Over two thousand years old, the Great Wall of China is a symbolic and physical dividing line between the civilized Chinese and the “barbarians” at their borders. Historian Julia Lovell looks behind the intimidating fortification and its mythology to uncover a complex history far more fragmented and less illustrious that its crowds of visitors imagine today.
Lovell’s story winds through the lives of the millions of individuals who built and attacked it, and recounts how succeeding dynasties built sections of the wall as defenses against the invading Huns, Mongols, and Turks, and how the Ming dynasty, in its quest to create an empire, joined the regional ramparts to make what the Chinese call the “10,000 Li” or the “long wall.”
An epic that reveals the true history of a nation, The Great Wall is “a supremely inviting entrée to the country” and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand China’s past, present, and future (Booklist).
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'Walls, walls, and yet again walls, form the framework of every Chinese city,' wrote the Swedish art historian Osvald Sirèn in the 1930s.
They surround it, they divide it into lots and compounds, they mark more than any other structures the basic features of the Chinese communities ... there is no such thing as a city without a wall. It would be just as inconceivable as a house without a roof ... There is hardly a village of any age or size in northern China which has not at least a mud wall, or remnants of a wall.
The Chinese love of enclosing walls is written deep into the language itself. The earliest versions (roughly 1200 BC) of the ideograms for 'settlement' and 'defence' represent walled compounds; both concepts were clearly unthinkable without four-sided enclosures. Later classical Chinese used the same word for city and city wall: cheng. The character meaning 'capital city' (pronounced jing) was originally a picture of a guardhouse over a city gate.
Wall-building and the written language have intertwined to define Chinese civilization both physically and figuratively ever since it came into existence, dividing and distinguishing China's peoples and settlements from their less settled, less literate neighbours to the north. To understand the millennia-old Chinese impulse to wall-building, to understand the conflict that created the wall, we need to trace the origins of these two incompatibly different, geographically adjoining cultures: that of agrarian, self-confidently literate, walled China and that of the pastoral nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppe.
* * *
Some fifteen years ago, as soon as the Chinese Communist Party had attended to its most pressing tasks in the aftermath of its crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters – clearing civilian bodies from the streets, issuing a most-wanted list and rounding up those activists who had not managed to smuggle themselves out of the country – it turned its thoughts to political re-education. Once, Party leaders correctly surmised, the guns of the People's Liberation Army had been turned on the People themselves, Communist principles alone would not suffice to persuade the Chinese of the legitimacy of autocratic socialist rule. Searching for a new, state-sponsored religion around which the country could rally, the Party hit upon a fairly old-fashioned version of an old-fashioned idea: anti-foreign nationalism fuelled by angry suspicion of a West determined, as the Chinese masses were persistently lectured, to contain a rising China.
In order to convince their subjects – who, between 1989 and 1991, had seen Communist states expire across Europe – that open, Western-style democracy was fundamentally unsuited to one-party socialist China, the Communists set about proving, through an energetic countrywide campaign of patriotic education, that China possessed a unique 'national condition' (guoqing) as yet unready for democracy. Chinese history, or a particular view of that history, quickly became one of the most important weapons in the Party's armoury of patriotic propaganda: the proposition that the Communists were simply the inheritors of a tried and tested model of the unified, authoritarian Chinese nation supposedly established 5,000 years ago – a date that coincides roughly with the period attributed to the reign of the Yellow Emperor, China's mythical founding ancestor, said to have ruled early in the third millennium BC. (In 1994, a member of the Politburo demonstrated his respectful belief in his legendary precursor by laying flowers and planting a tree at a memorial ceremony in his honour.) Capitalizing on a long-held, though hazy, Chinese public pride in the antiquity of their state, the Communist patriotic education campaign transformed the idea that the Chinese nation leapt, fully formed, into existence thousands of years ago into a cliché spouted tirelessly by agents of the Chinese Politburo, by a number of opportunistic academics and by lazy tour guides, to bludgeon anyone listening – Chinese or foreign – into believing that this is how China always was; and evermore shall be (until the Communists say differently).
And, in the way of all great propaganda, it isn't true; not least because the Yellow Emperor was quite possibly the invention of a collection of power- hungry aristocrats in 450 BC. There are, in fact, strong grounds for arguing that the Chinese nation was born as recently as 100 years ago when, cast violently into the modern system of international relations that the West had constructed in its own image, seeing their country invaded by foreign powers, torn apart by internal rebellion, stymied by a reactionary, decadent dynasty and hidebound by a two-millennia-old educational and ethical system that wanted little to do with Western science and the modern world, Chinese thinkers and politicians embraced the idea of nationalist revival to rescue their country from the threat of imminent collapse. Before then, the Chinese did not even possess a single, universal term for 'China'; at anyone time, the country was generally referred to by the name of the dynasty in power. Although indisputably powerful and enduring across millennia, the idea of the Chinese empire was much looser and vaguer than the rigidities of modern nationalism – with its textbooks, museums and store-cupboard ancestors – allow, a concept broadly defined by slow processes of social, economic, political and cultural evolution that began some 10,000 years ago. The fixity of a single, unified, 5,000-year-old China is a twentieth-century fiction.
