The earliest defensive wall whose existence is a proven archaeological fact was built around the Palestinian city of Jericho during the eighth or seventh millennium before Christ. Ever since, walls have continued to figure prominently in human affairs from one end of the world to the other. “It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls,” wrote the Athenian playwright Aristophanes at the turn of the fourth century BC. Almost 2500 years later, the Swedish art historian Osvald Sirén could still characterize the dominant note of Chinese urban architecture as “walls, walls, and yet again walls”: “There is no such thing as a city without a wall. It would be just as inconceivable as a house without a roof.”
The most famous of history’s walls have an enduring resonance all their own: the wall around Troy that could only be breached in myth by using the typically wily Greek gambit of the Trojan Horse; the wall around Babylon that was so impressive it was included in lists of the Seven Wonders of the World alongside the same city’s Hanging Gardens; Hadrian’s Wall that marked the most far-flung extremity of the glory that was Rome; the wall around Constantinople that separated the Christian West from the Muslim East; the Maginot Line that so spectacularly failed to keep the armies of Nazi Germany out of the heartland of France; the Berlin Wall that was ground zero of the Cold War.
Walls like these ones have been immortalized more for their ineffectiveness than the adverse. Yet that hasn’t stopped us from continuing to build them wherever tension and the potential for trouble exist, from Northern Ireland to Israel. In 2006, a hopeful historian named Julia Lovell fondly imagined walls as a relic of the past. “Walls and barriers are monuments of a lost, pre-1989 world,” she wrote, “when life was sufficiently slow-moving and ground-based to make static walls useful, when there were enough institutionalized super-ideologies (capitalism, Communism, German expansionism) to require the erection of clear-cut barriers. History has made a mockery of any government or individual foolish enough to erect defensive walls in the twentieth century.” Exactly ten years later, an American president was elected on the back of a promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” spanning the country’s southern border. Effective or not, it seems that walls are destined to be with us for quite some time yet.
The most ambitious walls tend to be built in places where ethnicities, cultures, or nations rub up against one another in ways that make their builders nervous. Sometimes they are built to keep outsiders out; other times they are built to keep the builders’ own people in; often they are built for the opposite of the reason that is given for building them. But they serve always to mark the fault lines in human civilization. Small wonder, then, that they have always loomed so large in our books of human history, which, in the traditional telling at least, is so often the story of clashes along the aforementioned fault lines. Their presence is a sign of closedness and cultural insularity, their absence a sign of openness and multiculturalism. (Thus the contrast between attitudes toward walls in 2006 versus 2016: history will record the world as becoming a markedly less culturally globalized, more mutually suspicious place over the course of the intervening decade.)
This particular history book takes as its title and its guiding metaphor the Great Wall of China. The latter is rivaled only by the Berlin Wall for the title of the most famous wall of all today, but it is still poorly understood in its full historical context by most Westerners. The story of the Great Wall’s ascent from complete obscurity to become the symbol of the Chinese cultural identity in the eyes of the West is intimately bound up with the humbling China endured at the hands of the Western world over the 150 years prior to the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — the very same abasement that the resurgent China of the 21st century is so furiously determined to rectify. The fact is that the Great Wall’s status is a construct of the West, not of China itself, although China has come to embrace it with equal enthusiasm of late, especially when Western tourist dollars are in play. The claim that the section of wall which tourists visit as a convenient day trip from Beijing is an “ancient” artifact of China’s long history was born in ignorance and lives today somewhere on the fuzzy border between polite fiction and outright fraud. Ditto the idea that it is a piece of a single unbroken wall that stretches 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) or more, remaining throughout that distance as intact and impressive as it is just north of Beijing. Neither of these things is remotely true.
