The History of the Great Wall of China for Kids

Imagine you are walking along a path in the forest.  Around you are beautiful mountains covered with lush green trees.  You see tall bamboo trees and birds in the sky. Nearby is a small mountain village where families are cooking dinner and playing in common areas.  As you walk further along the path towards the mountain range, you suddenly look up and see a gigantic stone wall cutting through the forest. You place your hands on it and look up. It is incredibly high. When you look left and right you see that it stretches in both directions as far as your eye can see.  You are at one of the most famous structures in the world: the Great Wall of China! 

The Great Wall of China was built over 2,000 years ago and runs more than 13,000 miles across northern China.  But why was this wall built?  And how has it lasted so long?

The Great Wall of China was constructed by Emperor Chin Shi Huang in the 3rd century B.C.  Well actually, parts of the wall were built earlier than that and it is doubtful that Emperor Chin did any of the actual construction work himself.  

Emperor Chin united a number of different independent states in China and was the first emperor to unite all of these different communities together as one Chinese country.  This happened around 220 B.C.  Before that, there were many different kingdoms throughout China and different groups of people lived on their own.  The land that the Chinese people lived on was very fertile. Fertile means the land is good for growing lots of food. Over time, the people that lived in the area started to farm and grow crops.  As more people farmed the land, they needed to create systems of order and government to help manage the land and how it was used.  

At this time, Chinese people developed and irrigated fields and grew crops near the Yellow River valley. Farming large areas of land required people to work together and form a government to work the land peacefully.  That is why the Chinese formed one empire and also built walls around them to protect their communities against attacks by the nomads.  Nomads means someone who doesn’t live in one place but moves from place to place. The nomads didn’t farm, but instead moved around and herded animals. They used the food from these animals to survive. They also hunted instead of staying in one place and farming. 

Since the nomads needed to move with the animals, they had a completely different type of society and order. They needed to hunt animals or trade for them.  This led to the nomads trading with the Chinese or in many cases attacking them. 

The nomadic tribes often came into contact with the Chinese farmers.  Sometimes it was friendly and they would trade with each other.  But often, they did not get along.  The nomadic people wanted to use the farmland to hunt and move around, but the farm people wanted more land to farm. This led to battles between the farmers and the nomads.  The farming kingdoms also often fought each other for control of different territories. This is why this period of history in China is known as the “Warring States Period.”

To help avoid attacks, many of the kingdoms built walls to defend themselves.  The walls were made out of rocks and compacted dirt that was tamped very tightly to form the structure.  These walls were shorter versions of the Great Wall of China that was later built.  They stretched between the border of different regions and often included towers, block houses for soldiers and beacons to send smoke signals.

When Emperor Chin became emperor, he wanted to put a stop to the fighting between different farming kingdoms.  He declared that all of these kingdoms were now part of one country called China.  But the nomadic people that lived outside the area didn’t care about this.  They continued to attack the farming areas. 

To help stop these attacks and to continue to unite the new country, the Emperor ordered that the walls between different states be removed and that the shorter walls that existed along the northern border of China be joined together to form one long wall.  Emperor Qin thought that this would also help protect them against attacks from the north where China’s biggest enemy lived — Mongolia. The Mongolians were fierce fighters and very dangerous to the Chinese.

The project of building the Great Wall was a huge task requiring a lot of work.  Emperor Qin ordered his army to work on the wall, so much of it was constructed by soldiers.  But they needed even more workers to get the job done.  So Emperor Qin ordered that prisoners work on the wall as well.  This is called “forced labour,” which is when someone is forced to do a job without getting paid. It was hard work and estimated that around 400,000 workers died while building the wall.  

Conditions were probably very difficult due to the long stretches of mountains and desert where the Wall was built.  Today, there are some areas of the Great Wall where no one lives because the conditions are so difficult and there are some parts where the winters are so cold that no one goes there in the winter.  Can you imagine having to work on building a large wall in those conditions?

Because much of the wall is built with rammed earth, most of the materials that they used to build the wall could be found right where they were building.  However, some additional supplies and workers had to travel a far way to get to the wall. This made construction even more difficult. Sometimes the young men that were forced to build the wall had to haul boats loaded with baggage upstream in rivers in order to bring food to the workers.  The work was so hard that many people tried to escape and sneak away back to the city or to their hometowns.  Many individuals died in the wilderness trying to escape because the conditions were hard to survive and the journey home was so long. 

Eventually, people living in the newly united China started to revolt against the Qin dynasty.  To revolt means to fight against and overthrow.  Emperor Qin was a strict ruler and not everyone agreed with his rules. As Emperor Qin lost the support of the Chinese people over time, there were less and less soldiers that were willing to go out to work on the wall.  They stopped listening to his orders and as a result, the construction of the wall slowed down. 

