The Great Wall: China against the World

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Julia Lovell (2006). The Great Wall: China against the World

The Great Wall


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While I wait for Julia Lovell’s The Opium Wars to arrive, I thought it would be nice to give her previous book, The Great Wall: China against the Worldyou can get it here through our affiliated link at Amazon–, another try, since I read it eons ago and I found it pretentious, misinformed, and even racist. That was before what some of us call “Our Chinese Epiphany” –when you discover that you “Chinese Marriage” has been just a bunch of government propaganda. Well, things have change and now I’m a libertarian sinologist, so I am in a better position to judge a book on Chinese history that defies any filter of political correctness.

Julia Lovell, a lecturer of modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck, University of London, has written a number of interesting books you should check for sure: The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature (2006), The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China (2011), and The Great Wall: China against the World (2006). Today, we address the Great Wall, and yes, I am sorry to tell you, but as anything else “Made in China,” it is fake. I mean, if they fake foods and pregnant women, why not the Great Wall?

The objective of Lovell’s book is to offer a correct portrait of the history of the monument(s) known as “The Great Wall,” dynasty to dynasty, and how it became a symbol for China in the hands of the nationalists (the Kuomintang and the Communists, who always copy everything). In doing so, she is not only bringing the public closer to a historical reality most sinologists are usually –and silently– aware of, but also liberating the Great Wall from the modern nationalist mythology created around it.

This mythology originated, as the author explains a number of times, after decades of economic and social failure –first during the weak and opium-addicted Qing Dynasty, then during the Republican period, and finally under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The main purpose of this mythologization of the Great Wall was to bring unity to the Chinese people and avoid possible internal conflicts, one of the major problems through Chinese history and, in fact, one of the main causes of the so-called “Shandong Problem.” Lovers of Chinese music probably know the famous song “Chinese People,” sang by Hong Kong faded star Andy Lau, which exalted the virtues of the Chinese people as he walked around the Great Wall with kids and racist words –at least they would be racist if sang by a white guy.

The first myth addressed by the author is the singularity of the Great Wall. Because as she unceasingly explains there is no Great Wall, but a series of walled constructions from different periods that were never traditionally called Great Wall (changcheng in Chinese, which by the way only means “long fortification”). In fact, the construction most tourists are allowed to see was built during the Ming Dynasty, in the year 1372, to defend China from… oh, wait! Genghis Khan. Now, in case you don´t know, Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, is seen by many Chinese as… a Chinese person. In fact, one of the teachers in charge of Maoist Ethics at Nankai University (Tianjin) once wrote –I will have a whole post on this– that foreigners are totally afraid of two Chinese guys: Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong. I bet you just shivered reading these names. So, the Ming guys built a wall in 1372 in order to protect themselves from the Chinese Genghis Khan who was invading… China. Yeah, it totally makes sense.

The second myth is the function of the wall. It was not just a defensive tool, and it can hardly be said to be an achievement. On the contrary, walls were built when everything else failed, when the Emperor was unable to inspire fear in his enemies. It was a sign of weakness. And a very bad sign, since China has been controlled by foreign powers for one third of its history –the Xianbei, the Jurchen, the Khitan, the Tangut, the Manchus, and the Mongols, to name a few.

The third myth is linguistic in nature: As we have said, changcheng means “long fortification,” not “Great Wall,” and the very name used today, wan li changcheng or “long fortification of ten thousand miles” does in fact mean “a very long long fortification”, since “ten thousand” in Chinese is used to express something so big it is impossible to count. In fact, sinologist before the Chinese takeover –modern times when China has bought us all– barely speak of a Great Wall. Aurel Stein, a British sinologist and collector who saved thousands of Buddhist manuscripts from destruction, called it limes, the Latin word for ancient Rome’s border defense.

Finally, there is the historical myth, which the author scrupulously reviews and traces back to its origins: the First Emperor who built the first wall two thousand years ago. The main problem with this story is that this wall as recorded by Chinese historians was in fact not only smaller, but built in a different place!

There are three points in this book that have impressed me: first, how the author relates the decay of the Ming dynasty and the building of the Wall itself to an economic crisis; second, her treatment of the Tian’anmen Massacre and the Wall of Democracy that preceded it; and, finally, how perfect her narration of Chinese history is. Let me start with the third point. The author correctly states that the unity of the Chinese people has to be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty, not the Qin Empire. The Zhou were the first dynasty that can be properly called Chinese, since the precedent Shang dynasty, although they used a similar way of writing, were culturally distinct. The Zhou agglutinated all the different states in what is today’s modern China, states with different customs that preserved most of their independence in a similar way to medieval Europe. The Qin, in fact, although part of this conglomerate of states, were usually seen as non-Chinese because of the peculiar traits of their culture. When the Zhou collapsed, the state of Qin eliminated all the other states, killing 1.5 million people, burning books, and burying alive Confucian scholars, just to impose a Hobbesian philosophy called Legism. As the author explains, “If contemporary Chinese politicians were to compare the Qin system with theirs, the similarities would probably be easier to spot than the differences” (p. 53). And it was this guy, who became the First Emperor of China, the one who built a wall that was later called “Great” despise the fact that the “Great Wall” showed to any tourist was in fact built 1.500 years after that one in a different place.

