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10 Unbelievable Facts About The Great Wall Of China

by Oliver Taylor
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The Great Wall of China is a series of defensive walls that surround China. The walls were built to protect ancient China from its neighbors and other pesky invaders, who often attacked whenever they got the opportunity. Construction took several hundreds of years, during which sections were continuously added to the walls until they were merged to form one long continuous structure.

There are lots of unbelievable facts about the wall. Like that time the Chinese government wanted to turn it into a highway. People also claimed that it was visible from space 200 years before the first human traveled into space.

10 The Chinese Government Once Considered Converting The Wall Into A Highway

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The Chinese government once wanted to turn the wall into a highway. This was revealed in the February 1931 edition of the Modern Mechanix science magazine. The publication revealed that the government contemplated this plan because China lacked these types of roads at the time.[1]

This was a problem as the government could not transport food into the interior regions where poverty and a lack of food was causing famines. Reports also indicated that the government planned to use the road to transport military personnel into the poorly policed hinterlands where bandits held sway.

9 Rumors That The Great Wall Of China Is Visible From The Moon Predates Space Travel

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It is said that the Great Wall of China is visible from space, including from the Moon. Both are false. Interestingly, the rumor was around for over two centuries before Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew traveled to the Moon.

The idea first appeared in a 1754 letter by William Stukeley. His words were actually about another wall he was comparing to the Great Wall of China. He wrote, “This mighty wall of four score miles [130 kilometers (80 mi)] in length is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the Moon.”

In 1895, Henry Norman reinforced the rumor when he claimed that the wall was the only man-made invention visible from the Moon. Norman had no evidence to prove his claims. He only assumed that he would be able see the wall from the lunar surface because he could see the Moon’s craters from Earth.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! spread the story again in the 1930s when it published a cartoon where the wall was promoted as “the mightiest work of man, the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the Moon.”

Neil Armstrong kept his eyes out for the wall when he voyaged to the Moon in 1969. He confirmed that the structure was invisible from there. Astronaut Alan Bean of Apollo 12 added that the wall and every other thing on Earth was invisible from the Moon. Bean said that all he saw was a white sphere with some blue, yellow, and green.

Other astronauts added that the wall could be visible from low orbit depending on the weather conditions on Earth. However, it was still difficult to spot. Several other construction projects are more visible than the wall.[2]

8 China Never Believed The Wall Was Invisible From Space

Photo credit: NASA

China never believed Neil Armstrong’s claims that its wall was invisible from space. China considered NASA’s assertions as a conspiracy and an attempt to downgrade Chinese ingenuity.

The Chinese government stuck to its beliefs and even had its textbooks publish the “visible from space” claim for decades after it was debunked. The nation only started to believe NASA in 2003 when China sent its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, to space. Yang revealed that he did not see the wall from space.

The structure is difficult to spot because it is not wide enough and has the same color as its surroundings. However, as mentioned earlier, it could be visible if the weather conditions were right. This was why NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao was able to take a picture of the wall from the International Space Station a few years ago.[3]

The photograph showed a small part of the wall. Chiao got a photograph because the area around that part of the wall was sunny and had recently experienced snowfall. However, he required a camera with a 180mm lens to take the picture.

7 The Walls Of Benin Are Four Times Longer Than The Great Wall Of China

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The Great Wall of China is often considered the longest wall ever built. Surprisingly, it is not. The longest wall (or series of walls) ever constructed was once estimated to be four times longer, and it is not even in China or Asia. It is in Benin, Nigeria.

Called the Walls of Benin, they surrounded the ancient city of Benin. They were built to protect the city from invaders, and some parts were reinforced with ditches.

The structure was actually a series of walls, just like the Great Wall of China. The innermost one surrounded the capital where the king lived. An outer wall enclosed the village closest to the capital. Another wall surrounded that village, and it went on until the barriers encircled 500 villages and reached 16,000 kilometers (9,900 mi) in length.[4]

Historians think that the Walls of Benin took 150 million hours to complete, making it the largest construction project ever undertaken. However, continuous degradation and a lack of maintenance has left a huge chunk of the structure destroyed.

6 The Great Wall Of China Reaches Mongolia

Photo credit: The Telegraph

Whenever we think of the Great Wall of China, we think China. At least, that seems to explain the name. However, the structure actually crosses through China and reaches Mongolia.

The Mongolian part of the wall was considered lost until a group of explorers led by William Lindesay rediscovered it a few years ago. Lindesay learned about the Mongolian part from a map he received from a friend in 1997.

