Great Wall, xenophobic

There are a lot of underwhelming experiences in life. Our expectations, inflated by an industry of peddlers, are dashed on a continual basis. The food we eat never matches the pictures on the menu, the phones we use break down with a regularity that we don’t see in commercials, and that philosophy class never changed your life as your friend promised it would. Yet never is this feeling as evident as when you reach a great monument or tourist destination. There’s a great disappointment when you crisscross the globe only to find that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t sparkle as it does on your desktop background, or that the Colosseum in Rome can be mistaken for a pile of crumbling rocks.

Yet as we struggled up the Great Wall of China, hurting with each steep and slender step, I could honestly say that this fortification is more impressive in person than what even the most silver-tongued salesman or author can describe. Stretching more than 5,000 miles and seven-men wide, the wall snakes across deserts and grasslands, mountains and plateaus. To the unsuspecting tourist, in awe of the considerable manpower and engineering genius that was channeled into this landmark, the Great Wall is a sign of China’s enduring strength, a symbol of a leviathan that is only now reawakening from a long slumber to retake its rightful position as the Middle Kingdom.

It is, however, a defensive wall and walls by their nature – as Republicans in America should remember – are a symbol of weakness and vulnerability. Built by the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, the Great Wall is a manifestation of two trends long entrenched in Chinese history: xenophobia and anticommercialism. While the latter has more than been erased by 30 years of near-rapacious economic growth, the former persists to this day.

China’s history is a history of interaction between a settled Han ethnic majority who have lived in central and eastern China and peripheral and nomadic ethnic minorities, most famously the Mongols. Brave warriors with a propensity for conflict, the Mongols and other Turkic groups would intermittently advance into central and northern China when the central ruling dynasty was weak. In such cases, it was not uncommon for the “uncultured” Mongols (as Han Chinese saw them) to become culturally integrated into Chinese culture. When the incumbent dynasty was strong, Mongols would keep their distance, often in exchange for annual tributes. The central Chinese dynasty rarely would make reciprocal incursions into the periphery, recognizing the dangers of an overextended supply line and the costliness of fighting an insurgency in the Mongol homeland (a lesson America seems to need reminding of every few decades).

The Great Wall proved a futile and wasteful allocation of military resources, as it proved easy to penetrate or circumvent throughout history, but it is interesting to note that the Ming Dynasty’s emphasis on defensive fortifications to ward off the Mongol invaders came at the same time that Ming naval power declined. Once the creator of the greatest ships in the world (with ships superior to those that Columbus used to cross the Atlantic), China restricted shipbuilding to medium-sized vessels and banished the great vessels that theoretically could have crossed the globe and colonized the New World decades before Europe even caught the nautical fever. Regional seapower was relinquished to petty Japanese pirates, and foreign trade, already looked down upon, suffered.

As our group made a tacky human “YALE” sign for a photo, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a twist of history that China’s great monuments of today, to which tourists from around the world throng, were once a symbol of insularity. And it was a costly insularity at that; maritime advancement and exploration was just beginning when the Chinese turned inward.

Rishabh Bhandari

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