On Names

If names be not rectified, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.

—Confucius, The Analects

Names are prickly creatures, which Confucius contended must be firmly “rectified” for language to maintain its proper function and truth. The problem, however, is that a word, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.” In a similar spirit, I have endeavored to make this vol­ume as accurate and accessible as possible while preserving the “liv­ing thought” of the language I employ.

In general I use standard English translations of Chinese words, phrases, and titles of works. With the exception of a handful of names—like Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek—that are better known under alternate spellings, I use the pinyin transliteration sys­tem throughout, and have silently revised quotations from other modern texts to conform to this system (while preserving, for his­torical purposes, the original spellings in passages taken from pre — twentieth-century texts).


I follow the Chinese convention of listing family names before given names, with the exception of a few expatriate authors who have adopted Westernized versions of their names (such as Hualing Nieh, whose surname is Nieh). Chinese emperors traditionally have at least three names: a personal name, the reign title by which they were known while on the throne (and many had more than one), and their posthumous temple name. I use the personal names when discussing emperors when they are not on the throne, but otherwise I use their reign names—and follow accepted practice in referring to Han dynasty rulers with the title first (for example, Emperor Han Gaozu) and Ming rulers with the title following the reign name (the Hongwu emperor).

I follow a similar policy when referring to cities. Many Chinese cities have undergone one or more name changes over time, and in general I use the name by which the city was known during the pe­riod under consideration (using, for instance, Beijing to refer to China’s capital during the modern period, but Dadu or Cambaluc to refer to the city when speaking of Marco Polo’s visit during the Yuan). With respect to the nation itself, however, I adopt the oppo­site solution. Throughout its history, the geographic region corre­sponding roughly to modern China has been ruled by a variety of (often overlapping) regimes, and has usually been referred to by the name of the dynasty or kingdom controlling the area in question. I will generally use the term China to refer to the region throughout the period from the Qin dynasty to the present—with the under­standing that this may very well be a strategic anachronism.

One of the central concerns of this volume is the relationship be­tween the conventional perception of the Wall as a singular entity, on one hand, and the wide range of ways in which it has been re­ferred to and understood, on the other. In exploring these issues, I will alternate among a variety of descriptive formulations, such as “the Qin dynasty Wall,” “the Ming Wall,” “the Long Wall,” “the

Barricade,” “the Badaling section of the Wall,” and even “the Great Wall,” to specify different geographical or historical incarnations of the structure, while using the more general term the Wall to refer to the monument as an idealized singular and unified structure.

Wherein lies that which makes humanity human?

I say it lies in humanity’s possession of boundaries.

—Xunzi (third century BCE)

The tenacious wall that at the present moment, and at all times, projects its system of shadows across lands I will never see, is precisely the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past. It is likely that this idea, aside from the conjectures it might invite, also has the capacity to affect us in its own right. (The virtue of this idea may lie in its monumental opposition between processes of construction and destruction.)

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Wall and the Books” (1961)

What is then the origin of the Great Wall of China that circumscribes a “proper” in the text?

—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980)

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