The second point that is very worth mentioning is the economic crisis that affected the Ming dynasty. They had quite a lot of public spending on personal projects from the Emperor and his family, and rather scarce profit. Although China was producing a lot of articles for other countries –sounds familiar?–, between the 1620s and the 1640s a “Dutch blockade, a Spanish clampdown on exports of Acapulcan silver and political turmoil in the South Sea islands […] drastically reduced the flow of silver in China” (p. 240). As a result, in 1644, the Ming collapsed and was conquered once more, this time by the “Chinese” Genghis Khan.

kircher_093-653x1024So, how about the origins of the myth? Why do we speak of a Great Wall, ten thousand or so miles long and two thousand years old? The first “inventors” of the Great Wall were the Jesuits who arrived in China during the seventeenth century. They represented in their books maps with an uninterrupted wall that crossed China and spoke about the marvels of its long history and dimensions. Just for you to know, the map was drawn by Athanasius Kircher, the same guy who drew an Egyptian map of Atlantis in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s how trustworthy and reliable he was.

But although the Jesuits created the Western myth of the Great Wall, it was Earl George Macartney who popularized it. So it is time to talk briefly about the so-called Opium Wars, Chinese racism, and the origins of Chinese nationalism. Sit tight.

At the end of the eighteenth century trade between the British Empire and China was in a critical situation because, despite providing endless amounts of tea for the British, Western merchants and businessmen living in China were confined to the Southern city of Canton, housed inside rat-infested stores, and were forbidden to learn the language and make any contact with the Chinese people –any negotiation was to be conducted by Chinese officials who, obviously, imposed taxes and custom rights that were excessive or just invented as they went. So, the British Empire was wasting a lot of money on China in order to cover the high demand for tea back in their little, tiny, grey island. And in order to solve what the British rightly saw an attack on free trade, Henry Dundas, Home Secretary and former president of the East India Company, sent lord Macartney to China to negotiate with the Chinese Emperor the conditions to establish free trade among equals between the British Empire and the Chinese Empire. And then shit happened. Literally.

First, the British were denigrated and mocked for their inability to use chopsticks. Then, they rejected to perform the koutou or genufletion in front of the Emperor in order to show their submission to the Chinese Empire, unless a Chinese functionary of the same rank Macartney hold did the same in front of a picture of George III. Of course, the Chinese government rejected this and, in order to have the British koutou, they reduced the food of their British guests.

This was, of course, a mere pantomime, because the letter later sent to Macartney opposing the British conditions of free trade between equals was written six weeks before the Emperor even met with them. For the Chinese Empire, any foreigner was merely a vassal that had to kneel down in front of the Emperor and accept their position as “sub-humans.” Just in case you thought racism was a “white thing,” as soon as the ninth century the Tang dynasty of China had forbidden contact between Chinese people and “people of color” –Sogdians, Iranians, Arabs and Indians. And the common words used to call foreigners in ancient times, di and man, were written with the radical of “dog” and “worm” –in case you wonder, “radical” is one of the parts of a Chinese character that gives its meaning to the word–. Finally, after a degrading treatment and animal-like hygienic conditions, only one thing impressed Macartney et al.: the Great Wall and its so-boasted 2.000 years.

Years passed by, and Sun Yat-sen entered the game. He carried a project of national reconstruction based on foreign investment and free trade –as opposed to the victorious communists– and, when he was looking for a symbolic element to unite the Chinese people –quite divided at the time with warlords all fighting around and citizens taking shelter in the Western concessions–, he found the westernized Great Wall, a wonder of Chinese civilization that allowed them to even assimilate their own enemies, i.e., the “Chinese” Genghis Khan. Mao will use this very excuse to disguise Chinese shame into Chinese victory –a habit that the Chinese writer Lu Xun had actually denounced some years ago with his well-known novel, The True Story of Ah Q.

In 1935 and 1936 Mao Zedong wrote two poems where he mentioned the Great Wall as an icon of human excellence and resistance, and his words became gospel truth when, in 1949, and thanks to the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory of the Republic of China and started their infamous reign of blood, terror, and socialism. And as we all know, socialism and historical reality are not very good partners. So next time you visit China and take a walk around the Great Wall, remember that those perfectly carved stones and that shiny white cement are not part of the original mini-wall built during the Ming, but the result of modern Chinese restorers with very questionable taste.

Finally, a word should be said about the Democracy Wall and the Tian’anmen Massacre, which are mentioned in the last chapter of the book. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping was in the verge of his economic and liberal reforms, another wall was risen in order to criticize the previous Maoist regime. Although Deng “profitably rode the wave of discontent manifested most publicly and radically in the Democracy Wall,” writes the author, in February 1979 the Wall had outlived its own usefulness. The demonstrators were dispersed, the wall cleared up, and Wei Jinsheng, a young electrician who started it all, incarcerated.

In 1988 the loss of economic freedom was already evident, and in June, just one year before the Tian’anmen Massacre, Su Xiaokang’s documentary, River Elegy, employed the Great Wall as a symbol for all the problems, backwardness, and isolationism of China. China had to open. One year later, when students and citizens alike asked the government for more freedom –as a result of both the gained economic freedom and its loss in recent years–, Deng Xiaoping pressed once more the red button, and tanks ran on people.

1989 saw the building of a new wall, the Mental Wall raised over the freedom and liberty of millions of Chinese, who were indoctrinated with false nationalist propaganda under the excuse that China was a singularity and that, because of its historical exceptionality, it needed a different model of freedom –the so-called Asian values that Singapore and Malaysia defended in the 1990s. The Iron Curtain dropped in 1991, but the Bamboo Curtain is still there. As the author declares at the very end of the book, “China will, it seems, always have its Great Walls.”

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