The picturesque edifice that tourists adore has a terrible history, says Jim Butler. And it was never particularly good at doing its job — keeping out invaders
The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC — 2000 AD by Julia Lovell, Atlantic Books £19.99
4 / I Isn't worth my while to set the Great Wall of China up against the monuments of other nations," Voltaire wrote in 1764; "the Wall simply leaves them all behind in the dust." It was around this time, with Voltaire using Chinese culture to criticise the malaise afflicting Louis XIV's France, that perceptions of China's border walls began to change. Diplomats and missionaries visiting a comparatively recent stretch of the wall outside Beijing mistakenly assumed this impressive structure to be part of the wall laid down by the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, 2,000 years earlier. As these men waxed lyrical about China in books and letters home, they made little attempt to separate fact from fiction, and gave the impression that an august, unified stone structure snaked across the Middle Kingdom, as it had done for thousands of years. What the Chinese knew as merely "the border wall" or "the long wall" had begun to assume the mantle of "greatness".
The rugged and disjointed history of what is known today as the Great Wall is told by Julia Lovell in this book. She traces the story from the moment emperor Qin Shi Huang, having unified China for the first time, decided to protect his new kingdom by creating the earliest 10,000 li (a Chinese unit of measurement) wall in Chinese history. The instinct, Lovell claims, was merely the first manifestation of a tendency towards "internationalism and isolationism" which, she claims, has existed in China up to the present day. Although now regarded as one of the iconic images of the country and a must-see on any tourist itinerary, the Great Wall has not always been so well thought of. During the massive drive to complete the Qin wall, being sent to the frontier on construction duty was considered something of a death sentence. Throughout history, life for the garrisons stationed along the wall was one of hardship, deprivation and loneliness. A frontier report of 1542 claimed that up to 90 per cent of men died of frostbite and malnutrition during their watch. At the same time, this sense of desolation helped foster some of China's most famous poets, among them the Tang-era masters Li Po and Tu Fu. "The men on the wall yesterday," Li Po wrote, "have become the ghosts at its feet today," and the sense of windswept longing in his words is still eminently palpable today. Understandably, dynaSties like the Tang which favoured trade and good relations with the northern barbarians were the most successful, and the least in need of a defensive wall. Instead an elaborate tribute system was maintained, whereby the barbarians kowtowed to the emperor in return for provisions and wealth.
It was only when this system broke down, such as during the reign of a particularly insular emperor, that the barbarians grew restless and builders were again despatched to fortify the country's borders.
However, only on very rare occasions did the wall actually do its job. As Genghis Khan pointed out, the strength of any wall depends on who is defending it, and even when manned by resolute soldiers, history shows how easy it was for an attack-minded tribe to simply go around an undefended corner.
The last of the great wall-build
ing dynasties was the Ming who, after usurping the Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1368, set about constructing the sweeping crenellated construction that famously flows over the hills north of Beijing today. By the demise of the Ming in 1644, danger sailed from Europe rather than marched from the Steppe, leaving the wall of little practical use.
Lovell's style is refreshingly light and often humorous as she investigates the intricacies surrounding the building of the Great Wall. Characters, from bored frontier guards to scheming eunuchs, come to life under her pen. Unfortunately, though, she is not content to leave her work as a straightforward historical navigation. Instead she insists on seeing the wall as a "monumental metaphor for reading China and its history, for defining a culture and a worldview". While the wall makes a welcome spine for charting a course through the tangle of dynasties past, it is a mistake to think that a culture with the longevity and variety of China's could possibly be reduced to a symbol of any kind, and the inclusion of the internet age firewall at the end not only feels tacked on, but smacks of reductivism.
Indeed, one wonders whether there is not a paradox at the heart of Lovell's quest, as the author strips away myth and legend only to replace them with a reinterpretation of her own imagining. It's a shame, because there is a story to be told within these pages, and when Lovell puts aside her search for an errant symbolism, it is a fascinating one.