The Great Wall of China: A changing role?

12 Feb

With five time zones, 56 nationalities, over 200 living languages and the world’s largest population at 1.351 billion (The World Bank, 2012) it is easy to see how the vast country of China has internal divides. This blog questions the role of one of the world’s most recognised landmarks, The Great Wall of China. Does it still create a divide within Chinese society today?

Initially built in The Warring States Period (476–221 BC), the last period of ancient China, the Great Wall was used as a defensive fortification to protect the Chinese empire states from nomadic groups and military forces. It symbolised ‘a line of demarcation separating the steppe from the sown field, nomadism from agriculture, and barbarism from civilization’ (Fairbank, 1992). However, it is also argued that the wall was not created to keep out the nomads or “barbarians”, as contrasts between archaeological sites north and south of the Great Wall suggest that beyond the wall existed farmers and ‘settled agricultural villages’ (Nelson, 1995). Yet either way the wall is shown to reflect a historic divide between contrasting cultures. This develops due to changing climates and environmental factors; ‘the cultures beyond the Great Wall in the northeast were different from those of the Ordos region as well as the Mongolian grasslands’ (Nelson, 1995).

Emperor Qin Shi Huang oversaw the building of the Great Wall under his rule in the following Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first unified dynasty and the first period of Imperial China. Today the Great Wall still follows the northern border of land under rule within the Qin Dynasty. It therefore continues to represent a divide between what now constitutes the core of the Han Chinese and other minority groups. Yet, little of the existing wall remains today. The building of the wall continued until the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368- 1644), when the last construction took place to protect China from foreign invasions by the northern states. Initially made with natural materials such as tamped earth, wood and glutinous rice flour (China Highlights, 2014) the Great Wall is thought to have been 13,170 miles long. Today modern estimates show that it is approximately 5,500 miles long, from Shanghai in the East to Lop Lake in the West. However, less than 4,000 miles is actually a structured wall, with figures also including natural barriers such as lakes, rivers and mountains. The mountainous and diverse landmass of China suggests that a cultural divide is likely to exist within China even without the Great Wall, both today and historically.

The literature suggests that today the Great Wall of China is no longer viewed as a separation of culture yet instead a memento of Chinese history. The Great Wall is considered a status symbol ‘of historical continuity, of territorial integrity, and of the nation itself’ (Rojas, 2010). It can therefore promote the Ten Principles of Bandung (Xinhua, 2005) by encouraging peace and cooperation between nationalities. Nonetheless it is still believed that although not always ‘militarily effective’ (Veeck et al., 2011) the Great Wall’s symbolic significance has never changed, suggesting that many Han Chinese still feel separated from non-Han groups. The wall is therefore arguably for some a constant reminder and representation of the separation between Han Chinese and other nationalities.

Finally it should be noted that although some Chinese still feel isolated by the Great Wall it is clear that currently the primary role of this significant landmark is to promote economic prosperity. As such, historic information about the wall is mostly conveyed for an informative purpose hence lacking a critical viewpoint. Through tourism the import value of visitors to China each year contributes approximately CNY 1.2 trillion towards GDP which is ‘substantially bigger than automotive manufacturing and supports almost as many jobs as the mining sector’ (Nicol, 2012). As a UNESCO World Heritage site The Great Wall of China attracts around 10 million visitors per year (Discovery Communications, 2013) and is a key location for many fundraising events. It also provides income and jobs for many local citizens. In consequence the primary role of the Great Wall today is conveyed as just another part supporting economic growth. It therefore contributes towards the unified view that economic growth will enable China to become a superpower of the future (Dreyer, 2007).


Amy Warwick



China Highlights, 2014. Great Wall of China Facts. Available at: [Accessed 11.02.14].

Discovery Communications, 2013. China’s Great Wall Crumbles as Tourism Soars. Available at: [Accessed 12.02.14].

Dreyer, J.T. 2007. Chinese Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy Research Institute Newsletter, Vol. 12, No. 5. Available at: Accessed [08.02.14].

Fairbank, John K. 1992. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

Nelson, S.M. 1995. Archaeology of Northeast China: Beyond the Great Wall. London: Routledge.

Nicol, T. and Eckervogt, A. 2012. Tourism in China contributes more to GDP than automotive manufacturing. World Travel & Tourism Council. Available at: [Accessed 12.02.14].

Rojas, C. 2010. The Great Wall: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
The World Bank, 2014. Population (Total). Available at: [Accessed 11.02.14].

Veeck, G., Pannell, C.W., Smith, C.J. and Huang, Y. 2011. China’s Geography: Globalization and the Dynamics of Political, Economic and Social Change. 2nd ed. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield.

Xinhua. 2005. The Ten Principles of Bandung. China Daily. Available at: [Accessed 08.02.14].


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