Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
2016 has turned into a year of walls. Late last year Hungary built a fence on its southern borders to keep out refugees. Last month the British began building a wall in Calais, France, also to block migrants. It wasn’t that long ago when the English Channel was good enough. And of course, throughout the year we have been subjected to a certain presidential candidate’s repeated promise of building a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border, with the fanciful proviso that Mexico would pay for it.
Well, if you’re thinking about building a big, beautiful wall to keep out foreigners, you might want to consult the Chinese. I hear that they have some experience in the matter.
According to the “Records of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian, written in the 1st century B.C., what we now know as the Great Wall of China began as a series of disconnected fortifications. The northern members of the Warring States, a series of seven kingdoms that divided China from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C., had constructed them to keep out barbarian tribes from the north.
But as even Franz Kafka seemed to recognize in his 1917 short story, “The Great Wall of China,” a series of disconnected walls built piecemeal was faintly ridiculous as a method of keeping out nomadic tribes. All they had to do to get around the wall was to ride along a section until they came across a gap.
In 221 B.C., the First Emperor unified the country and joined the various sections into one wall. But the enormous human cost in the construction effort helped give him his tyrannical reputation. In one famous legend, the government impressed a man into service on his wedding night and transported him hundreds of miles north to the wall. His new wife followed after him. But when she reached the wall she discovered that he had died from the hard labor, and his body had been buried under the wall and made part of the foundation. In her grief she wailed so powerfully that an entire section of the wall collapsed. Therefore the wall was, from its earliest history, a symbol of oppression instead of strength, of the collectivist state that even one individual of conscience might bring down.
Over the ensuing centuries, as dynasties came and went, a clear pattern emerged: Whenever China relied on the wall, it was experiencing a period of lethargy and decline. In energetic and enterprising periods, the Chinese ventured far beyond the wall and rendered it useless. This is in the nature of walls — as a strategy, a wall is hopelessly defensive. The moment you step beyond it, it becomes superfluous.
And in those eras of timidity when the Chinese huddled behind the wall, it invariably failed them eventually. The Jurchen people breached the wall in the 12th century before the Mongol conquest in the 13th. The Manchus, descendants of the Jurchen, returned in the 17th century to conquer the country all over again. They breached the wall with the help of a corrupt general guarding one of the passes, once again underlining the problems with relying on a wall for defense.
It was under Manchu rule that Westerners discovered the wall and deemed it the “Great Wall.” In 1793, Lord Macartney of Britain led an embassy to Beijing, and in their spare time the diplomats played tourists. Seeing the wall for the first time, Macartney declared it “the most stupendous work of human hands.” Back in Europe, the diplomats’ reports permanently inscribed the Great Wall of China in the Western imagination. The Chinese had never said it was “great”; they merely called it the “Long Wall.” Perhaps Macartney should have noticed how useless the wall was at this point. After all, he was on his way to the emperor’s summer residence, which stood in Jehol or Chengde, beyond the wall! The imperial family itself had been descended from invaders from the north. The construction by now defended nothing and no one.
Moreover, even while Macartney marveled at the physical wall, his diplomatic mission was turning out to be a complete debacle because of the other Great Wall, “the mental wall that the Chinese state had built around itself to repel foreign influences and to control and encircle the Chinese people within.” (Julia Lovell, “The Great Wall: China Against the World 1,000 B.C.—A.D. 2,000.”)
This psychological wall that came with the physical wall had made the Chinese at once timid and arrogant, convinced of their own superiority while too fearful to engage with the outside world. Meeting Macartney, neither the emperor nor his courtiers could think of anything that they might learn from the West, any benefit they might derive from relations with the Court of St. James. So they sent Macartney packing. Only half a century later, this combination of hubris and timidity led to the catastrophe of the Opium War and arguably all the tumultuous history since.
Perhaps that is the most important lesson for all of our would-be wall-builders. A wall never merely keeps them out; it also keeps us in. And a wall is never only a wall of brick and mortar, but rather it is a barrier in our minds as well. And it will always be true that cowards hide behind walls, while the bold venture out into the great wide world with all the wonders in it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."