China and East Asia

The Great Wall of China Doesn’t Exist

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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 would have it, visible from outer space.  From the ground, however, 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 3rd century BCE, we are told, and it was significantly improved in the late Ming dynasty. “It’s a great wall,” as Richard Nixon concluded after visiting the site on February 24, 1972, during his historic visit to China. 

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 into 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 built. This is why there are many gaps between the constructions 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 here since we first have to decide what to measure.When the Mongols invaded China in the late 13th century, there was no wall there to stop them, and Marco Polo does not mention any wall in his accounts of China. For most of its history, the border between China and the great Central Asian steppes was open. The Ming built extensive walled structures, but that was in the late 16th century, and they did not amount to a single wall either. They too failed to stop invaders from the north — this time the Manchus who overran China in 1644.

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 [Read more: Jesuits at the Emperor’s Court].  The Jesuits were purposively appealing to the long-established European fascination with things “Oriental” in order to generate support for their attempts to convert the Chinese to Christianity. In China, the most wondrous thing of all, they explained, was “the Great Wall.” Naturally, subsequent European visitors insisted on being shown the wall. 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.