The man most directly responsible for making the Great Wall of China the international symbol of the nation that contains it was a British diplomat named Lord George Macartney, who came in time to loathe almost everything else about China. He arrived in the country in 1793, having been sent there by his king’s government in response to a problem that must strike any reader familiar with the political and economic debates of our own time as peculiarly familiar: Britain was running a massive trade deficit with China at the time, thanks to its addiction to Chinese tea. Macartney’s assignment was to convince the Chinese of the value of the finished goods which Britain could send them in return for tea. He accordingly packed his ships’ holds full of sample merchandise, from telescopes to planetariums, barometers to clocks, muskets to howitzers, carriages to hot-air balloons.
When Macartney reached the Chinese capital of Beijing at last after an arduous journey of almost a year, he learned that Emperor Qianlong had removed himself to his summer retreat of Jehol (modern-day Chengde), some days’ overland travel to the north. So, leaving all but the most easily transportable of their lavish gifts behind in Beijing, Macartney and his delegation set off to meet him there. Along the way, on September 5, 1793, they passed through a gate in the barrier that Macartney’s own reports would imprint on the world’s consciousness as the Great Wall of China.
At this point in his adventure, Macartney was still rather in awe of China, a country which had been the richest in the world for much of the past millennium and could still play the role of a preeminent empire quite well when the conditions were right, a country whose atmosphere of exotic opulence his staid British lungs breathed in eagerly. He was so taken with the land and its people that at one point he declared himself hard pressed not to shout out those euphoric lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here,
How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world
That has such people in it.
The mandarins whom he had met in Beijing had told Macartney about the wall through which he would pass on his way to Jehol, talking it up with the same grandiloquence they applied to all things homegrown Chinese. Thus he was thoroughly primed to think the best of “this celebrated wall, which we had heard such wonders of.” He wasn’t disappointed by the reality of it.
It is carried on in a curvilinear direction, often over the steepest, highest, and craggiest mountains, and measures upwards of 1500 miles [2400 kilometers] in length from its commencement to its termination.
If the other parts of it be similar to those which I have seen, it is certainly the most stupendous work of human hands, for I imagine, that if the outline of all the masonry of all the forts and fortified places in the whole world besides were to be calculated, it would fall considerably short of that of the Great Wall of China. At the remote period of its building, China must not only have been a very powerful empire, but a very wise and virtuous nation: or at least to have had such foresight, and such regard for posterity, as to establish at once what was then thought a perpetual security for them against future invasion, choosing to load herself with an enormous expense of immediate labor and treasure, rather than to leave succeeding generations to a precarious dependence on contingent resources. She must also have had uncommon vigilance and discernment, so as to profit by every current event, and to seize the proper moment of tranquility for executing so extensive and difficult an enterprise. The wall is, in some places which I saw, quite perfect and entire, and looks as if recently built, or repaired, but in general it is in a ruinous condition, and falling fast to decay, very little care being taken to preserve it. Indeed, at present, its utility in point of defence seems to be almost at an end; for the emperor now reigning has extended his territory so far beyond it, that I doubt whether his dominions without the wall are inferior to those within it.
Macartney insisted on measuring the wall, finding it to be 26 feet (8 meters) high and 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide along its parapet, with towers that reached 36 feet (11 meters) or more to be found every 150 to 200 feet (45 to 60 meters) along its length. He extrapolated from the holes cut into the wall, which were too small for archers, that “the Chinese had the use of some sort of firearms in very ancient times; for all their writings agree that this wall was built about 200 years before the Christian era.”
John Barrow, a junior diplomat who was traveling with the party, was even more enchanted. He said that the Great Wall “has no parallel in the whole world, not even in the pyramids of Egypt, the magnitude of the largest of these containing only a very small portion of the quantity of matter comprehended in the Great Wall of China.” He calculated by some arcane method that the amount of stone used to build “all the dwelling-houses of England and Scotland” was “barely equivalent” to that used to build the Great Wall, not including its towers. As for them: they “contain as much masonry and brickwork as all of London.”
