Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth

Book Cover

Book Title

The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: University Press, 1992


Waldron, Arthur


Waldron’s monograph is now the standard English language scholarly analysis of this topic, one of direct interest to any student of the history of empire in Asia. Waldron came to the topic as a doctoral student, working on the military policy of the Ming Dynasty. At that stage he assumed that the prevailing view of the Great Wall was more or less correct: the Wall was a systematic and continuous line of fortifications built by ancient Chinese emperors, and maintained throughout the centuries as a defended frontier that divided China proper from the territories and peoples north and northwest of it; this Wall was built and maintained because of the problems caused by the fundamental incompatibility between a settled agricultural civilization and nomadic steppe peoples, and to manage those problems. Waldron found however that there was no continuous line of fortifications, stone or otherwise, running more than 6000 kilometres; that the term Great Wall was almost unheard of before the Ming Dynasty; that the continuous line of stone fortifications that survives today was built only during the latter era of the Ming Dynasty; that it never provided any effective military protection for those who built it; that many walls were built at different times by different Chinese rulers, because wall building was a frequently adopted but usually hotly contested strategy for managing the northern frontier, but was only one strategic choice out of an array attempted over the years; and that the Great Wall as it presents itself today is an important concept for anyone trying to understand the ordering of China and the Chinese world, from the Imperial era to the present.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Archaeology and language sources combined to present sufficient evidence to dismantle any idea that there was an ancient Great Wall, let alone an ancient continuous line of permanent fortifications. The mistaken idea that there was became associated with the controversial figure of the First Emperor, founder of the Chin Dynasty and reputed builder of such a wall. Support or opposition to wall building in general as strategic policy became entangled with praise or criticism for what he came to represent in Chinese historical memory. But many defensive walls, or at least networks of blocking or defended positions, were indeed built, across many centuries, to try to bolster the security of the agricultural heartlands of what was becoming Han China, and to control or at least manage intercourse in the liminal zones in which Chinese and steppe peoples interacted.  Two of the greatest dynasties, the Tang and the Yuan, took quite different approaches to managing the geographically open northern and northwestern land frontiers, approaches that redefined the strategic role of such fortifications. The Yuan in particular pursued a combination of diplomatic maneuvering, economic intercourse and inducement, and mobile warfare, a combination to which they paid careful attention, to redefine frontier and steppe relationships. This involved redefining China as a more flexible entity, pursuing a broader range of strategies to manage relationships. Trade made more of an impact than force. But the Yuan were a non-Chinese dynasty, working a much larger and more multi-cultural imperial project. The Ming had a much stronger Sinic sense of both their own identity and that of China. But at first they too pursued an active policy of frontier management, combining mobile military operations with economic and diplomatic activity, particularly to retain influence on the internal political evolutions of the steppe peoples.

That changed, and those changes led to the Great Wall. Waldron frames the problem as one that combined culture and concepts of identity, politics, and factional struggles for influence, with strategic geography. The latter revolved around something that never changed: the course of the  River Ordos, which projected north into the mixed and steppe lands like a thumb, west of modern Beijing, creating a giant salient projecting outward from the agricultural heartland. Successive dynasties had to decide how to manage that salient, and the space therein. Active offensive military campaigns required a major, even permanent commitment to building significant towns as bases, and maintaining strong mobile forces on active duty. Abandoning the space meant giving up useful land and opening the heartland and the sometimes capital to more direct threats of raid and invasion. Fortifying the space required a major commitment of labour, materials, and garrison forces, and compelled the fortifiers to choose between following the river or cutting across the salient. This problem aggravated factional bickering over how China should define itself and therefore what strategic foreign policy it should pursue, bickering that only a strong emperor could keep under control. Daunted by the challenge, the Ming changed direction, as Waldron summarized: ‘unwilling to trade with the Mongols, and unable to defeat them militarily, by the middle of the 16th century the Ming had no policy choice left but the final one … namely, to attempt to exclude the nomads by building walls.’

