Another Brick in the Wall

I always feel we are encircled by a Long Wall. This Long Wall is made from old ones and has been repaired and extended with new bricks. Together, these two processes have yielded the pres­ent wall, which now encircles us all.

—Lu Xun, “The Long Wall” (1925)

In 1920, the poet, writer, and political reformer Guo Moruo (whose surname, Guo, coincidentally means “outer city wall”) proposed what would become one of the defining metaphors for turn-of-the — century China. Writing at the height of the May Fourth Movement, during which Chinese reformers were struggling to reassess the na­tion’s identity following the 1911 collapse of the Qing dynasty, Guo composed a long poem entitled “Phoenix Nirvana,” in which he compared the Chinese nation to the legendary bird that is re­born out of its own ashes every 500 years.1 This poem was written against the backdrop of a contemporary debate over the fate of the nation, and the cultural tradition with which the nation had come to be identified. At issue was whether China’s social and cultural legacy could be mobilized to help address the contemporary crisis, or whether it was instead necessary to discard that cultural inheri­tance altogether and start afresh. Some conservative figures argued for preserving those aspects of tradition that helped define China’s cultural uniqueness, while others, like Guo Moruo himself, adopted an attitude of what China historian Lin Yu-sheng has labeled “totalistic anti-traditionalism”—calling for the complete overhaul of existing traditions so that new cultural and political formations might emerge, like the phoenix, from their ashes.2

Despite efforts to reject, “totalistically,” the body of tradition China had inherited from the imperial period, it is nevertheless im­portant to remember that the nation’s 2,132-year-long span of dy­nastic rule had in fact never been a “totality” to begin with. Instead, this tradition could be regarded as the product of a series of gaps, interruptions, and dramatic transformations that have coalesced into an illusion of unity. By the same token, the early twentieth — century notion of totalistic дяй-traditionalism was itself a mirage, given that earlier social and cultural traditions necessarily contin­ued to play a crucial role in shaping the course of China’s develop­ment, even as they were being repeatedly transformed to meet the needs of a new era.

The Wall is a perfect symbol of the dual process of inheritance and transformation China was undergoing during this time. The preeminent symbol of the First Emperor’s unification of China, the Wall subsequently became an emblem of the emperor’s tyrannical ambition. As we have seen, after the fall of the Ming, the Wall built to defend against the Mongols and Manchus lost much of its practical significance—given that the Mongols were no longer a sig­nificant threat and the Manchus had come to control all of China. It was precisely during this period, however, that discourses on the Wall’s monumental significance became increasingly popular in the West, even as legends of the Qin Wall continued to circulate within China. After the fall of China’s final dynasty, the Qing, this symbol of the nation’s dynastic tradition did not fade into irrele­vance; rather, like Guo Moruo’s phoenix, it was reborn as an em­blem of the new national polity that China was seeking to become.

The early twentieth-century reinvention of the Wall coincided with a profound transformation of the very notion of China. After the fall of the Qing in 1911, a republican government was estab­lished in Beijing, with Sun Yat-sen as its provisional president. Of­ten referred to as the “father of modern China,” Sun played a criti­cal role in mapping out the administrative trajectory and political philosophy of the new republic. In a 1919 essay, Sun characterizes the Wall as “China’s most famous work of land-based engineering” and describes how the First Emperor built the Wall to “safeguard the future” and “defend the nation,” but then he argues that the structure not only served to help defend China against foreign at­tack but also played a crucial role in strengthening the nation and expanding its influence: “If we Chinese hadn’t enjoyed the protec­tion of the Long Wall, China would not have flourished and devel­oped as it did during the Han and Tang dynasties, and would not have successfully assimilated the peoples of the south. After our country had fully developed its powers of assimilation, we were able even to assimilate our conquerors, the Mongols and the Man — chus.”3 The logical progression Sun sketches here is very sugges­tive. He imagines the Wall as having evolved from being a defense against the northern invaders during the Qin, to facilitating the na­tion’s expansionist assimilation of its southern neighbors during the Han and Tang, to finally enabling China’s reactive assimilation of northern invaders during the Yuan and the Qing. Sun perceives the Wall, in other words, as having gone full circle from providing a de­fense against foreign invaders to helping transform those same in­vaders into Chinese subjects—after they had already succeeded in infiltrating China.

