of the period in which it was built.
  • Discuss in brief the dynasty- the Ming Dynasty- during which major construction on the wall was completed.
  • Identify reasons for the dedication of significant resources to the construction of the wall.
  • Discuss in brief China’s neighbors to the north, in particular the Mongols and Manchus.

Preparation Instructions

The Great Wall of China was not constructed as a single project. It is made up of numerous construction projects that were begun at different times, during different dynasties and in different locations. Most of the early sections of the construction fell into disrepair, or had even disappeared entirely, by the fourteenth century when the Ming Dynasty came to power. The wall as it known today is predominantly a product of the Ming Dynasty, which both repaired and rebuilt older sections, and expanded the reach of the structure. The Ming Dynasty structure can be seen from Hebei province to Gansu province. Beyond Gansu province the wall becomes a series of watchtowers that stretch into Xinjiang province and the Taklamakan desert.

The initial fortifications and the subsequent wall were both constructed to slow the advance of invading forces that depended on cavalry—mounted horsemen expert at using the bow and arrow. The initial constructions may have been designed at least as much in response to internal strife as to exterior threats. Imperial governments feared the possibility of disloyal Chinese bringing military technology or other kinds of information to the northern nomadic tribes. As a result, the construction of the wall was equal parts protection from outside invaders and an attempt to keep the Chinese in China.

The Great Wall represented one solution to imperial China’s most long term foreign policy problem. This problem rose from the need by China, as a sedentary, agricultural empire to respond to the invasions by nomadic, tribal peoples. Initially, this concern came to prominence with the rise of the Xiongnu (shyong-new) Empire, which was based in present-day Mongolia. In later centuries the Chinese would sustain attacks along the northern frontier from other peoples residing to the north. Some of these groups even succeeded in conquering China, such as the Mongols in the thirteenth century (ruling as the Yuan Dynasty 1279-1368), and the Manchus (ruling as the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911).

The initial fortifications were begun in the 3rd century BCE, during the Qin (pronounced Chin) Dynasty (221- 206 BCE). The fortifications begun during the Qin dynasty were augmented and expanded during the Han dynasty (202 BCE- 220 CE) that followed. The final, and most comprehensive, period of construction took place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The Ming Dynasty extended and strengthened the Great Wall in response to the earlier successes of the Mongols. Early Ming rulers greatly feared the Mongols, whom they had toppled in 1368. This fear was not without foundation: one fifteenth-century Ming emperor was captured and held captive by the Mongols for a year.

The Ming Dynasty was overthrown by another people from beyond the northern frontier: the Manchus. Over a number of decades, the Manchus prepared for the conquest of China by learning the governing systems and skills of the Chinese empire. In 1644, Manchu leaders took advantage of an internal rebellion that destroyed the Ming, entering Chinese territory through one of the wall’s gates. The Manchus established the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty (1644- 1911), China’s last dynasty.

Readings on Chinese geography and the mapping of China are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Society. Readings on China’s dynastic history and on the Mongols are also available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia For Educators.

