Stretching some 21,196 kilometres across the sweep of Northern China and delineating the edge of the Mongolian Steppe, the Great Wall of China is a staggering feat of engineering and ingenuity – a vast system of fortifications unrivalled by any other human construction.
Seeing the entire wall is a massive undertaking, but that’s exactly what the new UK documentary Great Wall of China: The Making of China proposes to do, starting in the East at Old Dragon’s Head in the small town of Shanhaiguan in Hebei province, on the shore of the Bohai Sea, to the distant deserts of Ningxia in the far West. It’s a fascinating voyage, with chatty host John Nettles (Midsomer Murders) apprising us of the Wall’s colourful history and current conditions along the way.
Construction on several sections of the Wall started as far back as the Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BC), but the Great Wall as we currently know it came into being around 200 BC when the First Sovereign Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, ordered the existing walls to be connected into one long system, the better to defend his newly minted Qin Dynasty from marauding tribes of steppe horsemen.
Only a united China could actually supply the manpower needed for the task. Indeed, one of the Wall’s bleaker nicknames is “The Long Graveyard”, as up to a million labourers died in its construction over the years (but more sober estimates peg the number at around 400,000).