But thanks to archaeological discoveries of the last century, we can at least draw up an approximate timeline for the prehistoric cultural developments and innovations from which a recognizably Chinese empire would eventually arise. Farming – the crucial underpinning of the Chinese way of life – began in the northern provinces of the country around 8000 BC. Visitors today might not imagine the crumbly yellow plains of Shanxi and Shaanxi a particularly hospitable environment for novice farmers, but the lightly forested and easily worked loess soils of north China, irrigated by the lower Yellow River, encouraged the pursuit of a primitive agriculture as early as 10,000 years ago, a time when southern China remained an unmanageable jungle.
The shift towards agriculture directed Chinese society along a more fixed evolutionary path. Long-term security in farming depended on large-scale water control, which in turn required ever more sophisticated forms of social and political organization. Not surprisingly, then, one of China's favourite ancient legendary heroes – all of whom are venerated for contributing to prehistoric China a key technical, political or cultural innovation (fire, writing, medicine and so on) – is Yu, a self-taught hydraulic engineer and builder of flood channels thought to have lived near the start of the second millennium BC. By 2000 BC, farmers in northern China were leaving behind relics of an increasingly complex civilization: ambitious and extravagant bronze vessels, bells and weapons, bones used for divination, traces of large- scale building works and burial pits. This already was a highly ritualized society capable of organizing labour for massive public projects, such as construction and mining.
Chinese civilization emerges into the written record only in the thirteenth century BC, thanks to Wang Yirong, a nineteenth-century epigraphist and civil servant whose sharp eyes made one of the most sensational discoveries of modern Chinese archaeology. In 1899, as a malaria epidemic raged through Beijing, one of the reputedly more effective and more popular cures peddled to panicked, sickening residents was soup made of ground-up dragon bones. Given the scarcity of the medicine's chief ingredient in fin-de-siècle Beijing, pharmacists anxious to make supply meet demand passed cattle scapulas and turtle shells off as dismantled dragons, ready for pulverization. When a relative brought one of these bones home, Wang Yirong spotted mysterious scratches on its surface, looked closer and identified them as ancient Chinese characters. He lost no time in buying up the pharmacist's entire supply, thereby saving the earliest-known versions of Chinese writing from destruction. The inscribed bones were next traced back to their source in Anyang, a town in central China, where commercially minded peasants had dug them out of the ground and sold them to city apothecaries. The farmers, too, had spotted the scratches on them but, afraid they would lower their value as medicine, had rubbed many of them off; the bones that Wang chanced upon were a lucky exception.
The Anyang scapulas and shells – the oldest of which were dated back to around 1200 BC – became known as 'oracle bones', used for divination by the Shang, the first historically verifiable dynasty to rule parts of China (between approximately 1700 and 1025 BC). The Shang king would formulate a positive or negative hypothesis to which he wanted a yes-or-no confirmation (such as 'Today it will not rain'), the bones would be heated and the cracks caused by the heat examined and interpreted by shamans, with the original hypothesis, and sometimes the prognosis and answer, inscribed alongside on the bone. Together with other discoveries from Anyang – ornate bronzes, burial pits, jade artefacts – the oracle bones afford insights into a society three and a half millennia old whose fundamental concerns and beliefs have shaped Chinese society ever since.
Although the Shang kingdom bore little geographical resemblance to the country now known as China (the political core of the Shang was located in Henan and Shandong – central and north-eastern China), the cultural, political and social similarities are remarkable. Shang society was centralized, stratified and agricultural, ruled by a single king who, through his administrative staff, extracted agricultural surpluses from his subject peasants and set them to work on vast public projects, such as royal tombs and military campaigns. It was a highly ritualized culture, which constantly sought the approval of ancestors and heavenly powers through sacrifice and divination. Describing the outcome of a consort's pregnancy, one oracle bone also tells us that, like many Chinese today, the Shang preferred boys to girls: 'She gave birth. It really was not good. It was a girl.' The Shang even ate like modern Chinese, serving their rice separately from their meat and vegetables.
But most importantly of all, the Shang used the same script as later Chinese. The awkwardness of scratching ideograms on to bones dictated an elliptical conciseness of expression that defined literary Chinese until 1921, when the wordy vernacular replaced spare classical Chinese as the official written language. It is hard to overestimate the importance of a shared writing system in forging Chinese identity through the millennia: although hundreds of mutually incomprehensible dialects are spoken across China and the global Chinese diaspora, all use the same written characters. Give literate Chinese from opposite ends of the country or globe a pen or brush, and they can communicate. Still today, Chinese across a broad range of social strata – academics, barmen, janitors and taxi drivers – unite in taking a fierce pride in their three-millennia-old literary tradition that has no contemporary analogue in most Western countries, comparing unfavourably the 'simple, superficial languages of the West' with the infinite subtlety and complexity of written Chinese.
