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Last Updated on August 26, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

"The Great Wall of China" is not a conventional story, with a clear sense of narrative or plot progression. Rather, it is written as the musings of a nameless narrator who took part in the building of the Great Wall of China.

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The story begins by detailing the construction method of the Great Wall itself, which was built piecemeal by many different crews working independently of one another. The narrator reveals himself to have been a supervisor to one of these work crews. He muses on the ways in which he, and men much like him, draw meaning from their part in the creation of the Great Wall, and he suggests that the wall's particular method of construction ensured that enthusiasm could be preserved, even in the wake of that project's overwhelming scale. He recalls how, when the task of building any section of the wall was completed, the supervisors were rewarded with honors and returned to their villages, where gradually their enthusiasm recovered and they set off once more to continue work on the wall.

The subject of the Great Wall is only Kafka's starting point, and from here the narrative turns toward a more abstract analysis. As we learn, the unnamed narrator comes from Southern China, and thus the construction of the wall can never personally affect him—the villages in the south are in no danger from northern raiders, because they are far removed geographically. Similarly, a general sense of abstract incomprehensibility emerges in the narrator's story concerning the emperors, the Imperial Court, and his own immediate superiors. For the narrator, these people are too far removed from his own life and experience to possess any sense of reality to him. Thus, the real, living emperor of China is insignificant next to the idea of the emperor, because the vast majority of people in China can never know the emperor as a flesh-and-blood person—they can only access the idea of him. Thus Kafka's analysis shifts from the level of concrete experience, as represented in the building of the Great Wall, to levels far more abstract.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

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 emphasis on architecture as the greatest of sciences? for the schoolyard games of building pebble-walls? or for the rigorous training and high culture possessed by a mere supervisor of even four workers on the wall? Then, too, the expense of the project, not only material but also psychological, suggests that some greater power and design were at work than even the most advanced and intelligent individual could comprehend.

The high command must have all human designs and all human wishes within its purview, and the wall must therefore represent the cryptic but necessary working out of this truly benevolent design. Or, as the speaker finally admits, it is perhaps not useful or safe to dwell too much on the greater design, or to attempt a complete understanding on one’s own; better by far to repose one’s trust in the plans of the high command and to submit to its decrees.

Although the speaker confesses this maxim of resignation as useful, it is clear that he is unable to apply it fully. He insists that he is pursuing an inquiry that is historical, not critical or philosophical, but his attempts to reconcile the evidence of the great plan with the experience of his own life nag him into broader considerations. Why should he, for example, whose home is far down in the southeast of China, be involved in the project—or indeed, why should he care about the northern barbarians, who could never penetrate so far into the empire? He questions whether the barbarians exist, because (apart from the frightening pictures that sometimes appeared in children’s books) no other representation of the great enemy exists. At its root, therefore, the grand design of the high command must predate even the decree of the emperor that establishes the project, and in that grand design, the actions of the northern barbarians and of the emperor himself have their appropriate place, acquiring meaning only in relation to the design of the high command, eternal, mysterious, and finally unknowable. These things, says the speaker, only those who have meditated on the history of the wall can know.

In the second half of the story, the speaker works out the consequences of this idea about the division between the nominal authority of the emperor and the real authority of the high command. As before, his speculation revolves around the disparity between perception and explanation. The empire is too vast for the emperor’s authority to reach all of his subjects: A messenger dispatched from the emperor’s bedside could not even struggle through the concentric rings of the palace or reach the surrounding imperial city—to say nothing of the remote provinces—before both the emperor and the one to whom the message was sent had crumbled into dust. There can be no news from the capital because all news becomes obsolete, owing to the long period of its transmission.

Although the living emperor and his provincial subjects depend on each other for their mutual existence, their relationship is unreal because of their remoteness from each other. The emperor must therefore imagine his people, and the people must construct in their imagination the figure and the authority of the emperor whom they will not and cannot ever know. As a result, even the empire must remain largely in the imagination of its subjects, giving them a kind of freedom—because no actual external authority interferes with their lives—but only at the cost of depriving them of the security that these fictions still provide. Having gone so far, the speaker declines to pursue his inquiry further.

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