"Even a Tradition&quot

The Wall, as Obama observed, is often perceived as a symbol of the “sweep of history.” To appreciate the significance of the Wall’s his­torical connotations, we may begin by looking beyond the media’s representations of Obama’s visit to Badaling and consider instead its broader historical context.

On October 1, 2009—approximately a month and a half be­fore Obama’s visit—China celebrated with great fanfare the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. This week-long celebration, however, stood in stark contrast to several other anniversaries that year of pivotal moments in modern Chinese history. May Fourth, for instance, was the ninetieth anniversary of the reform movement that marked the transition from imperial to modern China, while March tenth and June Fourth were the fiftieth and twentieth an­niversaries, respectively, of antigovernment demonstrations in Ti­bet and Tiananmen Square that had both been quelled by force. However, while National Day, on October 1, is a major state holi­day and May Fourth is commemorated unofficially for its social and cultural significance, the very mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown is strictly forbidden and the Tibet Rebellion of 1959 has been recoded as a celebration of China’s subsequent “lib­eration” of the Tibetan serfs. Although each of these four events played an outsize role in helping to shape the culture, society, and politics of modern China, the stark disparity in how their anniver­saries are observed illustrates the role of contemporary concerns in shaping a vision of the past.

A similar point may be made about the Wall. Our view of the structure is directly informed by recent attempts to preserve it as a historical monument and to rehabilitate its status as a national icon, among many other factors. Those in other eras have per­ceived the Wall through their own concerns—seeing it, for instance, through the lens of the First Emperor’s legendary tyranny, the Ming dynasty’s defensive priorities, or the West’s Orientalist fascination with China. While it is true that every period approaches the struc­ture in its own way, it is equally the case that each era’s understand­ing of the structure may itself become part of the Wall’s own “fu­ture history,” informing how subsequent eras come to view the Wall. We may, therefore, regard the Wall as the product of a histori­cal continuity—but in the specific sense of being the product of a continuous process of reinvention.

One hundred years before Obama’s trip to Badaling, the Ameri­can Baptist missionary and amateur adventurer William Edgar Geil published The Great Wall of China, in which he speculated that his previous year’s trek from one end of the structure to the other “might set in motion among the Chinese a new tradition—every — thing must have a start, even a tradition—about a wild western man of prodigious height and bulksome weight who traversed the brick of Qin.”2 While Geil’s 1909 book on the Wall (the first vol­ume on the subject in any language) is not well known today, his fantasy that he might succeed in “set[ting] in motion… a new tra­dition” succinctly captures an important dimension of the monu­ment’s status as a cultural artifact. Over time, countless discourses on the Wall have coalesced into a complex and nuanced tradition. While many of the individual discussions (like Obama’s recent re­marks and, arguably, even Geil’s early book on the subject) may have been comparatively inconsequential in their own right—and often have contained many inaccuracies or outright falsehoods— they each have the potential to contribute to the body of tradition that is the Wall.

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