Why does the Great Wall of China follow such a bendy route?

Why does the Great Wall of China follow such a bendy route?


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Why does the path of the Great Wall of China bend back and forth so much? Naïvely, it would have taken less material and guards to defend if it had taken a straighter path, so there must have been some reason. But what?


The Chinese designed the wall to be an effective barrier; that was the goal. To answer your question, we need to ask: what land barrier stopped foreign troops the best?

The answer in China, and everywhere else, is mountains. The Great Wall is nothing more than a fortification of existing natural barriers. Look closely at the pictures you've posted, and those posted by Ken Graham. You'll see that they built the Great Wall directly on the mountain ridge. So this is the easy reason the route is bendy:

Because it follows a mountain ridge

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't enjoy building a wall along a mountain ridge. It was a ton of work just to survey the land, and clear trees in both directions from the construction site, and then carry the materials to the site. The expenditure of materials might have been the least costly component.

All this being said, the the real barrier was the mountains. On these mountains, the wall served 3 major functions:

  1. To fortify the mountain passes, yet allow trade to continue

    At the passes, the wall was actually the primary barrier. The wall in the passes is very high and has multiple defensive wings.

  2. To provide a location for watchtowers at regular intervals.

    These watchtowers were not just for watching the terrain north for gathering troops, but also for communication between towers.

  3. Logistics: To provide a direct path between mountain pass fortifications for the transfer of troops, equipment, food, and other materials.

When I've hiked the wall, I found it very difficult, but far easier than traveling along a natural mountain ridge. I think the men who ran along the wall wearing armor and carrying weapons were strong men indeed.


The Great Wall of China:

It is the longest man-made construction in the world. In the old times, it was of great military importance of preventing the enemies' intrusion and was regarded as the 'Guardian Angel' of the central plain in the past. - Great Wall of China FAQs

Why did they build the Great Wall of China?

The Great Wall of China is the longest man-made structure in the world, stretching 21,196.18km (13,170.6956 miles) long. It was built to keep out raiding parties of nomadic tribes, such as the Mongol, Turic and Xiongnu, from modern-day Mongolia and Manchuria. The first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, is often considered the father of the Great Wall, but even before he united the nation in 221BC, individual states built walls to keep out invaders as early as the 7th Century. Qin connected, lengthened and fortified the walls to protect the northern border between 221-206BC. Subsequent dynasties, most notably the Ming, maintained and rebuilt it.

Always maintained as a military defence - at its peak the Ming Wall was guarded by more than one million men - the Wall evolved other uses. Aside from being a transportation corridor, it was used to regulate trade, such as collecting duties on goods transported along the Silk Road. It was also used to restrict both immigration and emigration.

But why does the Great Wall of China follow such a bendy route?

The wall was generally built at the boundary line of the day. In normal conditions, taking the commanding position was the most important factor to win a battle. In this case, lofty mountain top was always the preferred location to build the wall. - Great Wall of China FAQs

The Great Wall of China


Mountain roads are "best" built along ridge lines that minimize (to the extent possible), the surface area of the mountains containing the roads to minimize the necessary excavation. This, in turn, is dictated by the process of building the road through the parts of the mountain, where the slopes are the "minimum."

At its heart, the Great Wall is just a long "road" with walls on both sides. You can see from the pictures that the mountains on either side tend to have steeper slopes than the ridges through which the wall is actually built. These ridges are the points of minimal slope changes. (Think of these slopes as "hypotenuses" over the x axis with the ideal slope being zero.)

A path that was "straight line" (as the crow flies) would usually violate the above rule, and therefore be inefficient in a real environment, even though it would look "optimal" on a map. So a wall with appropriate "bends" will "take less material and guards to defend [than] if it had taken a straighter path."


High ground is also easiest to defend. As noted before, it was built in top of the ridges. This offers a defensive advantage, as well as good visibility.


The Great Wall of China

Contrary to popular belief you cannot actually see the Great Wall of China from the moon. According to scientists, trying to view the Great Wall from the moon would be the equivalent of a human trying to see a single strand of hair from a distance of two miles. In fact, while we are busting myths, neither is the Great Wall a single continuous structure, but rather a succession of independent walls and fortifications built over successive Chinese dynasties.

Built originally by the first emperor of unified China Qin Shi Huangdi in order to keep out the nomadic Xiongnu tribes inhabiting Mongolia, the Great Wall was designed to be the first line of defence for the Chinese people against any raids and attacks. Stretching originally along the newly founded northern frontier of the country – before being expanded and rebuilt by following emperors until it spanned piecemeal from Qinhuangdao in the east to Jiayuguan in the west – the Great Wall was a massive undertaking for the soldiers and civilians who were tasked with its construction.

