Monument to imperial ambition

The Great Wall
January 12, 2007

On the flight to China from Europe, your pilot will alert you when the Great Wall comes into sight far below. If you take the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing, using the route that runs south through the Chinese territory of Inner Mongolia, your first sight of the wall will be in the mountain passes. Confusingly, a bit later on you see another wall and then another. This was the way, travelling to China 40 years ago, that I realised there was not one defensive frontier wall but many.

An avowed aim of Julia Lovell's history of the Great Wall is to demolish the myths attached to it. She shows that the Great Wall (which in Chinese is Changcheng - "long wall") should not be thought of as a single structure with a coherently chronicled past. Although China's unifier, the first Qin emperor, did indeed order the building of a frontier wall, it was made largely of tamped earth and marked a frontier quite different from that of the later wall. It was not even a continuous structure; it blocked entry to China over the flatter land, but where mountains offered a natural obstacle to invasion there was no wall. Subsequent dynasties also made use of long walls to mark off and defend the northern extremities of their territories. Even the nomadic peoples who competed for land with each other and with China sometimes built walls to protect territory.

The Great Wall that visitors see today dates back only 500 years to the Ming dynasty. Near Beijing it was constructed originally in brick and stone, but by the 20th century much of it was ruined or at least dilapidated. Its transformation into what Lovell calls "a manicured tourist attraction" began in the early 1950s. Battlements and towers were rebuilt and the walkway smoothed over with what she describes as "communist cement". None of this will be new to those who have read up on the subject.

Although it is true that tourist brochures often imply that this particular structure has a continuous history of 2,000 years, studies as early as Owen Lattimore's Inner Asian Frontiers of China (1940) discussed the "many lines of 'the' Great Wall", while Arthur Waldron's The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (1990) offered what may be considered the definitive analysis of frontier wall-building in Chinese history.

Lovell traces the circumstances in which decisions were made to build walls in various centuries. In doing so, she offers a lively account of the history of north China over three millennia, with much emphasis on the violent rise and fall of dynasties and often bloody quarrels and rivalries of imperial families and their courts. In her view, Chinese walls should be understood not simply as defensive projects intended to keep intruders out, but also as tools of expansionism used to encroach on nomadic territory.

This requires her to maintain a sharp distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese that is too absolute. Han Chinese and the nomads north of the frontier have despised and feared each other, and have fought and slaughtered each other, but they have also intermarried, adopted and adapted each other's customs and cultures, and switched their own ethnic identities.

Lovell contends that the history of Chinese wall-building is relevant to understanding contemporary Chinese foreign policy because the political and cultural world-view that it reflected still survives. She sees the contemporary tension between the opening to international influence brought about by globalisation and the desire of the Chinese leadership to cut China off from foreign influences they regard as undesirable as a modern version of the tension between enclosure and openness that has been a theme of Chinese government throughout Chinese history. She places the Government's use of the firewall to regulate China's access to the web in the same long tradition of wall-building.

Lovell has read widely in the secondary sources of the history of the wall. Where a text exists that is useful for her purposes, as with W. J. F. Jenner's account of the northern Wei dynasty ( Memories of Loyang , 1981), she wisely sticks closely to it. Where there is no such source, she weaves her narrative together with great skill. Her skill as a storyteller, her lively anecdotal style and her concentration on human relations will no doubt attract the general reader.

Lovell seems little interested in economic and social change. Her focus is largely on the behaviour of rulers and members of the elites. She writes with a moral and factual certainty unusual in a modern work of history. Her emphasis on enduring themes in Chinese history unfortunately takes her close to the idea of China, largely discredited by modern scholarship, as an unchanging monolith always resistant to outside influences.

Although Lovell's approach may sometimes lack nuance, her achievement in producing a study that presents important ideas accessibly is to be admired. As China becomes a major force in international politics, the outside world needs to acquire a better understanding of the history that affects China's present world-view.

Delia Davin is emeritus professor of Chinese studies, Leeds University.

The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 BC - AD 2000

Author - Julia Lovell
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 411
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 84354 212 9

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