The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth Summary

Arthur Waldron


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Some singular physical objects, whether natural or artificial, through long-standing association with a nation’s life and history become a nation’s familiar symbol. Japan has its Mount Fuji, France its Eiffel Tower; Egypt its Great Sphinx and Pyramid at Gizeh, Greece its Parthenon, the United States its Statue of Liberty, Great Britain its Big Ben, Germany its Brandenburg Gate, Russia its Kremlin in Moscow, and China its Great Wall. Called Wan li ch’ang ch’eng (the ten thousand li wall) by the Chinese, the Great Wall of China is the most astonishing engineering feat ever accomplished by humankind, meandering across the plains and mountains of the border country of North China, eastward from Chia-yu-kuan in western Kansu Province to Shan-hai-knan in eastern Liao-ning Province on the Po-hai gulf of the Yellow Sea, like a monstrous five-clawed imperial dragon, for some fifteen hundred miles.

Every culturally literate Westerner knows of the Wall’s existence and has seen photographs or illustrations of it, not to speak of some who have seen it in reality, usually some section of it near Beijing. It is a rare Westerner, however, who has a conception of the Wall that is historical and not simply mythical. It is the principal purpose of Arthur Waldron’s The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth to dispel this mythical view. Waldron is assistant professor of history and East Asian studies at Princeton University; his book is the first full scholarly study in English of the Wall and its background to utilize both Chinese and Western sources, not to mention some Japanese studies.

The mythical view entertained by the general public is that the Chinese Wall was built by the first Chinese emperor; Ch’in Shih Huang-ti, who began its construction in 221 B.C. for the military purpose of keeping the barbarian steppe nomads, the Hsiung-nu (or Huns), from ravaging Chinese settled civilization. The Wall is a unitary and continuous whole from beginning to end, with guardian towers rearing their heads every hundred yards or so, the whole stretching for hundreds of miles from the interior to the China coast. According to Waldron, this concept of “a single Great Wall thought of as having a unified history and a single purpose” is a myth.

Having surveyed the evidence, Waldron opts for the historical view, which, generally speaking, is as follows: The Great Wall of China as it is known today was not built by Shih Huang-ti. Also, walls existed before his time. The feudal lords of the Chou Dynasty (c. 1027 B.C.-256 B.C.) had built walls which in his project he simply connected with his. Further, repairs and extensions were made during various succeeding periods. The Wall as it exists today, however, was constructed mainly by certain emperors of the Ming Dynasty (A. D. 1368-1644), notably during the times of the Hung-wu and Yung-lo emperors (1368-1424) and those of the emperors Ch’eng-hua (1465-1488) and Wan-li (1573-1620). The Mings built the Wall mostly of rubble, although the extreme western portion is of tamped earth. Important passes are of brick or masonry and watchtowers are set at regular intervals. Many sections of the Chinese Wall no longer exist. Although the above condition of the Wall is the historical as opposed to the mythical view, the power of the Wall as a symbol is shown by the slogan which the modern Chinese leader Teng Hsiao-p’ing (Deng Xiaoping) adopted in launching a new campaign in 1984, which, as Waldron points out, advocated “let us love our country and restore our Great Wall.” Teng believed that such loving and repairing would bring out the patriotic feelings of Chinese people after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution. Waldron’s countering of the myth of the Wall by a description of its actual evolution is the first important contribution of his book.

The second important contribution of Waldron’s book is the examination he undertakes of the foreign and defensive policies the various imperial dynasties adopted in respect to the steppe nomads and the influence these policies had on the evolution of wall building along the northern border of China. In this examination he focuses especially on the Ming Dynasty, to which he gives a rather comprehensive treatment. Generally speaking, the various regimes tended to choose one of two alternative policies. One was a warlike policy that called...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)