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The Great Wall: Symbol of peace, strength

YE LANG and ZHU LIANGHZHI | 2018-11-01
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

 A section of the Great Wall located at Jinshanling, about 140 km northeast of Beijing, is the best preserved part and was built in the Ming Dynasty. Photo: 699PIC


Chang Cheng, the Great Wall of China, refers to the extensive fortifications erected across northern China and southern Mongolia. These walls comprise one of the most famous mega structures in the world. It is almost peerless in the amount of labor force and time consumed as well as the project’s complexity in construction. The Great Wall actually consists of numerous walls built by 19 dynasties over two millennia from the 7th century BCE to the 16th century. The total length of the constructed wall is more than 100,000 km, including the walls parallel to each other. Large parts of the Great Wall were built in the Qin (221–207 BCE), Han (202 BCE–220) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties. The most extensive version of the wall dates from the Ming Dynasty and runs for about 6,700 km east to west from Shanhai Pass (Shanhai Guan) in the east along the coast of the Bohai Sea to Jiayu Pass (Jiayu Guan) in the northwestern desert. The hundreds-of-kilometers-long section near the northern suburb of Beijing is the best preserved.

Longing For Peace
Early in the 20th century, an American explorer named William Edgar Geil (1865–1925) traveled the entire Ming era section of the Great Wall. He believed that the Great Wall represented the Chinese people’s aspiration for peace, because of a Chinese belief that piling up bricks to build a bulwark is better than hurling them at others.

Historically, China was regarded as a less aggressive empire. However, its people have suffered under many domestic wars that have taken away countless lives and torn the nation apart. Peace is the common goal for all Chinese people. This is why the Chinese put so much effort into building the wall from generation to generation, even at the expense of many workers’ lives. The ancient Chinese viewed the Great Wall as an anti-war symbol. They came to stand at its base, grieving for past wars and calling for a peaceful future.

The Great Wall means a lot in the history of China. It played a significant role in protecting Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the northern nomadic groups. It also delivered a sense of security to the people inside the wall, providing a feeling of safety from attack and confidence.


Separation to integration
The Great Wall is not only a separation of the north and the south; it also shows how different civilizations coexisted side by side.

The special geographical features and climate to the north and the south of the wall led to a big difference in the development on both sides. The warm climate in areas of the country south of the wall favored farming practices and fostered a civilization based on agriculture, while the north, without enough arable land or a suitable climate, had to survive on seasonally available wild plants and animals, giving rise to a nomadic culture. People in the south needed a stable environment to grow crops, and thus hated war. However, in the north, mobility was the most efficient strategy for exploiting scarce resources, and the nomads had a huge demand for the agricultural products in the south. Therefore, the nomadic invasions were often more out of necessity than the desire for expansion.

From the Qin Dynasty onward, the nomads frequently harassed the south. The nomadic armies of tribes or kingdoms such as Xianyun, Xiongnu, Tujue or Khitan trampled the Qin, Han, Tang and Song dynasties one after another, causing continuous conflicts and huge losses to both sides, particularly to the south. The southern army was often in a weak position compared with the nomadic army, who made a living on horseback. The walls became important defensive barriers to hold back the northern intruders.

Admittedly, the Great Wall blocked cultural communication between the north and the south. In ancient China, it was difficult to pass through the wall and reach the other side. However, it minimized the potential conflicts between them, providing some security and stability for the development of both sides.

The erected bulwark reduced the threat from the northern nomads and protected the agricultural production in the Central Plain on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, making it possible to develop an advanced economy and technological infrastructure. Meanwhile, it drove the nomadic people to explore more ways to survive than plundering from and looting others. Their own civilization gradually came into being. To some extent, the Great Wall laid the foundation for further communication and exchanges between the north and the south.
As the intercultural trade between the two sides developed, several regions around the passes of the Great Wall began to thrive, constituting the economic zones along the Great Wall. People on both sides gathered around the several dozen passes, trading for what they needed, such as fur and medicine from the north or crops from the Central Plain.


Spirit of the Great Wall
The Great Wall is rumored to have been constructed with mud, bricks, stones and the bones of the workers who toiled day after day to build it. In fact, there was great suffering associated with its construction. A large number of Chinese workers perished during its over two thousand years of assembly.

The Great Wall is surrounded by miserable legends and stories. The most famous one is about a woman known as Lady Meng Jiang. It is said that during the Qin Dynasty, Lady Meng Jiang’s husband was pressed into service by imperial officials and sent to build the Great Wall. Lady Meng Jiang missed her husband and she set out to find him. Unfortunately, by the time she reached the Great Wall, her husband had already died and his bones were buried under the wall. Hearing the news, she wept bitterly at the foot of the Great wall, and her grief was so deep that every passerby was moved to tears. Three days later, part of the wall toppled down and the bones of her husband were revealed.

The legend of Lady Meng Jiang reflects the hardship of the labor on the Great Wall, recalling commoners’ hatred towards the reign of the tyrannical Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BCE), who ordered the construction of the wall at a huge human cost. However, people also believed that the Great Wall was a safeguard against invasions and they considered it as a symbol of strength and solidarity.

Over the centuries, the Great Wall has grown to symbolize the spirit of the Chinese people and become a landmark synonymous with China. In northern China’s vast land, the Great Wall winds up and down like a dragon along the steep ridge of a range of mountains. Just like the National Anthem goes, “With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall,” the Great Wall encourages the Chinese people to work together for the good of the country.

The article was edited and translated from Insights into Chinese Culture, published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Ye Lang and Zhu Liangzhi are professors at Peking University.

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)