A Unity of Gaps

In this way, the system of piecemeal construction makes sense. . . and as inconsequential as it might first appear, this is actually a central question relating to the entire construction of the Wall.

—Franz Kafka, “The Great Wall of China” (1917)

A structure of notoriously vast proportions, the Wall is frequently cited as a symbol par excellence for entities whose enormity boggles the mind. For instance, the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming— who, at seven feet six inches, is currently the tallest player in the NBA—is nicknamed China’s Great Wall. When Yao Ming teams up with his compatriots, the seven-foot-one Wang Zhizhi and the six-foot-eleven Menk Batere from Inner Mongolia—as he did for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and the 2001 Pan-Asian Games—the trio is referred to as China’s Walking Great Wall. Even the giant Yao Ming, however, is dwarfed by a celestial Great Wall, officially known as the CfA2 Great Wall: a sheet of galaxies 500 million light years across that was the largest known structure in the universe when it was discovered in 1989. The CfA2 Great Wall didn’t hold that distinction long, however, as four years later as­tronomers using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey discovered another, even greater, “Great Wall.” Dubbed the Sloan Great Wall, this galaxy supercluster is estimated to be 1.37 billion light years

across and, for the moment at least, holds the title of largest entity known to man.

Able to inspire these sorts of larger-than-life comparisons, the Great Wall itself is undeniably great. “Great,” that is, both in the colloquial sense of being amazing and awe inspiring and also in the more specific meaning of the term that Kant invokes in his Critique of Judgment: “We call that sublime which is absolutely great.”1 For Kant, the mathematical sublime is an aesthetic cate­gory corresponding to that which inspires a sense of fear precisely because it lies beyond the limits of human understanding. The sub­lime is characterized, Kant argues, by its quality of “boundless­ness,” even as the category of the sublime itself is necessarily bounded within the realm of the aesthetic. A viewer of a painting of an immense mountain, for instance, may well feel a sense of awe and fear—but this sublime reaction is nevertheless very different from the genuine terror a traveler would feel if he were to find him­self precariously perched on the pinnacle of that same mountain.

If we accept Kant’s definition of the sublime, the Wall is indeed great by virtue of its sublimity. It is the quintessential symbol of territorial, ethnic, and historical boundaries, but at the same time it exemplifies the quality Kant calls “boundlessness.” Stretching across thousands of kilometers of northern China, extending thou­sands of years into the nation’s past, and constructed by untold mil­lions of now-anonymous laborers, the Wall exists on a scale almost beyond our comprehension. And yet, part of the landmark’s con­temporary appeal lies in the fact that it appears so eminently com­prehensible. The Wall, in other words, functions as an accessible fragment of the infinite—an easily intelligible symbol of that which, by its very nature, virtually defies human understanding.

This aspect of the Wall’s sublimity is manifested in a long­standing fascination with the structure’s length. The standard term for the Wall in contemporary Chinese is chang cheng, which means “long wall” or “long walls” and was used as early as the Warring

States period to designate the territorial border walls constructed by the rival kingdoms in China’s Central Plains. A more formal ver­sion of the term—one that is derived from the Han historian Sima Qian’s famous description, in his seminal work, Records of the His­torian, of the border fortifications the Qin dynasty’s first emperor constructed across the northern border of his newly unified terri — tory—adds an element of precision to this characterization by spec­ifying that the structure was a wanli chang cheng, or, literally, a “ten-thousand-li-long long wall.” A li is a traditional Chinese unit of length that under the Qin dynasty’s historic standardization of weights and measures was assigned a value equivalent to slightly more than five hundred meters (roughly a third of a mile), though the Qin’s successor, the Han dynasty, recalibrated the number of chi (Chinese feet) in a li and decreased the length of the li by one-sixth. In any event, the precise length of the li in Sima Qian’s description of a “ten-thousand-li-long long wall” is ultimately irrelevant, given that this was at best a rough approximation of the structure’s size. In fact, it has often been argued that Sima Qian was using wan (ten thousand) not as a precise number but rather in the general sense of “myriad,” and was using li not as a specific unit of length but rather as a mere metaphor for length.

Not satisfied with Sima Qian’s highly approximate—and argu­ably formulaic—estimate of the Wall’s length, generations of visi­tors have struggled to come to terms with the structure’s immensity by attempting to quantify its dimensions as precisely as possible. When Lord Macartney led the first British embassy to China in 1793, for instance, he and his companions were escorted to the Gubeikou section of the Wall about one hundred kilometers north­east of Beijing, where several of them made extensive measurements of the structure they found there. Macartney’s private secretary, the accountant and one-time mathematics instructor John Barrow, later used Macartney’s measurements to calculate its overall size, writing that the Wall

is so enormous, that admitting, what I believe has never been denied, its length to be fifteen hundred miles, and the dimensions throughout pretty much the same as where it was crossed by the British Embassy, the materials of all the dwelling-houses of England and Scotland, supposing them to amount to 1,800,000, and to average on the whole 2,000 cubic feet of masonry or brick-work, are barely equiva­lent to the bulk or solid contents of the Great Wall of China. Nor are the projecting massy towers of stone and brick included in this cal­culation. These alone, supposing them to continue throughout at bow-shot distance, were calculated to contain as much masonry and brickwork as all London. To give another idea of the mass of matter in this stupendous fabric, it may be observed, that it is more than sufficient to surround the circumference of the earth on two of its great circles, with two walls, each six feet high and two feet thick!2

While there is obviously no disputing the Wall’s immense size, it is nevertheless telling that Barrow’s elaborate calculations were based on an extrapolation from the finite section of the structure that he happened to visit in person. The former mathematician was, in other words, using an exhaustive measurement of the section at hand in an attempt to quantify the dimensions of a structure that seemed to stretch to the limits of the human imagination.

