Legend has it that during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070-1600 B.C.), a sage named Gun, father of Yu the Great, built a concentric walled city in which the inner structure defended his son the prince, while the outer one protected the common people.
Archaeological evidence shows that the first walls in China were, not surprisingly, common: short and simple, these structures surrounded individual homes, from as early as 6000 B.C. With high vertical faces they fulfilled basic functions: protecting the occupants and their belongings from enemies both realistic and imaginary, including strangers, wild animals and evil spirits. Gates permitted the entry of those who were welcome, while screens were erected either outside or inside the gate to counter the entry of evil spirits, which were believed to be capable of only travelling in straight lines.
Longer walls, enclosing clusters of homes, appeared as early as c. 4000 B.C. Archaeologists excavating at Chengtoushan, Li County in Hunan Province, discovered the earliest known walled city in China, thought to have been inhabited for more than 1,000 years during the fourth millennium B.C., and perhaps repaired as many as four times during its occupation. Remains of its rammed earth wall suggest that it enclosed some 80,000 square meters, and stood more than five meters in height and 25 meters in width at ground level. Outside the wall was a wide moat, created by the excavation of earth to build the adjacent wall.
It was not however until the ‘urban revolution’ occurring during the period of Longshan Culture (c. 3000-1900 B.C.) that walled towns became more widespread. The culture, characterized by social stratification based on ownership of goods of various qualities, prevailed throughout the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, hence the region’s name as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Tomb finds from the period evidence increased social inequality; hierarchical control was exercised over slaves through ritual, which impressed and controlled the masses enough to enable the enforced clustering of once- independent, scattered farmsteads into groups behind the communal security of town walls (urbanization). Some settlements during the Longshan cultural period may have been several tens of thousands in population.
At Taosi, Shanxi Province, discovered around 2000, remains of the defensive wall are seven to ten meters in width with individually–rammed layers clearly visible. By the Warring States Period walls had become signature structures of towns and cities.
The tradition of constructing enclosing walls around villages, town and cities continued throughout the entire dynastic period, to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it is estimated more than 4,500 large structures existed. Among the most impressive were those around the imperial capital of Beijing, the early Ming capital of Nanjing and the former capital of Xi’an. From the mid-late 1800s, photographs taken by foreign travelers show the ubiquity of town and city walls, especially in the north of the country.
It must be stressed that the plethora of city walls of China, regardless of age, length or condition are not considered to be parts of any Great Wall, which by definition must be long and linear, criteria that exclude city walls, which are enclosing and of limited length. Nevertheless, many foreigners did, over the centuries, see impressive city walls across the empire and assumed them to be parts of the Great Wall. On numerous occasions between the late 1600s and early 1900s, drawings and photographs depicting what are clearly walls within city environments were published and erroneously captioned as being views of ‘The Great Wall of China’.