A learned, lively history of the Great Wall’s evolution that cuts it down to size without diminishing its allure.
No, you can’t see it from the moon. Nor is it an unbroken, serpentine glory of many thousand kilometers, all dressed stone and watchtowers; much of it is simply rammed dirt, sometimes a yard high. As a stone curtain keeping the northern barbarians at bay it was more of a sieve, though it did have its military uses. Sinophile Man (The Terra Cotta Army, 2008, etc.) offers a close, informed reading of historical documents as well as his observations based on many hours spent Wall-side. What emerges is a shifting, kaleidoscopic portrait—cultural, geopolitical, symbolic—that puts the mighty edifice into perspective. Man suggests that the Great Wall started as an expression of Chinese expansionism, rather than protectionism. Under the First Emperor, as China moved from city-state to nation-state in the third century BCE, the Wall marked borders, but they were fairly porous; “its main function [was] to serve China’s internal political purposes: to define itself, to declare its identity to itself—and to keep its own people in line.” The Han dynasty added to the Wall, which by the first century BCE also served as a road to transport goods, provide traders with safe houses and garrison soldiers. The pastoral-nomadic Mongols had no use for it and let it decay during the 12th century. After pushing them from power, the Ming dynasty embarked on a 200-year building spree designed to keep the Mongols on the other side of the Wall. The author’s intent is not to diminish the Wall, but to ascertain its purposes and paint its many attitudes, from rude earth-and-reed bulwark to the fairy-tale adornment of the landscape.
Man presents readers with a Wall for every season, even more awe-inspiring in its workaday clothes than in its romantic garb.