The Great Wall was built originally from whatever was local to the specific area, such as wood, earth and stones, as transferring large quantities of materials from elsewhere was a very costly and laborious task. Later rulers of China, however, used much stronger materials such as bricks, tiles and stone to build the wall, allowing for tougher fortifications and battlements. In order to build such a long and deep wall (some sections of the Great Wall are as much as six metres wide at the base and it is roughly 5,500 miles long), over half a million labourers and 300,000 soldiers were required to build the Qin section, a number only to rise with the additions of subsequent emperors. It is estimated that over 2 million people have died in
its construction.

The Great Wall of China was defended primarily by archers that, due to the inability of attackers to bring horses over it, left potential attackers on foot with only the option of scaling it. This allowed for the wall to remain relatively unmanned in terms of military might, with small groups of soldiers patrolling large sections. Despite its grand appearance, however, the Great Wall was never supposed to keep out a fully-fledged army who if determined could breach it quite easily, but rather to prevent flash raids.

The route of the wall

Below is a simple 19th Century map that roughly shows the trail that the Great Wall of China follows in its many parts. In reality, sections of wall overlap, fall short of others and no longer exist. Parts of wall can be found in many other places as well, from northern China to Russia and Mongolia.

Spanning 5,500 miles in length, the Great Wall starts at the Hushan Great Wall in the east to Jiayuguan Pass in the west, passing through the provinces of Liaoning, Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Gansu and Qinghai on its way.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 03

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today


Great Wall Culture

As one of the Seven Wonders in the world, the Great Wall of China has become the symbol of the Chinese nation and its culture.

Extending 21,196 kilometers (13,170 miles) in north China, the well-known Great Wall starts at the Jiayuguan Pass of Gansu Province in the west and ends at the Shanhaiguan Pass of Hebei Province in the east. It also served as the safeguard of the Silk Road, the world's longest and oldest international trading route, and some vital passes along the wall became the trading ports for merchants to take rest and exchange goods.
See more about the Relation Between Great Wall & Silk Road

Lots of beautiful legends and stories about the Great Wall took place following along the construction, and since that time these stories have spread around the country. Those that happened during construction are abundant, such as Meng Jiangnu's story and the legend of the Jiayuguan Pass.

Meng Jiangnu's story is the most famous and widely spread of all the legends. The story happened during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC). It tells of how Meng Jiangnu's bitter weeping made a section of the wall collapse. Meng Jiangnu's husband Fan Qiliang was caught by federal officials and sent to build the wall. Meng Jiangnu heard nothing from him after his departure, so she set out to look for him. Unfortunately, by the time she got there, she discovered that her husband had already died. Hearing the bad news, she cried her heart out. Her howl caused the collapse of a part of the wall. This story indicates that the wall is the production of tens of thousands of Chinese commoners.

Jiayuguan Pass, Gansu

Another legend about the Jiayuguan Pass tells of a workman named Yi Kaizhan in the Ming Dynasty (1368BC-1644BC) who was proficient in arithmetic. He calculated that it would need 99,999 bricks to build the Jiayuguan Pass. The supervisor did not believe him and said if they miscalculated by even one brick, then all the workmen would be punished to do hard work for three years. After the completion of the project, one brick was left behind the Xiwong city gate. The supervisor was happy at the sight of the brick and ready to punish them. However Yi Kaizhan said with deliberation that the brick was put there by a supernatural being to fix the wall. A tiny move would cause the collapse of the wall. Therefore the brick was kept there and never moved. It can still be found there today on the tower of the Jiayuguan Pass.

In addition to the above-mentioned stories about the construction of Great Wall, there are also plenty of stories about current scenic spots. A famous one is the legend of the Beacon Tower. This story happened during the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC-711 BC). King You had a queen named Bao Si, who was very pretty. King You liked her very much, however Bao Si never smiled. An official gave a suggestion that setting the beacon tower on fire would frighten the King's subjects, and might make the queen smile. King You liked the idea. The subjects were fooled and Bao Si smiled at the sight of the chaos. Later enemies invaded Western Zhou, King You set the beacon tower on fire to ask for help. No subjects came to help because they had been fooled once before. Thus, King Zhou was killed by the enemy and Western Zhou came to an end.

Beautiful stories and legends about the wall help to keep alive Chinese history and culture. In each dynasty after the building of the wall, many more stories were created and spread.