The map contained the route of a series of battles fought by the famous Mongol ruler Genghis Khan around sections of the Great Wall in the 12th century. Lindesay realized that part of the wall was supposed to be in Mongolia. However, it was not. He deduced it was lost and went in search of it.[5]

Mongolian locals did not know that the wall had ever reached Mongolia. The few that did thought it had been destroyed—until Lindesay’s team rediscovered it in the Gobi Desert. The wall was just 100 kilometers (62 mi) long.

5 Plants On Either Side Of The Wall have Become Genetically Different

Biologists know that living organisms will start to diverge the moment they get separated. This often happens when some natural barrier springs up—for example, a mountain or glacier. However, artificial obstacles like the Great Wall of China can cause these organisms to diverge, too.

Today, plants on either side of the Great Wall have become genetically different. We know this thanks to a study by a team of researchers led by Hongya Gu of Peking University in Beijing. The team conducted their study around the section in the Juyongguan region which was constructed just six centuries ago.

The researchers studied three group of plants around the area. Two groups were separated by the wall, and the third was partitioned by a mountain path. They discovered that the plants divided by the barrier were more genetically different than the ones separated by the mountain path.[6]

Interestingly, plants that depended on insects for pollination often shared more genes than plants that depended on the wind. This was because it was easier for insects to fly over the Great Wall of China than for the winds to blow seeds over the barrier.

4 The Wall Was Really Built With Rice

Photo credit: The Telegraph

It is true that the Great Wall of China was built with rice. Sticky rice, actually. However, the rice was only used in parts constructed by the Ming dynasty, which ruled China between 1368 and 1644.

The rice mortar was made by mixing sticky rice with slaked lime. It was used in place of regular mortar to hold the bricks and other construction materials in the wall together. The rice mortar was so effective that it still holds parts of the walls firmly together today.

It is so effective that weeds cannot grow between the bricks as would have happened with other materials. Elsewhere, other buildings, tombs, walls, and pagodas built with the sticky rice mortar have withstood several destructive natural events including earthquakes.[7]

Nevertheless, the use of rice in building the wall was controversial at the time. It was not because of concerns about its durability but rather the fact that the Ming emperors often seized the rice from Chinese farmers. The emperors seized enough rice to make sticky rice mortar and feed workers building the wall.

3 The Wall Did Not Work

Photo credit: National Geographic

China has always been an attractive target for its neighbors. It had more money and food and better living conditions than they did. However, the neighbors often had powerful militaries, which they often rallied to invade and loot China.

China started to build the Great Wall to keep these invaders out. However, the structure was a failure because the invaders always got in. Most just marched until they reached the end of the wall. Then they crossed into China.

Some, like the Xiongnu, concentrated their troops at one of the wall’s gates until it fell. Others, like the barbarians and the Mongols, just walked through a part of the wall that had collapsed due to a lack of maintenance. This was how the Mongolian Genghis Khan invaded and overthrew the Chinese emperor.

The Ming dynasty later defeated the Mongols and sent them rushing out of the city gates. However, the Ming dynasty later fell and General Wu Sangui opened the gates for the invading Manchus. Wu Sangui was the commander of the Ming dynasty troops tasked with stopping the Manchus from coming in.[8]

2 Tourists Are Destroying The Wall

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The Great Wall receives over 10 million tourists every year. Unfortunately, that has become a problem because these visitors are destroying the structure.

Tourists often etch graffiti and signatures on the wall. They also destroy it when they use hammers to strike nails into it while setting up their sleeping tents. Visitors also dump tons of empty drink cans and food boxes on the wall. The litter problem becomes worse when the tourists hold parties.

Altogether, tourists have left the wall so badly vandalized that it is impossible to find an undamaged section even after walking for kilometers. As of 2013, only 550 kilometers (342 mi) of the wall remained in perfect condition—complete with its towers and all.

Sadly, the Chinese government cannot keep up with the maintenance because the wall is too long. It crosses 11 provinces and spans a distance of over 8,800 kilometers (5,500 mi).[9]

1 Chairman Mao Tse–Tung Wanted To Destroy The Great Wall Of China

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Chairman Mao Tse-tung never liked the wall. He had been outspoken against its existence while he was still fighting against the then–Nationalist government of China. He considered the wall a relic of the feudal lords that had ruled over China for centuries, so he told farmers to take parts of the structure to build their homes.

This got worse when Chairman Mao defeated the Nationalist government and took control of China. Farmers continued to destroy the wall to build their homes. Some even used parts of the structure on their farms.

The wall was continuously vandalized until Deng Xiaoping came into power. Xiaoping stopped further destruction of the wall and started to repair it instead. Ironically, Chairman Mao once said, “You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall” despite his hatred for it.[10]

Read the myths and mysteries about more architectural wonders on 10 Silly Myths About Famous Architectural Wonders and 10 Fascinating Archaeological Mysteries From Asia.

fact checked by Jamie Frater