Autor: Lenka Květová (Institut politologických studií FSV UK)
The Great Wall of China is surrounded by many myths. There exist different accounts about its exact length and even about its precise location. But how exactly does a wall become the “Great” Wall? In my essay I argue that the myth around the Great Wall, which is the source of the addendum “Great”, was in fact largely created by the West and its perception of China as an exotic, fantastic place.
It might be surprising that for the Chinese the Wall was at first a negative symbol, largely connected with the bad memories of Ch´in´s despotic rule (Waldron 196). The negative connotations of the Great Wall immerged again during the T´ang dynasty when a new wave of men was sent to built the fortification (201). However, even though during Ming new parts of the Wall were being built, the “ideas about the “Great Wall” in those times were nowhere near as important a feature of Chinese culture as they are today,…” Even now the existence of the “Great” Wall is not known to every Chinese (203).
The fact that the Chinese seem, until fairly recently, quite uninterested in the Wall, could be due to the fact that there is not a single wall in China, but actually several walls, which have been built since the seventh century B.C. (6). Ch´in Shih-huang, the emperor who first unified China, incorporated early walls build by his predecessors into his own first version of the “Great Wall”. After that, the wall was constantly rebuilt by Ch´in´s successors, until it was more or less finished by the Ming dynasty (1). Chinese writers seem to perceive the distinction between different walls in their writings strongly (203). For the West on the other hand, it was easier to refer to walls in China as one “Great” Wall, because this simplification removed the need to look on each of these walls in its specific context. Europe in the 18th century, when this sensational idea of Chinese Wall “completed the conquest of the Western imagination,” was indeed a fertile soil for such a myth (206). Most people did not travel and so everything beyond Europe was considered exotic and alien.
The tendency to perceive China as a mysterious and sensational empire somewhere far away can be clearly seen also in the Ripley´s Believe it or Not from 1932. This poster is created to give the reader some general idea about China, while presenting some entertaining and sensational “facts” about the country and its people. All those “facts” are written in a way so that it would be clear how the Chinese are different from the Westerners: the Chinese man “laughs when he is sad and cries when he is glad” or “wears white instead of black when mourning.” The exaggeration and attempt to make China look sensational can be also seen in the part of the poster which deals with the Great Wall. It states that the Wall is “the mightiest work of man, the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the moon.” I wonder how the author got the information, when the article was printed a quarter century before Sputnik. Unfortunately, this myth prevailed and many people still believe it to be true. The second sentence is also clearly written to create a sensation. It declares that the Wall “contains enough material to build a barrier 8 feet high around the Earth.” When we consider the fact that no one knows precisely how long the Wall is, such information is impossible to state. Another part of the commentary claims that the Wall was built in 15 years, which is yet another exaggeration, because, as I stated earlier, we know that the Wall was being built and rebuilt since the seventh century B.C. until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). However, it is not only the commentary we should focus on. The illustration also tells us a lot about the “Great” Wall myth itself. The picture complies with the idea of Great Wall as immerse, seemingly unending work of man conquering the obstacles of China´s natural landscape.
The Great wall(s) of China
The perception of the Great Wall as something unbelievably big and as “the mightiest work of man” however raises questions about its purpose, which I would expect to be as considerable as the Wall itself, and accordingly the hunt for the higher objective began. There are several theories about the function of the Great Wall of China. Some scholars argue that the Great Wall represents in many ways the Chinese attitude towards anything foreign. Wakeman for example argues that the Wall was “more than a defense line. To the Chinese it marked the border between civilization and the barbarian hordes of Huns, Turks, Khitan, Ju-chen, and Mongols that successively threatened native dynasties” (2). However, this theory does not seem entirely viable when compared with the fact that there have actually been lively discussions about the wall-building among the contemporaries, as explained by Waldron (8). Others tend to consider the Wall the northern boundary of China. Neither of these explanations seem to be sufficient as many dynasties were expanding their territory way over the borders marked by the Wall (9).
Never mind those arguments, in the early 20th century the myth of the “Great Wall” has been already deeply rooted in the West. When the time of the revolution and the establishment of the republican system came, the leaders of the new republic of China began a search for a national symbol which would unite the Chinese. The Great Wall, an impressive ancient monument, which was already established in the West as the symbol of the country, seemed like a natural choice (214-215).
The evolution of the Chinese perception of the Great Wall over the centuries is striking. From the early largely negative attitude towards the Wall as the symbol of despotism, the Chinese proceeded towards the lack of interest and finally in the early 20th century into establishing the Great Wall of China as the national symbol. The twisted interpretation of the Wall as the fascinating and mysterious symbol of China was already deeply rooted in the West since the 18th century and as such prevailed to these days. For the West the Wall became a symbol of Chinese foreignness, while for China it represents the symbol of the Chinese civilization. However, it was due to the misconception in the first place that the Wall became the Great Wall and the myth turned to be a reality.
Waldron, Arthur. The Great Wall of China: from history to myth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.