Tag Archives: legends

What’s so ‘Great’ about the Great Wall? A History of the Great Wall of China

News and Travel Editor

What’s so great about the Great Wall of China and why does it deserve its name?

Its size? The average height of the wall is 7.8 metres and the highest point is 14 metres.

Its length?  The total length of all sections of wall built throughout the dynasties reaches 13,170 miles. If stretched out in a straight line, the Great Wall could travel almost half way around the equator.

Its weight? Some people estimate an incredible 58,095,000 tons! That’s 9 times heavier than the collective weight of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

Or was it known by a different name when it was built and simply became the ‘Great Wall’ as time passed? We hope to answer all these questions and more by separating the facts from the legends and myths.

Embed from Getty Images

The Great Wall was, and remains, the longest man-made construction in the world. This might explain why today we’ve refer to it  as ‘Great’, but when it was built, it was simply known as the ‘Long Wall’ or ‘Long City’, as it was simply seen as a stretched out, giant, city wall.

Unsurprisingly, it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, alongside Machu Picchu in Peru, the Colosseum in Italy and Petra in Jordan. But it was not built over one time period. Instead, the Great Wall has been built, modified or extended for around 2,000 years since the 7th and 8th centuries after regular invasions from the Mongols in the north.

We’ve all heard stories of workers being buried under the wall, but there are many other entertaining legends and myths surrounding the structure. The stories are incredibly wide-ranging and perhaps the most entertaining has been featured in a recent Hollywood-Chinese movie starring Matt Damon. The Great Wall film plays with the myth that the wall was not intended for keeping out the Mongol invaders from the north, but was in fact needed to protect China from supernatural forces.

But our all time favourite story is one that we think might just have a little bit of truth in it;

The Legend of Yi Kaizhan tells the story of the Yi, a mathematician who explained that it would take exactly 99,999 bricks to build the section of wall at Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu Province. His supervisor argued that if he was wrong, the entire workforce would be forced to do 3 years hard labour as punishment. Guess what? It took 99,998. Thankfully, good old Yi had a trick up his sleeve.  Even though the left over brick hadn’t been used in the construction, Yi quickly suggested that a supernatural being had placed it close by and that moving it would force the wall to collapse. Suspicious, the supervisor never moved the brick and, legend has it, the brick can still be found in the same spot today…

Embed from Getty Images

Whilst we can’t vouch for this story, one thing we can say is that, unfortunately and contrary to popular belief, the wall cannot be seen from space. This is probably because the original statement was made before anyone actually went into space… Even NASA admit that the Great Wall becomes somewhat less great when photographed from a low earth orbit.

Finally, did you also know that the wall is not really an ‘it’ but more of a ‘them’? The wall was very much built in sections, with many overlapping and some more ancient and wild sections crumbling away. That might also be because many sections of the wall are not built from bricks and mortar, but are sometimes moulded from the earth to create humps in the ground which are often reshaped by the weather.

Embed from Getty Images

Have you visited the Great Wall recently? Can you vouch for any of these stories? Please let us know if you go to Jiayuguan and find that famous supernatural brick still sitting there…

The Legend of Fireworks

News and Travel Editor

November is a pretty big month for fireworks around the world.

Not only is Thanksgiving Day celebrated on the 24th of November in the US, the 5th of November marks Bonfire Night in the UK. For the British, fireworks represent the explosives that were never used in Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Lots of people know that fireworks and gunpowder were discovered in China, but did you know about some of the fun and more unusual legends surrounding their discovery?

shanghai-fireworks
Shanghai at Night. Image by SebastienPoncet.

It is generally accepted that gunpowder, and later fireworks, were discovered by Chinese alchemists from the Han dynasty, who were hoping to discover an elixir for immortality. As you may have already guessed, this elixir was never discovered. However, these alchemists did happen to combine a seemingly random collection of chemicals: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulphur and later charcoal. Little did they know this happened to be the recipe for the perfect firework… Potassium nitrate is the stuff that creates the loud bang, whilst the sulphur makes the firework spray out of its container and smell delightfully of rotten eggs.

On that note, you can probably guess how much smoke and pollution is produced from fireworks. It’s because of this that certain cities in China, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, have taken the decision to ban fireworks in urban areas.

firework-invention-thing
Illustration of Chinese Fireworks. Image by Rurik the Varangian.

It wasn’t until the 13th century when Marco Polo was credited with bringing the Chinese invention back to Europe, although some European Crusaders also claim to have brought the concoction back home after their travels.

The recipe has of course developed from the 13th Century. Not only did gunpowder start to become used for rockets and weapons, but fireworks became increasingly popular during celebrations, religious ceremonies and to commemorate military victories. We started to add more and more ingredients to create different effects and colours, such as copper for blue and barium for green.

Other legends also suggest that fireworks were discovered somewhat by mistake. One traditional Chinese legend claims that a cook accidentally poured saltpeter on to a fire, creating interesting flames and colours.

Another story from the Tang dynasty credits a Chinese monk, Li Tian, with the discovery of firecrackers. It is said that Li Tian fought off the lingering spirit of an evil dragon by shooting explosives out of a bamboo shoot. The dragon’s spirit was scared away by the loud bangs.

In a similar story, the province of Hunan was consistently plagued by an evil spirit, who deliberately caused droughts and floods. That was until Li Tian (this guy again?!) set off fireworks to scare the spirit away. Every year on the 18th of April, some Chinese honour the efforts of the  ‘Founder of Crackers’ by offering sacrifices.

Next time you’re gazing up at the night’s sky and watching a spectacular fireworks display, remember you’re watching an invention created over 2000 years ago! Today, most of the world’s fireworks are still created in China, in a town called Liuyang, Hunan Province.

Check out a timelapse from China Icons when we were lucky enough to witness Chinese New Year fireworks.

Are you doing anything to celebrate Thanksgiving or Bonfire Night soon? Let us know and send us your fabulous firework pictures for our blog!