Even today, almost all discussions of the Wall include an obliga­tory specification of its length, as if the act of assigning the structure a number (any number, really) might somehow render it more com­prehensible. The range of these figures, however, underscores just how limited our knowledge of the Wall really is. China’s official Xinhua News Service, for instance, has cited lengths ranging from a modest 3,000 kilometers to more than 60,000 (with the second esti­mate referring not simply to the Wall’s linear trajectory, but rather to the sum of all of the [mutually overlapping] individual border walls constructed throughout this region). While one might think that the question of the Wall’s length could be put to rest by a com­prehensive survey of the structure, the first such survey was not be­gun until 2007. In 2009, authorities announced they had finished the measurement of the Ming Wall, but that they wouldn’t finish surveying the surviving fragments of earlier long walls until 2011. As ambitious and methodical as this survey may be, it will not definitively resolve the matter of the structure’s dimensions—for the simple reason that asking how long the Wall is inevitably begs the question of what it is. Which structures are considered part of the Wall, and how intact do they have to be to be considered ex­tant? What are the structural limits of the physical wall, and what is its relationship to the natural barriers that were integrated into its construction?

The question of the Wall’s length is ultimately unanswerable be­cause it is an ontological issue masquerading as an epistemological one—an attempt to use quantitative measures to address a problem that is inherently conceptual and even existential. The absurdities of the contemporary obsession with the Wall’s precise dimensions are dramatically illustrated in a recent book by Jing Ai, an archaeol­ogist from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Relics. Jing concludes his volume with a discussion of the Wall’s length, noting that,

due to differences in measuring methodologies, a range of figures has been cited for the lengths of China’s historical long walls, and conse­quently there are wide disparities in the estimates of the Wall’s over­all length. Some journals and books claim that the Wall is one hun­dred thousand li long, which is to say fifty thousand kilometers. This is a very imprecise approximation that exaggerates the Wall’s true length. The question of the Wall’s length is of utmost impor­tance, given that it provides the foundation for the implementation of China’s Wall-preservation plans. It is, therefore, necessary to es­tablish the length of the Wall as accurately and reliably as possible.3

Jing Ai responds to the frustration with the imprecision of existing approximations of the Wall’s length by providing a detailed calcula­tion of the Wall’s length based not on geological and archaeologi­cal surveys of the contemporary monument, but on a detailed anal­ysis of historical accounts of its component structures. After adding together the lengths of each of these individual walls, he comes up with a total of 34,107.53 kilometers of Wall. He then slashes off 12,959.60 kilometers to avoid double-counting overlapping sections of the Wall from different periods, arriving at a total of 21,147.93 kilometers. The problem with these hilariously precise sums is that they are derived from historical texts that typically pro­vide, as Jing himself openly admits, figures that are at best rough approximations. Whereas many of the pre-Ming texts cite lengths consisting of only one or two significant digits (as is true of Sima Qian’s famous characterization of the Qin Wall as “stretching over a distance of more than ten thousand li”), Jing nevertheless com­bines these approximations with the much more precise Ming dy­nasty measurements to yield a final sum that specifies the Wall’s total length down to the nearest centimeter.

As if troubled by the yawning disparity between the extraordi­nary precision of his extrapolated lengths and the highly approxi­mate nature of the historical measurements on which he draws, Jing supplements his analysis with a discussion of the shifting values of traditional Chinese units of length, from the nation’s first unified dynasty, the Qin, up to its final dynasty, the Qing. Oddly, though, he focuses not on the li (Chinese mile) itself but on the length of the much shorter chi (Chinese foot)—as if knowing that during the Qin dynasty a chi was (according to Jing) 23.1 centimeters long, while by the Qing dynasty 2,000 years later it had increased by 38.5 per­cent to 32.0 centimeters, might somehow give greater authenticity to Sima Qian’s characterization of the Qin dynasty Wall as being ten thousand li long. Even in this discussion, the sheer hyperbole of Jing’s precision appears to suggest an anxiety about the rationale behind the attempt to concretize the length of the Wall—and, spe­cifically, a tension between a desire to regard the structure as a uni­tary entity and an awareness of its inherent heterogeneity.

A similar tension between unity and heterogeneity can be found in the Wall’s current iconic status. The Wall is prominently featured on China’s currency and its foreign visas, in its national anthem, and even in a huge tapestry China presented to the United Na­tions, though each of these representations also carries a cluster of competing connotations that simultaneously undercut the monu­ment’s ostensible nationalistic significance. The image of the Wall on China’s one-yuan bills, for instance, serves as a reminder of the pervasive commoditization—and, some would argue, the attendant trivialization—of the icon, while its inclusion on China’s foreign vi­sas suggests its current role, not in keeping foreigners out of China but in helping shepherd them in. The prominent allusion to the Wall in the national anthem brings into relief the lyrics’ curious omission of any explicit reference to Maoism, just as the tapestry presented to the UN upon China’s admission in 1971 symbolically papers over the political chasm between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), also known as Tai­wan, which had held the “China” seat on the United Nations Secu­rity Council since the organization was founded in 1945. Like any good national symbol, therefore, the Wall is not so much a straight­forward emblem of an idealized vision of the nation as it is a vivid reminder of the processes of fragmentation that invariably underlie our perception of China as a unified and unitary entity.