Sun Yat-sen’s description of the Wall’s role in facilitating the cul­tural assimilation of foreign invaders could be extended to China’s own ability to absorb foreign values and ideas. China, needless to say, has been incorporating foreign values and ideas for millen­nia. At the turn of the twentieth century, the quest for cultural and intellectual assimilation began to reach a fever pitch, as reform- ers—humbled by the nation’s defeat at the hands of the British in the first Opium War (1839-1842) and the Japanese in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)—became increasingly determined to import foreign knowledge in a wide range of areas, to strengthen the nation and reassert its position on the world stage. The result was a vast industry dedicated to translating Western and Japanese scholarship into Chinese—including not only practical works relat­ing to technology and medicine but also a variety of political, philo­sophical, literary, and historical texts. The goal of many of these re­formers involved a strategy of taking “Chinese learning as the basis, and Western learning as the instrument,” in order to appropriate Western knowledge and technology while at the same time preserv­ing China’s cultural essence.

One of the Western concepts introduced during this turn-of-the — century period was that of an iconic “Great Wall of China.” In Republican China, this image of the Wall as a national symbol en­countered a very different perception of the structure as a dynastic vestige and a symbol of the First Emperor’s tyrannical exploitation of the people. The resulting hybrid vision of the monument is mem­orably captured in a short essay by Lu Xun, a leading cultural and political figure who is frequently referred to as the “father of modern Chinese literature.” Published in 1925, Lu Xun’s essay combines the Chinese term chang cheng with a translation of the English adjective great (rendered here in Chinese as weida), to iden­tify the Wall as a conceptually hybrid construction, a “great Long Wall.” Lu Xun’s use of the modifier great, moreover, is clearly sar­donic, given that he actually regards the Wall as anything but great. On the contrary, he sees the structure as a symbol of infamy, or at best of futility:

On the map, we can still find a small icon representing this construc­tion, and just about everyone in the world who has even the least bit of education knows about it.

In reality, however, it has never served any purpose other than to

make countless workers labor to death in vain. How could the bar­barians ever be repelled by it? Now it is but an ancient relic, yet it will never disappear entirely and therefore we must work to pre­serve it.

I always feel that we are encircled by a Long Wall. This Long Wall is made from old bricks and has been repaired and extended with new bricks. Together, these old and new bricks have yielded this wall, which now encircles everyone.

When will we stop adding new bricks to the Long Wall? This great but blasted Long Wall!4

Starting with a strategic juxtaposition of Western and Chinese atti­tudes toward the Wall, Lu Xun then points to a contradiction at the heart of the Chinese vision of the structure, and of the cultural tra­dition it represents. Specifically, he uses the metaphor of adding new bricks to describe the way in which Chinese tradition is contin­ually changing while at the same time retaining its original conser­vative connotations. In splicing together the conventional Western and Chinese terms for the Wall, Lu Xun suggests that China’s cur­rent appropriation of the West’s vision of the monument could itself be seen as equivalent to merely adding a “new brick” to the existing structure—granting it another layer of meaning without fundamen­tally altering its underlying significance.

The ambivalence toward tradition revealed in Lu Xun’s 1925 es­say was gradually transformed during the 1930s and 1940s, as May Fourth debates over the comparative value of tradition and moder­nity were largely displaced by China’s civil war and the second Sino-Japanese War. It was precisely during this wartime period, however, that the Wall’s status as a symbol of tradition and innova­tion began to undergo a critical transformation within China itself. We may approach the Wall’s transformation during this period by first turning to another transcendental symbol of national iden — tity—the Long March.

The Long March began in 1934, when several divisions of the Red Army found themselves cornered in southern Jiangxi Province by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, but managed to escape by following a broad, northwesterly loop across difficult terrain that eventually brought them to their new base camp in Yan’an, in northern Shaanxi Province. In practical terms, the Long March was a virtual disaster, with fewer than 10 percent of the 100,000 sol­diers who left Jiangxi making it to Yan’an alive. On a symbolic level, however, the march constituted a crucial victory for the be­sieged Communist forces, and would come to crystallize their long and complicated road toward political unification in 1949. The Long March also marked an important step in the subsequent rise to power of Mao Zedong, who personally led the First Red Army out of Jiangxi, just as the hardship endured by the soldiers who managed to survive the trek helped to cement their loyalty to one another and to the Party, and their bravery and perseverance earned them the respect of the peasants who would subsequently become some of the Party’s most important constituents.

