Like a giant stone dragon, the Great Wall winds across the north of China from remote deserts to the sea. Often referred to as ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’, the Great Wall of China has fascinated people for centuries, inspiring fantastic claims and legendary tales.
Not a single unbroken barrier, the Great Wall is a network of walls: built, repaired and extended by a succession of Chinese dynasties. The walls and watchtowers that remain bear witness to over 2000 years of Chinese history — monuments to countless builders, warriors, nomads, traders and travellers.
This exhibition tells the story of the people who built, defended and lived alongside the Great Wall of China. It charts the Great Wall’s remarkable transformation from its ancient origins as a defensive barrier, to its modern status as the most celebrated symbol of China and one of the great wonders of the world.
The exhibition is organised chronologically into nine sections:
Early border walls (475–221 BCE)
The story of the Great Wall starts about 2500 years ago. Rival kingdoms are battling for control of much of the land now known as China. By 300 BCE, three kingdoms in the north are also under attack from nomadic warriors. To define and protect their borders they begin to build beacon towers for monitoring enemy movements, later connecting them with long walls of earth and stone.
The first Great Wall (221–206 BCE)
With a series of crushing victories, the State of Qin becomes the first to unite China. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuang, cements his victory by ordering his generals to lead campaigns against the northern nomads and to build a long wall, linking and extending earlier border walls. The first Great Wall begins to take shape, snaking its way across northern China.
The longest Great Wall (206 BCE – 220 CE)
After a period of peace, the Han dynasty that rules China launches a series of attacks on the northern nomads. Han forces conquer new territories and repair and build about 10,000 kilometres of walls, for the first time extending far west through the Gobi Desert. The Great Wall takes on a new role: protecting the Silk Road trade routes that link China and the West.
Walls built by the Northern dynasties (386–581)
As the Han dynasty falls, China disintegrates into civil war. Northern peoples invade in large numbers, establishing their own kingdoms inside the Great Wall. Times of peace are interspersed with periods of slaughter and bouts of wall-building. As dynasties change often, those living outside the wall in one period, in the next, find themselves living within a new Great Wall.
Jin dynasty walls (1115–1234)
In the bleak and windswept landscape of Inner Mongolia, the Jin dynasty mobilises a massive workforce to build thousands of kilometres of walls. The Jin Great Wall reaches further north and is more heavily fortified than earlier walls, with sophisticated battlements, parapets and moats.
The Mongol empire (1271–1368)
No walls can stop the Mongol conquests. Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, the fearsome Mongol leader, builds a massive empire stretching across Asia to Europe and the Middle East. His grandson, Khubilai Khan, unifies China and founds the Yuan dynasty which rules for almost one hundred years.
The Great Wall of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644)
As the defeated Mongols retreat to the grasslands on the Mongolian plateau, the newly proclaimed Chinese emperor dispatches one of his generals to repair and fortify the walls north of Beijing. This is the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the final era of intensive wall-building in northern China.
The Manchu empire expands beyond the Great Wall (1644–1911)
Warriors from northern Manchuria break through ‘The First Pass Under Heaven’ at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the East China Sea. From there, Manchu cavalry sweep into the heartland of China and overthrow the crumbling Ming dynasty, replacing it with a huge empire whose borders extend far beyond the Great Wall.
The Great Wall today (1912–2006)
Soon after the People’s Republic of China is founded in 1949 key sections of the Great Wall north of Beijing are restored and some sections rebuilt. Today the Great Wall is the world’s largest heritage structure and China’s most famous symbol. Millions of local and international tourists visit sections of the restored Ming dynasty walls and ‘wild walls’ outside Beijing.