This perception of the Wall as simultaneously unified and frac — tured—and also as a symbol of both unity and fragmentation— informs our vision of the material structure. “The Great Wall’s greatness lies in its totality,” the British Wall enthusiast William Lindesay recently affirmed. “If there’s one brick less, or another gap to make way for a dirt road, then the continuity of the wall is bro­ken and its value is reduced.”4 A distance runner who spent several months in 1987 attempting to jog the entire length of the Wall, Lin — desay was struck by how much of the structure he found to be in ru­ins or even missing altogether. He subsequently went on to estab­lish an international organization called Friends of the Great Wall, which has been instrumental in spearheading efforts to protect the historic monument from the combined forces of erosion, vandal­ism, and sloppy restoration. However, underlying the practical ef­forts to prevent further destruction of the historic monument and restore the portions that have survived, there is the unstated ques­tion of what sort of “totality” the Wall is in the first place. Lindesay contends that the Wall is threatened by a variety of forces that com­promise the structure’s integrity, but what if it was never an inte­gral and continuous structure to begin with? What if its physical “continuity,” in other words, was from the very beginning already “broken”?

A fascinating engagement with this question of the Wall’s alleged totality may be found in an explosion event entitled Project to Ex­tend the Great Wall by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, by the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang. On February 27, 1993, Cai, whose artistic media of choice include pyrotechnics, prepared a ten-kilometer line of bags of gunpowder spaced at three — meter intervals, beginning at the Jiayuguan fort at the westernmost end of the Wall and stretching out from there, deep into the desert. Just before dusk he lit a fuse at the Wall end of the line of explo­sives, triggering a chain of detonations that raced across the desert toward the distant mountains. The result was a virtual Wall, cre­ated out of a spectacle of its own virtual destruction.

Cai’s medium for this work is revealing. Gunpowder is a quintes­sential symbol not only of physical destruction but also of China’s own heritage. Gunpowder is thought to have been invented in Tang dynasty China, and in using it here, Cai—whose given name, Guo — Qiang, means “strong nation”—employs a spectacularly destruc-

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

Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957, Quanzhou, China; lives in New York), preparations for Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1993. Realized at the Gobi Desert, west of the Great Wall, Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, February 27, 1993, 7:35 pm, 15 minutes. Explosion length: 10,000 meters; gunpowder (600 kg) and two fuse lines (10,000 m each). Commissioned by P3 art and environment, Tokyo.

Photo by Masanobu Moriyama, courtesy Cai Studio.

tive medium to recreate a vision of one of China’s most recogniz­able symbols.

Although it has been claimed that approximately 40,000 people came to observe Cai Guo-Qiang’s explosion event in remote Gansu Province (a spectacularly high number, given that the population of the city of Jiayuguan is only around 100,000), the artist’s “ideal” audience can perhaps be inferred from the title of the series in which Extend the Great Wall was his tenth installment: Project for Extraterrestrials. This series has included works such as Cai’s 1992 performance Fetus Movement II (in which he positioned himself at the center of a series of concentric circles of gunpowder that he then detonated while keeping detailed visual and audio records of his own brain and cardiac activity), and each of these performances combines elements of extreme intimacy and sublime monumen — tality to convey an experience that transcends our human senses and attempts to interrogate the very conditions of vision itself.

Of the various works in Cai’s Project for Extraterrestrials series, it was his Project to Extend the Great Wall by 10,000 Meters ex­plosion event that engaged most evocatively with the perceptual concerns implicit in the series’ title, given that the Wall has itself long been haunted by a fantasy of extraterrestrial perception. In view of the Wall’s vast physical and historical dimensions, visitors must approach it in a piecemeal fashion and then attempt to extrap­olate the entirety of the Wall from the isolated fragments they hap­pen to see before them. The resulting tension between the visitors’ actual view of the Wall as inherently fragmentary and their ideal­ized vision of the structure as a unitary entity, is articulated most clearly in the old chestnut about the Wall’s being the only man — made structure visible to the naked eye from space—from Earth or­bit, from the moon, or even from Mars.

Needless to say, the claims about the Wall’s extraterrestrial visi­bility are either absurd or, at best, meaningless. No terrestrial man — made structure is remotely visible to the naked eye from the moon; even from a low Earth orbit, only objects at least several hundred meters across (along their narrowest axis, as viewed from over­head) have any hope of being glimpsed without artificial magni­fication. The Wall’s immense length is essentially irrelevant here, given that the limiting factor would necessarily be the structure’s relatively narrow width, which rarely exceeds six or seven meters (somewhat more if the Wall’s own shadow is factored in). To put this into perspective, seeing the Wall from even a 160-kilometer or­bit would be equivalent to discerning a two-centimeter-wide ribbon from more than half a kilometer away. Even if this were possible (and it’s not, given the physiological limits of human vision), the claim that the Wall is one of the only man-made objects visible from space—if not the only object—would remain nonsensical because there are countless other structures whose narrowest dimensions vastly exceed the Wall’s width, and that consequently would be sig­nificantly more visible from any comparable distance.

