Exploring the Meanings of the Great Wall of China Today

The concept of the Great Wall as a national symbol and the ideas based on or derived from it constitute a myth for Waldron. From a negative symbol to a national pride, the meanings of the Great Wall are very fluid. It is given different connotations in accordance with the needs of the group of people in the process of nation building, or the process of transformation from culture to nation, as Waldron would possibly agree. But to which extent does these meanings matter today? Geographical, social and economical factors are crucial to understand the precise significance the Great Wall embodies in current Chinese society.

The Great Wall of China, as noted in the text, is by no means one single wall with one unified story, as it is always generally understood. It is a combination of several walls erected over thousand of years; it is a set of histories, instead of only one. Extending from Shanhai Guan in the east to Jiayu Guan in the west, these walls, complementary to natural landscapes, served as northern frontiers dividing agrarian civilization and the steppe tribes. Today, however, it is said that thirty percent of the Great Wall is in ruins, and another twenty percent is in “reasonable” condition, according to a survey of a hundred sections of the wall carried out by the Great Wall Society of China in 2006.1 And the remaining fifty percent has disappeared. While the parts close to Beijing and other cities (such as Jiayu Guan city) draw attention from the government, and protected by law; some other parts of the Wall at those places where they are remote from population-condensed areas and tourist sites, are loosely protected. Geographical locations of the ruins of the walls play a role here. But if the government wants to protect the Great Wall for its archeological and historical importance, why does not it protect every meter of the Wall in the same manner?

What relates to the geographical factor is how different social groups perceive the Great Wall, whether it is a national symbol or not. In Waldron’s text, the alterations of meanings occurred mainly among Chinese and Western literati. Even though literature and folklores might influence general opinion on the Wall among the common, the degree to which it has impact on is hard to distinguish. In distant places, many local villagers even consider the ruins of the Wall as “only a pile of earth”, and for some tourists, drawing and carving on the Wall are not a behavior to be ashamed of. For these who are also Chinese, is the established Great Wall still a symbol of national pride or even important at all to their national identity? If part of the nation do not feel the national significance of the symbol, how can this symbol be important for “national” identity? Or is it just for the part of people who can be vocal and represent the nation in the world?

Last but not least, economic reason also drives to the restoration of the Wall, which links to the geographical factor previously discussed. Economic concerns matter much to the local governments, if less so to the central government. Tourism attracts more capital and further lifts local economy; not to mention the Great Wall is not only a domestic traveller attraction, but also an international tourist magnet. The symbolic and ideological meanings of the Wall exist and become significant because of national leaders and intellectuals (linking back to the social factor), who identify themselves as part of the imagined massive community called China/Chinese-culture-sharers, in front of “others”, feeling themselves different and special, if not better (proud).

There are different reasons to preserve what is considered “old.” I do not agree with Waldron on the “authenticity” of the Great Wall recognized by “Chinese people”. Various parts of the Wall have been torn down, rebuilt, surrounded by recreation parks, and then charged for entrance fee. These “Great Wall(s)” are of anything but authenticity. Thus preserving the authentic is hardly one of the reasons for restoration; and restoration with other purposes create nothing authentic.

Tearing down the “old” and building up the “new” is a desperate move to search for recognition and self-identification. Comparing to the parts of the Great Wall, which are “lucky” enough to be preserved, the old towns of some other cities in China was less fortunate. Lanzhou, a city filled with architectures from Ming and Qing dynasties, was gradually and completely destroyed and rebuilt. In recent years, the city officials started to realize the loss of uniqueness by completely discarding its past. But it is already too late. The special city structure “double city” nowadays can only be seen in old photos and a newly built sculpture in the city park. At the places where the original buildings were, some black stone tablets stand, giving basic information of the “deceased buildings”, looking ridiculous.

Old double-city structure in City Park:

Lanzhou City Park1

“Gravestones” of the old town in the lost memory:

Stone Tablet1 Stone Tablet 2