Much, of course, was to change in China over the next 3,000 years – not least dynasties and frontiers. In 1025 BC, less than two centuries after the first extant inscribed oracle bone, the Shang were conquered by the Zhou dynasty, the royal house that would nominally claim to command the loyalty, until 256 BC, of the handful of kingdoms north of the Yangtze River whose culture could be recognizably identified as Chinese. But the basic elements of Chinese civilization – elements that Confucius, China's pre-eminent philosopher, would make the foundation of his own political and social worldview more than 500 years later – were already in place: a nexus of patriarchal custom and political organization held together by the tremendous ritual power of the written Chinese language.
And as soon as there was a coherent Chinese culture and society, there was wall-building: within and without villages, towns and cities. Today, the Chinese love of walls is no longer as immediately visible to the casual observer as it once was. A twentieth century of revolutions, wars and Communism has turned hundreds of miles of Chinese walls into just so much rubble, one of the most egregious instances of wilful destruction being Mao Zedong's replacement of the old Beijing city wall in the 1950s with a ringroad. But earlier Chinese settlements were a mass of walls, and the very earliest have been unearthed in excavations around the Longshan district of Shandong, north-east China, dating from the third millennium BC. The most impressive surviving wall from the second millennium BC (c.1500 BC) encircles the Shang city of Ao, north of modern Zhengzhou in Henan for about seven kilometres, and is still more than nine metres high in places. It was during these two millennia that the fundamental technique of Chinese wall construction – still in use in the Ming heyday of wall-building – was learned: tamping. Planks of wood or courses of bricks were erected to create the outer shell, between which common-or-garden earth was pounded down to form the core of the wall. As they were constructed mainly from materials already on site, tamped-earth walls had the great advantage of being fast and cheap to erect – crucial considerations for a civilization that would come to build as many walls as the Chinese empire.
* * *
While people living in northern China were gradually becoming Chinese, writing characters, worshipping ancestors and building walls, the north of their kingdom remained immovably bordered by land – present-day Central Asia, Mongolia and northern Manchuria – whose ecology did not encourage intensive farming or rigid social organization. It was these areas that produced the nomadic tribesmen – identified variously in China and the West as the Rong, the Di, the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Manchus and the Huns – who would worry at the Chinese frontier and motivate wall- building for the next two and a half millennia.
But until the end of the second millennium BC, the contrast in way of life between northern China and the areas further north was probably not all that dramatic, as the land often morphed only slowly from farmable loess plain into steppe and desert. Until then, the Chinese frontier regions were host not to terrifying hordes of nomadic warriors but to peaceable, relatively settled tribes, who lived off a combination of scratch farming and animal husbandry. To the north-west, via occasionally fertile Turkestan (now Gansu and Xinjiang), over the tall, thickly glaciated Tianshan mountains, China merged into the deserts and steppes of the Jungaria and Tarim basins, around whose oases primitive but sedentary herders domesticated animals. To the north-east, the rivers of lower Manchuria supported a Chinese-style agriculture, before arable land faded out further north into steppe territory more favourable to hunting and fishing. Directly north of contemporary Beijing, a range of forested mountains drew a clearer line between China proper and the Gobi desert and Mongolia, with the ecology of these latter regions far less mixed than that of the frontier zones to the far east and west. But on the western side of central northern China, the landscape blurred into steppe through the Ordos, a region delineated and irrigated by the northern loop of the Yellow River that lent itself to both agrarian and pastoral nomadic ways of life.
Around 1500 BC, however, climate change dried out the vast Mongolian plateau (2.7 million square kilometres) into the grassy steppes of the Gobi desert. This, together with a general tendency towards increased specialization in means of livelihood, decisively shifted the focus of life there from the sedentary and agricultural to the pastoral and nomadic – a world apart from tightly governed and densely populated and farmed north China. Unable themselves to feed directly off badly irrigated grasslands, Mongolians turned them over to pasturing herds (in particular, horses and sheep) and hunting. This change required extra mobility, as feeding grounds became seasonally depleted, and exceptional horse-handling skills, to control animals set loose to pasture. The nomadic inhabitants of the steppe rode the stocky, enduring Przhevalski pony, armed themselves with a small, light bow that was ideal for use on horseback and lived mostly off their herds. They recycled their animals ingeniously, into food, clothing and other daily essentials, but there were some things — principally grain, metal and desirable luxury goods such as silk — that could be obtained only from their southern, Chinese neighbours, either through mutual agreement (trade) or force (raiding and pillaging).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Great Wall"
Copyright © 2006 Julia Lovell.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
List of Maps and Illustrations,
Note on Romanization and Pronunciation,
Note on Names,
Introduction: Who Made the Great Wall of China?,
1 Why Walls?,
2 The Long Wall,
3 Han Walls: Plus ça change,
4 Shifting Frontiers and Decadent Barbarians,
5 China Reunited,
6 Without Walls: The Chinese Frontiers Expand,
7 The Return of the Barbarians,
8 A Case of Open and Shut: The Early Ming Frontier,
9 The Wall Goes Up,
10 The Great Fall of China,
11 How Barbarians Made the Great Wall,
12 Translating the Great Wall into Chinese,
Conclusion: The Great Wall, the Great Mall and the Great Firewall,
Appendix 1: Principal Characters,
Appendix 2: Chronology of Dynasties,
Appendix 3: Significant Dates in Chinese History and Wall-building,