The Long March has become one of the most emotionally reso­nant symbols of the unification of modern China, despite the fact that, like the Wall, the march was hardly a unitary entity to begin with. What we now regard as the Long March actually includes several discrete sets of troop movements as the First, Third, and Fourth Red Armies followed three distinct routes out of Jiangxi. It goes without saying, furthermore, that the ordeal must have been experienced very differently by each of the tens of thousands of sol­diers who participated in it. When a couple of political scientists from Harvard and Yale interviewed several of the Long March sur­vivors half a century after the fact, they found that virtually all of the former soldiers initially provided descriptions of the march that hewed closely to the standard historical account. It was only after the researchers pressed their informants on apparently in­congruous details in their stories that the soldiers began to modify their accounts, which allowed disparate perspectives on the event to emerge and thereby transforming the putatively unitary Long March into a cluster of separate “long marches.”5

As the Long March was under way, the playwright Tian Han penned the lyrics to another “march”—the song known in English as “The March of the Volunteers.” Tian Han originally wrote the lyrics in 1934 as part of a poem entitled “Ten-thousand-li-long Long Wall” for a play he was working on, though it was subse­quently rumored that he actually composed the song on strips of to­bacco paper while imprisoned in a Chinese Nationalist Party jail the following year. Regardless of the precise circumstances of the work’s composition, the appearance of the final stanza of the Long Wall poem in a climactic scene in Xu Xingzhi’s 1935 film Sons and Daughters in Troubled Times set the stage for its subsequent fame as one of the most important songs of twentieth-century China.6

Sons and Daughters focuses on a young poet by the name of Xin Baihua, who is nicknamed the “Great Wall poet.” Baihua and his friend Liang Zhifu live upstairs from a young woman named Ah Feng and her mother, and after Ah Feng’s mother dies, Baihua and Zhifu sell their own furniture to help Ah Feng pay her rent and sponsor her education. When Ah Feng visits the young men in their room upstairs one day, she notices a painting of a phoenix on the wall, and Xin Baihua recounts—using language strikingly similar to that of Guo Moruo’s 1920 “Phoenix Nirvana” poem—the legend of the phoenix that immolates itself every five hundred years and is then reborn from its own ashes. Ah Feng is so taken with this legend that she immediately decides to change her name from Ah Feng, which could be translated as “little phoenix,” to Xinfeng —literally, “new phoenix.” Ah Feng/Xinfeng subsequently moves away to join a revolutionary dance troop and Liang Zhifu is ar­rested for his revolutionary activities. Xin Baihua is nearly arrested as well, but he manages to escape thanks to the assistance of a rich widow, with whom he becomes romantically involved. After being released from jail, Liang Zhifu joins the Red Army and is eventually killed on the battlefield; in his final letter to Xin Baihua he entreats his friend, “Please do not give up your responsibility to defend the Great Wall just for a woman.”

Xin Baihua eventually heeds his friend’s advice and leaves the widow to join the struggle against the Japanese, and the film con­cludes with his joyful reunion with the politically progressive Xin — feng. The final scene depicts them marching together against the Japanese while defiantly singing “March of the Volunteers”:

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves;

With our very flesh and blood, let us build our new Long Wall!

The people of China are at their most critical time,

Everybody must roar defiance Arise! Arise! Arise!

The masses are of one mind,

Brave the enemy’s gunfire,

March on! March on! March on!

This appeal to the Wall as a symbol for nation building is played out in the film against the erotically charged reunion of Xin Baihua and Xinfeng, and their sublimated romantic desire functions as a foil for their revolutionary ardor and nationalist passion. More ab­stractly, the song’s call to build a “new” Long Wall reflects not only an interest in forging a new nation but also the revolutionary trans­formation that the concept of the Wall was undergoing during this same period.

The Wall’s reinvention as a revolutionary and nationalistic icon was sanctified a decade and a half later when Mao Zedong selected Tian Han’s “March of the Volunteers”—set to a melody by the composer Nie Er—as the national anthem of the nascent People’s Republic of China. The result, however, could be compared with the Qin anthem that Gao Jianli composed for the 2006 opera The First Emperor (discussed in Chapter 2), in which the anthem’s pa­triotic purpose is silently subverted by its incorporation of a protest song sung by slaves building the Wall. What is curious about Mao’s selection of “March of the Volunteers” as the PRC’s new anthem, however, is that it actually makes no mention of Mao, Maoism, or any of the specific ideological elements with which Mao’s China would come to be identified.

