On Origins

Everything must have a start, even a tradition.

—William Edgar Geil, The Great Wall of China (1909)

On the final day of President Obama’s 2009 trip to China, he was taken on a tour of the Badaling section of the Great Wall just out­side Beijing, where he posed for what White House aides celebrated as “the shot.” A widely distributed Associated Press photograph depicts the president standing pensively on a rampart, and while we have no way of knowing what precisely he was thinking, the Asso­ciated Press’s accompanying description offers a hint: “‘It’s magi­cal,’ Mr. Obama said, walking down a ramp alone, his hands in his pockets. ‘It reminds you of the sweep of history and our time here on earth is not that long. We better make the best of it.’”1 Obama’s visit to the Wall elicited a brief flurry of excitement in the U. S. news media, but in general it was actually rather unremarkable. A care­fully scripted appearance at one of China’s most popular tourist destinations, this “shot” rehearses a set of familiar assumptions re­garding the Wall’s status as a symbol—of historical continuity, of territorial integrity, and of the nation itself.

The apparent familiarity of this scene, however, is belied by a set of suggestive contradictions just beneath the surface. While the

[To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.]

Obama at Badaling. APPhoto/CharlesDharapak(2009).

Wall is often seen as a paradigmatic symbol of China’s history, for instance, this particular section has actually been extensively recon­structed in recent years. The Wall is frequently imagined as a quin­tessential emblem of China’s border, yet here it is being used as a scenic backdrop for a visiting foreign leader. And, finally, while the iconic monument is conventionally conceived as a stand-in for the Chinese nation, it is perceived here through coverage by an Ameri­can news agency. If there is indeed something “magical” about this scene, therefore, it lies in its subtle negotiation of these contradic­tory connotations of historicity, territorial boundaries, and national identity.

Like Obama’s Badaling photo op, the significance of the Wall it­self might at first appear to be rather straightforward. The Wall, as every schoolchild knows, represents the nation’s power, unity, and longevity. A defensive barricade spanning China’s northern frontier and linking contemporary China back to its first unified dynasty, the Wall symbolizes the nation’s geographic integrity and historical continuity. It is the longest and most massive structure ever built by man, and the only one visible from outer space.

At the same time, however, it is generally acknowledged that none of these claims is strictly accurate. The massive brick and stone Wall we see today was not constructed until around the six­teenth century and is positioned far from the nation’s current bor­ders. The structure no longer retains any strategic function as a defensive fortification, and even at the height of its use it often re­flected not so much China’s strength as its inherent vulnerability. And, no, the Wall is not visible from space—or at least it is no more visible than a number of other man-made structures would be from a comparable distance.

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly conventional to treat the Wall as a set of historically independent structures—differentiating, for instance, between the Ming dynasty’s brick-and-stone construc­tion and the tamped-earth structures erected by earlier regimes, such as the Qin dynasty. The problem with this approach, however, is that it opens the door to a potential repudiation of the very no­tion of the Wall. Once we grant that the Ming and Qin Walls should be treated as physically and historically independent entities, what would prevent us from applying the same logic to, say, the Ming Wall itself—seeing it not as a unified structure but as a set of dis­tinct border-wall constructions carried out under different emper­ors in different regions over roughly a two-century span? What, indeed, grants any wall a unified identity that encompasses the mul­titude of bricks and stones out of which it is made?

It would, of course, be possible to simply do away with the con­cept of the Wall and speak instead of geographically and histori­cally specific border-wall construction projects. The problem is, we have a strong intuition that the Wall does in fact exist. The chal­lenge, therefore, is to find a way to bring what we know about the structure’s empirical history and reality into line with our intuition that it exists as a meaningful entity.

Most contemporary discussions of the Wall approach it as an ab­stract ideal or a material structure, or a combination of the two. Both the abstract ideal and the material structure, however, are in a continual state of flux, and consequently they do not suffice, in and of themselves, to anchor a vision of the Wall as a historically con­tinuous entity. Instead, the key to the Wall’s identity lies in the cul­tural environment within which it is embedded; this body of cul­tural representations provides the glue that binds the physically and historically discrete structures into a single unity.

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