When you think of places to visit in China, the Great Wall would probably be the first on your list.
The Great Wall of China is the world’s longest man-made structure, stretching from the east seaside to the desert in the west of northern China. This iconic Chinese tourist spot is a series of walls and structures that were China’s first line of defense from nomad invaders.
With so much history behind each brick, there is still a lot to know and discover about this tourist attraction and symbol of the Chinese nation. Here are 23 interesting and fun facts about the Great Wall of China you didn’t know.
The Great Wall in numbers
1. The Great Wall is 21,196.18 kilometers long.
Despite all the discoveries and studies, did you know that it was only in 2012 when the world knew how long the Great Wall really was?
The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) and the former State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping conducted an archeological survey, which showed that this ancient structure is 21,196.18 kilometers or 13,170.70 miles long.
Just how long is that? Think of half of the length of the equator. That’s how long the Great Wall is!
2. On average, the Great Wall is 6 to 7 meters tall and about 4-5 meters wide.
When looking at how high the wall is, there are two considerations: the height of the structure and the altitude of its location.
The tallest wall is recorded to be at 14 meters or 46 feet while on average, the wall reaches up to 6 to 7 meters high or 20-23 feet.
As for elevation, the Huanglouyuan Section is located at the highest altitude of about 1,439.3 meters or 4,722 feet. While the Laolongtou Section is at the lowest at just above sea level.
The Great Wall’s width varies on the location. But on average, it is about 4-5 meters or 13-16 feet at the top and about 6.5 meters or 21 feet at the base. It is said that at least 4 horses can pass through at the same time at the top of the wall.
3. 15 provincial regions are covered by the Great Wall
The Shanhai Pass in the East of China is considered to be the first pass while the Jiayu Pass at the Gobi Desert is considered to be the Western endpoint.
Given its length, it’s no wonder that the Great Wall’s scope actually sweeps through 15 provinces, namely Beijing, Tianjin, Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai.
Want to be more amazed? These provinces are a mix of mountain ranges, cliffs, deserts, grasslands, and even extreme terrains and seemingly impassable ridges, and they managed to build a wall on top of everything.
How was the Great Wall of China built?
4. Rice was the Great Wall’s secret ingredient for longevity.
Through different eras and various locations, multiple materials were used to build the structures for the Great Wall.
Rammed earth, stones, sand, wood, and even reeds and willows were used to build sections of the wall.
But can you ever imagine that what held the bricks together was actually just the addition of sticky rice! Said to be “one of the greatest innovations of the Ming Dynasty,” the sticky rice was added to the mortar of lime and water, which helped in securing these structures during earthquakes and in surviving the elements.
5. The Great Wall is not just a single wall.
Contrary to what some may think, the Great Wall is not just one long stretch of a barrier passing through China.
It includes several components namely beacons or signal towers, walls, barracks, garrison stations, forts and passes.
Each of these components has its own purpose and are linked together as an integrated defense and military system for China in ancient times.
6. The signal towers used different methods of communication to prepare the troops for battle.
About 25,000 signal towers (also called beacons or watchtowers) were constructed along the Great Wall.
Their main purpose was to transmit signals in times of invasion or battle. One after another, the towers used fires, lanterns and smoke as well as banners, drums or firing guns to pass the message to the next tower until it reaches the troops.
7. Millions of workers participated in building the Great Wall.
Given that there was no modern technology to help ease the construction, it’s no surprise that millions of workers were the main driving force behind the building of the Great Wall.
Included in this massive army of workers were soldiers, criminals and commoners.
The convicts were assigned for 4 years to patrol the walls during the day and to build parts of the wall at night.
While commoners, specifically males had to follow court mandates, forcing them to join the labor force. It came to a point that even children and widows were called to participate as the men were already there.
And here’s one super interesting fact! During the Qin Dynasty, the emperor called for 300,000 soldiers to protect and build the wall. Since the project spanned more than 9 years, the court took care of the soldiers and even arranged for widows to marry them. Certainly beats having to join dating apps, right?