Through a quirk of fate, the anthem’s implicit “betrayal” of the PRC’s Maoist ideals was figuratively redressed when Tian Han was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for alleged antirevo­lutionary activities, resulting in the unofficial proscription of his “March of the Volunteers.” For several years, the much more ex­plicitly Maoist “The East Is Red”—which begins, “The east is red, the sun is rising. China has brought forth a Mao Zedong”—was used as the nation’s de facto anthem, although the state constitution was never formally amended to reflect the change. In 1978, two years after the death of Mao and the official end of the Cultural Revolution, Nie Er’s melody to the original anthem was rehabili­tated, although accompanied by a new set of explicitly Commu­nist lyrics (which begin, “March on, people of all heroic nationali­ties! The great Communist Party leads us in continuing the Long March”). Among other things, these lyrics replaced the original ref­erence to the Long Wall in “March of the Volunteers” (“. . . let us build our new Long Wall!”) with an allusion to the Long March (“… leads us in continuing the Long March”). This substitution re­flects not only prosodic considerations—in Chinese, “long march” (pronounced chang zheng) and “long wall” (pronounced chang cheng) are almost precise homophones, with the “ch” in cheng be­ing simply an aspirated version of the retroflex “zh” in zheng—but furthermore reflects the intimate connection between the Wall and the March in the Chinese collective imagination. Both were monu­mental endeavors that were the product of the collective effort of hundreds of thousands of men, and both have helped provide the ideological foundation for modern China.

The Wall passes just north of the Yan’an area where the Commu­nists set up their new base camp at the end of the Long March, and it was this geographic proximity to Yan’an that inspired Mao in 1935 to write a short poem entitled “Mount Liupan,” offering en­couragement to the First Red Army as it was approaching its desti­nation. The poem begins:

The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

We watch as the wild geese disappear southward.

If we fail to reach the Long Wall, we are not true men,

We who have marched more than twenty thousand li.7

Mao’s allusion to the twenty thousand li the Red Army is credited with having covered evokes a sense of a vast distance, but it also resonates with the ten-thousand-li length traditionally attributed to the Long Wall. If we consider the length of the Long March more literally, meanwhile, additional interesting parallels with the Long Wall emerge. When British researchers recently retraced the First Army’s route, for instance, they found that the distance the army had covered was actually closer to six thousand kilometers, or just slightly over ten thousand li (five thousand kilometers)—meaning that, through an odd quirk of fate, the distance covered during the Long March was roughly comparable to the (reputed) length of the Qin dynasty’s original Long Wall (not to mention the roughly six-thousand-kilometer length of the extant Ming Wall).8

Even as Mao’s poem riffed on Sima Qian’s famous ten-thousand — li-long formulation, it also inspired a phrase that has become al­most as closely associated with the Wall as Sima Qian’s own. Al­though the third line of the poem technically should be translated, “If we fail to reach the Wall, we will not be real men” in contempo­rary usage it is generally rendered as, “If you haven’t been to the Wall, you are not a real man.” In Chinese, the poem contains no personal pronouns, and because Chinese verbs are not conjugated, the subject and addressee must therefore be extrapolated from the context. Whereas in the original work Mao was clearly addressing his Red Army troops, if the line is read in isolation it could be un­derstood as referring to anyone.

The syntactic indeterminacy of the subject in this line is mirrored by a semantic ambiguity in the nominative clause at the end. Mao uses the term hao han, which in colloquial usage means essentially “good fellow” and carries heroic connotations. If broken down into its individual characters, however, the term could also be seen as having rather different overtones, given that Han is the same character used to refer to contemporary China’s dominant ethnic group. The first dynasty to officially divide the population into protoethnic categories was the Yuan, which recognized four such categories: the Mongols, the Semu, which included a variety of other non-Mongol pastoral peoples, and the Northern and South­ern Han. Ethnic distinctions became increasingly formalized during the Ming and Qing, while the PRC currently maintains a strict tax — onomical system wherein every citizen is assigned to one of fifty-six different ethnicities—with more than 90 percent of the popula­tion belonging to the Han ethnicity. One result of this latter policy is that it allows the nation to celebrate its ethnic plurality while implicitly reinforcing the equation of Chineseness with Han iden­tity—using a token recognition of ethnic distinctiveness to reaffirm the normative character of Han identity. Mao was using, in other words, a colloquial term that carries partially effaced ethnic conno­tations, while the very effacement of those connotations anticipated Maoist China’s subsequent attempts to formalize and naturalize a vision of national identity.

