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:
City Park 1
“Gravestones” of the old town in the lost memory:
Stone Tablet 1 Stone Tablet 2

The Critical Whisperer for Intellectuals

Criticised for being the voice of the Communist Party, China Central Television (CCTV) starts to lose viewership in- and outside of the country. The 90s of 20th century was considered as the booming period of Chinese media. Many current distinguishing figures in Chinese news TV embarked their career during that time. Bai Yansong, one of the most influential, well-known news reporters and commentators in China, learnt his first lesson in college in the department of journalism — bottom line of being a journalist: always telling the truth. After the first decade of the 21th century, some left CCTV for various reasons, from “inappropriate behaviour on air” to “less freedom in personal performance”. Bai is still there, doing current news report and commentary in a professional style.

Bai Yansong teaches in Class

Bai sees journalism as a marathon. “It has no ending, down the road. But when you got to know what’s down there so just stopping trying? Giving up is always easier than carrying on.” he said.

Confronting with the harsh media restriction environment, many choose to leave, while others stay and try to dance with chains. Bai is one of the latter. “Up till today, CCTV is still the best platform in the whole country to conduct press supervision.” Bai believes. Questioning and interrogating local government in misconducted political and social cases, Bai said that he has already come to a time in his journalist career when he stands at the opposite side to the powerful. He has to keep his critics within certain level in order to hold the right to the microphone. “It’s like walking on thin ice.” he said.

Founding “East-West United University” (东西联大) fulfilled one of Bai’s life-long dream. Born into a family with 3 teachers, “I always wanted to be a teacher since I was little.” Bai said. 11 students from 4 of most prestigious universities in Beijing are selected every year to Bai’s private “university”. Twice a month, class locates once on the east side of Beijing and the next time at some place on the west side. Reading list is assigned for each week, and reading report is compulsory. Every time, Bai sits down with his student, discuss various topics from rural workers in urban area to social changes in terms of time periods of the 70s, 80s and 90s. “Most of journalism majors at our universities do not cover practical interview training.” For Bai, how to conduct an interview is one of the crucial skills of a journalist. On practical interview class, students raise their topics which display their different focuses in the society. Many of the topics are inspiring.

Nonetheless, some of the topics from students also represent certain left-behind features of this particular society. One popular topic was “If I was a Homosexual”. The topic itself implies discrimination against the homosexual community to a certain degree that the students might not be able to realise it. This sentence pre-set the discussion from a perspective that “I” am not a homosexual. But what if “I am”? What if one of the students were a gay or a lesbian who was too frightened to come out? This topic puts every participants to the position that is definitely NOT a homosexual , which indicates that a homosexual is one of “THEM” but not one of “US”. This is a subtle discrimination which is unintended, and in the social context of China, understandable.

Anyway, for the world community, even in some “advanced countries” like Germany or US, it is still a long way to achieve their full understanding of homosexuality and embrace the fact that is supposed to be natural and universal. And it is even a longer way for societies like China. Bai’s classes represent the advancing step by young intellectuals. Social change goes gradually. What matters the most is some one is on the way.

Bai’s career as a journalist and a news commentator inspires Chinese young people to take the society with more serious attitude. He described himself as a “most optimistic pessimist” who has hope for the future and believes in people, although “there will be nothing in the future”. He is loved because he is critical, skeptical but never cynical. The endeavour to nurture young people to take more responsibilities like he does will not be in vain. “When I pass on the torch, I will just forget about all this.” Bai talked about retirement one day. But who knows? Not only as a committed journalist, a voicer of intellectuals, but also as a citizen with strong sense of responsibility, could he never stop caring.


related sources: http://ent.ifeng.com/a/20140523/40081125_0.shtml