Brick by Brick

Societies create monumental architecture for many reasons, most of which involve one person's, or a small group’s, over-inflated sense of self-importance.  The Great Pyramid at El Giza is a perfect example – it is virtually eternal, conspicuous, and utterly useless. 

Occasionally, megaliths are built with more utilitarian purposes in mind, however.  The Great Wall of China is generally perceived as built to deter invasions from Northern barbarian hordes.  If that was the Great Wall’s true and only purpose then it was a failure of epic proportions because almost from the very start the wall was breached early and often by the barbarians it was allegedly built to keep out.

Dark Wall, Stark WallCredit: public domain

Smaller walls (such as the ones that defended Jerusalem and Jericho and, later, medieval towns and castle compounds) were created for defense.  Major constructions such as monumental barriers, however (regardless of any revisionist’s opinion), are built for political reasons only.  Two perfect recent examples spring to immediate mind of the political drive behind monumental wall building.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
The first is the Berlin Wall (1961-1989).  It separated the German city of Berlin into Eastern and Western sectors and ideologically split its denizens along political lines of Communism and Capitalism.  This wall, although purportedly constructed to keep the peace along the ideological border, actually was designed to prevent mass migration to the West (to keep the Easterners living in Communism). 
The Berlin Wall served as a very large prison wall; if this were not true its citizens would have been free to cross it at any time and leave East Germany.  “Going over” the Berlin Wall was illegal, and many residents of East Germany (and from other Eastern Communist countries as well) were shot down while attempting to escape.  Although many tried to beat the Berlin Wall, few succeeded (and the ones who did make it to freedom used amazingly complex plans and tactics, all worthy of independent investigations).  The Berlin Wall succeeded for a few decades through intimidation, brute force, and murder.  Ultimately, it was the people in a changing world who, eventually, agitated enough and the wall came down (then-US President Ronald Reagan had absolutely nothing to do with its dismantling, despite what American conservatives like to believe).  Today, its memory is a symbol of the Cold War and the epic failure of Communism.

The Mexico-US border “Wall” (not really a wall, per se, but a series of fences, barriers and obstacles designed to thwart human and vehicular traffic in the American desert Southwest) was also born of politics.  And, like the Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of Mexico is a miserable failure.  The wall was approved, funded, and construction started under President George W. Bush’s administration as a pacifying device, a palliative, to the “God, guns, and country” arch-conservatives in America.  This wall was purportedly erected to “protect our citizens” and “secure our borders” (two buzz phrases that the average knee-jerk reactionary embraced during the Bush administration’s laughably impotent “War on Terrorism”).

"W" Stands for "Wall"Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2011

The Mexico Wall was really built out of a spirit of racism, pure and simple, and was politically motivated.  Our border with Mexico is not in danger of being overrun by the Mexican Army for an invasion.  It is, however, a major port of entry for drug traffickers, but building the “wall” had no effect on the drug trade (nor did it have any impact on illegal immigration). 

No, this “wall” is a symbol.  It was built to keep Mexicans out of the US.  The proof of this is simple: if the Bush administration had truly been interested in securing “our borders” (their plural word usage) then there would be a similar wall stretching across the Canadian-US frontier.  There is none.  Nor is there a “Canada Wall” slated for development, either.  The Mexico Wall is an openly bigoted manifestation of an ignorant former administration that could not creatively solve its immigration “problems”.

Keeping Out the Barbarian Hordes
Even the greatest societies were not immune to social pressures or ideals.  The Great Wall of China was conceived not solely out of a desire for protection but also from a fundamental ideological smugness within the Chinese governing dynasties.  China, throughout its entire recorded history up until about the mid 17th Century was the most enlightened, literate, cultured, and technologically advanced society on the planet, bar none.  One could argue about ancient Romans’ road-building and monumental architecture, or the philosophical enlightenment of the Renaissance, but these were spikes in the European time line.  Chinese culture and China's cultural superiority developed early and were sustained for very long periods.  Preserving this superiority was critical.

Ultimately, it was China’s success at almost everything in the known world that created its policy of isolation.  And nothing symbolized the jaw-dropping power of China to The Outsider more immediately, more obviously, or more successfully than The Great Wall of China.  The Great Wall makes a mammoth psychological statement to any observer: “Behold, the Greatness that is China”.

Rammed earth examples along Great Wall

The Great Wall is not a single uninterrupted barrier stretching across the northern Chinese frontier.  It is a network of interconnected walls, interrupted and fortified in places using natural hills, mountains, and rivers.  The completed wall (and it was never truly “completed’ with any finality as it was always either under construction, expansion, or repair) runs from “sea to sand”.  It meanders along the northern border from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert of central Asia in the west.  The entire behemoth was recently surveyed (including all the smaller tributary walls and natural features in its network).  In toto, it runs an astonishing 5,500 miles! Amazingly, 3,889 miles of this barrier is man-made wall.  On average the wall is about 25 feet high and roughly 12 feet across.  This engineering and construction feat boggles the mind for its sheer audacity and tenacity. 

