The cable car whisked us up through the lush green hills to tower 14 of the Wall snaking deep into the hazy horizon. According to legend the Great Wall was built along the tracks of a ‘friendly’ dragon that helped trace its course. The meandering ramparts interspersed with beautiful watchtowers, did seem to lend credence to that story.
The mist was thick, as we turned left for the steep climb towards Tower 23, and visibility poor, making it near impossible to photograph this less(er) restored part of the wall. Chins in our jackets against the cold, we retraced our steps and continued down hill towards the toboggan near Tower 6. Midway there, the mist suddenly cleared and it turned bright & sunny. And hot. Thankfully we were dressed in layers and we stripped down to our last, by the time we reached Tower 5. The toboggan ride downhill was exhilarating and fun, albeit a bit incongruous in a place such as this.
To us, as to most other people we know, the Great Wall has been synonymous with China and walking its ramparts a lifelong dream. To be actually standing on top of the broad expanse of this awesome structure was at once exciting and humbling. Stretching across approx. 8850 km East to West, mostly along the Northern border with Mongolia, this has to be one of the most impressive constructions on earth and the longest by far.
But the myth of a single, ‘great’ wall that has continuously existed since 221 BC is just that, as is the claim that it is the only man made structure visible from the moon. The Wall is in actual fact a series of fortifications built during different periods (221BC -1644AD), using varying local materials, and thereby turning on its head the romantic legend of the dragon. Very little remains of the earlier Wall except for a few eroded ruins.
The Great Wall apparently did not even feature in any Chinese art as a historical/ cultural symbol up until the 19th century, implying that its ‘national’ symbolism was propagated by western perceptions based on reports by early Jesuit missionaries and foreign emissaries to the imperial court!
The earliest part of the wall was consolidated from several existing city walls by the first emperor Qin Shi Huang Di (of the Terracotta Warriors fame) when he unified the warring states in 221 BC. As much to demonstrate his control over them, as to serve as a defensive fortification. Later some benign dynasties (remember Tang was after Han and before Song, Ming & Qing :-)) did repair and extend it, but it was the Ming emperors (1368–1644) who spent a considerable amount of time and money in constructing most of what we now know as the Great Wall, to keep out the Manchus and the Mongols from the North.
Ironically the very Manchus that this wall was built to repel eventually breached it and marked the end of the Ming dynasty. Following the suicide of the reigning Ming emperor they founded the last imperial dynasty of Qing (1644 -1921) and thereupon didn’t find much need for a wall, and construction and repair was discontinued. Restoration on parts of the crumbling remnants began only as late as 1984 and some badly damaged portions are expected to completely disappear in a few decades if not attended to soon.
This brings us to the question of the value of walls as barriers in general.
What do they acheive? Do they really protect? Or are they just used to lull the populace into a false sense of security? History has proved, more often than not, that walls serve to keep people in rather than to keep enemies out. And that these barriers do not aid peace nor progress. But do we ever learn from history?
On the drive back to Beijing, our guide Lily, tried to answer our questions about the human cost of the Wall over centuries and narrated a popular but rather sad legend connected with it – The story of Meng Jiang Nu, the wife of a farmer who was forced to work on the wall during the Qin Dynasty. When she heard her husband had died while working the wall and was buried under it, she wept for days atop the wall, until it collapsed revealing his bones, so she could give him a proper burial.
This (translated from the original Chinese) ‘Ci’ poem, “The Great Wall” by the brilliant 17th century Manchu poet Nalan Xingde) gives a Chinese perspective from a time, long before the Great Wall became an intrinsic part of China’s national consciousness:
Through how many panels of mountains and seasdo the high parapets of the long wallwind and wind?Our eyes follow, slope after slopeand we understandhow it ate up the dragon hearts of our grandfathersand in the end they built it for whom?