Many thanks to Bryan of the Great Wall forum for writing this page about the Great Wall sections. Bryan and the forum members have been very helpful in the planning of the route for the walk.
Divide and conquer. This tried-and-true method is useful for solving problems and for overcoming all sorts of large obstacles. So let’s apply it to the world’s largest obstacle – The Great Wall of China – in an effort to make some sense of this highly complex structure.
How can we divide the Great Wall in to sections? I think the most obvious way is to divide it by construction period. Many dynasties built or rebuilt the Great Wall, such as the Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty, and Ming Dynasty, among others. Dividing the Great Wall by dynasty seems to be the most logical first step.
After dividing the Great Wall into dynasties, the largest piece we’re left with is the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. This is not the greatest in terms of length, but because it was the one most recently built, and because the Ming Dynasty often used brick and stone construction, there is far more Ming Dynasty Great Wall remaining today than any other. So now we want to divide the Ming Dynasty Wall in to sections. How to do it? The answer is not so obvious.
One possibility is to again divide it into time periods. The Ming Dynasty lasted for a long time (about 275 years) and went through a number of wall-building periods. But it’s hard to define because a lot of the later building periods were spent repairing and improving existing sections and the work was done based on perceived strategic weaknesses rather than some geographical order. So dividing the Ming Wall by time periods is probably not the simplest or most meaningful approach.
Another possibility is to divide by construction method. We could categorize walls into brick, stone, or earth. But some sections are built from a mix of brick and stone, so maybe we would need another category for that. Furthermore, many sections were originally built using one method and later redone using another. And again, the locations are not well-defined, for various construction techniques can be found mixed together in some areas due to logistical and strategic considerations as well as chronology.
Dividing by construction method seems the best so far, however. And doing so will basically divide by location. So location seems like the most logical categorization. So let’s see how we can divide the Great Wall into major sections in order to highlight not only construction methods but other characteristics as well.
The Ming Dynasty established nine garrisons of wall-building territory, and this would be a reasonable way to categorize the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. But the garrisons don’t relate logically to areas of the Great Wall that differ physically. Therefore, I would propose dividing it into the following sections, from east to west: Liaoning, Hebei (including Tianjin), Beijing, near west, and far west.
Liaoning province contains a stretch of Great Wall that extends from near the eastern end of the east-to-west “main line” of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall northeast to the Shenyang area and then eastward into Korea. This section is older than much of the rest of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall and is generally in very poor condition. Only recently was it generally agreed that this is indeed a bona fide part of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.
Hebei province is the eastern end of the main line of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. The extent of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall here is greater than in any other place.
Because Beijing municipality is located in the middle of Hebei province, and the Great Wall goes through Beijing on its way across Hebei, Hebei can be divided into the part that is east of Beijing and the part to Beijing’s west.
The Great Wall veers southward into Tianjin province at the western end of Hebei east. But other than crossing the provincial border, there’s not much to differentiate the Great Wall in Tianjin from the Great Wall in Hebei, so for our purposes they are categorized together.
The Hebei (and Tianjin) section includes many famous Great Wall locations, including Shanhaiguan, Panjiakou, Baiyangyu, Huangyaguan, and Zijingguan.
Beijing municipality is a relatively small area surrounded by Hebei province. At the center of the municipality is the capital city. And all across its northern parts, including much of the border with Hebei, stretches the Great Wall including many of its best-known parts. Because of the proximity to the city, this is the area most frequently visited by tourists, both Chinese and foreign. It’s the area with the most rebuilt and commercialized sections. And the Great Wall here is possibly the most impressive, because of the close proximity to the capital city. Heavily reinforced fortifications soar over high mountain ridges in such a manner as to demoralize and discourage any enemy.
Many well-known sections are located here, including Simatai, Jinshanling, Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng, Juyongguan, and Badaling.
While the Great Wall in Beijing may be conceptually distinct as a tourist destination, physically it’s not much different from the Great Wall in the Hebei area.
Near west section
Remaining is the Great Wall west of Hebei. This includes Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu. We will divide this are into two categories, near west and far west, based on construction method. In the near west, we find walls made of brick and stone. Further towards the west, the wall is made primarily from compressed earth. The delineation is not as well defined as the borders used until now, and adobe brick fortresses can be found at the western end of the Great Wall, but the near west and far west concept is applicable.
The near west is the smaller of these two sections and primarily includes Shanxi province.
Far west section
The far west, stretching to the western end of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, is characterized by walls and towers made from layers of compressed earth. This construction technique was used long before the Ming Dynasty and more of the entire Great Wall is made with this technique than any other. Building walls in this manner is efficient due to using locally available materials. The resulting walls are surprisingly durable and many parts are still in good condition today. While dry weather helps to preserve the Great Wall, blowing sands in many areas are slowly burying it.
Due to its remote location from the most populated areas and the most popular tourist areas of China (which are generally located in the east), there are few tourist areas on this part of the Great Wall. Zhenbeitai, in Shaanxi, at the approximate middle of the Great Wall from east to west (not including Liaoning), is a huge rebuilt tower. The most popular tourist spot is the Jiayuguan fortress, located at the western end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall in Gansu province.
Most of the far west section is desert or desert-like. It does not attract casual Great Wall visitors, but many Great Wall enthusiasts and people interested in Chinese history and culture in general hold it in very high regard. The effort and sacrifice required to build this part of the Great Wall, as well as its military and social importance, are not to be underestimated.