Alas, the visit to the Great Wall would turn out to be the high point of the expedition, and of its leader’s opinion of China. When he arrived in Jehol, Macartney learned that Emperor Qianlong expected him to kowtow to him — to bow so low before him that his forehead touched the ground, a sign of complete subservience and submission. This Macartney flatly refused to do, as he also refused to describe the things he had brought with him as “tribute” rather than “presents” for the emperor. He wrangled with the mandarins in Jehol and then back in Beijing for several weeks, until he was peremptorily ordered by the Chinese to just go home. “Strange and costly objects do not interest me,” wrote Emperor Qianlong in a missive to his opposite number on the British throne. “We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” His disinterest in Macartney’s baubles was, if nothing else, honestly held: 70 years later, the tribute or presents — take your pick — which Macartney had brought with him would be discovered by British and French soldiers in a disused stable in Beijing, where some bored functionary or other had tossed them and forgotten about them.
The George Macartney who made the return journey to Britain was the polar opposite of the one whose earliest encounters with the Chinese had moved him to heights of Shakespearean rapture. Now his musings about China took on a decidedly nasty, peevish edge. “Can they be ignorant,” he groused, “that a couple of English frigates would be an overmatch for the whole naval force of their empire, that in half a summer [the two frigates] could totally destroy the navigation of their coasts and reduce the inhabitants of the maritime provinces, who subsist chiefly on fish, to absolute famine?” He wrote that “the empire of China is an old crazy first-rate [naval] man of war” which served to “overawe neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance”: “She may perhaps not sink outright, she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore. She can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.” Or, if you like, China was a great tree, outwardly “stately and flourishing,” but marked by “speedy decay” inside. Products of the petulant anger of a proud man scorned rather than carefully reasoned analyses though they may have been, every single one of his claims about the real state of China would be proven correct over the decades to come.
The diplomatic fiasco of George Macartney’s visit has rightly gone down in history as a pivotal moment in China’s relationship with the West, a colossal mutual missed opportunity that, had both parties only been a bit more accommodating and less arrogantly unyielding, might have changed the course of history. We’ll address its full implications in this context much later in these pages. Here and now, though, I’d like to focus on its role in the creation of the Great Wall as the enduring myth and symbol of China.
The abject failure of Macartney’s mission turned him into something of a laughingstock back in Britain for the remainder of his life. But in 1807, one year after his death, his old traveling companion John Barrow arranged for the publication of his journal of the expedition, shortly after Barrow himself had published his own China travelogue. The two books appeared in the midst of a European craze for exotic tales of adventure among ancient ruins, and were both widely read. The Great Wall of China was thus implanted in the Western imagination, as a symbol of bygone glory and engineering genius to rival or, if one chose to take Barrow at face value, even exceed the fabled Pyramids of Giza. Its canonization as a proper noun encouraged ever more lavish flights of fancy, mostly from people who had never actually seen it. By 1820, it was being said that the Great Wall had been so imposing as to send the Huns scurrying back to Europe to sack Rome and end the epoch of classical antiquity in the West rather than proceeding eastward into China. By 1893, it was being said that the Great Wall must be the only human-made structure visible from the Moon. Unsatisfied with the magnitude of that claim, Joseph Needham wrote in the 1950s that the Great Wall ought surely to be visible from Mars as well.
None of these things was true. When humans began to fly into space in the 1960s, it was discovered that the Great Wall is too narrow to be seen from low Earth orbit, much less from the Moon or Mars.
Further, the Great Wall is nothing like the singular contiguous barrier that so many of its admirers have imagined it to be, as the travel writer and historian John Man eloquently explains:
The Wall is not an “it”. It’s a “them”, walls in the plural, and they do not form a continuous line. They are in bits, which appear on good maps like fragments of DNA in a scientific diagram. Tame sections give way to wild ones — crumbling, overgrown, barred from walkers — and wild ones vanish into gaps made by roads and reservoirs. You cannot join the dots and come up with a unity. And these divided sections are nothing against the other walls, those that rise, fall, and vanish as you journey westward. All across north China, as mountains give way to terraced hills and arid plains and finally desert, walls of various sorts keep you company. And out there, where tourists seldom go, majestic brick and stone give way to earth: sometimes a rough barrier blasted by wind and washed by rain into camel’s humps or saw-teeth, sometimes no more than a gentle bank a metre or two in height, sometimes nothing at all.
