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.
Upon completion of this lesson students will be able to
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.
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.
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.
1-2 class periods