Despite its patent implausibility, the visible-from-space fantasy has enjoyed a surprisingly resilient hold on the popular imagina­tion. Versions of the claim can be found everywhere from West­ern academic publications to Chinese elementary school textbooks, and even professional astronauts have debated among themselves whether or not they were able to see the Wall during their voyages. Neil Armstrong, for instance, notes in an interview that he had “not yet found somebody who has told me they’ve seen the Wall of China from Earth orbit. I’m not going to say there aren’t people, but I personally haven’t talked to them. I’ve asked various people, particularly Shuttle guys, that have been [on] many orbits around China in the daytime, and the ones I’ve talked to didn’t see it.”5 In 2003 the first Chinese astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, precipitated a national crisis when he reported that he had not been able to glimpse the Wall during his twenty-one and a half hours in orbit (thereby prompting China’s Ministry of Education to request that a publisher remove the “visible from space” claim from elementary school textbooks). More recently, the Chinese-American astronaut Leroy Chiao apparently did succeed in capturing a faint image of the Wall in a photograph taken from the International Space Sta­tion, but only with the aid of a powerful telephoto lens. As fellow Chinese-American astronaut Ed Lu has said, the Wall is indeed visi­ble from space under ideal conditions (ones, however, that necessar­ily include considerable artificial magnification), though “it’s less visible than a lot of other objects. And you have to know where to look.”6

The most influential popularizer of the visible-from-space claim was Robert Ripley (who was apparently so fond of China that he once remarked, “If I could be reincarnated, I’d return as a Chi­nese”).7 In a 1932 Believe It or Not! cartoon panel, he described the Wall as “the mightiest work of man—the only one that would be visible to the human eye from the moon.”8 Such was the allure of this claim that even Joseph Needham, the influential historian of science and technology in China, made a tongue-in-cheek allusion to it when he dryly observed that the Wall “has been considered the only work of man which could be picked out by Martian astrono — mers.”9 This fascination with the possibility of viewing the Wall from space can be traced back to long before space travel was even a remote possibility. As early as 1754, for instance, the English anti­quary William Stukeley described Hadrian’s Wall in Britain as a “mighty wall of four score miles in length [that] is only exceeded by the Chinese wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the ter­restrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon.”10

In 1781, Edward Gibbon described the Wall as a “stupendous work, which holds a conspicuous place in the map of the world,” and indeed the origins of the fantasy of the Wall’s extraterrestrial visibility may be traced back to a cartographic tradition dating al­most to the beginning of the second millennium.11 We find an iconic image of a crenellated Wall on the earliest map of China to appear in a Western atlas, Abraham Ortelius and Luis Jorge de Barbuda’s 1584 Chinae, olim sinarum regionis, nova descriptio, on which the Wall—interspersed with stretches of mountains—appears in red along the right side of the westward-oriented map. More than four hundred years earlier, a Chinese map entitled A Geographic Map in a Chinese encyclopedia—said to be the oldest extant printed map in the world—also clearly depicts the Wall stretching across China’s northern frontier. While the Ortelius and Barbuda map also fea­tures a number of other icons, of ships, wagons, castles, and so on, on this earlier, Southern Song map, the Wall depicted at the top is

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

“The Great Wall of China,” Robert Ripley, Believe It or Not! (1932). Copyright © 2009 Ripley Entertainment, Inc.

Reprinted with permission.

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

Chinae, olim sinarum regionis, nova descriptio: Auctore Ludouico Georgio, Abraham Ortelius and Luis Jorge de Barbuda (1584).

Courtesy of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

the only man-made structure represented—which is particularly notable given that it is a representation not of a structure in exis­tence at the time, but of a cultural memory of the no-longer extant Qin dynasty Wall.

Why has this obsession with the Wall’s extraterrestrial visibility taken such a resilient hold on the popular imagination? The reason, I would suggest, for the persistent appeal of this notion is that our idealized vision of the Wall persistently exceeds our actual view of the structure itself. Despite the Wall’s status as one of the world’s best-known symbols of terrestrial borders, the fascination with the possibility of seeing it from an extraterrestrial perspective reflects an underlying fantasy of being able to transcend those same borders.

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

A Geographic Map [Dili zhitu], Southern Song map of northwestern China (1155).

Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

We might, therefore, take this conceit at face value and ask what would the Wall look like glimpsed from an Archimedean position radically outside these specific national and cultural discourses— from the perspective, say, of Needham’s proverbial Martian astron­omers? The beginning of an answer may be found in a famous thought experiment proposed by the Harvard philosopher W. V. O. Quine to illustrate the indeterminacy of translation. Imagine, Quine suggests, a linguist visiting an unfamiliar tribe. When a rabbit runs past, a native points to it and says, “Gavagai.” Would the linguist be correct in assuming that gavagai means the same thing as our concept of rabbit? The answer necessarily depends, Quine argues, on the native’s assumptions about identity and reference. It is en­tirely possible that, rather than denoting a temporally continuous and physically unified organism, as we do with rabbit, the native might be conceptually carving up the world very differently from the way we do. He might, for instance, be referring to such (appar­ent) metaphysical oddities as an isolated temporal slice of rabbit, an assemblage of undetached rabbit parts, an abstract fusion of all rabbits, or even the recurrent universal of “rabbithood.” Or, alternatively, we could extend Quine’s point by suggesting that the native might indeed be using gavagai to denote a member of a cate­gory of continuous and unified organisms, yet positioning that cate­gory within a taxonomical system completely different from our own.12

Borrowing from Jorge Luis Borges’s imaginary “Chinese encyclo­pedia”—a text in which the animal kingdom is divided into catego­ries so exotic that they famously provoked Michel Foucault to an uproarious “laughter that shattered… all the landmarks of my thought,” and led him to marvel at “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and its ability to point to the “limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that”—we might speculate that Quine’s native could have been positioning his concept of the gavagai within such seemingly bizarre categories as “[animals] that belong to the emperor,” “those that from a long way off look like flies,” or even “those included in the present classification.”13 We tend to assume that our understanding of the world is the only one possible—or at least the most intuitive one—but in fact ours is just one of a vast number of equally plausible ways of conceptually carving up reality and classifying its contents.

