Efficacy of the Great Wall

Jan 2016
611
United States, MO
Why did certain Chinese dynasties did series of northern order walls?

In his work, The Great Wall of China, Arthur Waldron argues that the wall was one approach to dealing with the northern nomad problem, but in his view, wall building was the result of political compromises in the court and it was largely ineffective.

David Spindler argues against this, but I am not sure on the details of his arguments.

So, I thought I would bring the question up here. What do you all think, how effective was the Great Wall?
 

heylouis

Ad Honorem
Apr 2013
6,627
China
Arthur Waldron is a scholar with strong personal opinion on international relationship and politics. his discussion on the wall issue even touch the current president of US.

we need to be aware that the great wall is a systematic project, which is more than the walls.

usually, to wisely use the great wall, there should be large amout army be placed outside and inside the line as separated by the wall for a depth defense. this, however indeed is a political compromise, because place large amount army outside the line put economic pressure in the short sight.

the wall itself is not the ultimate means of defense, it is inproper to say it is inefficient.

there are two extreme limits on the great wall. one is completely no wall, the other is building long wall and hide inside the line.
the first is impractical, as discussed in ming. the later is inefficient, because the wall alone is just a wall ready to be broke through.
unfortunately, during ming era, the policy makers shift at this two extremes, but never find the proper balanced position in between.
 
Last edited:

heavenlykaghan

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
4,513
The early Great Walls, being only around 2 meters tall, was never meant to be a defense against serious intrusions, but merely against small intensity raids. It could literally be taken apart by shovels within hours. This wall was not merely defensive, but could be used as a forward demarcation line. The Han had two lines of Great Wall, one on the borders of Chinese settlements, extending into the Ordos and the second way further north in the Gobi desert, extending into present day Mongolia itself. The Ming walls are the true defensive walls, and was the most grandeur of the walls and what we see today. Only three dynasties since the Qin never conducted large wall building projects, and these are the Tang, Yuan and Qing, because of their control of the steppe or cordial relations with nomads.
 
Jan 2018
1,609
China (Hong Kong SAR)
From my understanding, the Great Wall is used to convey warnings of invasions quickly through fire signals.

To supplement @heavenlykaghan, cannons were mounted on the walls of the Ming.
 
Sep 2014
1,222
Queens, NYC
At least after the present wall was built, enemy forces only came through when Chinese opened the gates (cf. Wu San Guei).
 
Jan 2016
611
United States, MO
Well to play devil’s advocate I think Waldron would say that the wall was a massive economic endeavour simply not worth the cost. It is true that once brick and mortar was used to build Ming walls, they were a formidable barrier for incursions, but the problem was that by the point the wall was actually all together properly, there was too much strife within the dynasty and the Manchus were literally let in. Did the wall exacerbate this problem? It is clearly not the sole cause for the downfall of the Ming, but could the dynasty have saved itself by not building the wall and taking a different course of action?

As for Han walls, the western stretch which runs from jiayuguan to yumenguan was built because the importance of trade flowing through the region, but was it necessary? why not simply build a series of forts with beacon watchtowers and glacis as was done with the little northern extension running from jiuquan to juyan? was does the wall off in controling this western region that forts would not, and if it is advantageous from a military perspective is it still worth the economic investment required?
 
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heylouis

Ad Honorem
Apr 2013
6,627
China
Well to play devil’s advocate I think Waldron would say that the wall was a massive economic endeavour simply not worth the cost. It is true that once brick and mortar was used to build Ming walls, they were a formidable barrier for incursions, but the problem was that by the point the wall was actually all together properly, there was too much strife within the dynasty and the Manchus were literally let in. Did the wall exacerbate this problem? It is clearly not the sole cause for the downfall of the Ming, but could the dynasty have saved itself by not building the wall and taking a different course of action?

As for Han walls, the western stretch which runs from jiayuguan to yumenguan was built because the importance of trade flowing through the region, but was it necessary? why not simply build a series of forts with beacon watchtowers and glacis as was done with the little northern extension running from jiuquan to juyan? was does the wall off in controling this western region that forts would not, and if it is advantageous from a military perspective is it still worth the economic investment required?
the wall ensures a predictable invasion path.
watchtowers cannot do that. using the wall and depth defense, you can launch in attack mode when resources are ready. with only the watchtowers, you can only passively defense. it is impossible to do a proper passive defense along a ultra-long line.

the cost of walls is already discussed in ming. apparently, the wall is cheaper than putting armies along the northern line.

as for han, the western han's policy is called "to cut the right arm of xiongnu".
with the walls xiongnu are blocked from southern minorities(southern than the wall), thus chances exist that the southern minorities may at least keep peace with han.
if the walls were not there, pressure from xiongnu certainly would promote the southern minorities becoming part of the xiongnu sphere, a great danger to han, since the strategic depth of western han was not quite deep. cavalry can easily pass through watch towers and forts. they came for ...basically...resources..., not land. watch towers is pointless to them. while walls, no matter how low, still causes some difficulty to northern intrusions.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2016
611
United States, MO
@The Keen Edge
The Ming declined due to petty politics as untrustworthy court officials manipulated the dynasty.
I never argued that the wall was responsible for the decline of the Ming. The question is whether or not the wall was helpful or hurtful. Did the Ming last longer because of having a wall, or did it add one more problem onto the pile of many others.
 
Jan 2016
611
United States, MO
the wall ensures a predictable invasion path.
watchtowers cannot do that. using the wall and depth defense, you can launch in attack mode when resources are ready. with only the watchtowers, you can only passively defense. it is impossible to do a proper passive defense along a ultra-long line.

the cost of walls is already discussed in ming. apparently, the wall is cheaper than putting armies along the northern line.

as for han, the western han's policy is called "to cut the right arm of xiongnu".
with the walls xiongnu are blocked from southern minorities(southern than the wall), thus chances exist that the southern minorities may at least keep peace with han.
if the walls were not there, pressure from xiongnu certainly would promote the southern minorities becoming part of the xiongnu sphere, a great danger to han, since the strategic depth of western han was not quite deep. cavalry can easily pass through watch towers and forts. they came for ...basically...resources..., not land. watch towers is pointless to them. while walls, no matter how low, still causes some difficulty to northern intrusions.
Interesting points, the Han wall and the Ming wall are two different beasts entirely. It seems as though the Han wall was designed for stopping small groups of Xiongnu, whether they be raiders or diplomatic messengers. Building this smaller rammed earth wall was also inherently more economical than the Ming and yet managed to keep enemy power from being projected south of the wall.