There is another, equally pervasive myth about the Great Wall that we should dispel here and now: this notion that the section of it which Macartney and Barrow rhapsodized over is an ancient structure, stemming from the earliest years of a unified entity known as China. The reality is that Macartney was badly misinformed when he said that it was built “about 200 years before the Christian era.” The wall he viewed was actually built by the Ming Dynasty — the one just before the Qing dynasty which Macartney visited. It ruled China between AD 1368 and 1644, and probably built the stretch of wall he saw during the 1560s and 1570s. Thus the structure which Macartney looked upon with such awe as a legacy of the ancients was in truth barely 200 years old at the time — younger than the manor house he owned back in Britain. There was, to be sure, a longstanding tradition of building frontier walls in China, for reasons which we’ll explore in future chapters; the first of them was indeed built in the third century BC if not earlier. Remains of these older walls can still be seen here and there even today. But those truly ancient walls are not what George Macartney saw on that memorable day outside Beijing, nor what the vast majority of tourists see today.
In the time after Macartney’s visit to China, it would seem more and more apt to more and more Westerners — beginning with Macartney himself — to emphasize the “ruinous condition,” “falling fast to decay” of even the best preserved, most impressively built section of the Great Wall. Its condition seemed a useful metaphor for the state of China itself at the ragged end of its last dynasty. China was, according to this conception — and in truth it’s difficult to argue against it in the broad strokes — a once-great nation whose glory days were far behind it, plagued by corruption and malaise at every social level, an inbred, sick land that had become a caricature of its past glories. It was all too easy for Westerners to link the Great Wall of China to the Pyramids of Giza in this sense as well as other, more positive ones: both were described as relics of ancient greatness which their lands’ degenerate current inhabitants were utterly unworthy of having in their midst.
The Western nations spent the next 150 years trampling all over the sovereignty of a China for which they had not one jot of respect: beating up on it militarily whenever it suited them, carving it up into “zones of influence,” and deliberately addicting millions upon millions of its citizens to the devastating drug known as opium in order to balance the trade deficits which George Macartney had so conspicuously failed to erase through normal diplomatic channels. And through it all the hapless Chinese government could only look on, confirming every stereotype about its impotence. Arguably the only reason China wasn’t gobbled up entirely by the Western powers was because it was just too large a morsel for any one of them to digest. Instead it was left to endure the colonial experience without ever quite becoming a colony.
And the all-encompassing mythic metaphor of the Great Wall of China was part and parcel of that, an instance of imperial cultural appropriation on a staggering scale. For 150 years, the Great Wall was a staple image of Western rather than Chinese culture. One section of Macartney’s account of his visit to the wall stands out in light of what would come later:
It was not without a little management that we contrived to examine this wall so much at our leisure, for some of our conductors appeared rather uneasy, or impatient at the length of our stay upon it. They were astonished at our curiosity, and almost began to suspect us, I believe, of dangerous designs. Wang and Chou, though they had passed it twenty times before, had never visited it but once. A few of the other attending mandarins had never visited it at all.
So, it seems that most of the Chinese minders of the British expedition had never previously given the Great Wall a second look when they passed across it during the Chinese court’s annual journeys between Beijing and Jehol. And why should they have done? To the extent it carried any meaning for the Chinese, it was as a symbol of thoroughgoing folly and failure rather than a remnant of any former glory. The Great Wall had availed its builders little in the end; the Ming dynasty which had built it had collapsed not that long after finishing it. In fact, the founders of the Qing dynasty had themselves come from the lands beyond the Great Wall; it had manifestly not succeeded in preventing them from marching into Beijing and taking over. It’s thus unsurprising that, until quite recently, the Chinese as a whole looked back upon the Ming Great Wall and the many others they have built over the course of their history with little interest or fondness.