In any of these Quinean or Borgesian scenarios, the difficulty lies not so much in identifying the concrete referent of the word gavagai (that is, the animal at which the native is pointing when he utters the word) but in deciphering the underlying meaning of the term (the significance of the term in the native’s own mind). Without a detailed discussion of their respective taxonomical and metaphysi­cal assumptions, however, it is entirely possible that neither the lin­guist nor the native would realize that they might well be talk­ing about completely different things. A similar point can be made with respect to the meaning and significance of the Wall. If one of Needham’s imaginary Martian astronomers were to observe an earthling pointing at the Wall and uttering the words Great Wall, would the Martian necessarily assume the phrase denotes a unitary, transhistorical entity, or might it instead take it to mean something entirely different—perhaps a specific segment of the Wall, a discrete temporal slice of the Wall, the abstract fusion of segments of the Wall, or the recurrent universal of Wallness? Would the extraterres­trial observer necessarily assume that the referent of the term Great Wall belongs to a general category of territorial border walls, or might it instead understand the term in the context of a more eso­teric conceptual system, one consisting, for example, of such cate­gories as “those walls built by the emperor,” “those walls one imag­ines can be seen from outer space,” or even “those walls included under the present classification”? Then again, perhaps the Martian would assume that the term Great Wall means something different altogether, something so alien to our own way of thinking that we might not even have the vocabulary with which to describe it.

The flip side to speculating about imaginary extraterrestrials would be asking how we ourselves perceive the Wall. Are we con­fident about our own understanding of terms like Great Wall and chang cheng, and can we ever be certain that others understand them the same way we do? Actually, we don’t need to appeal to imaginary Martian astronomers or other extraterrestrials to appre­ciate some of the practical consequences of the issues Quine raises. We may consider, for instance, a recent book in which William Lin — desay juxtaposes photographs of the Wall from the turn of the twentieth century with more recent ones he himself took from al­most precisely the same locations. The book is designed to illus­trate the extent of the Wall’s deterioration over the past century, but in doing this it presupposes what Lindesay himself might call the “[historical] continuity of the Wall.” When we see, say, John Thomson’s historic 1871 photograph of Badaling, how do we know for certain that we are seeing part of a temporally continuous structure that has existed for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, as opposed to merely an isolated temporal slice of Wall? The prob­lem is that a photograph necessarily captures only a spatially dis­tinct and temporally discrete slice of reality, and to make sense of the image we must first make certain assumptions about what lies beyond the frame of the photograph. It is in the invisible margins of the image that the subject of the photograph truly comes to life, en­dowed with the metaphysical underpinnings that allow us to con­ceive of it as a coherent entity.

To take an even more concrete example, we could make a similar Quinean point about the inherent indeterminacy of the conven­tional Chinese term for the Wall: chang cheng (long walls). This term was used as early as the fifth century все to describe border walls built by the various Central Plains kingdoms to defend them­selves from their pastoral-nomadic neighbors to the north, as well as from each other. While it is true that some of these early walls are regarded as the conceptual or even physical antecedents of what we now know as the Great Wall, technically speaking the term chang cheng initially functioned not as a proper name referring to a singu­lar Wall, but rather as a descriptive phrase describing a general category of territorial border walls. In fact, given that Chinese gen­erally does not distinguish orthographically between proper and common nouns, or even between singular and plural ones, the term chang cheng could—from a strictly lexical and syntactic perspec — tive—refer to a specific entity, a general category of objects, or even a multitude of unrelated structures. We can, therefore, easily imagine two people—one of them in the present and the other in the distant past—standing in the same location along the Wall, pointing to different incarnations of the same structure and uttering the same word (after allowing for the phonetic drift of the Chinese language), yet understanding the term in very different ways.

This question of the relationship among the Wall’s name, its meaning, and its physical referent is further complicated by the fact that chang cheng is only one of many terms that historically have been used to refer to the structure, with others including guo (forti­fication or outer city wall), yuan (embankment), zhang (barrier), and sai (barricade or frontier). When the stone Wall we see today was being constructed around the sixteenth century, the Ming court made a point of not referring to it as a chang cheng, presumably to avoid the negative associations of the Qin dynasty term, and in­stead called its new walls bianqiang (border walls) or jiu bianzhen (nine border garrisons). Many of the terms that have been used to refer to the Wall also have more general meanings. Guo, yuan, and zhang can all be used as common nouns referring to fortifications and the like. Even the cheng in chang cheng was borrowed from a general term meaning wall or rampart that may also be used more specifically to refer to city walls, or to cities themselves.

The historian Arthur Waldron argues that the sheer range of terms that have been used to refer to what we now regard as the Wall is evidence that there must never have been a singular “Great Wall” to begin with:

[If] an ancient Great Wall had existed, it almost certainly would have had a single, fixed name, just as mountains, rivers, temples, etc. do, which would have been used consistently. When dynasties restored or repaired that Wall, as we are told they did, they would have used that name. Yet when we turn to the vocabulary used by Chinese to describe wall-building, we find not a single name, but rather a range of terms and usages that are utterly inconsistent with such a situa­tion.

