Monday, 15 August 2011

Preview: The Great Wall Of China

Walls. Huh? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. So, approximately, sang Edwin Starr in 1970. And although he was probably making a more general point, he may well have applied his lyrics to one of the greatest follies of all time - the Great Wall of China.

When you think of the Great Wall of China, there are probably a few things that spring to mind: a symbol of China, great serpentine stretches of stone curving across mountains, visibility from space, two thousands years of history, David Copperfield using magic to walk through it, defence against barbarians. And yet most of these aren't quite true. Yes, it is a symbol of China, but only fairly recently have the Chinese began to think it so and become proud of it, and only really as a reaction to foreigners being impressed with it. Before it was simply regarded as a stupid wall, and was happily dismantled whenever it was in the way. Yes, it of course stretches great distances, across mountains and all kinds of terrain, but not all of it is built from stone, and not all is as picture-perfect as the (often heavily reconstructed) famous parts. No, it's of course not visible from space, the moon or - as some sources incredibly claim - Mars. From the moon, it would be the equivalent of trying to see a human hair from two miles away. Yes, there is indeed a couple of thousand of years history of wall building in China, but all the old stuff is visually unremarkable packed-earth and mud creations. The famous stone part dates from around 400 years ago, although is still an impressive 6000 kilometres. Yes, David Copperfield did walk through it, using real magic. And yes, ok, it was indeed built for defence, but its actual defensive value was pretty much redundant, to the point of actually being counter-productive.

It is this final semi-myth about the Great Wall that makes it a truly monumental folly, and why the Wall is often compared to the historic and in some cases modern Chinese mindset: fear the outside and build a wall around it. All the most famous walls have been built through fear and the failing of diplomacy (which can come from either or both sides): Hadrian's Wall was built by the Romans to keep out the ghastly Scottish; the Berlin Wall was built by Communist East Germany to keep separate the "fascist" West Berliners; the Israeli West Bank barrier is a controversial series of walls and fences to keep separate - segregate, one might suggest - the Palestinians from the Israelis, and is a sad indication of how little mankind has progressed. And the Great Wall of China is testament to China's historic arrogance and disregard for the value of anything foreign. It was built to exclude and suppress, to mark the boundary between perceived civilisation and the wild badlands of the barbarian. And for two thousand years, it was a dirty addiction it couldn't kick, consuming the empire's time, resources and money for very little return.

It's the Ming Dynasty's Wall that I'm focussing on for my Wonder, because it's the impressive stone part. Up to 50,000 kilometres of older, earth wall exist, but it's mostly degraded and unspectacular, and scant testimony to the millions that died building it in the name of paranoia. The Ming dynasty ruled from 1368 to 1644, and it was the third emperor of the dynasty, Yongle (literally, "Perpetual Happiness"), who was responsible for building the Forbidden City and moving the capital to Beijing in the north. As this was right next to where the Mongol threat was, it was a bit of a careless decision. But Yongle and most of his line weren't noted for their razor-sharp acuity.

It's probably fair to say that most of the Ming emperors, by modern standards at least, were absolute arseholes. Pompous, arrogant arseholes. They were obsessed with court etiquette and had a vast superiority complex, especially over anything foreign. The Jiajing emperor - his name with the somewhat ill-fitting meaning of "Admirable Tranquility" - epitomises this. He ruled for 44 years, the second longest of the Ming dynasty, from 1521 to 1567, and kickstarted the Great Wall of China we know today. With the capital having moved much closer to dangerous territory, and thus a defensive tone set, by the time Jiajing took over the Mongol forces were becoming a real threat - or at least that's how he perceived it. You see, all the Mongols really wanted to do was trade - they weren't interested in territory - but Jiajing just couldn't stomach the thought of negotiating with foreigners. And so the Mongols began making a nuisance of themselves, and midway into Jiajing's reign caused havoc north of Beijing, and were even close to actually taking Beijing itself until Jiajing, no doubt sulking petulantly, reluctantly agreed a trade deal. That was all they wanted, and the Mongols stopped their pillaging, said thank-you very much, and skipped home.

And Jiajing immediately reneged on his promise. After being sick in his mouth one last time at the thought at compromising with a foreigner, he gathered his advisors round and told them a new approach was necessary. Build walls. Lots and lots of walls out of stone. Build them everywhere, across deserts and mountains. And make them big enough so no barbarian could ever darken his doorstep again. And so for almost a hundred years, that was Ming policy: screw diplomacy, build a wall.

It didn't end well for the Ming, but centuries later it worked out pretty well for mankind. Because although it may seem as though I'm having a bit of a go at the poor old Great Wall of China here, whatever its origins there is no doubt the end product is magnificent. Over 6000 kilometres of wall, which would be enough to build fifty Hadrian's Walls, forty-three Berlins Walls, or eight Israeli West Bank barriers (although only 10% of its length is actually a wall, the other 90% is fence and trenches), or enough to pander to the Daily Mail's occasional xenophobia and go around the entire perimeter of England. 6000 kilometres is a hell of a lot of stone - the Great Wall is the largest, by volume, construction ever built, as long as you accept it as one single construction rather than a series of them. And unlike the drab Berlin Wall or the ugly menace of the Israeli West Bank barrier, the Great Wall of China is not just architecturally functional, it is also aesthetically pleasing. Although the western end of the wall is a little more mundane, the area around Beijing is the ostentatious section that occupies the postcards, where the Chinese architects and engineers were allowed to show off their ingenuity a little, evidently by this time aware that they were working on something special. This is where we have the crenellated (i.e. the turret effect) corridors that cling to mountains, winding around, punctuated by impressive watchtowers. One of these towers - the unsubtly named "Tower for Suppressing the North" - reaches 30 metres tall. The Wall's height varies, but often reaches 9 metres high, and up to 9 metres wide. It even reaches 20 metres into the sea, at the eastern end in Shanhaiguan. All these things change a wall to a Great Wall.

Of course, all this magnificence and vast size meant it was ruinously expensive, and it was absolutely impossible to maintain or properly man. And so in 1644, it was all too easy for the Manchus from the north-east to break through, finding very little resistance from a corrupt and bankrupt empire with as little as 10% of its fighting roster actually present. Exit the Ming dynasty, hello to the Qing dynasty, and they did things a little differently. For a start, they decided to use a little diplomacy and invited the Mongolian aristocrats to visit, bestowed honours on them and resolved some of their inter-tribe conflicts. As a result, for the first time in 2000 years, the northern border was pacified. In 1691, all work on the the Great Wall stopped. It just wasn't needed any longer.

There being over 6000 kilometres of wall, this particular Wonder is a little tricker to visit than any of the others. My dedication isn't quite there to walk the full distance; besides, it's a whole bunch of walls rather than one single stretch, so would be rather confusing. Instead, I've decided to visit certain sections. These are: Badaling near Beijing and the most famous and photographed section; Jinshanling, an especially scenic mountainous part to the especially steep Simatai section - an 80 mile hike if we're feeling active; the West Pass at Jiayuguan, a built-in fort near the western edges of Great Wall; the sea section at Shanhaiguan; and sections of Wall at Nankou Pass, north of Beijing, said to be among the most spectacular part. I'll also check out the older section at Dunhuang, as I'll be there anyway to visit the Thousand Buddha Caves.





Nankou Pass

I'll be visiting the Great Wall of China in February and/or March, and will give a fuller account of its history as well as my own impressions. It had damn well better be great.

Reviewed 17th March 2012.

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