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The garrisons of the watchtowers on the wall were supported by civilian farming and by military agricultural colonies known as tuntian. Behind this line of fortifications, the Han government was able to maintain its settlements and its communications to the Western Regions in central Asia, generally secure from attacks from the north. The campaigns against the Xiongnu and other nomadic peoples of the west exhausted the imperial treasury, and the expansionist policies were reverted in favour of peace under Emperor Wu's successors.
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Despite high tensions between the Xin and the Xiongnu resulting in the deployment of , men on the Great Wall, no major fighting broke out beyond minor raids. The civil war ended with the Liu clan on the throne again, beginning the Eastern Han dynasty 25— The restorer Emperor Guangwu r.
Defense works were established to the east of the Yanmen Pass, with a line of fortifications and beacon fires stretching from Pingcheng County present-day Datong through the valley of the Sanggan River to Dai County , Shanxi. The Ordos region, northern Shanxi, and the upper Luan River basin around Chengde  were abandoned and left to the control of the Xiongnu.
Following the end of the Han dynasty in , China disintegrated into warlord states, which in were briefly reunited under the Western Jin dynasty — There are ambiguous accounts of the Jin rebuilding the Qin wall,  but these walls apparently offered no resistance during the Wu Hu uprising , when the nomadic tribes of the steppe evicted the Chinese court from northern China. What followed was a succession of short-lived states in northern China known as the Sixteen Kingdoms , until they were all consolidated by the Xianbei -led Northern Wei dynasty — As Northern Wei became more economically dependent on agriculture, the Xianbei emperors made a conscious decision to adopt Chinese customs, including passive methods of frontier defence.
The two walls formed the basis of the double-layered Xuanfu — Datong wall system that protected Beijing a thousand years later during the Ming dynasty. The Northern Wei collapsed in due to civil insurrection to be eventually succeeded by the Northern Qi — and Northern Zhou — Two stretches of the stone-and-earth Qi wall still stand in Shanxi today, measuring 3. The route of the Qi and Zhou walls would be mostly followed by the later Ming wall west of Gubeikou ,  which includes reconstructed walls from Qi and Zhou.
The Sui took power from the Northern Zhou in before reuniting China in Sui's founding emperor, Emperor Wen of Sui r. The new walls proved insufficient in when Ishbara Qaghan avoided them by riding west to raid Gansu and Shaanxi with , archers. In as many as , men are recorded as involved in the construction. In — he sent over a million men to build a wall from Yulin to near Huhhot  to protect the newly refurbished eastern capital Luoyang.
With the economy strained and the populace resentful, the Sui dynasty erupted in rebellion and ended with the assassination of Emperor Yang in Frontier policy under the Tang dynasty reversed the wall-building activities of most previous dynasties that had occupied northern China since the third century BC, and no extensive wall building took place for the next several hundred years.
Soon after the establishment of the Tang dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Taizong r.
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Taizong scoffed at the suggestion, alluding to the Sui walls built in vain: "The Emperor Yang of Sui made the people labor to construct the Great Wall in order to defend against the Turks, but in the end this was of no use. Emphasizing the poets' loneliness and longing for home while hinting at the pointlessness of their posts, these frontier verses are characterized by imagery of desolate landscapes, including the ruins of the now-neglected Great Wall—a direct product of Tang's frontier policy.
Han Chinese power during the tumultuous post-Tang era was represented by the Song dynasty — , which completed its unification of the Chinese states with the conquest of Wuyue in Turning to the north after this victory, in the Song eliminated the Northern Han , ultimate successors to the Later Jin, but were unable to take the Sixteen Prefectures from the Liao dynasty. This agreement, among other things, required the Song to pay tribute to the Liao, recognized the Song and Liao as equals,  and demarcated the Song—Liao border,  the course of which became more clearly defined in a series of subsequent bilateral agreements.
In the northwest, the Song were in conflict with the Western Xia, since they occupied what the Song considered as Chinese land lost during the Tang dynasty. The Song utilized the walls built during the reign of Qin's King Zhaoxiang of the Warring States period, making it the Song—Western Xia border,  but the topography of the area was not as sharp and distinct as the Song—Liao defences to the east.
This trench, between 15 and 20 metres 49 and 66 feet in width and depth, proved an effective defence, but in the Tanguts caught the Song patrollers off guard and filled the trench to cross the Old Wall. Despite the war with the Western Xia, the Song also settled land disputes with them by referring to prior agreements, as with the Liao.
For the next two and a half centuries, the Great Wall played no role in Han Chinese geopolitics. After the Tang dynasty ended in , the northern frontier area remained out of Han Chinese hands until the establishment of the Ming dynasty in During this period, non-Han " conquest dynasties " ruled the north: the Khitan Liao dynasty — and the succeeding Jurchen Jin dynasty — in the east and the Tangut Western Xia — in the west, all of which had built walls against the north.
In , the Khitan chieftain Abaoji succeeded in getting himself appointed khaghan of all Khitan tribes in the north, laying the foundations to what would officially become the Liao dynasty. Settling in the transitional area between agricultural lands and the steppe, the Khitans became semi-sedentary like their Xianbei predecessors of the Northern Wei, and started to use Chinese methods of defence.
In walls were built through central Manchuria north of Nong'an County to the banks of the Songhua River. When the Jurchens , once Liao vassals, rose up to overthrow their masters and established the Jin dynasty , they continued Liao's wall-building activities with extensive work begun before This long period of wall-building burdened the populace and provoked controversy. The benefits will be everlasting" — and so construction continued unabated.