Various independent Chinese fiefdoms built walls for protection beginning as early as the 5th Century BC.  These walls, particularly in the west and extreme northeast, were built using rammed earth.  This technique made for resistant structures, but was not impervious to erosion by rain and, more heavily, from swirling desert sands.  Upkeep was constant.

The Great Wall as the rest of the world envisions it (as a connected, unbroken entity) was actually started after Qin Shi Huang conquered, consolidated, and unified China in 221 BC under a strong, centralized government.  To undermine feudal lords’ authority and to further prevent these lords from rising to prominence again (by creating a co-dependent situation) he destroyed all the existing feudal walls that divided the states along the northern border. This left the individual principalities exposed, and the feudal lords in need of defense.  Qin Shi Huang, to repel attacks from the Jung and Ti nomads (Xiongnu people) from the north, decreed a new wall built.  It connected the remaining frontier fortifications along the Empire's new northern frontier; it also unified the new Empire “under one roof”.

3 photos of Great Wall views (1900-1907)Credit: public domain

The wall's builders used local resources for materials when possible.  Mountain stones gathered from nearby ranges were used for blocks in those areas where stone was available.  Rammed earth worked as effectively in the plains areas.  Because of erosion there are few sections of the Qin building phase left. Records do not exist to describe how long this first unified wall was or how many people it took to build it.  Historians believe about 300,000 conscripted soldiers were used for this task.  Some estimates give a human toll of several hundred thousand laborers, perhaps as many as a million, dying while building the Qin wall. 

The Han, Sui, and Northern dynasties repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great Wall.  The Han (202 BC-AD 220) were most impressive in their expansion efforts: they extended the wall westward to Yumen and added 25, 000 turrets.  The T’ang and Song Dynasties (the overlapping dynasties during which Chinese footbinding was introduced) interestingly were not wall builders.  This meant the Great Wall was in disrepair or enjoyed minimal repair for about five centuries.  The Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties (ruled Northern China throughout most of the 10th through the 13th centuries) originally had come from the northern barbarian lands themselves.  Thus, they would have no need to build any fortifications along the northern line.  The Liao did, however, carry out limited repairs in a few other areas.  The Jin built defensive walls in the 12th century, but these were further north, well into what is today Inner and Outer Mongolia. [It was the Yuan dynasty that reigned during Marco Polo’s historic visit to China, spending the years 1271-1295 away from his native Venice].

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) brought the wall to its ultimate level of greatness. [The Ming added a phenomenal 600 miles to its length and the 40-foot cannon towers; part of the Ming building effort is the iconic Badeling Pass section north of Beijing, featured prominently on every tourist brochure and postcard].  Following a horrific defeat at the hands of the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu in 1449 the Ming had no clear defenses against rampaging Manchurian and Mongolian tribes.  Successive and long extended conflicts with the invaders took their toll on the Empire.  The Ming strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out was to build walls along the northern border of China.  The Ming construction was stronger and more elaborate than the Qin work because they used bricks and stone instead of rammed earth.

Security Breach
Mongol raids continued over the years, and the Ming responded by devoting considerable resources and time repairing and reinforcing the walls.  The Great Wall temporarily helped 4 views of Great Wall near Beijing(124199)delay a Manchu invasion that started around 1600. Despite the protective wall, though, the Manchus finally crossed into China in 1644.  A series of political intrigues involving turncoat Ming generals led to collusion with the Manchu; the gates of two key cities were purposefully left unattended, and the Manchu seized control of the country, founding the Qing Dynasty (itself overthrown by the people in 1912). 
During the Qing Dynasty China's borders spread beyond the walls; Mongolia was annexed into the Empire, so construction and repairs on the Great Wall were discontinued. The Qing, however, did build one section of wall, called “the Willow Palisade” which followed another older wall line.  It was not for defense purposes, though, but for migration control.

Thus, The Great Wall of China has proven itself an epic failure.  Its stated purpose was defense; yet time and again the wall was breached by Northern aggressors (the Huns, the Mongols, the Manchus, et al).  Psychically, any potential invader approaching this serpentine stonework would have been awestruck.  It would only take the invaders a short time, however, to find a remote section to break through, or (as most often occurred) bribe or otherwise entice the turret guards to let them pass without remark. 

But the wall served another, greater function which was a rousing success. One must understand the Chinese culture during the period of the Great Wall’s construction and maintenance.  The Chinese had everything and needed nothing from the outside world; they were superior and need not trifle with Western beggars at their metaphoric door.  China’s isolationist policies were brought to life by this wall, in effect saying, “We close the door on the rest of the world.”

As a physical deterrent to invasion it was a failure.  As a psychological barrier to cultural and ideological contamination by other, less advanced cultures (European) it was a major success.  Europeans could not gain diplomatic entry or trade headway into China at all until the mid 13th Century and even then on a very limited basis.  The inscrutable wall clearly reflected the smug inscrutability of the Chinese masters. 

Today, anyone facing any preserved or restored part of The Great Wall of China will be overwhelmed by its magnitude.  It serves not only as a reminder of the greatness of China, but of the astonishing range of human achievement.


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