While the Wall is often imagined as a barrier between differ­ent ethnic or protoethnic groups (for example, the Han and the Xiongnu, the Han and the Mongols, the Manchu and the Han), in practice it has more often functioned as a symptom of an intimate interrelationship between groups, and of the wall-builders’ own process of Sinicization. Just as Sun Yat-sen argued in 1919 that the

Wall could be seen as a tool of ethnic assimilation, Mao’s “if we fail to reach” line could be read as implying that the mere act of reach­ing the Wall rendered the subject ethnically “Han.”

In contrast to Mao’s treatment of the Wall as a goal or destina­tion, leftist director Yuan Muzhi, in his classic film Street Angel, cites the Wall as a symbol of displacement.9 Released in 1937, just two years after Mao penned his “Mount Liupan” poem, the film fo­cuses on two sisters who have fled war-ravaged Manchuria and are now working as singsong girls in a Shanghai teahouse. One of the first scenes of the film depicts the younger of the sisters being forced to perform for some lecherous customers. As the girl, Xiao Hong, sings a tune called “Song of Four Seasons,” the camera repeatedly cuts back and forth between shots of her tear-stained face and a montage of scenic images, concluding with an image of the Wall that coincides with the song’s allusion to the legend of Lady Meng Jiang:

Winter comes and snow flurries down.

When winter clothes are ready I’ll send them to my man.

The long wall built of blood and flesh is long.

Would that I could be the ancient Meng Jiang.

Xiao Hong appropriates a version of Tian Han’s metaphor of the Wall as a product of flesh and blood (“with our very flesh and blood, let us build our new Long Wall”) and transforms it into an emblem of subjugation and confinement (“the long wall built of blood and flesh is long”). The shots of the snow-covered stone Wall that accompany this allusion to Lady Meng Jiang suggest that the structure symbolizes the Manchurian homeland to which Xiao Hong yearns to return.

Although Street Angel does not refer again to the Wall after this initial scene, it does feature another distinctive wall. One of Xiao Hong’s friends is a semiliterate newspaper peddler who has plas­tered the walls of his cramped, ramshackle apartment with old newspapers. In Republican China, print media such as journals and newspapers provided a crucial conduit for the introduction of “modern” knowledge and values, though the newspaper ped­dler and his companions derive little benefit from this moderniza­tion process. Instead, they literally surround themselves with news­print, occasionally trying to find inspiration in the isolated words or phrases contained in the clippings. In this way, the papered walls of the apartment symbolize the structural limits on the characters’ so­cial mobility, as well as their dreams of liberation.

Another version of this sort of “text wall” can be found in an­other movie set in the same 1930s period, but filmed more than half a century later. Directed by Ching Siu-tung, who also directed Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, the 1996 martial arts fantasy Dr. Wai in “The Scripture with No Words” features an author named Chow Si-kit (played by Jet Li), who is working on a serial­ized novel about a 1930s adventurer and archaeologist known as Dr. Wai (also played by Jet Li).10 The film opens with Chow under­going a stressful divorce that has literally emptied out his “idea box” (a small wooden box in which he places his notes for the upcoming serial) and left him stricken with a debilitating case of writer’s block. Fortunately, a couple of coworkers provide him with a new plotline revolving around a quest for a “wordless scripture” believed to hold the secrets of the “future of the people,” together with the scripture’s sacred sutra box (which had recently been un­earthed by the Japanese from an excavation site in Sichuan). Chow picks up this narrative thread and increasingly comes to identify with the quest of his Indiana Jones-style protagonist. Once Dr. Wai, in the embedded narrative, finally recovers the sutra box, he takes it to the Wall, where it causes an entire section of the structure to col­lapse. Inside the Wall he finds a bone-strewn cavern containing the wordless scripture, and after he places the document in its sacred box, he then (slipping back into his original persona as the contem­porary author) asks it whether he will ever see his wife again. The scripture responds by projecting an image of Chow and his wife (in the present) on the inner surface of the Wall, whereupon the film abruptly jumps back to the present day and shows Chow reconcil­ing with his wife.

In this way, the quest for the wordless scripture comes full circle. What begins as the author’s personal struggle with his marital dif­ficulties is reimagined as a nationalistic quest to find a sacred docu­ment containing the key to the “future of the people,” and then re­verts back at the end to its original focus on Chow’s relationship with his wife. While this moment of historical return is literally set against the backdrop of the Wall, the film also simultaneously pres­ents a vision of the historicity of the Wall. Just as Chow/Wai sees an image of his (Chow’s) own personal desires and aspirations pro­jected on the inner surface of the Wall, the Wall often functions as a virtual screen onto which viewers may project their respective hopes and ideals.

