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China and its Great Wall


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"China and its Great Wall" Please respond to the following, using sources under the Explore heading as the basis of your response:

  • Describe two (2) specific aspects about the Great Wall of China, such as facts about its size, length, purposes, varied materials, labor force, and its phases of construction. Consider the various purposes of such a wall and its impact for good or bad, and compare the Chinese wall in this respect to some specific wall of more modern times.


China and Its Great Wall

Chapter 7 (pp. 216-218, 225)

7 Emerging Empires in the East

Urban Life and Imperial Majesty in China and India

Fig. 7.1 The Great Wall, near Beijing, China. Begun late 3rd century bce

Length approx. 4,100 miles, average height 25’. In the third century bce, Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of China, ordered his army to reconstruct, link, and augment walls on the northern frontier of China in order to form a continuous barrier protecting his young country from northern Mongol “barbarians.”


  1. 7.1 Identify the enduring artistic, literary, and philosophical directions that developed early in Chinese history.

  2. 7.2 Understand how the art and literature of the Qin and Han dynasties reflect the values of the imperial court.

  3. 7.3 Describe the Hindu and Buddhist faiths and how they helped to shape the cultures of ancient India.

The North China plain lies in the large, fertile valley of the Yellow River (Map 7.1). Around 7000 bce, when the valley’s climate was much milder and the land more forested than it is today, the peoples inhabiting this fertile region began to cultivate the soil, growing primarily millet. Archeologists recognize at least three separate cultural groups in this region during this period, distinguished by their different pottery styles and works in jade. As Neolithic tribal people, they used stone tools, and although they domesticated animals very early on, they maintained the shamanistic practices of their hunter-gatherer heritage. Later inhabitants of this region would call this area the “Central Plain” because they believed it was the center of their country. During the ensuing millennia, Chinese culture in the Central Plain coalesced in ways that parallel developments in the Middle East and Greece during the same period, as China transformed itself from an agricultural society into a more urban-centered state.

By the third century bce, at about the same time that Rome began establishing its imperial authority over the Mediterranean world, the government of China was sufficiently unified that it could build a Great Wall (Fig. 7.1) across the hills north of the Central Plain to protect the realm from the intruding Central Asians who lived beyond

Map 7.1

Map of China, 1000–200 bce.

Listen to the chapter audio on MyArtsLab


See Cai Guo-Qiang, Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1993, at MyArtsLab

its northern borders. Some sections of the wall were already in place, built in previous centuries to protect local areas. These were rebuilt and connected to define a frontier stretching some 1,500 miles from northeast to northwest China. New roads and canal systems were built linking the entire nation, a large salaried bureaucracy was established, and a new imperial government headed by an emperor collected taxes, codified the law, and exerted control over a domain of formerly rival territories. Unification—first achieved here by the Qin dynasty—has remained a preeminent problem throughout China’s long history.

This ritual jade disk, or bi, made sometime in the fourth or third century bce (Fig. 7.2), is emblematic of the continuity of Chinese historical traditions and ethnic identity. The earliest bi disks are found in burials dating from around 4000 bce, and are thought to be part of the archaic paraphernalia of the shaman. While their original significance is unknown, by the time this one was made they were said to symbolize heaven. This example is decorated with a dragon and two tigers, auspicious symbols likewise emerging from China’s prehistoric past. The first part of this chapter surveys the rise of the Chinese culture into a unified state capable of such an enormous undertaking as the Great Wall, as well as the artistic refinement of the jade bi disk seen here.

Fig. 7.2 Ritual disk (bi) with dragon and phoenix motif. Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period, 4th–3rd century bce

Jade, diameter 6¼". The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: Nelson Trust 33-81. This disk was discovered in a tomb, probably placed there because the Chinese believed that jade preserved the body from decay.

At the same time, another culture was developing in the river valleys of the Asian subcontinent of India. In both China and India, national literatures arose, as did religious and philosophical practices that continue to this day and are influential worldwide. But in the ancient world, East and West had not yet met. The peoples of the Mediterranean world and those living in the Yellow and Indus River valleys were isolated from one another. As trade routes stretched across the Asian continent, these cultures would eventually cross paths. Gradually, Indian thought, especially Buddhism, would find its way into China, and Chinese goods would find their way to the West. Even more gradually, intellectual developments in ancient China and India, from Daoism to the teachings of Confucius and Buddha, would come to influence cultural practice in the Western world. But throughout the period studied in this chapter, up until roughly 200 ce, the cultures of China and India developed independently of those in the West.


  1. What early Chinese artistic, literary, and philosophical developments would have a lasting impact on Chinese culture?

Very few of the built edifices of ancient Chinese civilization have been found. We know that by the middle of the second millennium bce, Chinese leaders ruled from large capitals, rivaling those in the West in their size and splendor. Beneath present-day Zhengzhou, for instance, lies an early metropolitan center with massive earthen walls. Stone was scarce in this area, but abundant forests made wood plentiful, so it was used to build cities. As impressive as they were, cities built of wood were vulnerable to fire and military attack, and no sign of them remains. Nevertheless, we know a fair amount about early Chinese culture from the remains of its written language and the tombs of its rulers. Even the most ancient Chinese writing—found on oracle bones and ceremonial bronze vessels—is closely related to modern Chinese. And archeologists discovered that royal Chinese tombs, like Egyptian burial sites, contain furnishings, implements, luxury goods, and clothing that—together with the written record—give us a remarkably vivid picture of ancient China.