If the Ming had been repairing an ancient and well-known “Great Wall,” it seems likely that they would have had little choice but to continue to use its traditional name. Apparently no word or phrase in the traditional Chinese lexicon corresponds exactly to the modern Western term “Great Wall.”14

This point about the multiplicity of names used to refer to the Wall is one of the capstones of Waldron’s argument that the Wall as we now know it is basically a modern invention. His logic, however, is fundamentally flawed. Although it is certainly legitimate to ask whether different utterances of a particular term or phrase neces­sarily refer to the same physical and conceptual entity, it is never­theless rather odd to claim that when the Ming was building its new border wall, it “would have had little choice” but to use an earlier name, had one existed.

In fact, it is actually quite common for buildings, cities, countries, and even people to be assigned new names—even when they al­ready have perfectly good ones—while maintaining a continuous identity. When China temporarily relocated its capital to Nanjing at the beginning of the Ming, and again at the beginning of the twenti­eth century, for instance, the city currently known as Beijing (liter­ally, northern capital) was briefly renamed Beiping (north pacified). When the Ming court moved the capital back north in 1421, it re­built the city that the preceding Yuan dynasty had used for its cap­ital (during which time it was known in Mongolian as Khanbaliq, or great residence of the khan, and in Chinese as Dadu, or great capital) and restored its former name of Beijing, as it had been known during the Jin dynasty. Through these multiple name changes, the city is nevertheless perceived as having enjoyed a con­tinuous existence. By a similar logic, one can view the Wall as a co­herent entity despite having been referred to by a variety of differ­ent names over the course of its existence.

Implicit in the question of how we refer to the Wall is the more general issue of how names denote their referents. One theoretical model advanced at the turn of the twentieth century by the philoso­pher and mathematician Gottlob Frege, for instance, posits that the “sense” or meaning of a proper name (as opposed to its physical referent) is determined by the cluster of attributes with which it is associated in the mind of the speaker. William Shakespeare, for in­stance, would be shorthand for a nugget of information along the lines of: the seventeenth-century playwright whose works include Hamlet, King Lear, et cetera, and who is known as William Shake­speare. Another model developed in the early twentieth century by Bertrand Russell contends that the meaning of a proper name is de­termined by a chain of reference connecting the name to its referent. An utterance of the name William Shakespeare, by this logic, is an­chored to its referent by a series of citations linking the name back to the bard’s original baptism. The stakes of this debate become ap­parent if we imagine a counterfactual scenario in which virtually everything we think we know about someone or something is dis­covered to be erroneous. If it were to be proven that all of the works published under Shakespeare’s name had actually been written by, say, Sir Francis Bacon, we might then need to reevaluate our under­standing of the name Shakespeare. Would the name William Shake­speare, under this scenario, continue to refer to the individual who originally went by that name, or would it refer instead to Bacon— on the grounds that the latter would now best match the qualities we associate with the name Shakespeare?

The current consensus is that we use proper names not “descrip­tively,” to denote clusters of attributes, but “anti-descriptively,” to denote concrete referents that are linked to the names by direct chains of reference. The problem, however, is that this consensus re­flects the culturally specific intuitions we happen to have regarding how denotation works, rather than an intrinsic characteristic of proper names themselves. A recent experiment, for instance, pre­sented English-speaking college students from Hong Kong and the United States with a version of the hypothetical Shakespeare/Bacon scenario described above, and concluded that the Hong Kong stu­dents were significantly more likely to reach “descriptivist” conclu­sions than were the Americans—suggesting that there is in fact a sociocultural dimension to our intuitions of how naming and refer­ence work.15 Though perhaps inconclusive, this experiment sug­gests that “our” anti-descriptivist intuitions are themselves the product of a descriptivist logic—in that they are not directly grounded in a stable external referent, but reflect a cluster of cultur­ally specific assumptions that happen to prevail at the current mo­ment.

Applying the terms of these philosophy-of-language debates to the Wall, we may ask what is the relationship between the names for the Wall and their referents or meanings? Is the meaning of each name determined strictly by the cluster of attributes associated with it at any particular historical moment, or is it instead directly grounded in the material structure itself? A descriptivist would con­clude that our notion of “the Wall” is actually a recent invention, and to the extent that other names historically used to refer to the Wall have carried different sets of associations, they must therefore have different meanings. An anti-descriptivist presumably would not be overly troubled by these historical shifts in the way the struc­ture has been understood, so long as the underlying continuity and coherence of the Wall’s identity continues to be secured by an un­broken chain of reference linking each usage back to the actual ref­erent.

This chain-of-reference metaphor, however, is ultimately just that, a metaphor, and as such it is only as strong as its weakest link. In particular, any two utterances of a name are necessarily sepa­rated by a temporal gap, and determining whether the “link” be­tween these citations is strictly causal or merely casual requires that we fill in this figurative gap with a narrative of some sort. The ques­tion of how and whether a name matches its referent ultimately de­pends on the stories we tell ourselves to explain the relations be­tween names and objects. Furthermore, this process of constructing a narrative to link a name back to its material referent mirrors our attempts to connect a specific portion of the Wall to our ab­stract vision of it as a unitary structure. All but the most naive and ahistorical views of the monument recognize that it is in fact not a single continuous and physically unified entity, and instead is com­prised of a set of independent fragments that are often not even physically connected to the other fragments that historically pre­ceded them. To make the jump from a discrete Wall fragment to a notion of a larger, unitary structure, therefore, requires a leap of faith—the postulation of some sort of story to fill in the various physical gaps and historical interregnums that stand between us and a vision of the Wall’s totality.

