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Chinese walls

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
Peter Hessler
HarperCollins, 2001

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

“If you read only one book about China, let it be this,” says Jonathan Mirsky (whoever he is) on the cover of River Town, and, although I must have read fewer books on China than he has, I find it hard to disagree with him, at least if China today is the subject. Only Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron, comes to mind as a competitor, and even his more travelled account, just as China was opening up, is to some extent challenged by Hessler’s journeys, done in his job vacations. But to understand China today, there is much that should be known about its past. To know the history of The Great Wall of China is to realise it was a great mistake, an exercise in institutionalised, bureaucratic xenophobia whose failure did not even teach a lesson to those who rendered it useless. Peter Hessler was a Peace Corps worker, recruited to teach English Literature in a Teacher Training College in Fuling, a town far up the Yangtse, much of which will be flooded (to the resigned indifference of the inhabitants) when the Gorges Dams are built. The teaching medium was English, which the students had already learnt. They came directly from the peasantry (and had no wish to return to it) and were well-indoctrinated in communist philosophy and with rare exceptions did not officially question it. Communism turns out to be pretty much a veneer compared with the simple universal xenophobic nationalism manifested in, for example, the celebration of the return of Hong Kong, though Hessler comes across a realistic peasant who clearly knew why the colony was prosperous and what it would have been like if it had been Chinese for the last hundred years.

The only student who showed any open sign of dissidence was far from the brightest (“a loser”), who had, for some reason, though male, chosen a Western, female name, Rebecca (p. 176). This penchant for English names, followed, rather than preceded, by the Chinese family name, was very common. Some were conventional, like William Jefferson Foster (surely over-the-top?), Don, Jimmy, George, Anne, Linda or Daisy (for a boy), others not – such as Lazy (“I am lazy”) and, after consultation, Mo Money. There are vignettes of the last three; as for Mo Money, Hessler cannot help commenting that money was a very open, even naive, measure of value. There was no concealment of what anything cost or what anybody earned – most people he encountered were surprised that he should take a job with such a small salary.

Although not part of his duties, Hessler made it his business to learn Chinese, finding that if he mastered Mandarin (officially pushed, with posters declaiming “Speak Mandarin!”, a side-light on the universal comprehension of the written, as against the spoken, word) he found he could soon pick up the vernacular. Of course learning the language (and he had to pay to be taught) included learning the characters, and he was irked by a teaching method that ran entirely by reprimands rather than commendation. Let’s not be too impressed: after all, missionaries had to do it, though admittedly taking much of their time over a year.

By the end of their two years, both Hessler and his colleague Adam Meier were able to sit, talk and joke in Chinese cafes, and become the recipients of confidences about their students’ personal problems, though a mis-step in their recording of life in Fuling developed into a rather ugly incident (p. 380). Hessler had two advantages over the Chinese in Fuling: he was the best runner in the city and always won the annual long race, and he had a higher alcohol tolerance than any Chinese (Mongolids generally have a lower tolerance than Caucasoids), being thus able to outdo all others in the banquet competitive toasting. Sensing however the irritation this superiority provoked, he gave up both of these competitive activities. Also, running in the terrible, coal-smoke laden atmosphere was not at all good for his lungs. Most amusing story: forbidden by the College authorities to include any carols in a dramatic presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge appropriately greeted the substituted Communist pop-song The East is Red with “Bah, humbug!”.

How much do tourists know and how much are they told about The Great Wall of China? Arthur Waldron’s double-debunking book would be a good one to read before they visit it. In the first place, the Great Wall, a name not used until relatively recently, is not a venerable structure, being mostly built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and towards its close. In the second place, it was the product of a faulty strategy, failing in its purpose of keeping out the northern nomads. Waldron compares it to the Maginot Line, similarly incorrectly conceived and a failure.

It is interesting to know that the real problem with the nomads only began when they became horse-mounted “in the centuries just before . . . 221BC” (p. 32). This is a bit vague, but the date is the accession of the tyrannical emperor Ch’in Shih Huang (book-burner, anti-Confucianist and generally the bad guy of Chinese history). He is credited with building the first walls, but they were earth ramparts and certainly not permanent. Before and after his time, wall-building took place between the rival states of a disunited China.

In the times of the T’ang (618-906), the Yuan (1267-1368) and the Ch’ing (1644-1912), the boundaries of China were far north of any wall; in the case of the last two because these dynasties resulted from nomad (Mongol and Manchu) conquest. Earlier, the policy of the T’ang had also involved the end of wall-building. “Its fundamental strategic approach to the nomads differed from that of its predecessors” by becoming more cosmopolitan. As one emperor put it: “Since Antiquity all have honoured the Hua and despised the I and the Ti; only I have loved them both” (p. 47-8).

Yet this sensible policy lapsed whenever the “institutionalised” xenophobia of the Chinese intellectuals and literati dominated the dynasties, as when the T’ang fell and, later, the Ming ousted the Yuan. The policy of the Ming was particularly stubborn and foolish, dominated as it was by a Confucian bureaucracy for whom contempt of the nomads (the above I and Ti) was dogma. Since most wall-building took place in the Ming dynasty, Waldron concentrates on this period (pp. 72-164), from the failure of the first emperors to capture Karakorum and incorporate the steppe lands, through the debates on how to recover the potentially cultivable Ordos region, to the last attempts to wall off the approaches to Pekin, which the Manchus simply circumvented.

The attitude of continuous hostility to the nomads seems especially wrong-headed in being entirely negative, their requests for trade which would have certainly benefited both sides being flatly rejected, an attitude replicated centuries later when the completely sinicised Manchu Ch’ing rebuffed Western traders and governments. As far as policy discussion went between the rival court bureaucrats, it seems to have been confined to either advocating active warfare against the nomads, plainly too expensive, or defence. Because the walls and forts were built for permanence, stone-clad as distinct from the rammed earth of the earlier type, this too was expensive.

Waldron concludes with two chapters on the growth of modern attitudes to the wall, in fact, the growth of a myth. Oddly enough, this seems to have arisen first in the West, amongst other idealistic and ignorant nonsense about Chinese civilization propounded by eighteenth century French philosophes. It was noted that, when members of the Macartney Mission visited the wall in 1793, their Chinese escorts showed no interest in it. There is little classical literature about it, no especial name for it and, as mentioned, the so-called original builder of it, Ch’in Shih Huang, was held in odium by Chinese historians, though for other reasons. True to the tenets of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Red Guards destroyed several hundred kilometres of it (p. 218). Yet, like other features of that period, this attitude was later reversed. “Most Chinese are proud of the Wall because they believe that it is something, perhaps the only thing, left from their ancient civilization that is truly world class” (p. 220). It is certainly an impressive human artefact, though probably not, as often stated, the only one visible from the moon.

Some readers may notice that Waldron has used the Wade-Giles romanization instead of pinyin; no reason is given but I imagine it is to be kind to those familiar with pre-1980 (?) literature and with them, as with me, it may well have made for easier reading.

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1 comment to Chinese walls

  • Scott

    Although I haven’t read it, Hessler’s book does seem to be definitive work on living in China these days, though it follows a well-trod path blazed by Mark Salzberg (“Iron and Silk”, and Bill Holm (“Coming Home Crazy”). I believe Hessler now writers on China for the New Yorker.

    As far as the Great Wall is concerned, it is definitely not visible from space, a myth that has been debunked repeatedly. It is pretty much the same color as the surrounding countryside, and it is about as wide as a two-lane highway. Interestingly, Marco Polo made no mention of it, an omission used by those who hold that the Italian never actually visited China.