The official construction of the Great Wall of China, one of the most well-known landmarks on earth, began around 220 BCE under the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty. King Zheng, as he was called before conquering his rival monarchs, became the First Emperor by defeating all the other contenders in the Warring States Period (c. 475-221 BCE). After his victory, the emperor decided to join together all of the preexisting walls in the northern regions of China to serve as a defense against the threat posed by Mongolia. Where there were gaps in the fortifications, the First Emperor constructed new walls to tie all the useful defenses in the north into one network. Though the First Emperor began the Great Wall, it originally consisted mainly of packed earth ramparts. The Great Wall of China that we know (and photograph) today, however, came much later.
The newer, impressive, brick portions of the Great Wall of China were built by the Ming Dynasty (c. 1368-1644) as a protection for their capital city, Beijing, located in the vulnerable north of China. The Ming Dynasty drastically upgraded the earlier, more rustic, Great Wall of China by making it much larger and stronger than it had been before.
The design and construction of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall of China still astounds and impresses modern observers. The builders used huge bricks that were fired with precision in a kiln. To hold the bricks in place, the Chinese created a special mortar which researchers claim is much stronger than the modern variety. The formula the Ming Dynasty builders used was simple, and the ingredients used in the mortar were easy to obtain, but the end result was extremely strong and durable. They used sticky rice mortar—they mixed rice with lime and other common ingredients of mortar. The starch, and other ‘sticky’ qualities of the sticky rice, worked wonders for the builders of the Great Wall, keeping the bricks stuck in place until this day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
- Secrets: Episode 7, “Great Wall of China” (Season 2). Smithsonian Channel, 2014.