China's Great Wall is hard to find Myth: The celebrated Great Wall of China is actually several walls -- and largely a creation of the West that China has embraced

Sun Journal

June 09, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DINGBIAN, China -- Far away from the Great Wall Sheraton hotel, the Bank of China's Great Wall credit card and the Great Wall restaurants found in northern Chinese cities is a crumbling wall of rammed dirt with children playing on it.

The northern wind from Mongolia howls over it, the wall that snakes off into the distance. A few herdsmen trudge home after a day in the semi-arid fields.

Here, it seems, is the real Great Wall.

"Nooo," the children wail when the stranger asks. "This is the 'bianqiang,' " -- the border wall. "The Great Wall isn't around here."

The maps, the tourist brochures and the townsfolk all point to this as a part of the Great Wall. The children stand firm: 'It's the Ming Dynasty border wall," says one. "The Great Wall is far away from here."

The children are right. If, as the history books tell us, the Great Wall was built 2,200 years ago, then this wall of a mere 500 years of age can't be it.

So why is the Great Wall so hard to find?

Primarily because it is a myth, not a definite historical landmark.

The numerous defensive walls in northern China are still distinguishable to local residents, but in the popular mind they have been linked into a single "Great Wall."

And in a country short on unity and long on division, it has been pressed into service as China's national symbol.

It is the place foreign dignitaries always visit and where they are supposed to stand in awe of China. As Richard Nixon said during a visit in 1972: "This is a Great Wall and it had to be built by a great people."

Official story

Here's the official story and the official, government-approved interpretation:

The Great Wall was created when Qin Shihuang, China's first emperor, united various border walls built by the small kingdoms that he conquered.

In the many years since then, the Great Wall has fallen into disrepair and been rebuilt. Its current incarnation is from the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries.

Officially, the wall is not a symbol of war and ethnic division but instead was a meeting point where ideas and goods were exchanged. Officially, it binds modern China's 55 ethnic groups.

But here's the Great Wall that is known to historians, especially as researched by Arthur Waldron, a history professor at Brown University: For millenniums, Chinese states have struggled to keep out nomadic warriors from the north. When China was strong, it usually conquered these people or united them under a Pax Sinica. When weak, China hid behind walls that proved militarily useless -- China's Maginot Lines.

According to historians and archaeologists, the 2,000-year-old wall built by Qin Shihuang -- usually called the Great Wall, "changcheng" in Chinese -- is now in ruins and lies hundreds of miles north of the Ming walls that tourists see.

Other dynasties also built walls, but in widely separated locations. And the term "Great Wall" appears only rarely in China's otherwise copious historical documents.

If the Great Wall's history has been simplified for popular consumption, its connotation has changed even more dramatically. Built by slave labor, Qin Shihuang's Great Wall was always a symbol of oppression and tyranny, never of national pride.

Waldron believes that the modern, mythical Great Wall probably comes from Westerners who wrote glowing and fanciful descriptions of the Ming wall when they saw it in the 18th century.

Romantic painters spread its fame, etching it in the Western consciousness as a symbol of eternal and ancient China, a land with rulers so wise that they built a wall 2,000 years ago and passed it on to their descendants.

Ironically, the wall that the Westerners saw was a symbol of defeat. When the Westerners arrived in China, the country was ruled by the Manchus, a nomadic tribe that had conquered the Ming in 1644. The Ming wall was in ruins because it had failed so miserably.

Chinese thinkers were often frustrated by Westerners' awe of the Ming wall and the way they often mixed up the various dynasties' border defenses, as though they were one and the same.

Westerners offered legends -- that the wall is visible by the naked eye from the moon, that it has enough bricks to build an 8-foot wall around the earth -- while the Chinese could only shrug their shoulders at the inscrutable West.

But in the 20th century, China's humiliation at the hands of Western imperialists and Japanese militarists convinced the country's leaders that they needed symbols to forge a strong, modern nation out of what had been a loosely united group of people. Some proposed the Great Wall as that symbol.

Represents China

"When you get rid of the emperor and the traditional system, then you begin to wonder what's going to stand for your country," Waldron says. "My argument is that the wall does, in part because it was so famous in the West."

Still, when the Communists took power in 1949, they made few repairs to the structures, according to Ji Ren, vice secretary general of the Great Wall Research Society.

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