40 Years on the Great Wall of China

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Written by Shaun Swartz

Fun Fact! Today (November 10, 2017) marks the 40th anniversary of China opening the Great Wall to tourism.

So to honor one of the world’s most incredible feats of architecture, we wanted to share some photos from last year’s “Orphans of Beijing” China volunteer program, as well as share a few fun facts about the Great Wall of China that are equally awe-inspiring. Let’s kick this thing off by dispelling a few popular rumors.


The “Great Wall of China” is the official name of China’s Great Wall

*Insert incorrect-answer-buzzer sound here* – “The Great Wall of China” is simply an American moniker popularized by western tourists in the mid 20th century. Locally, Chinese citizens call it the “10,000-Li-Long-Wall” (note: one “Li” is approximately 0.5 kilometers. Thus, 10,000 Li is 5,000 kilometers or roughly 3,106 miles). Funny enough, this name doesn’t even truly get to the heart of the wall’s behemoth size. In 2007, geologists & architects set out to accurately survey the wall and discovered that it was, in fact, over 13,000 miles (nearly 21,000 kilometers) in length when pre & post-Ming Dynasty construction components were included. If we’re being mathematical about this, then it should be the 41,842-Li-long wall…Just sayin’.

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The Great Wall of China is visible from space.

Sorry, y’all – this one just ain’t true either. This rumor has been around for quite a while (not as long as the wall itself), but that doesn’t make it true. Yes, the wall is massive – at its widest 30 feet and its highest 26 feet – but that by no means makes it visible from space. The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 confirmed that the wall was not visible from space. Astronauts now contend that the wall is visible from lower earth orbit when viewed through binoculars, but that’s not the same as “outer space.”

Facts Matter

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way – here are some REAL interesting facts about the Great Wall of China. It goes without saying that the wall is INCREDIBLY old, with major construction efforts occurring under the Ming Dynasty. The original construction began, however, under Qin Shi Huang in the 8th century in an effort to safeguard newly conquered territory. Additions from the Ming dynasty were undertaken in an unsuccessful effort to block invading Mongols from the North between the 14th and 17th centuries. In the thousands of years following, public perception of the wall has fluctuated dramatically.

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A Wall Endangered

Major renovation efforts have been underway in the past 30 years to protect the wall, but for decades Chinese citizens were encouraged to use bricks from the wall as raw materials for building homes. Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution (1966-1976) is often cited as a high point in the deconstruction of the wall, with rural farmers concurrently being urged to develop the land surrounding the wall for agricultural purposes.

As such, Desertification – the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by climatic variations and human activities – now threatens to completely engulf the wall, with China’s northern desert expanding at an alarming 1,000,000 acres per year. At current estimates, nearly 2,000 kilometers of the wall has already been lost. Add in the erosion from thousands of tourist visits per day and the threats to the wall become very immediate. In one location known as Badaling, records indicate up to 70,000 visitors per day; in this location, visitors often carve their names into the wall’s centuries-old bricks, quite literally scraping away China’s long and storied history in the process.

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It’s still awesome – in the truest sense of the word.

Pulsing crowds and carved bricks aside, The Wall is truly a remarkable feat of human ingenuity. Too often we overuse the word “awesome” in describing our fascination with the world, but during the China volunteer program, I vividly recall standing atop a guard tower to gaze across the emerald mountains beyond and being overwhelmed by the wall’s sheer size and scale. To stand in the footsteps of China’s most influential leaders and imagine the sight of an invading Mongol army is a privilege that neither time nor threat will ever diminish.

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