Later Chinese rulers carried on the construction and eventually the wall was finished.  This included the Han, Sui, Northern, Jin and Ming Dynasties.  Each repaired, rebuilt or expanded the wall.  During the Ming Dynasty, major rebuilding work took place and sections of the wall that were originally built with dirt were replaced with bricks and stone instead.  These new materials helped the wall to last longer in good shape. 

One of the first mentions of a wall built against northern invaders is found in a poem, dated seventh century BC.  It is recorded in the ancient Chinese book of Classic Poetry. 

In 221 BC, when Qin Shi Huang united the Chinese states, the walls were known as “Changcheng” which literally means “long walls”.  The walls were mostly constructed of tamped earth, which some parts built with stones. Where natural barriers, like ravines and rivers worked enough for defence, the walls were erected sparingly.  Often in addition to the wall, defensive systems like garrisons and beacon towers were built inside the wall and watchtowers on the outside at regular intervals. 

Unfortunately the Great Wall never totally prevented invaders from coming into China.  It was a useful way to stop raids.  But at several points throughout its history the Great Wall failed to stop enemies.  This included in 1644 when the Manchu Qing marched through the gates of Shanhai Pass and replaced the Ming dynasty as the new rulers of China.  But the Great Wall came to be seen as a symbol of the ongoing power and strength of the Chinese civilization. 

Eventually the Chinese were forced to move back from the northern part of China when the Mongolian people attacked in the north and conquered and took control of China.  The Mongols were led by Genghis Khan, a famous, violent leader. The Mongols didn’t need the Great Wall as much as the Chinese had in the past, but they assigned soldiers to man the wall in order to protect merchants and travelers travelling along the Silk Road trade routes. 

Eventually the Ming Dynasty took control of the area again.  During the Ming Dynasty, the Ming rules were very strong leaders and Chinese culture grew stronger. They built a lot of additional parts of the Great Wall including bridgets, temples and pagodas.  Pagodas are like western gazebos, or covered areas that people can sit under.

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, the Great Wall became the most common symbol of China for the Western world. Today, the Great Wall is generally recognized as one of the most impressive building feats in human history. In 1987, UNESCO, an international heritage organization, designated the Great Wall a World Heritage site.  At the time, it was the only man-made structure that could be visible from space!

In modern times, thousands of tourists visit the Great Wall of China.  The most popular part of the wall and the most famous is called Badaling.  It runs 43 miles northwest of Beijing.  Would you like to see the Great Wall of China one day?  If you do, think of all of the people that worked to build and maintain the wall throughout time.  Walking along the Great Wall of China, you will surely be walking along part of history!

Quiz

  1. When was the Great Wall of China built? Over 2,000 years ago. 
  2. How long does the wall run? More than 13,000 miles across northern China
  3. Why was this wall built?  To unify the new Chinese state and keep out northern invaders.
  4. Which emperor ordered the unified construction of the northern wall? Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century B.C.  
  5. What is the difference between farmers and nomadic people?  Farmers stay largely in one place and grow their food; Nomadic people hunt animals and move with them as they move.
  6. Who was the biggest threat to the new Chinese kingdom when it was unified?  The Mongolian people to the north.
  7. What was the Great Wall originally made of? Rammed earth and stones.
  8. Who was the leader of the Mongolian people when they attacked and conquered China?  Genghis Khan
  9. Can the Great Wall be seen from space? Yes!
  10. What is the most famous stretch of the Great Wall that runs northwest of Beijing called? Badaling

Activities

  1. Print a map of Asia and color the area of China in red. Color the area of Mongolia north of China purple.   
  2. On your map, draw a line where you think the Great Wall of China runs.  Now look up a picture on the internet.  See how close you were with your guess. 
  3. Draw a picture of the Great Wall close up.  Include a watch tower or a pagoda.  What else could you add to help fortify, or strengthen, your defence of the wall?
  4. Tea – Legend has it that around 2737 B.C., a Chinese ruler was sitting in his garden.  He had a pot of drinking water at his elbow.  A leaf fell from a nearby tree and drifted into the pot of water.  This inspired the creation of tea!  Tea is a very popular drink in China. Together with an adult, make a pot of tea for your family.  You will need boiling water, tea leaves, a teapot and strainer.  Try some different flavors of tea.  What is your favorite?  Why do you think tea helped keep Chinese people and other tea drinkers healthy throughout history? [answer: boiling water is good for hygiene, killing bacteria]
  5. Food – In ancient China, people ate rice, soybeans, cucumbers, pork and chicken.  Look up a recipe for a stir-fry using some of these ingredients.  Together with a parent, try cooking a traditional Chinese meal for your family.