The Great Wall of China is one of the most iconic structures built in human history. It was one of the most extensive and arduous construction projects in human history. The project caused untold suffering for millions of soldiers, peasants, and convicts from across the newly unified country. Families were torn apart, and children died hundreds of miles away from their loved ones.
Originally thought of as a defensive structure, the Great Wall had periods of relevance and neglect. Despite the fact it lasted several dynasties, the resources were eventually found to complete the wall during the Ming Dynasty. Today, it stands as one of the most impressive structures on the face of the planet, but it took a great deal of hardship to accomplish its completion.
The original section of the Great Wall was built by the Qin Dynasty, and was completed around 221 BCE after 20 years of construction. Subsequent generations continued to work on, extend, and improve upon the wall. The most recent work was completed by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), who worked on improvements for over 200 years.
They added turreted walls and towers to help with troop placement and mobility. In total, the Great Wall that exists today is the culmination of 22 centuries worth of work.
In the thousands of years and numerous dynasties that worked on the Great Wall, the only constant was the remarkably large labor force needed to build the structure. Three main groups were used from pools across the land: soldiers, common people, and criminals. And participation in Wall building was compulsory.
For example, a single section of the wall stretching from Xiakou to Hengzhou required 1,800,000 laborers to complete.
The demand for builders on the Walls was so great that many criminals were conscripted to work on it for the duration of their sentences. Conditions, however, were harsh, and workers didn't always make it out of Wall construction alive.
If a criminal died before his sentence was over, a member of his family had to take his place in the construction.
Because the labor required to build the Wall was legendarily backbreaking, there emerged a longstanding rumor that workers who died in the building of the Wall had their bodies ground up to make the mortar that would keep it together. Others say that dead workers were simply buried inside the Wall.
One poem written during the Han dynasty, for example, includes the lines:
"Don’t you just see beside the Long Wall?
Dead men’s skeletons prop each other up.”
To date, no bone fragments have been discovered inside the wall. In reality, laborers who died were buried in mass graves beside the wall, earning the Wall the moniker "the longest cemetery on earth."