The man most responsible for changing that was also, for better or for worse, the principal architect of the nation of China that we know today. “You’re not a real man if you’ve not been to the Great Wall,” wrote Chairman Mao Zedong in one of his many blunt propaganda “poems.” Just as he repurposed the foreign ideology of communism, which was supposed to have industrialization as a prerequisite, into an ontology suitable for agrarian China, he re-appropriated the Great Wall from its Western appropriators. He realized that it could serve as a valuable symbol of Chinese identity, solidarity, and historical achievement — the last at least as long as one didn’t look too closely at the real facts of its history — in a land that was otherwise being deliberately wrenched away from its traditions. “The Great Wall,” states a Chinese cultural encyclopedia from 1994, “magnificent and solid as it is in both body and soul, symbolizes the great strength of the Chinese nation. Any invaders from outside will be defeated when confronting this great force.” Thus the Chinese themselves were ironically the very last to let go of the claim that the Great Wall could be seen from space; they did so only in 2003, when Yang Liwei, the first person to ride a Chinese rocket into Earth orbit, returned with the disappointing news that he had been able to see no such thing.
As China embraced a more market-driven economic model in the post-Mao era, there was of course another reason to trumpet the heritage of the Great Wall: doing so could be very, very profitable. Over recent decades, tens of millions of tourists from all over the world have climbed it and walked along it and snapped their pictures from the stretch closest to Beijing, which has been lovingly restored to serve as China’s preeminent tourist attraction, a sight every visitor to the country simply has to see. Needless to say, the authorities in charge are not overly eager to disabuse the tourists of the notion that the wall they see stretching out before them is equally fine and extant all the way to its official terminus in the northwestern province of Gansu, much less that it is a truly ancient artifact.
But if the Great Wall is rather less than it’s cracked up to be as a physical reality, its value as metaphor remains impossible to deny. Down through the centuries and millennia, China has been the inscrutable Other to all those who are not Chinese, a land which defies outside understanding and, for that matter, has seldom demonstrated any real desire to be understood. Its relationship with the rest of the world has been marked by deep suspicion and by an absolute conviction as to its own cultural superiority, punctuated by only occasional bouts of relative openness. China, in other words, has been as opaque to most foreigners as its Great Wall; the same could be said for the outside world from the perspective of the Chinese.
Of course, most large countries tend to be insular to one degree or another; their size gives them the luxury of being so. China, however, has often taken its insularity to unusual extremes. Its name for itself is Zhongguo: “The Middle Kingdom.” The phrase isn’t, as one might initially assume, some form of tribute to Confucian moderation. The Chinese of the past rather named their country thusly because they believed that it literally stood in the middle — i.e., the center — of the world, the polar beacon of civilization around which all other lands and peoples oriented themselves. Its Great Wall was opaque from both sides by design: in addition to keeping potentially dangerous invaders out, it prevented the Chinese themselves, the only truly civilized people in the world in their own estimation, from becoming distracted by the “barbarians” who lived outside their borders. This preference for looking inward rather than outward is by no means an absolute constant in Chinese history, but it is a theme that pops up again and again over a span of more than 2000 years.
So, while the Great Wall — or, better said, the Great Walls — will only appear occasionally as physical realities in these pages, the shadow of the Great Wall as metaphor must loom over this book from first to last. This is very much by authorial design: for all that our journey through China’s past will take us down many intriguing side trails, I’m interested most of all in how China has historically oriented itself toward the rest of the world, as well as how said world has seen China down through the ages. Perhaps by the end of our journey we will have arrived at, if not wisdom, at least a better understanding of a country that is today eager to reclaim its status as the Middle Kingdom of a world it has seldom felt fully comfortable embracing.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)