Note: There are two transliteration systems for Mandarin Chinese. This lesson uses the pin-yin system, however some of the internet sources use the Wade-Giles system. In the Wade-Giles system Qin will be spelled Ch’in and Qing will be spelled Ch’ing, however, they both refer to the same period.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Mapping the Wall
  • You may wish to begin by helping students to become familiar with the geography of China and with Chinese place names. You can introduce students to China’s geography by engaging them in this interactive from the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the Asia Society, which allows them to puzzle together a map of the regions of China. Ask students to read the names of China’s provinces. You may wish to distribute this pronunciation chart that will help students to read through the unfamiliar names.
  • Students can begin to grasp the size of the Great Wall as a construction project by plotting the wall on a map of China using a print out of the course of the Great Wall (zoom in on the map until the yellow course of the wall becomes visible just north of Beigjing) available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library to plot the wall on the political map of modern China available at AskAsia. You may want to remind students that watchtowers stretched beyond the most western reaches of the wall, even though they are not plotted on the map.
  • Discuss with students what the wall can tell us today about what China was like in the past. You may wish to raise a number of study questions to begin the discussion. These questions might include:
    • Why would the Chinese imperial court build such a wall?
    • How long might it have taken to build, and what kind of resources needed to be devoted to the project? This discussion might focus on building materials such as stone (which would need to be quarried), earth and brick, and the armies of builders needed to construct such a massive structure.
    • What does the building of the wall tell us about the power of the Chinese imperial court and its abilities to control human and other resources?
    • What does the building of the wall tell us about China’s relationship with its northern neighbors?
  • You may wish to have students read a history of the Great Wall that is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. This reading can be used either to help students answer study questions or to check their hypotheses.
Activity 2. The Great Wall in History
  • There were two major periods of construction on the Great Wall, one during the Qin and Han dynasties, and the second during the Ming dynasty. During the first period the wall was not one extensive wall, but was rather numerous shorter fortifications. By the time of the second period of major construction during the Ming many of the original fortifications had fallen into complete disrepair, or had even disappeared. You may want to introduce the Great Wall to students by explaining that the idea of constructing walled fortifications to protect towns and cities originated even before the Great Wall. In this activity students will be asked to investigate the most important period major construction on the wall: the Ming Dynasty.
  • Students can learn about the period by reading the brief history of the Ming Dynasty available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource American Memory Project (Library of Congress). The readings are short, however they do contain challenging vocabulary. For classes of beginning students you may wish to summarize the readings or complete the reading as a group.
  • More advanced students can be directed to more in-depth information on the Ming Dynasty (click on “contents” on each page) available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia for Educators.
Activity 3. Howdy, Neighbor!
  • In the first activity of this lesson, students will be asked to think about what the wall can tell us about China’s relationship with its northern neighbors. In this activity students will learn more about who those neighbors were and are.
  • The Great Wall that can be seen in a photograph today, such as this photograph available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, is almost entirely the Ming Dynasty construction project. While earlier dynasties sought ways to protect their territory from their northern neighbors (such as the Xiongu empire), protection from the Mongols, Manchus and other northern neighbors was a particular concern during the Ming Dynasty.
  • Divide the students into small groups. List on the blackboard some factual information on the size of the wall, such as the average height of the wall (usually between 20 and 30 feet tall) and its length (around 1500 miles long). Ask each group to work together to form a hypothesis about what the purpose of the wall was.
    • Why do you think the wall was constructed?
    • Do you think the wall was an important public works project? Why?
    • What evidence can you find in the readings and in the facts presented in class that support your hypothesis?
  • Groups should arrive at a conclusion about the purpose of the wall which includes the need for protection. Returning to their maps students should investigate the path of the wall and contemplate: protection from what and from whom? What does this tell us today about the relationship between the Ming Dynasty and its northern neighbors? Groups should work together to explain what the wall tells us about this relationship.
    • Who was the wall meant to protect? From whom or what?
    • What does this tell us about China’s relationship with its northern neighbors?
  • Next, ask students to look at the modern photographs of the wall provided on the link above. While it would certainly be difficult, would it be impossible for armies to climb over this wall? Do students think that the wall was constructed only to keep out people, or was it designed to keep out something else? Is it possible that the wall was meant to keep something or someone in? Ask student groups to work together to imagine what else the wall may have been designed to keep from passing into Ming territory. Introduce students to the Xiongnu, about whom more information can be accessed through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, and to the history of some of the other peoples that inhabited the northern frontier.
  • As described above, two ethnic groups who successfully invaded China and installed their own dynasties. The Yuan Dynasty (1273-1368), which preceded the Ming Dynasty, was established by the Mongols and was part of the great Mongol Empire that stretched across Eurasia from the China Sea to the Middle East. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), which followed the Ming Dynasty, was established by invading Manchus. More information on these two dynasties can be found through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library. Although the Mongols governed China for less than a century, their rulers adopted many of the systems and structures of the traditional Chinese emperors. In addition, because the Mongols were small in number, they recruited people from all over the empire—including Arabs and Persians—to perform tasks such as tax collection. The Manchu court was also adopted numerous Chinese governing systems, and eventually even the Chinese language as the main mode of communication, during the course of the Qing Dynasty. While the Manchus worked diligently to maintain their separate cultural identity, this influence of Chinese governing systems and language was so profound that today there are only a handful of people who can still read the Manchu script.

    While the wall may have kept invading armies at bay for more than two hundred years during the Ming Dynasty, China eventually was ruled by the Manchus.
    • Was the wall successful or not?

    The Mongols and Manchus who both took over the Chinese imperial court integrated many fundamental aspects of Chinese culture into their courts rather than impose their culture upon China.

    • While the Manchu and Mongolian takeovers of the imperial courts successful, were they successful in maintaining their courts as Mongolian or Manchu in identity?

Ask students to write a short, persuasive essay answering one of the above questions.


Students will become more familiar with Chinese geography by completing the online mapping exercise or by inserting the path of the Great Wall on a printed map.

Students will show their understanding of some of the basic characteristics and events of the Ming Dynasty by successfully completing the online quiz.

Students will bring together what they have learned about the Great Wall, Chinese history and China’s neighbors with their writing skills in writing a short persuasive essay on either the Great Wall’s efficacy or the success of the Manchu invasion.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students can read about China’s ethnic minorities on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Asia Society. This essay gives a brief overview of four of China’s many ethnic minorities, including the Mongols, Manchus, Naxi and Tibetans.
EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Vocabulary
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources