Before unification in 221 B.C. there were a number of Changcheng (Long Walls), but it was Emperor Qin Shihuang who created the first Wanli Changcheng (Great Wall) of subcontinental scale. Pre-imperial states of the north had already discovered the benefits of Long Walls as defences against northern nomads, so it is not surprising that the newly established Qin Dynasty would invest in similar northern defences – only longer.
By conquering the last remaining Warring States by 221 B.C. the Qin unified a huge expanse of land stretching from the edge of the Gobi in the north to the coast in the south, and as far inland as the Sichuan Basin.
Emperor Qin Shihuang sought to build political stability, military strength and economic unity. Walls constructed by many pre-imperial states now lay redundant, but remained potentially useful to enemies in the event of insurrections: it is believed that the more easily accessible parts of these long walls were demolished to prevent their misuse.
The emperor’s attention to northern nomads was intensified by his quest for immortality. He turned to necromancers in search for elixirs, and was taken in by the fallacy that such medicines could be found on three ‘divine islands’ on the high seas. He dispatched expeditions to search of these islands, but they failed to return. Increasingly suspicious, in 215 B.C., he travelled to Jieshi, today’s Qinhuangdao, on the Bohai Gulf coast. Here, one of the necromancers was found in possession of a silk cloth bearing a prophecy which translated as ‘ e Hu will topple the Qin’.
The emperor lost no time in ordering the execution of all his subjects surnamed Hu. Another interpretation of the prediction was that ‘Hu’ were ‘the barbarians’, a collective reference to all northern nomadic tribes. To counter the omen he ordered the building of a continuous defence, using 300,000 men under General Meng Tian’s command, plus more than 100,000 convicts rounded up from all over his empire.
Three existing long walls in the north of the empire, constructed by Zhao and Yan states, as well the structure built by the Qin State itself, were preserved. There were gaps between each of them, hence the need for new, connective building work. The resulting defence, record breaking for its scale, is believed to have ranged approximately 3,000 km in length, stretching from Lintao, south of Lanzhou in Gansu Province, to the Yalu River, which marks the present-day border of China and North Korea. This is regarded as the first Wanli Changcheng, or subcontinental scale defence system.
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