Historical facts about the Great Wall of China
8. The Great Wall of China was built about 2,700 years ago.
Just how old is the Great Wall of China?
It is generally believed that the Great Wall was created in 220 BC, almost 2,300 years ago. This was ordered by Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.
But records have been found that independent walls were built even earlier, during the Warring States Period, when China was not yet unified as a country.
It was divided into smaller states, and each state had defensive walls to protect its territories. The oldest part is believed to have been built by the State of Chu way back in the 7th Century BC.
Qin State’s victory over the other states started the Qin Dynasty, unifying all the territories. Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered for the separate state walls to be either removed or be linked with other state walls. Hence, the first ‘unified’ wall.
9. The construction of the Great Wall spanned more than 20 dynasties.
From the Warring States to the dynasties, endless efforts were made to construct, rebuild, modify the Great Wall. Here are some of the important contributions:
Emperor Qin from the Qin Dynasty created the first unified Great wall when he ordered the linking of the Qin, Zhao and Yan state walls.
The Han Dynasty added to the Qin Great Wall and made it stronger to protect the Silk Road.
The Sui and Song Dynasties also made large-scale rebuilding projects on the Wall.
The Ming Dynasty took over and rebuilt the wall over a hundred years to fortify their line of protection. The most popular and preserved parts of the Great Wall were built during this period.
10. Three dynasties had no significant contributions to the Great Wall.
China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) was harmonious and had greater power and advantage than its nomadic neighbors.
The Yuan (1206–1368) and the Qing Dynasties (1644–1911/12) had non-Hans such as Mongols and Manchus ruling over China after breaching what should have been the impenetrable wall.
During these eras, the Great Wall was not needed as a defensive structure, which was its original purpose. Therefore, efforts ceased to construct or rebuild or modify any section.
11. One-third of the Great Wall have disappeared.
Despite the efforts to preserve the Great Wall, a huge chunk of the structure is in ruins or have disappeared completely. While some of it is due to natural elements, a big reason is actually due to poor maintenance and human interference.
Just like the Chinese Cultural Revolution implemented by Mao Zedong back in 1966. It was a 10-year movement that urged the population to purge the “Four Olds:” old customs, culture, habits and ideas.
With this movement, the people were even encouraged to dismantle and pillage parts of the wall. They used the bricks to build their homes and animal pens.
12. Sections of the Great Wall are still being discovered up to this time.
By accident, another section of what seems to be a Great Wall fort was just discovered June 2021 at the Shaanxi Province.
Called the Qingping Fort, people came across this previously unidentified structure while extracting soil for road building.
Two courtyards and painted clay structures were unearthed. With the layout and characteristics, it is assumed that this fort was built during the Ming era.
Great Wall World records
13. The Great Wall of China is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Aside from being an icon of China’s national identity, it was also acknowledged all over the world!
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention recognized the Great Wall as a part of their World Heritage list in 1987.
14. Guinness World Records recognizes it as the Longest Wall.
The Great Wall also holds the Guinness World Record as the Longest Wall in the World.
The organization noted that its main-line length of 3,460 kilometers is “nearly three times the length of Britain” and that’s not even including the other 3,530 km of branches and spurs.
15. It made the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Through 100 million votes via the internet and text messages from all over the world, the list of the New Seven Wonders was compiled and the Great Wall finally made it!
16. It was originally known to be the only man-made structure visible from space. NASA says otherwise.
NASA says this claim is a “space-based myth.” Even China’s astronaut Yang Liwei said he did not see the structure from way above.
Astronauts and experts have said that the Great Wall is not visible from space with only the naked eye. The wall is very narrow and has the same color and texture as its surrounding area making it difficult to distinguish.
But it is possible to see or photograph the wall using radar imagery while in space.
17. The wall is also the world’s longest cemetery.
Now, this is one unhappy record.
It is estimated that about a million workers may have died while building the wall.
Remember that the wall was built on such extreme terrain and landscape. Making the conditions worse, workers also had to deal with unpredictable weather, steep mountains and inadequate food, plus the cruelty of forced labor.
