How Many People Died Building the Great Wall of China?

January 30, 2024

The Great Wall is one of the world’s most famous structures, but it’s also a reminder of the terrible toll the project took on millions of soldiers, peasants and prisoners of war. It’s believed that 400,000 people died building it, and sections of the wall are often described as being the longest cemetery on Earth.

Successive Chinese emperors believed that the nomadic tribes of the north posed a threat to China’s borders. They perceived these tribes as barbarians whose beliefs were fundamentally different from those of Confucian China, and sought to protect the country’s treasured culture and wealth by keeping them isolated.

To do this, they constructed a series of walls across the north of the empire that stretched from deserts to mountain ridgelines. This resulted in the Great Wall we see today, a complex network of fortifications that snakes along China’s northern border.

In the process, the Wall became an iconic symbol of China. It has been a source of pride for centuries, with decorations carved into its surface dating back to the era of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the unified kingdom. And while some of these markings have been defaced in recent times, the majority are still there to this day, despite many having disappeared during the 10-year Cultural Revolution led by Chairman Mao Zedong.

However, the Wall was far from a foolproof defense against invasions. And it wasn’t until the late 20th century that scientists began to understand why.


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