Before becoming the most well-known Chinese attraction, the Great Wall of China emerged as a legendary concept in Chinese and Western narratives, playing a fundamental role in the definition of China both nationally and internationally. From its construction two thousand years ago to its political and cultural implications across the eras, here are 11 ideas that contributed to the creation of the Great Wall of China as the tangible symbol of the Chinese identity.
1. Does The Great Wall Of China Actually Exist?
Though the wall system stretching across Northern China is tangible architecture, the question of the existence of the “Great Wall” as understood today is a less straightforward one.
The first accounts of the Great Wall of China as a unified structure, come from Western missionaries during the 17th century. To the surprise of Chinese officials that accompanied them, Europeans who made their way to Beijing were most impressed by the newly built Ming Walls that surrounded the capital, wanting to spend a great deal of time and ink on them. They had probably heard about the legendary wall that during the Han dynasty extended from the Gobi desert to the Gulf of Bohai when they unwittingly assumed the two walls to be one and the same.
Their reports made their way through Europe, often as second-hand recollections mixing mythology and reality, contributing to the construction of an imaginative version of China in the West.
Ever since then, the idea of the “Great” wall has continued to live and evolve abroad until coming full circle in modern times, when the Chinese themselves reclaimed those myths to reinvent (and often rebuild) the Great Wall as a symbol of national identity and historical continuity.
What may seem at first glance a simple artifact, is in fact a very powerful symbol in Chinese history that constantly evolved to meet the needs of each new era. As such, it would be disingenuous to separate the architecture from its symbology. As Carlos Rojas said in The Great Wall, A Cultural History, the cultural incarnations of the Wall are the Wall itself, as without them the monument as we know it would be unthinkable.
So how did the Great Wall of China become what is it today? And what are its cultural and historical implications?
2. Not Just One Wall, And Maybe Not Great At All
Once again, the Great Wall of China may have never been “great” at all. From a linguistic standpoint, there is no proven correspondence between the name “Great Wall” commonly used in the West, and the Chinese name Chang cheng 长城, meaning long wall(s).
The name first appeared in Sima Qian’s “Record of the Grand Historian” in 94 BC, as a quick mention to describe the system of defensive walls built during the Warring States period (475-221 BC), and later unified under the first emperor (259-210 BC). Sima Qian’s early record of a wall stretching across Northern China from the Gobi desert in the West, to the Gulf of Bohai in the East, still conditions today’s common understanding of it.
Moreover, the Chinese name simply describes them all as long, with no stance regarding its value. In fact, since its beginning, the Wall had suffered from a terrible reputation within China given its entanglement with the fall and disgrace of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang. Succeeding dynasties were careful to distance themselves from it, preferring to refer to their defensive walls as biangqiang, border walls.
What endured was the concept of Sima Qian’s Chang cheng, living through Chinese history as a symbol of the first unified kingdom, but also as a cautionary tale about tyranny and political ineptitude.
3. To Keep “Them” Out or To Keep “Us” In?
The common belief of the Wall’s primarily function as a defense system against Northern barbarians is easily put into question by just how miserably it failed at that. It is well documented how the relationships between China and the northern tribes were regulated, not by military force, but rather through diplomacy and peace settlements, often unfavorable to the Chinese.
Unable to defend their border militarily, the Han had to negotiate with the Xiongnu, the barbarians. They offered tributary gifts and princesses to be married to northern leaders, to maintain a peaceful status between equals. It was through this marriage diplomacy, called heqin, that the Chinese managed their Northern relationship at least until the Tang dynasty.
Rather than an impenetrable barrier, the walls served as a separation between different cultures and political systems: a politically meaningful border, accepted by both countries, and safeguarded through diplomatic agreements. It was never intended to deter barbarian invasions, but rather to project stability and power domestically, concealing the humbling concessions China had to submit to in order to preserve its territory.
Even more significantly, the Wall allowed for an early formulation of the Chinese identity by creating an “otherness” north of the wall. Even as China’s geography changed through time and the Han wall fell into disrepair, subsequent dynasties kept the myth of the Chang Cheng alive as a way to define China both culturally and politically.
Maps from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 AD), one of the weakest militaries in Chinese history, still show a continuous wall across Northern China, even though that area had already been occupied by Northern kingdoms while the Song had been pushed south of the Yellow River.