The Ming saw the Great Wall they built as a border defence system, meant to connect strategically located strong points that controlled movement routes. Their permanent curtain wall of brick and stone, crenellated and punctuated by numerous signal and watch towers, reflected not only a change in strategic direction but also the unfolding military situation. Wall building moved from east to west, seeking to deter escalating mobile nomadic pressure. Command and control changed apace, becoming more organized and systematic. This all made the border fortifications the cardinal issue in the Ming interal debate over imperial priorities and strategy. And that debate exposed the fatal weakness: chronic political faction feuding, much of it driven by an eternal argument about the wisdom of a rigid defensive over a more flexible offensive frontier strategy, paralyzed Ming policy making. Ming strategic foreign policy became consistent only to the extent that it became rigid, committed to the stark strategy of excluding steppe peoples from the Sinic sphere. Comparing the Ming Great Wall strategy to the modern French Maginot Line strategy, Waldron argues that they both represented the same thing and failed for the same reasons: internal political confusion that produced rigid and brittle strategic foreign policy, resting on an expensive military commitment that the enemy simply outflanked.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Waldron connects his argument to a deeper discussion: the tension between cultural and dynastic themes as the organizing principle for a Chinese polity, and thus as the lens through which that polity should relate to its neighbours and the world. Systematic wall building represented the triumph of an attitude marked by suspicion of economic, political and cultural intercourse with non-Han peoples, especially steppe peoples. The walls joined the emphasis on moral behaviour, the influence of the literati, and the rituals of the tributary system as organizing principles to control, strictly, the terms of China’s intercourse with anyone else.
The Ming Great Wall failed however to prevent the destruction of the dynasty by a northern steppe people, the Qing, who both went around and bribed their way through it. The Qing then adopted a fundamentally different approach to frontier problems: they greatly expanded the frontiers, pushing the Empire far to the north and west. This made the Great Wall militarily pointless, leaving it now deep inside space governed from Beijing. This all occurred just in time for European visitors to ‘discover’ the Great Wall and initiate the last chapter in its rich and varied history: its evolution as myth, symbol, icon.

From Matteo Ricci through Voltaire to Lord Macartney and his celebrated Mission, European visitors misunderstood the history, purpose, and impact of the Wall. Through their efforts, it became detached from the empirical basis on which it had rested, as a Ming expansion of a much older, much less systematic strategy and construction. Waldron puts it well: ‘by the end of the 19th century facts were clearly becoming irrelevant to accounts of the Wall: it was the concept itself, well founded or not, that engaged the imagination.’ The bounds burst in the 20th century, when empirical scholarship was swept aside by a popular imagination that accepted the idea that the Great Wall was the most imposing of all constructions of the ancient world, one that could even be seen from outer space. Sun Yat-Sen found in the Wall a politically useful symbol of past Chinese greatness that could now be translated into a sorely needed national symbol, a tangible base on which to rebuild a sense of cultural unity that could ground the construction of modern China. The Communist Party picked up the theme, praising the Great Wall as a symbol of national resistance in the Sino-Japanese War. That made it easier for the People’s Republic to ‘rediscover’ the Wall, and launch a major campaign to repair, restore and rebuild it, as a bridge to link Chinese continuity with China’s reawakening. Like almost every other national asset the Great Wall suffered during the Cultural Revolution, abandoned again to looters and the elements; but like most of the rest, it endured, to re-emerge as the veritable national icon and profitable tourist attraction it has become today.

Waldron concludes that even though the Great Wall detached itself from empirical history, at least as far as what it actually was, who built it, why, when, how, and to what effect, in one very important respect very little changed. The Great Wall serves now as the very symbol of how China wants to present itself to the world. But Waldron argues that this was always the case, from the many ancient border walls and fortifications through to the stone structure built by the Ming. Even during its heyday as the lynchpin of a military grand strategy for imperial China, the Wall also served as a metaphor for how those who governed and defined China saw China, and how it should relate to the rest of the world. That metaphor was always controversial, confusing, and incomplete. The Great Wall was probably the most expensive military failure in pre-modern history, but its greatest importance was what it said, not what it did: what it said about how China saw itself vis a vis the rest of the world, and the choices it made regarding how to order that world.

Annotated by Brian Farrell