The Great Wall of China Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The anonymous speaker of this quasi-historical report on the Great Wall of China speculates not only about the peculiar method of the wall’s construction but also about the motives behind the project and the authorities on whose decision it was undertaken. The speaker’s focus gradually expands to consider the larger matters of relationship between the emperor and his people, between the empire and the barbarians beyond it, and, ultimately, between the real and the imagined meanings of all these various shapers of the speaker’s world.

At the outset, the speaker points out a conspicuous peculiarity in the construction of the wall: Rather than being built continuously from one end to the other, the wall was assembled piecemeal in sections of about a thousand yards each. Isolated from other workers and usually not even in sight of another section of the wall, two crews, beginning at opposite ends of the thousand-yard stretch, would spend as many as five years laboring to make their respective sections meet; after appropriate ceremonies, they would then be dismissed to their homes. After such a lengthy absence, their return would be celebrated in their villages, which were very often many miles from the borders on which their section of the wall had been constructed. After a period of rest and rejuvenation, the workers would be dispatched again to join others with whom they had not worked before and to begin a new section of the wall in some other remote corner of the empire, far from home.

Such a method of construction left many gaps in the wall over the long period of its building, some of which were not closed until after the wall was officially declared complete. This fact, coupled with the apparent motive for the wall itself—namely, to provide security against the barbarian hordes that threatened invasion—gives the speaker the problem that he sets out to resolve by considering the history and development of this imperial project.

Among the considerations that he entertains is the evidence of a central and all-encompassing plan designed by the “high command” in charge of the project, even though—as he remarks—the whereabouts and staff of the high command remain veiled in mystery. Nevertheless, so large a project and so peculiar a method of construction force him to assume that the high command existed and had direct control. Otherwise, he says, how can one account for the long period of preparation before the first stone was laid? for the...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)