Dr. Wai’s quest for a wordless scripture is partially inspired by the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West.11 Based on the seventh — century monk Xuanzang’s journey to India to retrieve Buddhist sutras, the novel teams the monk (known in English translation as Tripitaka) with the irascible Monkey King and two other anthropo­morphic disciples, who join him on his journey to “the West.” After countless trials and tribulations, the pilgrims finally arrive at their destination and obtain the desired texts, but as they are on their way back home they discover that they have been given a bundle of blank pages. Indignant, they return to the Buddhist Patriarch, who responds with a chuckle, “Since you people came with empty hands to acquire scriptures, blank texts were handed over to you. But these blank texts are actually true, wordless scriptures, and they are just as good as those with words. However, those creatures in your Land of the East are so foolish and unenlightened that I have no choice but to impart to you now the texts with words.”12

The Patriarch argues that the highest truth is beyond words, sug­gesting that the literal meaning of the text is secondary to the uses to which the text is put. In a similar spirit, the significance of Jour­ney to the West itself may be seen as lying not so much in the actual contents of the work but rather in the ways in which the narrative has been used in different contexts. One of China’s best-loved nov­els, the narrative has captured the imagination of everyone from children to Buddhist scholars and has inspired a wide variety of se­quels and adaptations, ranging from late-imperial sequels like A Ri­diculous Journey to the West, to a 2001 U. S. television miniseries about an American businessman who is magically transported back to late-Ming China to rescue the original text of the novel and save civilization as we know it. This eclectic range of readings and adap­tations suggests that the ultimate significance of the narrative lies not in its content, but in the way in which it provides a figurative screen against which the concerns and anxieties of each age may be projected.

Just as Journey to the West has functioned as a figurative “word­less scripture” or blank screen throughout its history, the Wall has similarly been repeatedly rebuilt and transformed to meet each era’s shifting needs and concerns. To the extent that essays, songs, po­ems, and films illustrate the gradual rehabilitation, during the first half of the century, of the Wall’s significance in China, for instance, a series of governmental directives and private initiatives reflect a parallel interest, during the latter half of the century, in restoring the physical structure itself. In 1952, the poet-turned-bureaucrat Guo Moruo—in his new capacity as vice premier of the State Coun­cil and chair of the Committee on Culture and Education—laid out the first modern proposal to reconstruct the Wall. Implicitly build­ing on his earlier description of new China as a phoenix rising from its own ashes, Guo Moruo called for the Badaling section of the Wall outside Beijing to be thoroughly repaired and restored to a semblance of its former glory. This project was completed five years later, in 1957, whereupon the renovated section of the Wall was of­ficially opened to the public. Badaling has since become one of China’s biggest attractions, and an estimated 130 million visitors have made the pilgrimage to see it since it reopened in 1957.

In addition to being a tourist site, Badaling is also a required stop for foreign leaders and other dignitaries, as we have seen. In 1972, for instance, U. S. president Richard Nixon visited Badaling during his historic visit to China, where he made his famous “a great wall. . . built by a great people” pronouncement:

And one stands there and sees the wall going to the peak of this mountain and realizes it runs for hundreds of miles—as a matter of fact, thousands of miles—over the mountains and through the val­leys of this country [and] that it was built over 2,000 years ago. I think that you have to conclude that this is a great wall and it had to be built by a great people. It is certainly a symbol of what China in the past has been and what China in the future can become. A people that could build a wall like this certainly [has] a great past to be proud of. And a people that have this kind of a past must also have a great future.13

Nixon’s emphasis on the Wall’s “great”-ness proves eminently in­fectious, spilling out beyond the confines of the Wall and color­ing everything with which the structure is associated—including the people who constructed it, the historical past out of which it emerged, and even the future into which it is headed. Just as Lu Xun used the same adjective in arguing that the Wall was actually anything but “great,” the very repetition in Nixon’s emphasis on how everything relating to the Wall is “great” points to an inescap­able chasm at the heart of our vision of the structure.