One of the most eloquent commentaries on the Wall’s structural incompleteness may be found in a parable Franz Kafka wrote in 1917 as the Great War was ripping Europe asunder, in which he discusses the role of the Great Wall in helping to bring the Chinese empire together. Kafka’s narrator describes how the Wall was con­structed by an army of laborers divided into pairs of work teams, with each pair of teams positioned half a kilometer apart from each other and instructed to build their respective walls until they met up in the middle. After unifying their corresponding segments, the teams would be sent to a different location and told to begin the process anew. It is frequently assumed, the narrator notes, that all of these individual segments have since been joined together into a single continuous structure, though he concedes that no one knows for certain whether this is in fact the case, given that the Wall’s unity is not something one person can verify, at least not with his own eyes and by his own standards.16

Kafka posits that the efficacy of the Wall, together with the politi­cal coherence of the empire it was designed to protect, is rooted in a tension between the immensity of the structure and the piecemeal process by which it was constructed. He notes that the significance of the Wall lies in its status not as a physical barricade against exter­nal invasion, but as a symbol of the structural conditions that help grant the Chinese empire its internal coherence in the first place. The empire, he argues, is so vast that the common people in the outer provinces often don’t know who their emperor is or even which dynasty is in power, and consequently the emperor’s author­ity has merely an intangible, symbolic status for them. Paradoxi­cally, the political cohesion of the empire is predicated on the vast gulf separating the emperor from his subjects; it is this distance that both renders the emperor effectively “dead” to his subjects and cre­ates an imaginary space within which his influence may continue to live and grow.

Kafka’s narrator concludes that the Chinese are plagued by a cer­tain “weakness of imagination or conviction”—a weakness that makes it difficult or impossible to conceive of the distant emperor as a flesh-and-blood entity. Yet it is this same difficulty in imagining the emperor as a mere mortal that constitutes “one of the most im­portant means of unifying our people,” the narrator observes. “In­deed, if one may be so forward as to employ such an expression, it is the very ground on which we live. To supply detailed reasons for a reproach here would not mean assaulting our conscience but, what is far worse, assaulting our legs. And for this reason I will for the moment go no further into the investigation of this question.”17 Kafka suggests that the Wall’s ability to generate a sense of collec­tive identity resides in its status as a symbol of the gaps with which the empire itself is riddled. The emperor is impossibly removed from the vast majority of his subjects, yet this yawning distance— far from being a liability—is instead the source of his own author­ity. It is in the gaps between the emperor and his subjects that we find the stuff of legend, including the symbolic authority upon which the emperor’s larger-than-life persona is itself grounded.

Just as imperial authority is, according to Kafka, predicated on the vast gulf that separates the emperor from his subjects, the Wall is grounded on the physical and historical gaps out of which it is composed. The Wall’s effectiveness as a symbol of national unity lies precisely—and paradoxically—in its own inherent disunity, just as its ability to anchor a sense of national identity is made possible by its status as a conduit of rumors and misinformation. In fact, our own relationship to the Wall follows a similar logic: We are never able to perceive more than a fragment of the structure at any one time, and yet we are constantly tempted to treat those fragments as representative of a larger structure. Our understanding of the Wall, in other words, is the product of a synechdochic process of using a part of the structure to stand in for the whole, exactly because the whole is ultimately nothing more than a loose assemblage of frag­mentary parts. It is the existence of these gaps that demands a pro­cess of narrative extrapolation out of which a vision of the unitary Wall is then constituted. All of the gaps out of which the Wall is constructed—the structural gaps that separate the different sections of the Wall, the temporal gaps that lie between the different periods of Wall building, and the conceptual gaps that perennially intervene between the physical structure and the terms we use to refer to it— are bridged by the “stories” that collectively (re)create the Wall as a coherent unity.

A real-world illustration of the role of these interregnums in pro­viding conceptual grounds for imagining a unitary identity can be found in a curious series of events that took place at the turn of the century. On June 25, 1899, several Denver newspapers reported that China planned to raze the Wall and use the rubble to build a highway from Beijing to Nanjing. The Denver story was credited to a Chicago businessman who had traveled to China to place a bid on the project:

I lived in China for four years. . . and during that time was interested in building a great many miles of railroad. While in that country the subject frequently was discussed by those in power as to the advis­ability of tearing down at least a portion of the historic wall and us­ing the stone for the purpose of making a roadway to Nanjing. The idea was to pulverize the rock and use it in the roadways. While it is not an assured fact that we will secure the contract we are now figuring on I am inclined to the belief that it is a possibility. The com­pany I represent has a capital of $650,000 in cash, and I have been instructed to use every effort to secure an opportunity of doing the work.

Some of the wealthiest and best known capitalists of Chicago are interested in this enterprise.18

As a news story, this allegation that China was accepting bids from foreign businessmen to demolish its most recognizable landmark seemed almost too good to be true. And, indeed, the story ulti­mately turned out to have been entirely spurious—the product of a Saturday evening meeting among several Denver-based reporters who, frustrated that they didn’t have any leads for the next day’s paper, resolved to fabricate one out of thin air. Realizing that a for­eign story would be harder to debunk than a domestic one, they de­cided to concoct something about China.

An account of the resulting hoax was written up in 1939 by Harry Lee Wilber, a Denver writer, who added a curious anecdote about the hoax’s afterlife. Describing how a Methodist minister named Henry Warren had incorporated the story of the hoax into a sermon about the destructive power of rumor, Wilber quotes War­ren as having proclaimed,

You may not realize, friends. . . the power of the printed word. Bad news and false news pick up added fuel and eventually blaze devas­tatingly. . .

As an example of the havoc that can be wrought, take the “Boxer Rebellion.” The spark that set off the tinder in that terrible war was struck in a town in Western Kansas or Nebraska… by three. . . re­porters who concocted and printed a wild yarn, for what reason I have never been able to find out, that the huge sacred Chinese Wall was to be razed by American engineers, and the country thrown wide open to hated foreigners.