Some Great Wall Passes Became Vital Trading Ports along the Silk Road

Since 138 BC, more and more caravans shuttled between the central plain and western regions along the Silk Road. At that time, vital Great Wall passes such as Jiayuguan, Guguan and Yanmenguan, were crowded with people coming from different countries and wearing various ethnic clothes, and were brimmed with inns, restaurants and tea stalls. Plus booths and shops selling diverse products including silk, ceramics, tea, spice, carpets, jewelry, and gold and silver wares can be found everywhere along bustling streets of the passes, presenting a flourishing scene. Nowadays, the deeply rutted flagstone-paved path under the pass gates is the best proof of their past prosperity.


“Meng Jiangnu’s Bitter Weeping” is one of the most popular legends of the Great Wall of China. According to the legend, when Lady Meng learned that her husband died while building the wall, she cried for 3 days and 3 nights at the Great Wall. She wept so hard that a part of the wall collapsed, eventually exposing the bones of her husband.

Photo from Pixabay


Trump's Wall, and the "Great" Walls of History

President Donald Trump is pushing for a wall to be built built to prevent immigration through the southern border of the United States. It was a signature issue of his successful campaign to become president and has stated that he is willing to shutdown the federal government in order to get.

President Donald Trump is pushing for a wall to be built built to prevent immigration through the southern border of the United States. It was a signature issue of his successful campaign to become president and has stated that he is willing to shutdown the federal government in order to get what he wants. Indeed, a large majority of Americans are opposed to paying taxes in order to provide welfare and free education for foreigners, but is a wall the right solution?

As I have already pointed out, much of the desire of central Americans to come to the US is because of our own War on Drugs. That policy increases the price of illicit drugs and encourages the development of drug cartels to safeguard the transport of drugs from the production countries such as Bolivia, Columbia, and Mexico into the United States. Safeguarding the drugs for the drug cartels results in them using extreme bullying and violence on the local populations along the route, including the police and governments. The only way to prevent this asylum-seeking traffic is to end the war on drugs.

Looking beyond the motivation of immigration, let us take a look at walls. Typically, they are a signature piece of civilization. Walls are the key part of “permanent” societies. Archeologists and anthropologists study the remainder of walls in order to interpret what societies were, what they did, how they lived, and what they valued. In the modern context, walls and room size are a measure of our standard of living as bigger rooms and taller walls are a sign of success and improvement whereas sleeping in the rafters in a small cabin on the American plains is a sign of relative impoverishment. Having a big corner office with big windows is a sign of accomplishment, whereas the cubicle and the open office concept is the equivalent of eating your Christmas dinner at the child’s table.

In contrast to these walls, we have historically important governmental walls that archeologists and historians also study and write about. These walls have the exact opposite connotation. They are symbolic of isolation and decline — they are supposedly a last-ditch effort to “save” a civilization from the marauding horde of savage people. In reality they have never worked and only contribute to the decline of various empires because of cost and the resulting isolation. This is the type of wall that President Donald Trump wants to build.

The first historic wall was the Great Wall of China. Spanning more than five thousand miles from east to west in northern China, the Great Wall is one of the most marvelous structures of early human civilization. It is often taught that the wall was built to prevent the invasion of Mongol hordes, but the actual purpose was to prevent immigration and trade and to help consolidate the Chinese Empire. Eventually there were invasions and wars, but they were more about pent up demand for immigration and trade then they were about territorial expansion.

The second historical wall is Hadrian’s Wall. This wall was built across northern England by the late Roman Emperor Hadrian shortly after he came to power in 117 AD. We typically learn that the wall was built by Hadrian to prevent invasion by various barbarous tribes to the north. We do know that Hadrian built the wall because of his policy of defense and consolidation, rather than continual expansion so his wall marks a historical turning point towards the demise of Rome. There were already various rebellions in the Empire, including England and this new policy was designed for dealing with this new reality of decline.

There are various theories why the wall was built, including the prevention of invasion, but some scholars are dubious that preventing invasion was a cost-effective priority. More likely, the reason for the wall was to regulate immigration, to prevent smuggling and cattle theft, and to collect custom fees on trade. Therefore, the wall provided the Roman legion in northern England with something to do and also a means of generating government revenue to feed and fund the troops.

The third historical wall in the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. At the end of World War II Germany and Berlin remained divided into zones of control by the Soviet Union, Briton, France, and the United States. The three allied zones were consolidated into West Germany and West Berlin while the Soviet zones became East Germany and East Berlin. The problem with this arrangement was that while all of Germany was devastated by WWII, West Germany would soon become one of the fastest growing economies of the world, thanks in no small part to the policies of the liberal economist Ludwig Erhard, a friend of Ludwig von Mises. He eliminated price controls, deregulated the economy and enacted effective monetary reform. Meanwhile in East Germany the economies of the Soviet zones quickly fell behind.

