The Great Wall of China

When Robert Frost wrote “Something there is that does not love a wall,” it wasn't the Great Wall of China that he had in mind. The idea of the wall has been in my head ever since I heard you could see it from the Moon. (Alas. You can't.) But, as the Chinese say, "No problema." The reality of the wall surpassed its hype.

You reach the wall at Mutianyu by taking a cable car advertised at the entrance as The Best Cable Car in the mountains. The climb to the cable car entrance is arduous, made more so by having to run a gamut of vendors selling everything from postcards to Chairman Mao's little books. Our guide constantly warns us that the best way to deal with vendors is to pretend they are not there. They are, she says, aggressive to the point of being obnoxious. My own impression is that on a scale of 1 to 10 the Chinese vendors are somewhere around a 4 compared, say, to the 10 of Egypt and Indonesia. More often than not “Bu yao, she she” (I don't want it. Thanks.) is enough to fend them off.

The Lonely Planet and the Eyewitness Travel Guide both place the genesis of the Great Wall in the Qin dynasty. Fairbank and Goldman (China 2006) consider that a folktale. Makes you wonder about the accuracy of these guides. Here is what Fairbank and Goldman say:

  • Walls were built by Qin and other Warring States and later by some dynasties, but the hoary legend that Qin built the Great Wall of China has long since been exploded. The vast wall system visible today was mainly built by the Chinese Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century. In a fresh interpretation Arthur Waldron (The Great Wall of China 1990) has recently demonstrated how the Ming wall building, though of little military value for keeping out the non-Chinese nomads to the north, resulted from the officials’ inability to decide on any better course, either to attack or to trade. (p. 57)

The hard fact is that the incalculable cost in human life that went into its construction renders it not only a failure but a disgrace. That doesn't distinguish it from other projects of historical hubris, of course: the Pharaonic pyramids come immediately to mind or the temples at Angkor Wat.

Over half a millennium later, like the pyramids and the temples, the wall has come into its own as one of the world's top tourist attractions. Imagine that! All those hundreds of thou-sands of souls doomed to die hauling millions of tons of stone and earth to the tops of hills above Mutianyu and pounding them into place so that six hundred years later we might ride a cable car to the wall and watch a Chinese bride pose for pictures in a rented wedding gown.

That, I suppose, is as good a measure of human progress as any.