Despite the lack of evidence that the “Great Wall of China” ever existed, its significance has always been alive and real in Chinese culture, representing both a geographical claim over those territories, as well as a symbol of the empire’s historical continuity.
4. Shaping The Chinese Identity
The significance of the Wall continuously evolved to meet the needs of each new era. When under threat from Northern tribes, the Wall served as an ethnic divide between Chinese and barbarians. When the kingdom was at its weakest, it became a reminder of Chinese cultural and geographical unity. As the empire fell under colonialist invasion and collapsed, the Wall became a metaphor for the ineptitude of the imperial ruling, and an emblematic example of how isolationism and conservative politics had left the country vulnerable to Western influence.
To disavow the Wall and the system that created it became a way to discuss China’s new identity as a Republic (1912-1949).
Celebrated conservative writer Lu Xun used the western connotation of the Wall as “great” in his 1925 essay The Long Wall, to reflect on its cumbersome heritage and significance, and by extension on that of imperial China. “I always feel that we are encircled by a long wall, made from old bricks and repaired and extended by new bricks. These old and new bricks that now encircle everyone. When will we stop adding new bricks to the Long Wall? This great but blasted Long Wall!”
Even with the last Qing emperor now overthrown, the myth of the Great Wall never fully exited the Chinese discourse. During the PRC, however, it is the Western interpretation of the wall as a “great” continuous entity that conveniently found its way back as a refurbished symbol of national unity and strength.
5. To Be Good (Han) Man Is To Reach The Great Wall
In modern China, cherishing and caring for the Great Wall has become a patriotic act: Ming dynasty walls around Beijing have been heavily restored if not built anew, for each major anniversary and international event, becoming an inescapable photo opt for official portraits of visiting international leaders.
The episode that truly solidified the Great Wall as a symbol of the Popular Republic was the Communist Party’s founding myth of the Long March (1934-35). Just like the construction of the Wall, the Red Army’s Long March from the Jiangxi Province to Yanan was recounted as a monumental endeavor achieved through the collective effort of thousands of men and women.
By then, the Wall’s association with the first emperor was no longer an issue as Confucianism had been condemned as a legacy of the feudal past and Qin Shi Huang’s persona reevaluated.
Under Maoism, his reputation as a burner of books and executioner of Confucian scholars was no longer a hindrance; Mao himself doubled on it by boasting about how Communism had buried a hundred times more scholars.
Tour guides in Beijing will never fail to recite the ubiquitous idiom “He, who has not reached the Great Wall is not a true (Han) man” quoting one of Mao’s famous poems. Originally referring to the spreading of Communism throughout rural China from South to North, the verse made its way into everyday language and contributed to a resurgence of interest in the by-now dilapidated Wall.
Once again, the Great Wall functioned as a generator of Chinese identity, representing the collective effort and tenacity in rebuilding the nation. It also became a symbol of ethnic unity, as the correspondence between national identity and Han ethnicity was now made explicit.
6. Artists And The Wall
The symbolic significance of the Wall has allowed Chinese intellectuals of the Post-Maoist era to use it as a proxy to discuss and put into question the consciousness of contemporary Chinese identity.
The exhibition and catalog The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art curated by art critic Guo Minglu, is one of the most successful efforts in putting together those artistic experiences and showcasing how the Great Wall rhetoric is still alive and relevant in contemporary China.
Functioning as a common theme for the exhibition, the Great Wall of China is a living entity with which the artists communicate. Through their interactions with the Wall, Chinese artists were able to reflect on a variety of topics, including China’s heritage, rhetoric, cultural baggage, social trauma, and contradictions.
One of the most famous artworks centered around the Great Wall of China is Ghost Pounding the Wall (1990-91, by conceptual artist Xu Bing. The artist set off to make rubbing (a traditional technique similar to frottage, used to take bidimensional impressions from stone carvings through pounding) of the Jinshanling section of the Wall. He eventually pieced those prints together to recreate a full size documented copy of the structure.
While the title is a pun on the idiom “wall built by ghosts”, meaning to be stuck in one’s own thoughts, it also alludes to the popular belief that the bodies of those that perished on the wall are buried within it, an urban legend passed on since the Han dynasty as a reminder of the first emperor’s cruelty.
7. Are There Bones Buried Under The Great Wall?
Even though no compelling evidence has ever been found, popular Chinese folklore kept the myth of the workers buried under the Wall alive for over two thousand years. The myth originated after the supposed purge of books and scholars during the reign of Qin Shi Huang.