(pp. 617-618)


  1. How did China resist foreign influence even as trade with the wider world flourished?

The cultural syncretism, or intermingling of cultural traditions, that marks the Americas, was largely resisted by Chinese populations when Europeans arrived on their shores. The reasons are many, but of great importance was the inherent belief of these cultures in their own superiority. For centuries, the Chinese had resisted Mongolian influence, for instance, and at the same time had come to prefer isolation from foreign influence.

This is not to say that the Chinese totally removed themselves from the world stage. Some 92 years before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, India, inaugurating Portuguese sea trade in the eastern oceans, a massive Chinese fleet had sailed into that port to inaugurate a sea trade of its own. It was the brainchild of the emperor Zhu Di (r. 1402–24). His father Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368–98), had driven the Mongols out of China in 1368, restored Chinese rule in the land, and established the dynasty called Ming (“bright” or “brilliant”) at Nanjing. Confucian scholars, who under the Mongolian rule of the Yuan dynasty had found themselves utterly neglected (see Chapter 11), were once again welcomed at court.

The Ming emperors were consumed by fear of Mongol reinvasion and in defense created what was arguably the most despotic government in Chinese history. Zhu Yuanzhang enlisted thousands of workers to reinforce the Great Wall of China (see Fig. 7.1 in Chapter 7) against invasion

Fig. 18.23 The Forbidden City, now the Palace Museum, Beijing. Mostly Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

View from the south.

Watch an architectural simulation of the Forbidden City on MyArtsLab

from the north, and untold numbers of them perished in the process. He equipped huge armies and assembled a navy to defend against invasion from the sea. Artists whose freedoms had been severely restricted under the Mongols (see Chapter 11) were even less free under the Ming. But in a bow to scholarship and the arts, Zhu Di commissioned the compilation of an authoritative 11,095-volume encyclopedia of Chinese learning. He also undertook the construction of an Imperial Palace compound in Beijing on the site of Kublai Khan’s ruined capital (Figs. 18.23 and 18.24). The palace complex, known as the Forbidden City, was, among other things, the architectural symbol of his rule.

The name refers to the fact that only those on official imperial business could enter its gates. Although it was largely rebuilt in the eighteenth century during the Qing dynasty (1644–1900), the general plan is Ming but based on Mongol precedents. In fact, the Mongols had reserved the entire northern side of Beijing for themselves, and the resident Chinese had lived only in the southern third of the city. Ming emperors preserved this division, allowing ministers and officials to live in the northern or Inner City and commoners in the southern or Outer City.

The Forbidden City itself was in the middle of the Inner City. Like the Tang capital of Chang’an (see Chapter 11), Beijing is laid out on a grid, and the Forbidden City is laid out on a grid within the grid along a north–south axis according to the principles of feng shui (“wind and water”). In Daoist belief, certain “dragon lines” of energy, or qi, flow through the earth, along mountains and ridges, down streams and rivers, influencing the lives of people near them. Evil forces were believed to come from the north and so the city opened to the south. Since emperors were considered divine and closely connected to the forces of the cosmos, the practice of feng shui was especially crucial in constructing royal compounds.

Following traditional practice, the Forbidden City covers about 240 acres and is walled by 15 miles of fortifications. It is composed of 9,999 buildings and rooms, each constructed with nails, nine nails per row. The number 9 in Chinese sounds like the word for “everlasting,” and because 9 was believed to be the extreme of positive numbers, the maximum of the singular, it was thus reserved for use only by the emperor. The buildings in the complex follow traditional patterns of post-and-lintel construction that date back to the Shang and Zhou periods.

The emperors and their families rarely left the Forbidden City’s confines. Visitors entered through a monumental U-shaped Meridian Gate and then crossed the Golden Water River, spanned by five arched marble bridges. Across the courtyard stands the Gate of Supreme Harmony, on the other side of which is another giant courtyard leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Here, on the most important state occasions, the emperor sat on his throne, facing south, his back to the evil forces of the north. Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony were increasingly private spaces, devoted to day-to-day routine and living quarters. The balance and symmetry of the compound were believed to mirror the harmony of the universe. Situated, as it was believed, in the middle of the world, the Forbidden City was the architectural symbol of the emperor’s rule and of his duty as the Son of Heaven to maintain order, balance, and harmony in his land.

Fig. 18.24 The Hall of Supreme Harmony

As seen from across the square beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony. Height 115’. Elevated on three tiers of marble platforms, the hall is the largest building in the complex. No other building, anywhere in the empire, was allowed to be higher. It houses the main throne of the emperor, from which he presided over ceremonies celebrating the winter solstice, the new year, and his own birthday. Along the stairs rising to the hall are 18 dings—bronze food vessels (see Chapter 7)—that represent the 18 provinces of Ming China. On the terrace stand a bronze crane and a bronze tortoise, symbols of everlasting rule and longevity. Red and gold lacquered brackets resting on the lintels support flaring upswept eaves, which disguise the enormous weight of the tiled roof. These brackets are carved in a variety of calligraphic designs, many of which also appear on Shang and Zhou bronzes. The red walls contrast dramatically with the roof tiles lacquered in a glowing yellow, a color reserved for imperial structures.

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