The Great Wall of China doesn’t exist
When Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, returned to earth on October 16, 2003, he reported to a disappointed Chinese public that the Great Wall was not in fact, as folk wisdom had it, visible from outer space. Yet from the ground the wall has a very tangible presence. At Badaling, its most photographed section, conveniently located some 80 kilometers northwest of Beijing, there are millions of visitors every year. The wall, tourist guides tell us, is altogether 21,196 kilometers long and thereby the largest man-made structure in the world, although, alas, several sections of it are in a sad state of repairs. It was Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China, who began work on the wall in the third century BCE, we are informed, and it was significantly improved in the late Ming dynasty.
And yet, we can on good authority reject these observations as incorrect. It is not just that the wall is invisible from outer space; it is not just that large parts of it is have fallen to ruin; the Great Wall of China itself does not exist! Or rather, while walls of various kinds have been constructed in northern China at least since the sixth century BCE, they were never thought of as one coherent structure built with one purpose in mind. The ramparts that the First Emperor built quickly fell to ruin and during Tang and Song no similar fortifications were constructed. This is why there are many gaps between the structures and why walls in several places run parallel to each other. This is also why it is quite impossible to say how long the wall actually is. GPS technology does not help us here since we first have to decide what to measure.
The Great Wall of China was constructed not in China, but in Europe. It was built, beginning in the seventeenth-century, in the minds of European readers of the letters which the Jesuit friars at the emperor’s court began sending back. The Jesuits were purposely appealing to the long-established European fascination with things “Oriental” in order to generate support for their missionary project. In China, the most wondrous thing of all, they explained, is “the Great Wall.” Naturally, subsequent European visitors insisted on being shown the attraction. After the Communists came to power in 1949, they adopted the European idea of the Great Wall as a national emblem and a symbol of China’s independence and self-reliance.
In Our Time: “Great Wall of China”