Travel fun facts
18. There are 10 recommended sections near Beijing for tourists and hikers.
If you are visiting Beijing, make sure to set aside at least a day to tour the Great Wall.
Ten of the most popular sections for tourism are near the capital, where you can choose your own ‘level’ of adventure. Here are some examples:
The representative section of the Ming Dynasty wall, Badaling, is a 2-hour drive from Beijing and is also the most visited section by VIPs.
This is the first section to be restored and opened to the public. The paths, steps and wall tops of Badaling were paved with granite and handrails were also installed, making it very tourist-friendly.
Make sure crowds do not scare you as you would have to contend with a sea of bodies with huge Chinese tourist groups.
About 1.5 to 2 hours drive from Beijing is the Mutianyu section. This is the longest fully-restored section that is said to be the most popular for foreign tourists.
This section of the wall will give you a magnificent view while walking: a relaxing scenery of pines and cypresses surrounding the area all year round. The best part is it has a lesser crowd than Badaling and you will have access to 23 original-style watchtowers!
Called the wild and most dangerous section, Jiankou is built on a mountain ridge with very cliffs on each side. No restoration has been made to this section.
It is only 3 hours away from Beijing but is not officially open to the public for tourism, given its wild conditions. However, the more adventurous and experienced hikers often take on this challenge.
19. You can do more activities at the Great Wall aside from hiking and walking tours, including a marathon.
Can you imagine running a race at the Great Wall? You can absolutely do that with the Huangyaguan Great Wall Marathon. Run the length of the Huangyaguan section, use both hands and feet to scale the steep steps and enjoy the Chinese Village you’ll pass along the way.
If you want something more chill but no less fun, you can try having a picnic at some watchtowers at Mutianyu, Simatai or other less crowded sections.
In for a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Spend time in the wild outdoors and camp at a ridge at the Jiankou section.
Cable cars and toboggan rides are offered to go up and down some sections of the Great Wall, making it more accessible, and fun too!
20. More than 300 celebrities from all over the world have visited the Great Wall.
World leaders make up the majority of this VIP list like Queen Elizabeth II, Former U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Barack Obama and more.
International sports stars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Lebron James and the late Kobe Bryant, as well as the CEO of Facebook, or now Meta, Mark Zuckerberg have also visited this ancient monument.
More interesting facts about the Great Wall
21. Lady Meng Jiang and the tears that brought down the wall.
One of the most popular legends about the Great Wall is the story of Lady Meng Jiang.
Various versions of the folktale have been told. But the main plot is that Lady Meng Jiang’s husband was taken by the officials to build the wall. She thought of visiting her husband and bringing him some warm clothes, but she learned from other laborers that her husband have died.
But as she has not seen her husband’s remains, she heartbrokenly wept. Along with her bitter wails, a section of the wall collapsed.
22. The epic trek that led to a breakup at the Great Wall.
In 1988, lovers and artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay decided to go for the biggest performance of their lives: to walk from opposite ends of the Great Wall, and meet in the middle, where they will get married.
They planned The Lovers but it took them 8 years to get permission from the Chinese government. By the time they went on their expeditions, their relationship had broken down. But they continued with the plan.
Three months after they started their trip, Marina and Ulay met up at the Shaanxi province. But instead of getting married, they decided to split up and call it quits.
23. Daredevils and their stunts at the Great Wall
Called the “Human Arrow”, US wingsuit pilot Jeb Corliss skydived from a helicopter to hit a target at the Great Wall in 2016.
Then in 2019, professional skier and stuntman Candide Thovex proves that he can ski anywhere on any terrain, even without snow! And one of his locations: the Great Wall!
His video shows him on his skis, successfully speeding down the steps and through watchtowers, even doing jumps and spins to the amazement and horror of his viewers.
So much history and culture are inscribed in each brick of the Great Wall. This ancient monument is definitely worth a visit – may it be to know more about China’s most iconic landmark or to physically challenge yourself to walk the length and its steep steps.