An uncanny echo of Nixon’s 1972 visit to the Wall took place seventeen years later, when Mikhail Gorbachev made the first visit to China by a Soviet leader in thirty years. In contrast to the small army of reporters who followed Nixon’s every move, media cover­age of the Soviet president’s trip was overshadowed by the 1989

Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that were going on at the time he arrived. Gorbachev did, however, manage to make the requisite trip to Badaling, where he famously remarked, “It’s a very beautiful work, but there are already too many walls between peo­ple.” A reporter then asked him the logical follow-up question: whether this meant he (whom Ronald Reagan, during a trip to Berlin two years earlier, had challenged to “tear down this wall!”) would allow the Berlin Wall—that most infamous of cold war sym — bols—to be dismantled, to which the leader of the soon-to-be — defunct Soviet Union replied, “Why not?”

Why not, indeed. On November 9, 1989, just months after Gor­bachev’s trip to Beijing, the Berlin Wall became a political relic as tens of thousands of East Germans rushed through in response to a premature announcement by Gunter Schabowski, the East Ger­man minister of propaganda, that the militarized border was to be opened up. Stunned by the wave of humanity, the East German guards held their fire and allowed their compatriots to pass through to West Germany. Although it would take several more months for the political restrictions on movement between East and West Ger­many to be officially lifted, and even longer for the physical wall it­self to be dismantled, that November afternoon is remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell.

In contrast to the fascination in the 1980s with whether and when the Berlin Wall would be brought down, discussions of China’s Wall during the same period tended to focus on the inverse question of how to restore the monument to its presumptive great­ness. Although Badaling had been carefully repaired and main­tained, much of the rest of the structure had been ravaged by ero­sion and general neglect, and in many regions locals had torn it down to reuse its bricks for their own constructions. Adding insult to injury, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the Wall had been a target of the “Attack the Four Olds” campaign, which pro­moted concerted action against old customs, culture, habits, and ideas carried over from pre-1949 China. In 1984, in response to the Wall’s physical and symbolic deterioration, Deng Xiaoping—the de facto leader of China at that point—launched a campaign to “love our country and restore the Great Wall.” Echoing Guo Moruo’s 1952 five-year plan to rebuild the Badaling section of the Wall, Deng’s 1984 campaign called for the physical restoration of specific sections, and an aggressive refurbishing of the public’s vision of the structure. The goal of the campaign was not merely to (re)affirm the monument’s significance as a transhistorical symbol of the nation but also to reaffirm the strength and majesty of the nation itself.

Deng Xiaoping’s 1984 “restore the Great Wall” campaign helped set in motion a process of restoration and rehabilitation that con­tinues today. In 1987, for instance, China founded the Great Wall Society, which has developed into the most prominent Chinese-led Wall-preservation group; also that same year the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) des­ignated several sections of the Wall as official World Heritage Sites —including Badaling, near Beijing; Jiayuguan, in far-western Gansu Province; and Shanhaiguan, where the Wall reaches the Gulf of Bohai. This also happened to be the year that William Lindesay, the future founder of the international Wall-preservation society Friends of the Great Wall, first visited the Wall.

In 2002 the World Monuments Fund added the Wall to its list of the world’s 100 most endangered sites. Technically speaking, the Wall itself was not listed but rather the “Cultural Landscape of the Great Wall, Beijing Region.” In practical terms, this specification of the Wall’s “cultural landscape” was intended to encourage the pres­ervation of the geographic region through which the Wall runs—to limit, for instance, new construction in the immediate vicinity of the Wall that would have an impact on its appearance and people’s perception of it. At the same time, however, this emphasis on the Wall’s cultural landscape speaks more generally to the actual con­text within which it is perceived and understood. It is this abstract landscape, in turn, that permits us to see the physical structure— which is the product of a continual process of erosion, destruction, renovation, and reconstruction—as being what Lindesay calls in a different context a “continuity of the wall.” It is precisely the exis­tence of this abstract cultural landscape that allows us to perceive the Wall as an unbroken “continuity”—but specifically as a contin­uous process of transformation and reinvention.

