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What were the main functions of Great Walls?

By William Lindesay

October 18

Each and every one of China’s Great Walls functioned primarily as a physical barrier to block the southerly advance of nomadic enemies on horseback.

Each and every one of China’s Great Walls functioned primarily as a physical barrier to block the southerly advance of nomadic enemies on horseback.

Each and every one of China’s Great Walls functioned primarily as a physical barrier to block the southerly advance of nomadic enemies on horseback.

At least from the Western Han Dynasty c.110 B.C., Wall defences also functioned as signaling lines for the relay of military information. Beacon towers existed for this specific purpose. Dynastic histories reminded emperors that the length of their reign and longevity of their family rule would depend to a large degree on their successful management of the nomadic problem, hence their efforts to keep well informed.

Great Walls served as markers in desert regions and pathways over the mountains. Crossing featureless desert, the Wall served as landmark that could be followed by the military and merchants, as for example on the route of the Silk Road.

The Ming Great Wall, the last Great Wall national defence system, was built so solidly that it functioned as a roadway through hitherto impenetrable mountain areas. In this respect it could be used for the deployment of reinforcements and for the transportation of goods to support the military that operated it.

Overall, Great Walls featured as cornerstones within a mosaic of border defence policies: Walls were seen as long term investments, almost insurance policies, that would eventually pay dividends in the wake of the almost inevitable failure of alternatives.

[Photo provided to China.org.cn by William Lindesay]
Frankly, it is absurd to claim that any Great Wall ever served to prevent the mass exit of Chinese people from China. First, the Chinese regarded their northern neighbours as inferior, uncivilized barbarians. Second, the Chinese diaspora is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the birth of Christ until the sixteenth century China is seen as the most advanced of cultures. Only from the 1800s did large scale emigration begin to occur. The mistaken view that Great Walls functioned to limit the movement of Chinese may be related to the Willow Palisade, a structure seen from afar as being part of a Great Wall.

The Willow Palisade appeared on many late nineteenth century maps of China. The structure, which appeared to link to Great Wall in the Shanhaiguan area, was built during the early Qing Dynasty by the ruling Manchus, to prevent the illegal entry of the ethnic Han majority into their ancestral homeland, particularly the area of today’s Jilin Province. Hans wanted to poach in the imperial game reserve, and collect ginseng. As the name suggests, the barrier was composed of willows, planted between two earthen embankments. The trees’ branches were tied together and guards posted along its length. In some areas it is thought to have been constructed on top of remains of the Liaodong extension (Liaoning Province section) of the Ming Great Wall.

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