Fascinating story by Christopher Joyce of NPR on the discovery of a “Great Wall” in Shandong, one that predates the more famous Great Wall which runs along the old northern boundary of China.
Gary Feinman, who is with the Field Museum of Chicago, didn’t set out to excavate what he now calls “the first Great Wall.” He was simply walking around eastern China’s Shandong province, staring at the ground like any good archaeologist, looking for tiny pieces of pottery.
But two years ago, he came across an earthen wall. In some places, it was 15 feet high. People knew there had been an early great wall in Shandong, dating to about 500 B.C. — built centuries before the Great Wall. What Feinman discovered seemed to be a part of that early wall. “By walking this part … we have seen how well designed it was,” he says. “It really runs along the higher ridge-tops of these very craggy mountains in eastern Shandong. In the upper reaches of its run, it was amazingly well preserved.”
Unlike the Great Wall that would follow in 300 years, this “Great Qi Wall” was not built to keep out foreign invaders. “It was a wall between large, existing states,” Feinman says.
Regional dynasties of the time employed ever-expanding armies, and were constantly at war until a very tough guy named Qin Shi Huang put a stop to it, with what Shelach says was an almost unimaginably mighty army.
Fellow historian of China, and a good friend from graduate school, Jake Whittaker writes in to argue that the placement of the wall in Shandong means it is unlikely to be a remnant of the Warring States period.
If it was built in *eastern* Shandong in 500 BCE, it probably was *not* built to keep “warring Chinese dynasties” (states?) apart. Eastern Shandong at that time was a frontier region, inhabited by people referred to in texts of the time as Yi, into which Qi was busy expanding. They would likely have been using wall building as a strategy of colonization and frontier control, just as Qin, Jin, and Yan were along the steppe frontier. (Cf. Nicola Di Cosma’s book Ancient China and Its Enemies.) Of course, the article doesn’t provide us with a map to confirm the location, or give us any more geographical precision than “eastern Shandong.”
A little bit of internet research hints that Qi engaged in several wall-building projects: there is a “Qi Dynasty’s Great Wall Tourist Area” southwest of Jinan, near Niu Shan (Ox Mountain of Mencius fame). This, presumably, was a defensive emplacement against encroachment from the direction of the Zhongyuan, the central part of the late Zhou world. (Here’s a picture).
A map in the Wikipedia article on the Great Wall shows a wall extending across Qi’s southern frontier, where it may have been constructed to colonize territories occupied by the Yi (“eastern barbarians”) of what is now southeast Shandong and northern Jiangsu, and/or to defend against rivals to the south like the Wu and Yue kingdoms of the Yangzi Delta region (or Chu after it conquered that region). (Link to the map.)
In any event, the article’s claim that the wall was used to “defend against other Han dynasties” is anachronistic–it was built some 300 years before the Han Dynasty began the process of creating a unified Chinese elite culture. While the nobility of Qi would have seen themselves as belonging to the same cultural world as some of the rivals against whom these defensive emplacements were built, the same could be said of the French building the Maginot Line to defend against German invaders, or the Americans building coastal forts to defend against potential British invaders during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
There have been Great Walls found as far south as Yunnan and as far north as Mongolia. With many walls still yet to be unearthed or discovered, it would seem that the debate over what makes a wall “Great” will continue.