Ironically, even as the various initiatives to help preserve the Wall are under way, the precise condition of the structure being “pre­served” remains rather unclear. For a long time there had been a surprising dearth of reliable surveys of the structure, though in 2007 China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage and State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping initiated a four-year project us­ing a combination of global positioning system (GPS) and infrared technologies that was billed as the first comprehensive survey of the entire structure. The results of the first half of the survey, focusing on the Ming Wall, were released in the spring of 2009, and they in­cluded an announcement of the discovery of several hundred kilo­meters of previously undocumented stretches of the Ming Wall in regions ranging from Liaoning Province in the east to the Jiayuguan region in the far west; they also revealed that the overall length of the Wall had been measured at 8,851.8 kilometers, more than two thousand kilometers longer than had been expected. As with the archaeologist Jing Ai’s hyperprecise historical calculations of the Wall’s length (discussed in Chapter 1), the survey’s attempts to spec­ify the Wall’s length down to the nearest tenth of a meter suggests an overcompensatory response to an underlying anxiety about the very possibility of measuring the Wall at all. Even setting aside questions of how much of the historical structure must be present in order to be considered extant, the survey’s specification that more than a quarter of the revised length (2,232.5 kilometers, to be ex­act) didn’t consist of walls at all but of natural defensive barriers, such as hills and rivers (together with an additional 359.7 kilome­ters of trenches), brings into question how we understand the very nature of the Wall.

Even as this official survey was celebrating the radical expansion of the known Wall as previously understood, the Chinese govern­ment was simultaneously attempting to significantly restrict access to most of the Wall. Regulations prohibiting visitors from traveling to parts of the Wall outside designated tourist sections are ostensi­bly intended to help preserve the rapidly deteriorating structure from further damage, though in practice they also have the effect of further delimiting the actual vision that most visitors will have of the famous monument. Sometimes referred to as the “wild wall,” the unrestored sections both undergird and undermine the structure as we have come to know it. Inaccessible to casual tourists and in­visible in most standard representations of the structure, this wild wall provides a silent reminder of the perpetual process of destruc­tion and reconstruction on which the Wall’s current significance is necessarily predicated.

Another way of approaching these questions of the Wall’s iden­tity would be to consider the structure as a hybrid of the figures of Monkey in Journey to the West and the phoenix in Guo Moruo’s 1920 poem. That is to say, the Wall may be seen as either having en­joyed a basically continuous existence from antiquity to the pres­ent, like Monkey, or as having repeatedly been destroyed and fig­uratively reborn, like the phoenix. This view of the Wall as a hybrid of the figures of Monkey and the phoenix highlights a curious par­allel between the two legends. Just as Guo Moruo’s phoenix is re­born every 500 years, Monkey’s and Tripitaka’s “journey to the West” begins only after Monkey has been released from his 500- year incarceration beneath the Mountain of Five Phases. The two texts, however, diverge in their understanding of the significance of this semimillennial return—with the phoenix being imagined as the product of a cycle of destruction and rebirth, while Monkey is viewed as having reawakened essentially unchanged after a long dormancy. Meanwhile, the Wall (the Ming dynasty incarnation of which coincidentally happens to be approximately five hundred years old) may be viewed as a synthesis of these two models—as an entity that has been repeatedly destroyed and reborn while also be­ing defined by its capacity for fragmentation and transformation.

In the figures of Monkey and the phoenix, therefore, we find a different version of the models of identity and reference identi­fied, in Chapter 1, as antidescriptive and descriptive, and compared metaphorically, in Chapter 2, to the figures of Zhang Yimou’s war­rior and Gong Li’s starlet in Fight and Love with a Terracotta War­rior. As I have suggested, these two models are not directly opposed to each other but are instead complementary. We find a different perspective on this complementarity if we turn to another aspect of the legends of Monkey and the phoenix. While one of Monkey’s most distinctive skills is his ability to take hairs from his body and transform them into miniature replicas of himself, Guo Moruo’s phoenix/fenghuang is the product of two distinct mythological traditions (Egyptian and Chinese), even as the traditional Chinese fenghuang is itself a composite of a variety of distinct avian species. Seen as a synthesis of these two figures, therefore, the Wall is the product of a process of continual fragmentation and consolidation, a hybrid of distinct elements that are constantly threatening to dissolve back into individual fragments. By this logic, our ability to perceive the Wall as possessing a stable and unitary identity is made possible by the fact that the symbolic core of that identity is a protean construct that is constantly being reinvented and reimagined.

The Wall, in other words, may be perceived as a historically con­tinuous and conceptually unified entity (like the proverbial Mon­key) insofar as its identity is actually grounded on a phoenix-like core that is in a constant state of transformation. What permits us to perceive the Wall as a coherent and singular entity is the fact that in actuality it is neither coherent nor singular. The monument’s hy­brid and multifaceted character permits it to transform itself over time, while simultaneously allowing observers to perceive it as the sort of conceptual unity that meets their particular needs. The pri­mary constant throughout the Wall’s history, accordingly, is pre­cisely its lack of constancy, and it is that protean quality that fig­uratively holds the structure together.

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