Say “The Wall” in China and everyone knows exactly what you mean. To visit is on many bucket lists and rightfully so. It is truly amazing.
So, as the People’s Republic of China celebrates the anniversary of the birth of the nation on October 1 it seemed an opportune time to share some interesting details about the Wall. It runs quite close to my home so I go there often and never grow tired of its splendor and majesty.
To say it is overwhelming doesn’t do it justice. It is simply incomprehensible that anyone built this thing – and all without power equipment. Of course, however, it took a lot of anyones.
Construction of the 5,000-kilometer (3,100 miles) Wall began under the Qin Dynasty in approximately 221 BC but much of the most impressive work occurred during the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 17th centuries. In total the current Wall took more than 1800 years to complete.
Many sections of the wall have disappeared or fallen down from neglect. The Chinese political narrative under Mao Zedong was focused on class struggle so the Wall carried little significance to the leaders of the time. Its materials were often considered more valuable as the raw materials for new homes than preservation of China’s dynastic history.
Many sections still remain, however, and are as sure underfoot as the day they were built. As you stroll along the wall, typically built at the very peak of the most scraggly and treacherous mountain ranges, one literally gets the sense that the wall was carved out of the mountain rather than built on top of it.
The wall was undeniably built by masons and engineers who knew their trade, but it is largely made of stone and earth, ingredients that seldom stand up to the erosion and destruction of time. What gives the wall its enduring strength, it’s said, is the glutinous rice – sometimes called sticky rice – that was added to the mortar used to hold the stones in place.
Given the perilous ridge tops on which it was built it is no surprise that 400,000 workers died in its construction. For many, grieving relatives would bring a rooster (an historical symbol of burial in many religions and cultures), to the wall to lead the soul away so that it would not become trapped in the Wall itself.
Along the Wall you will also find tributes to famous Chinese figures of history both real and religious. There is a shrine to GUAN Yu, a third-century general (Han dynasty) and temples in honor of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism.
In fact, the Wall is not a wall at all. It is a network of walls spanning 20,000-kilometers (12,400 miles). Much of it has long been absorbed back into its surroundings but new sections continue to be discovered.
Unfortunately, the defensive power of the Wall was not always effective. It was breached many times, most famously during the Manchurian Invasion that brought an end to the Ming dynasty in the 17th century.
The significance of the Wall has greatly increased in recent years, coinciding with the change in the Chinese political narrative away from the class struggle emphasized during the early Communist years to a form of nationalism built upon the memory of the Century of Humiliation at the hands of foreign powers that began with the Opium Wars and ended with the Japanese Occupation during WWII. (What could be a more fitting symbol of such a narrative?)
Today the Wall attracts more than 10 million visitors per year and chair lifts and gondolas have been added to get up you up to the Wall without even having to hike. A toboggan slide will even bring you back down in Mutianyu, a particularly scenic part of the Wall a short distance Northeast of Beijing. (Any international hotel in Beijing can arrange a day tour for you.)
But, alas, as grand as it is, it is a myth that the Wall is visible from space. It isn’t. It’s not surprising, really, when you see it. It is mammoth but its color, over the years, has blended with its surroundings to the point where it seems unthinkable that that there was ever a time when the Wall wasn’t there.
Note: See below for a few more pictures.
Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreau
Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.
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