I am now officially a hero, in the estimation of no less an authority than Chairman Mao, who asserted that the Great Wall was the essential first boundary for the hero. Friends took me to the wall twice; once to a derelict section, and once to a section manicured to perfection for the benefit of tourists. The contrasting experiences were both memorable, but their differences cast light on the soul of China.
Despite the sometimes life-threatening physical effort of climbing the near-vertical remains of the Wall at Huanghuacheng, an invigorating walk on the Great Wall of China was a blend of the profound and the mundane, as one might expect of an experience of China’s greatest symbol and treasure. This silent blend of the secular and the spiritual is everywhere to be seen by the careful eye, despite the government’s emphasis on the practical and the reductionist out of the sheer necessity and scale of handling 1.3 billion citizens of stunning diversity.
There were obvious profundities of course: the way the wall clung to the hills like a rodeo rider, speaking of human attempts to dominate the landscape; the immense scale of the wall at ground level, rising castle-high above the ground and built with a solidity echoing the iron rule of its builders. But more telling for me was the positioning of the arrow ports in the walls. The Great Wall was not one original project but rather the consolidation by the Ming dynasty of walls built locally to protect against the fierce northern tribes. Just one look shouted out the impossibility of assault on the wall at least by any civilisation not possessing helicopters.
No one would be able to get around, under or over it at any point, both because of the solid severity of the structure and the lay of the landscape. Yet there were arrow ports in both sides of the wall. If the northern tribes would be unable to reach the south side of the wall, what would be the need for arrow ports in the defences on that side? So in the name of defence, the Great Wall was in fact a spinal fortress, defensible against the assaults of hostile mobs of both the unenfranchised and the disenfranchised. Some things last centuries, it seems, even approaches to government.
The country around Huanghuacheng was largely free of the modern expression of the same paranoia, at least physically – delightfully rural and simple. Just a nod to the commercial was present – a hand-painted sign invoking the name of ‘Lonely Planet’ at the entrance to the ‘hotel’, little more. So it was that lunch became a highlight of the day, not so much for the food (simple, plentiful, appealing, cheap) or the venue (cling-film-covered tables in whitewashed bare rooms) but for the fire-cracker fight being conducted – by gleeful, laughing adults – both inside and outside. The high spirits were the first expression of uncontrolled, happy humanity I had seen since arriving.
As we ate chicken and mushrooms (my favourite, despite the chopstick challenge of the slick surface), handfuls of small but lethal red tubes were being hurled to the floor around the feet of otherwise soberly-dressed adults. As we fished the bones from the sautéed wild chicken with chestnuts, besuited men laughed out loud and ran to avoid hails of noisy ammunition. And the same with the deep-fried batter fish nuggets, ginger fish soup, noodles, rice, tea. A small dog with an ermine-trimmed tartan jacket came foraging several times, unaffected by the barrage of noise caused in part by a normally sensible woman tossing firecrackers at the walls and windows behind a normally sensible man.
A visit to the Wall at Badaling 70km to the west gave an alternative perspective. This is the ‘official’ wall – no climbing over broken brickwork here, rather the purchase of expensive tickets (two for the price o fa huge lunch for three) from a disinterested clerk and their immediate transfer to an adjacent, over-dressed military doorman. The physical effort of getting on top of the wall was just the same; steep flights of steps and impossible gradients matching the switchback ride of the course of the wall. Not only was the stifling atmosphere of official control present, but there was also an almost third-world clamour of pushy, slightly desperate vendors of books and tourist tat everywhere outside the official entrance plaza and also, to my surprise, inside the protected heritage area of the Wall itself.
The Wall itself was undiminished by any of these things, stretching into the snow-sprinkled distance across rugged and dramatic hills to the mountainous horizon, a strong dragon riding the country, the people, the future. The Wall here is carefully and comprehensively restored to its original state, and the mind’s ear could hear the sound of feet running between the forts to repel intruders, could feel the sense of hopeless despair of the attacker encountering the defences for the first time. In the midst of sublime reflection, under the first feint line of a new crescent moon rising in the east in the winter twilight, the signs of tourist exploitation still tried to intrude – in a culturally appropriate way, naturally. Refreshment stands lay closed beside each fort; at one point the chance to be photographed next to an obelisk with Chairman Mao’s hero quotation was hard to decline. Camel rides were on offer (recalled at dinner the next night when camel was a dish at the table – chewy but inoffensive, unlike the animal).
These intrusions having failed to claim my attention, fate or the system finally sent me a persistent, rosy-cheeked and wild woman clutching a sack of postcards, pictures and guide books. She had obviously been professionally trained in how to be as obnoxious as possible as she thrust the books under my nose, tracked my brisk pace, shouted a few words of English proclaiming the benefits of the books and her pricing strategy (“good book, good book” and “cheaper, cheaper”respectively). None of the signs of rejection in my repertoire shook her off; any attempt at disinterest was merely a sign I wanted to negotiate more, and the price went down RMB5 at a time until finally, after ten minutes or so, we reached her floor and, with her closing gambit exhausted (a guttural spit of disgust) she retired to the shadows. But the Wall at dusk was ultimately undiminished even by the Bookseller from Hell or by the officious signs guarded by self-important, disinterested officials. Strong, enormous and permanent, the Wall stood on the hills and in the mind as a dominating symbol.
So which experience was the authentic Wall? The crumbling edifice, impossibly precipitous to climb and impossibly climbing the precipitous landscape, informal yet dignified and historic, served with relaxed pleasure by the people for the people, with just the hint of tourist self-awareness? Or the magnificent stone dragon, impossibly defining and defying the twilight skyline, guarded by the disinterested servants of officialdom and the crazed servants of the tourist banknote? Both, of course, symbolise an element of the China I visited, but I’m certain that the Huanghuacheng Wall expressed the true spirit of the Chinese nation. The Badaling Wall expressed perhaps the bold face the nation’s leaders believe the world needs to see. Thousands of years of experience and wisdom lead inevitably to caution in the face of change, so their cautious incorporation of the new into millennia of the old is to be respected. But no matter how much institutional caution there may be, the human face and heritage of natural values continue to shine through.
[First posted December 2003]