In the west, the Tanguts took control of the Ordos region, where they established the Western Xia dynasty. Radiocarbon analysis showed that they were constructed from to The walls were as tall as 2. They were built with mud and saxaul a desert shrub in one section, and dark basalt blocks in another, suggesting that the rocks may have been quarried from nearby extinct volcanoes and transported to the construction site.
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Archaeologists have not yet found traces of human activity around this stretch of wall, which suggests that the Western Xia wall in this location may have been incomplete and not ready for use. In the 13th century, the Mongol leader Genghis Khan , once a vassal of the Jurchens, rose up against the Jin dynasty.
Instead, when they could, the Mongols simply rode around the walls; an effective example of this tactic is in , when they circumvented the substantial fortress in Zhangjiakou and inflicted a terrible defeat upon the Jin armies at the Battle of Yehuling. The Jin dynasty eventually collapsed following the siege of Caizhou in Western Xia had already fallen in , and the Southern Song resisted the Mongols until With that, the Yuan dynasty , established by Genghis Khan's grandson Khublai Khan , became the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China.
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Khublai Khan dealt with such threats by using both military blockades and economic sanctions. Although he established garrisons along the steppe frontier from the Juyan Lake Basin in the far west to Yingchang in the east,  Khublai Khan and the Yuan emperors after him did not add to the Great Wall except for the ornate Cloud Platform at Juyong Pass. In , the Hongwu Emperor r. The Mongols fled back to Mongolia, but even after numerous campaigns, the Mongol problem remained. During his early reign, Hongwu set up the "eight outer garrisons" close to the steppe and an inner line of forts more suitable for defence.
The inner line was the forerunner to the Ming Great Wall. Thus defenses were concentrated around Beijing, where stone and earth began to replace rammed earth in strategic passes. Meanwhile, the outer defenses were gradually moved inward, thereby sacrificing a vital foothold in the steppe transitional zone. Over half of the campaigning Chinese army perished in the conflict, while the Mongols captured the Zhengtong Emperor.
This military debacle shattered the Chinese military might that had so impressed and given pause to the Mongols since the beginning of the dynasty, and caused the Ming to be on the defensive ever after. The deterioration of the Ming military position in the steppe transitional zone gave rise to nomadic raids into Ming territory, including the crucial Ordos region, on a level unprecedented since the dynasty's founding.
After decades of deliberation between an offensive strategy and an accommodative policy, the decision to build the first major Ming walls in the Ordos was agreed upon as an acceptable compromise the s. Along its length were strong points, sentry posts, beacon-fire towers, and assorted defences. This defence system proved its initial worth in , when a large group of Mongol raiders were trapped within the double lines of fortifications and suffered a defeat by the Ming generals.
This was seen as a vindication of Yu Zijun's strategy of wall-building by the people of the border areas. For more than 50 years after Yu's resignation, political struggle prevented major wall constructions on a scale comparable to Yu's Ordos project. However, wall construction continued regardless of court politics during this time. The Ordos walls underwent extension, elaboration, and repair well into the 16th century.
This change in material gave rise to a number of necessary accommodations with regard to logistics, and inevitably a drastic increase in costs. Instead of being able to draw on local resources, building projects now required brick-kilns, quarries, and transportation routes to deliver bricks to the work site. Also, masons had to be hired since the local peasantry proved inadequate for the level of sophistication that brick constructions required.
Work that originally could be done by one man in a month with earth now required men to do in stone. Firearms and artillery were mounted on the walls and towers during this time, for both defence and signalling purposes. At its height, the Xuan—Da portion of the Great Wall totalled about kilometres miles of wall, with some sections being doubled-up with two lines of wall, some tripled or even quadrupled. As with Yu Zijun's wall in the Ordos, the Mongols shifted their attacks away from the newly strengthened Xuan—Da sector to less well-protected areas.
In the west, Shaanxi province became the target of nomads riding west from the Yellow River loop. The northern section passed through Zhongwei and Yinchuan , where it met the western edge of the Yellow River loop before connecting with the Ordos walls, while the southern section passed through Lanzhou and continued northeast to Dingbian.
The origins and the exact route of this so-called "Tibetan loop" are still not clear. However, despite several attempts, he could not take Xuanfu due to Weng Wanda's double fortified line while the garrison at Datong bribed him to not attack there. From there Altan Khan passed through the defences and raided the suburbs of Beijing.
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According to one contemporary source, the raid took more than 60, lives and an additional 40, people became prisoners. These allowed the Chinese to build on steeper, more easily defended slopes and facilitated construction of features such as ramparts , crenelations , and peepholes.
In Qi Jiguang and Tan Lun , successful generals who fended off the coastal pirates , were reassigned to manage the Ji—Chang Defense Commands and step up the defences of the capital region. Under their ambitious and energetic management, brick watchtowers were built along the Great Wall from to Altan Khan eventually made peace with China when it opened border cities for trade in , alleviating the Mongol need to raid. This, coupled with Qi and Tan's efforts to secure the frontier, brought a period of relative peace along the border.
However, minor raids still happened from time to time when the profits of plunder outweighed those of trade,  prompting the Ming to close all gaps along the frontier around Beijing. Areas of difficult terrain once considered impassable were also walled off, leading to the well-known vistas of a stone-faced Great Wall snaking over dramatic landscapes that tourists still see today.
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Wall construction continued until the demise of the Ming dynasty in In addition to their conquest of Liaodong, the Manchus had raided across the Great Wall for the first time in ,  and again in ,  ,  and In the early months of , Li Zicheng declared himself the founder of the Shun and marched towards the Ming capital from Shaanxi. His route roughly followed the line of the Great Wall, in order to neutralize its heavily fortified garrisons.
Its defender Wu Sangui , wedged between the Shun army within and the Manchus without, decided to surrender to the Manchus and opened the gates for them.