As a consequence of the diverging economic performance, Germans from the eastern zones began migrating to the western zone for jobs, opportunity and freedom. This migration was intolerable to the communists as the most visible sign of the failures of socialism and the successes of free market capitalism. In response East Germany began to build the Berlin Wall and the Soviet controlled states began constructing the Iron Curtain to prevent migration of eastern Europeans into western Europe. These barriers were fairly successful in preventing migration and many people were shot and killed trying to escape Communism for life in capitalist Europe. Then in 1989 the German people— East and West —tore down the wall and signaling the failure of communism.

I know that most people do not really care about the practicalities of a wall, some may be wondering why the Congress doesn't just give him the funds and so they can get on with the holidays without all the drama of a government shutdown. The proper view of government walls argues against such apathy and, more importantly it should wake us up to the larger picture that the United States is a modern empire. We need to all think about what can be done to prevent us from making the same mistakes as China, Rome, and the Soviet Union.


Walls and wall building have played a very important role in Chinese culture. These people, from the dim mists of prehistory have been wall-conscious from the Neolithic period &ndash when ramparts of pounded earth were used - to the Communist Revolution, walls were an essential part of any village. Not only towns and villages the houses and the temples within them were somehow walled, and the houses also had no windows overlooking the street, thus giving the feeling of wandering around a huge maze. The name for &ldquocity&rdquo in Chinese (ch&rsquoeng) means wall, and over these walled cities, villages, houses and temples presides the god of walls and mounts, whose duties were, and still are, to protect and be responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants. Thus a great and extremely laborious task such as constructing a wall, which was supposed to run throughout the country, must not have seemed such an absurdity.

However, it is indeed a common mistake to perceive the Great Wall as a single architectural structure, and it would also be erroneous to assume that it was built during a single dynasty. For the building of the wall spanned the various dynasties, and each of these dynasties somehow contributed to the refurbishing and the construction of a wall, whose foundations had been laid many centuries ago. It was during the fourth and third century B.C. that each warring state started building walls to protect their kingdoms, both against one another and against the northern nomads. Especially three of these states: the Ch&rsquoin, the Chao and the Yen, corresponding respectively to the modern provinces of Shensi, Shanzi and Hopei, over and above building walls that surrounded their kingdoms, also laid the foundations on which Ch&rsquoin Shih Huang Di would build his first continuous Great Wall.

The role that the Great Wall played in the growth of Chinese economy was an important one. Throughout the centuries many settlements were established along the new border. The garrison troops were instructed to reclaim wasteland and to plant crops on it, roads and canals were built, to mention just a few of the works carried out. All these undertakings greatly helped to increase the country&rsquos trade and cultural exchanges with many remote areas and also with the southern, central and western parts of Asia &ndash the formation of the Silk Route. Builders, garrisons, artisans, farmers and peasants left behind a trail of objects, including inscribed tablets, household articles, and written work, which have become extremely valuable archaeological evidence to the study of defence institutions of the Great Wall and the everyday life of these people who lived and died along the wall.


See China’s Iconic Great Wall From Above

This is one of the world’s greatest feats of engineering.

See China’s Iconic Great Wall From Above

China’s iconic Great Wall, actually a network of fortifications rather than a single structure, is the product of countless labors over a period of some two thousand years. Qin Shi Huang took the remnants of truly ancient fortifications, walls, and earthworks begun in the fifth century B.C. and linked them into a unified wall circa 220 B.C. as part of a massive project to protect China against marauding barbarians from the north.

By the time construction on most of the stone-and-brick Great Wall, with its turrets and watchtowers, was completed during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the chang cheng had become the world’s largest human-made object.

A recent government mapping project revealed that the entire Great Wall structure spans some 5,500 miles (8,850 kilometers) from the Korean border west into the Gobi desert. Of that total 3,889 miles (6,259 kilometers) were actual wall, while 223 miles (359 kilometers) were trenches and (1,387 miles) 2,232 kilometers were natural defensive barriers, like rivers or steep hills, incorporated into the system.

Though new sections of the wall have recently been uncovered, several sections of the structure have vanished during the past half century or so. Mao Zedong himself encouraged destruction of parts of the wall and reuse of its materials in the 1950s, and rural farmers still make use of the wall’s earth and stone for practical purposes.

Some 50 percent of the original ancient structure has already disappeared, and perhaps another 30 percent lies crumbling into ruins—even as Chinese and international organizations struggle to preserve what remains of this unique treasure.


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Watch the video: What makes the Great Wall of China so extraordinary - Megan Campisi and Pen-Pen Chen


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