Construction of the Great Wall in the Northern Dynasties

BY WANG XINGFENG | 03-09-2024
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A section of the Great Wall at Zhangjiakou, Hebei, built during the Northern Wei Dynasty Photo: TUCHONG

During the Northern Dynasties period (439–581), the Yellow River basin saw the rise of various regimes including the Northern Wei, Eastern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Qi, and Northern Zhou. Concurrently, nomadic powers such as the Rouran and the Turks successively dominated the region north of the Gobi deserts. To defend themselves against the southward incursions of nomadic tribes and other hostile forces, the Northern Dynasties powers around the Yellow River basin repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great Wall.

A military defense system

After unifying northern China [in 439], Northern Wei faced military pressure from the Rouran. The Rouran, a nomadic tribe that primarily relied on cavalry, often adopted offensive rather than defensive military strategies. To counter the unexpected Rouran cavalry assaults, Northern Wei strategically relied on the solid Great Wall for defense. During the reigns of Emperor Mingyuan (r. 409–423) and Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471–499), Northern Wei constructed the Taichang and Jishang Saiwei sections of the Great Wall.

In 422, Emperor Mingyuan dispatched troops to invade its southern neighbor, the Liu-Song Dynasty. At the same time, he ordered Crown Prince Tuoba Tao to fortify the northern frontier by constructing a bulwark along the Yin and Yan mountain ranges. This bulwark, known as the “Taichang Wall,” originated in present-day Chicheng County, Hebei Province, and extended westward to Wuyuan, on the eastern bank of the Wujia River in present-day Bayannur, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. At that time, Northern Wei located its capital at Pingcheng (present-day Datong, Shanxi Province), which faced frequent threats from the Rouran traversing the deserts. 

In 446, Northern Wei constructed the Jishang Saiwei wall along the Yan, Taihang, Heng, and Guancen mountains, forming an arc-shaped fortification from present-day Badaling in Beijing all the way to Xing County, Shanxi Province, establishing a military defense system encircling the capital.

In 534, Northern Wei split into the Eastern Wei and Western Wei dynasties, with the Rouran still posing a threat, forming a three-way standoff. The Eastern Wei actively engaged in the construction of a military defense system to cope with external crises. The Sizhou Wall (constructed in 543) and the Wuding Sannian Wall (constructed in 545) were built under these circumstances.

The Northern Qi [the successor state of Eastern Wei] continued to construct the Great Wall on the basis of Eastern Wei in order to enhance its military capabilities against threats posed by the Rouran and Northern Zhou, initiating seven construction projects and building four bulwarks. However, these defensive structures failed to withstand the attacks of Northern Zhou. In 577, the Northern Zhou army breached Jinyang and Yedu, leading to the downfall of Northern Qi.

After annexing Northern Qi, the Northern Zhou significantly expanded its territories to the east. However, the Liaozhou region (present-day Chaoyang, Liaoning Province) was still occupied by remnants of Northern Qi, posing a great threat to Northern Zhou. In 579, the Northern Zhou constructed a bulwark that extended from the Yanmen Pass (present-day Dai County, Shanxi Province) to Jieshi (present-day Suizhong County, Liaoning Province).

The second construction peak 

After the reign of Emperor Guangwu (r. 25–57) of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the Han Empire paused the construction of the Great Wall, signifying the conclusion of the initial phase of Great Wall construction in Chinese history. Over three hundred years elapsed before the Northern Dynasties period ushered in the second peak of Great Wall construction, characterized by unique features that distinguished it within the 2000-year history of its construction.

Firstly, during the Northern Dynasties period, confrontations arose both between the eastern and western regions and between the northern and southern territories. The Eastern Wei and Northern Qi were compelled to build bulwarks to thwart the incursions of the Rouran in the north and defend against Western Wei, Northern Zhou, and the Jihu [descendants of Xiongnu] in the west. Therefore, the spatial arrangement of the Great Wall presented dual east-west and north-south orientations.

Secondly, the Northern Dynasties regimes constructed two sets of walls, inner and outer, to strengthen the military defense system on the frontier, which was rare in the history of the Great Wall’s construction. The inner line of the Great Wall, constructed by Northern Qi, started from Lyuliang City in Shanxi, following the Yan Mountains eastward to the coast of the Bohai Sea in Suizhong County, Liaoning. The outer line extended from Xinzhou City in Shanxi, eastward to the mouth of the Daling River in Panjin, Liaoning.

Thirdly, Northern Wei gleaned valuable lessons from combatting the Rouran, realizing that trenches proved to be the most effective defense against cavalry charges. Consequently, the Northern Wei compacted the excavated earth and rocks to form the main body of the Great Wall, creating an extensive trench along its outer side. The remnants of these trenches, mainly located outside the Great Wall in present-day Chengde, Hebei Province, and Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, are approximately 2.5 to 10 meters wide and 0.4 to 1.2 meters deep. This innovative approach was subsequently adopted by the Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties.

Distinctive role in history

The construction of the Northern Dynasties Great Wall commenced in 423 and concluded in 579, spanning over 140 years and comprising 13 distinct construction projects. The remnants of the Great Wall stretch across Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Shanxi, Hebei, Liaoning, and Beijing. The Northern Dynasties played a pivotal role in the annals of China’s Great Wall construction history.

The earliest construction of China’s Great Wall began in the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), continued through the Warring States (476–221 BCE), Qin, and Han dynasties, and reached another climax during the Northern Dynasties. Designers and laborers accumulated invaluable experience from previous projects, advancing the technology of wall construction and continuously fortifying the solidity of the Great Wall. Historical records reveal that in 552, the 180-kilometer-long defense line of the Great Wall was equipped with 36 fortress outposts, averaging one outpost every 5 kilometers. This section of the Great Wall guarded the western flank of Jinyang (present-day Taiyuan, Shanxi). The Zheguan Great Wall, constructed in 563, had 13 fortress outposts along its 90-kilometer-long defense line, averaging one outpost every 7 kilometers. These developments illustrate the increasingly rational planning of the Great Wall during the Northern Dynasties. 

The Northern Dynasties Great Wall inherited and integrated the constructions of the Warring States, Qin, and Han dynasties, and served as a foundation for later dynasties. For example, sections built in 423 within present-day Hebei Province were built on the basis of the Zhaobei Wall from the Warring States period and the walls from the Qin and Han eras. In the nearly thousand years that followed, the Northern Dynasties Great Wall was also used by the Sui (581–618), Song (960–1279), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties.

Wang Xingfeng is an associate professor from the School of History and Politics at Guizhou Normal University.