The five centuries leading up to the foundation of the first empire, are known in China as the “Hundreds school of thought” period, a golden age of philosophy, in which many concepts and ideas were discussed openly and freely. This thriving atmosphere was brought to an abrupt end in 212 BC when Qin Shi Huang mandated the destruction of books and the alleged burying of scholars in order to establish his favored Legalist school at the expense of Confucianism.
The event has never been fully proven, as its earliest account dates over a hundred years later and comes from Sima Qian (145-86 BC), the most important historian of ancient China but also a loyal Confucianist. As such, modern historians have been skeptical about the objectivity of his recounting, given his affiliation with the Confucian school.
Despite that, the narrative of the mad and cruel first emperor persisted throughout Chinese imperial history, becoming a recurrent theme in folktales, popular songs, and poetry, most famously in the legend of Lady Meng Jiang and the Great Wall.
8. The Legend Of Lady Meng Jiang
Meng Jiang was the young spouse of a man constricted to work at the Wall during the Han dynasty. As winter was approaching, and not having heard from him in a while, she set off to find him to bring him warmer clothes. However, she soon discovered that her husband had died and that his remains were forever buried within the Great Wall of China. Her crying was said to be so harrowing that a section of the Wall collapsed, revealing her husband’s bones and allowing him to receive a proper burial.
The story of Lady Meng Jiang is one of the most popular folk tales in Chinese culture, circulating in various versions in the past 2000 years.
Touching on the topic of the tyrant emperor, modern interpretations regard it as an expression of resentment toward feudal China, showing how honest common folks suffered the consequences of a far away ruler’s egotistic whims.
9. New China, New Great Wall: The Symbol of Chinese Capitalism
Following Mao’s death in 1977, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated a series of reforms to transition China from Maoism to a more capitalistic model. Opening China to the West for the first time as a nation required the creation of an outward-facing identity, one that could appeal and be understood internationally.
It was then that the western understanding of the Wall as “Great,” was fully embraced by the Chinese to represent Chinese greatness as a unity. In 1984, he promoted a campaign to “love our country and restore the Great Wall” to reaffirm the majesty of the nation itself in the years leading to its entrance in the World Trade Organization.
Since then, many important brands, especially those related to international markets, have used the symbolism of the Great Wall of China to strengthen their branding. Great Wall Motors, founded in 1984, is today China’s largest automotive manufacturer; Great Wall Wine, funded in 1983, has become the leading domestic producer of wine. By the 90s, the Great Wall branding had become synonymous with large, successful Chinese corporations dealing in international trade.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage in 1987, The Great Wall became China’s best well-known attraction, jump-starting the domestic and international tourism industry.
10. An Omen To The End Of Another Famous Wall
Since China’s opening to the West, the reconstructed section of Badaling Wall has become an inescapable photo opt for visiting leaders. Heads of state such as Nixon, Reagan, Yeltsin, and Obama among others, all have taken official portraits at the reconstructed section of the Great Wall.
Particularly significant in retrospect was Gorbachev’s official visit to China in the summer of 1989. The Soviet leader took the visit to the Great Wall of China as the opportunity to reflect on the many walls still standing between people in a clear allusion to the Berlin Wall. When asked whether he would allow it to be taken down, Gorbachev famously replied “Why not?”, foreshadowing the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union that was about to come.
11. The Great Wall of China 2.0: China’s Great Firewall
Just like writer Lu Xun lamented in 1925, China has always been a wall building country, with a strong tendency to protect internal affairs and to regulate interactions between Chinese and foreign cultures.
This protectionism toward domestic issues hasn’t subsided in modern times. The separation between Chinese and other systems is now implemented through what is internationally known as the Great Firewall of China, a combination of legislation and technology to control and slow down cross-border internet traffic.
What was once a physical boundary between the Chinese and the “others” has now become an intangible shield to seal off national concerns, and control information within the country’s own borders.
In contemporary China, the Great Wall had simultaneously become the symbol of Chinese openness to the West through tourism and advertisement, as well as the boundary line at which Chinese protectionism is enforced.
Despite its troubled history, the significance of the Great Wall in the Chinese culture has never faded, not because of its architectural achievement, but thanks to its ability to continuously generate new meaning and sparking discourse around the question of the Chinese identity.