Citation

Upon concluding his Badaling photo shoot, Obama reportedly fol­lowed up his “sweep of history” remarks with an unscripted aside: “I also think I’m glad I didn’t carry a camera.” The president was presumably expressing his relief at not having to hold a camera on that bitterly cold day, but his remark could also be seen as a com­ment on the impossibility of ever being able to capture an accurate representation of the Wall.

For everyone other than the small group of officials and reporters who accompanied Obama to Badaling, perception of the Badaling photo op is necessarily mediated through representations offered by the Associated Press and other news agencies. Some of the limits of this media filter can be seen when one considers a rough, forty-six — second video clip recorded at the time, in which Obama strolls ca­sually down the rampart, then pauses and remarks, “It’s majestic. It’s a reminder of the incredible history of the Chinese people. And I think it gives you a good perspective on the fact that a lot of the day-to-day things we worry about don’t amount to much compared to the sweep of history.”3 This clip records the same moment seen in Charles Dharapak’s photograph and features the same comments quoted in AP bureau chief Charles Hutzler’s accompanying article, while presenting a distinctly different view of the scene itself. The point here, however, is not to contrast the objectivity of the video clip with the distortions that characterize the newspaper coverage (though with respect to the precise wording of Obama’s statement, the video is obviously more reliable), but to emphasize that all represen­tations are shaped by their own specific perspective (including such seemingly minor details as the angle of a shot and how it is framed).

The AP’s coverage of Obama’s Badaling shot circulated through­out the world, and also inspired a variety of secondary representa­tions. Hutzler’s “paraquote” of Obama’s comments was not only picked up by syndicated media services, for instance, but was also cited (often without attribution) in a range of other sources, includ­ing an article in the English-language edition of China’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily.4 Dharapak’s photograph also circu­lated widely, and was appropriated a few months later for an ad on a Times Square billboard for the apparel company Weatherproof, which had made the jacket Obama happened to be wearing during the visit (the company quickly agreed to take down the ad after the White House protested its use of the president’s image).

At first glance, The People’s Daily’s unattributed citation of the AP’s paraquote of Obama’s comments and Weatherproof’s unau-

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

Times Square billboard showing Obama at Badaling.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson (2010).

thorized appropriation of the AP’s carefully framed photograph of the scene might appear to constitute second-order betrayals of the “reality” of the original scene (which, needless to say, was a care­fully staged fiction to begin with). From a different perspective, however, these processes of citation and appropriation illustrate in miniature the cultural logic that underlies the Wall itself. The con­temporary Wall is a product of a continual process of citation, as each era cites and adapts different discursive elements it has inher­ited from earlier periods. It is precisely in the resulting cultural in­carnation of the Wall—rather than in its status as a singular ideal or a unitary structure—that we find the key to its identity. It is here, in other words, that we find the secret to the Great Wall’s greatness.

What follows, accordingly, is a cultural history of the Wall. My primary focus is neither on the structure’s concrete materiality nor on its empirical historicity as such, but rather on a multifaceted body of cultural representations of the monument. These represen­tations have not only shaped the ways in which the Wall has been understood throughout its history but have even played a direct role in driving the repeated construction (and reconstruction) of the actual structure. These cultural representations, in other words, quite literally are the Wall, and without them the monument as we know it would be unthinkable.

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