Efficacy of the Great Wall

Aug 2018
16
USA
brief reply

Why did certain Chinese dynasties did series of northern border walls?

DS response: To provide one way (among several ways) of defending themselves against attack.

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.

DS response: The "political compromise" largely refers to areas of the border near the Ordos region in the second half of the fifteenth century. It's a compromise to the previously prevailing view in the Ming court of preferring an invasion of Mongol territory. Note that the idea of a political compromise leading to wallbuilding comes from a very specific space and time.

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

DS response: I'm not opposed to this idea, especially as an explanation for wallbuilding in this particular space and time. After accepting Waldron's view, there are two conceptual issues to keep in mind. The first is that the offensive and engagement strategies that Waldron (and Alastair Johnston) identify don't die away with the defensive strategy of building walls. Also, wallbuilding was just one component in a larger family of defensive strategies. This is true at all times and places along the Ming empire's northern border. The second is that before and after 15th century events in the Ordos, wallbuilding was not a subject of Ming court debate. Walls (or other border strategies short of major invasions of Mongol territory) were proposed by regional commanders, and approved and funded by the Ministry of Defense, with some financial support from the Ministry of Households.

So, I thought I would bring the question up here. What do you all think, how effective was the Great Wall?
The first question to answer is, "Effective at doing what?" Strangely, the question is usually (implicitly) answered as "Keeping out the enemy," as if a wall alone could do this, and any penetration of it is evidence of its failure!

A better way to answer the question is to say that northern border walls were built to serve as an aid to troops stationed on it fending off a small raid (tens or a few hundred raiders) or an aid to regionally based troops that had had sufficient notice to mass along the area where a large (thousands or tens of thousands) raiding party planned to breach the border.

Using my standard, the Ming wall was quite effective in a number of large raids in the mid-16th century: 1554, 1555, 1561, and (on the way out) 1563.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
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.

DS response: Pre-Ming walls come in a large variety of heights. Also, I'm not sure we can infer purpose from wall height. It's not that easy to take apart a dry fieldstone Qin dynasty wall with shovels in a few hours.

This wall was not merely defensive, but could be used as a forward demarcation line.

DS response: Demarcation of what? The border?

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.
Actually the Qing dynasty built long defensive walls, just not on their northern border. Also, the Qing conducted repairs of Ming walls and stationed troops along them.

Equating Ming walls in general with "grandeur" and "what we see today" is quite misleading. Substituting in "late Ming brick Great Walls" leads to a true statement. Otherwise the statement leaves out the majority of extant Ming walls, which were not built of brick but instead fieldstone, fieldstone and mortar, and rammed earth.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
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.
Sort of. In the Ming dynasty, towers independent of the wall were used to transmit warning signals. Even though there were towers on the wall itself, they were usually not the principal means of transmitting signals.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
At least after the present wall was built, enemy forces only came through when Chinese opened the gates (cf. Wu San Guei).
Actually, the Qing forces were quite capable at getting in even if nobody opened gates for them. After breaches of the wall in 1636 and 1638, Qing forces spent months in the interior of the Ming empire during each raid.

Wu Sangui opening the gates doesn't really tell us much about the Great Wall. This incident unfortunately causes a lot of confusion in the minds of many about what the Great Wall did and didn't do.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
Military projects seldom use cost-benefit analysis

Well to play devil’s advocate I think Waldron would say that the wall was a massive economic endeavour simply not worth the cost.

DS response: There was a massive economic cost, but wallbuilding was a military endeavor. Military project seldom proceed after careful cost-benefit analyses are complete.

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.

DS response: The Manchus could get in by themselves, as they did in 1636 and 1638. (see above)

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?
[see responses in the text above]
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
Don't forget terrain!

the wall ensures a predictable invasion path.

DS response: The wall doesn't do that--terrain does. What I mean by this is that there are only a finite number of ways for a large raiding party to attack the border. It's infeasible for a large raiding party to attack a remote and mountainous section of the border. So it is terrain that determines the places where a large raid is feasible.

If only the Ming army could predict the place of invasion! The main purpose of Ming intelligence in Mongol territory was determining where the raid would happen, and the main purpose of Mongol disinformation campaigns was to trick the Ming army into defending a spot that they weren't going to attack.


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.
This last point is important, and was also the reason for the Ming government to build walls in what is now Gansu and Qinghai province.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
The Ming also built rammed earth walls

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.
Most of the Ming walls west of Hebei are rammed earth walls.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
Ming walls on Qi walls



Another thing related to this topic is the issue of maps. This is the best map I could find for the Great Wall with a cursory browsing of the internet and yet it still has problems. The northernmost part of what this map labels as the Han wall was actually built under the control of the Tanguts and not the Chinese. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/03/120319-great-wall-of-china-mongolia-science-lindesay/

The problem with most of these maps is that they simply lack precision, it would be nice to have a map that facilitates zooming in like that of google earth. This way one could see how the wall was built along the lay of the land.

Another point about these maps is that many walls are claimed to have been built on top of older walls. One example is the argument that Ming walls are reportedly built on Northern Qi walls, but how do we really know this is true? Is there physical evidence to back up these assertions or does the claim rest on textual interpretations?
Good question--there's no physical evidence of building Ming walls on top of Qi walls. As far as I know, there's not even any physical evidence that a given extant wall is a Qi wall and not a Ming wall, but that's a separate question.

I tackled the Ming/Qi wall route question by looking at Tang-era textual sources and determining that the route was the same in places. Happy to dig up a reference if anyone's interested. I admit that this only answers the question of whether the wall routes of both dynasties were generally the same in places, and doesn't speak to the question of "building on" the Northern Qi wall itself.
 
Aug 2018
16
USA
The Tang built walls, too

I doubt the nomadic origins had much to do with it; since the Sui is likewise of the same Guanlong aristocratic background as the Tang and it still built a lot of walls. Plenty of non-native originated northern regimes also built walls, the Northern Wei, the Jin and Xixia all did. The Tang founders were also not nomadic even if they were inter-married with the Xianbei aristocrats. The Tang conquest of the Turuks and the subsequent establishment of large military garrisons and military commissioners, along with cordial relationship it established with the second Turuks and Uighur meant the Tang did not look to built walls.
Just not very much. There's some in western Hebei.