This pure canard reached China and the newspapers there pub­lished it with shouting headlines and editorial comment. Denials did no good. The Boxers, already incensed, believed the yarn and there was no stopping them. It was the last straw and hell broke loose to the horror of the world. All this from a sensational but untrue story.19

It turns out, furthermore, that this account of the role of the Great Wall hoax in precipitating the Boxer Rebellion was itself “sensa­tional but untrue.” While it is well known that the late-nineteenth — century Boxer Rebellion had a distinctly xenophobic component and was fanned by rumors about alleged atrocities committed by foreigners, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Denver story

played any role (and certainly there were no “shouting headlines” about the alleged demolition of the Wall in any major Chinese newspapers). The irony, however, is that even as the original hoax was being exposed, it was being transformed into a metahoax that, in turn, contributed to the understanding of the Wall at that partic­ular historical moment.

This image of an endless chain of hoaxes and metahoaxes cap­tures a crucial dimension of the Wall. The Wall is, in effect, the sum total of the stories that have been told about it. These stories are of­ten only tangentially grounded on the material structure, and are to a much greater extent the product (like Warren’s metahoax) of ear­lier narratives. What we regard as the Wall may therefore be under­stood as a marbled layering of stories about stories, to the point that even our understanding of the physical entity itself is filtered through those same stories.

It is in the Wall’s status as a product of narratives that we find the secret of its historical resilience and power. Although the strength of the structure might appear to lie in its singularity, in reality its sur­vival is a result of its ability to mean radically different things in dif­ferent contexts. Able to symbolize everything from the nation itself to its remote frontier, the Wall’s significance and function are con­stantly evolving to meet the needs of each new era, and it is this plasticity that has helped it remain relevant even when the world around it is continually evolving.

A similar point could be made about China. In modern Chinese, for instance, the nation is typically called Zhongguo—with the character zhong meaning center or central, and guo meaning nation or kingdom. Although the binome Zhongguo currently functions as a de facto abbreviation for Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo (liter­ally, Chinese People’s Republic, but more conventionally translated as People’s Republic of China), the term’s origins can be traced back to Warring States-period works, such as the Mencius and the Book of Rites, and even earlier to texts such as the Book of History.

During this period, the term zhongguo was used in two distinct ways—either in the sense of “Central Kingdom,” to refer to the po­litical unity presumed to have existed during the early Zhou dy­nasty, or in the sense of “central kingdoms,” to refer to the various rival states that occupied China’s Central plains region during the pre-Qin period of disunity. Zhongguo, therefore, has been used as a singular proper name, a collective common noun, and even as a plural term for an assortment of individual entities. It is in this la­tent lexical ambiguity, furthermore, that the contemporary term articulates one of the key characteristics of the national entity it denotes—suggesting that the nation is a plurality masquerading as a singularity, a fundamentally heterogeneous construct striving to reimagine itself as a unitary entity. It becomes clear, therefore, that what we currently refer to as Zhongguo may be regarded as a uni­tary entity only if we simultaneously acknowledge its underlying heterogeneity.

The Western name for China has an equally complicated rela­tionship with its presumptive referent. There is suggestive evidence that the origins of the word China can be traced back to the third — century все Qin (pronounced “ch’in”) dynasty. As early as the first and second centuries се, for instance, the apparent cognates Thinai, Sinai, and Cina appeared in Greek, Roman, and Hindi texts. In China, however, no version of this qin root was used to refer to the nation in Chinese until the late nineteenth century, when the Euro — Japanese cognate Shina was reintroduced from Japan into China (where it was pronounced “zhina” and subsequently fell into disfa­vor on account of its associations with Japanese imperial aggres­sion). To the extent that Shina is transliterated from the Western word China, which itself may very well have been derived from the name of China’s Qin dynasty, the term’s “return” to China in the nineteenth century could be seen as a transliterated transliteration of a transliteration.

The transnational circulation and mediated return of the name of

China’s first unified dynasty, furthermore, roughly parallels the con­ceptual trajectory of the Wall itself. As I will discuss in the fol­lowing chapters, the Wall that is regarded as one of the Qin dy­nasty’s marquee accomplishments underwent numerous material and symbolic incarnations in China before becoming the Ming dy­nasty brick and stone construction that we see today, after which the symbol of the Wall continued to evolve within Western dis­course into its current status as a national icon. Following the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century, the Western view of the Wall as a symbol of the nation began making a return to China, where it was seen as representing everything from the country’s im­perial legacy to its powers of ethnic assimilation, and was eventu­ally reappropriated as a national icon and a paradigmatic tourist site.

In the following chapters, I approach the Wall not only as a phys­ical construction but also as a fantasy, an abstract ideal, and a locus of collective nostalgia. I argue that the Wall’s contemporary exis­tence is grounded on its continual destruction, just as its status as a symbol of national unity is made possible by the inherent disunity of the physical and historical structure. The Wall is a fundamentally fractured construct, yet it is this disunity that provides the basis of the contemporary structure’s own coherence. To return to Linde — say’s claim that the “Great Wall’s greatness lies in its totality,” I ar­gue that the Wall is indeed a totality, but specifically a totality of gaps. It is in these gaps where the Wall isn’t that we may find the key to what the Wall actually is, and it is in the interstices between the Wall’s materiality and its potentiality that we find projected the desires and ideals on which the Wall’s strength and power are ulti­mately grounded.

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