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Goodness, Gracious, Great Wall of China

Illustration for TIME by Harry Harrison


It's festooned with tacky bric-a-brac, its image covers everything from tea cups to currency, and some historians now suspect that its authenticity is dubious. So why is the Great Wall of China so compelling? "If you want to understand China's relations abroad," says a scholar at Beijing's Foreign Affairs College, "you have to understand our walls."

Tourists flock to the Great Wall's famed ramparts at Badaling near Beijing and the less crowded sections farther afield at Mutianyu and Simatai in order to catch sight of the formidable stone battlements winding through the lush surrounding hills. Some even venture to remote hamlets in Hebei and Liaoning provinces, where they can hike undisturbed through the countryside over sun-bleached fortifications that are reputed to be the 2,200-year-old ruins of the world's largest national barricade.

"Beware the myth," warns Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania historian and author of The Great Wall of China from History to Myth (Cambridge University Press, 1992). The parts of the wall frequented by tourists today were constructed during the Ming Dynasty--a paltry 500 years ago. According to Waldron, the real Great Wall--built during the reign of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuang--is no more than a pile of rubble 100 km north of the popular relics around Beijing.

Enchanted by the idea of a vast secular monument, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Leibniz were partially to blame for Great Wall misconceptions, the historian adds. (The false notion that it's visible from the moon arose in Britain around that time.) Modern Chinese officials, he says, are mindful of the need for potent symbols to encourage national unity and thus have perpetuated the fable that the Ming walls are part of Qin's original. Local merchants who cash in on the 5 million visitors to the sites each year would hardly disagree.

What harm in a profitable fantasy? The giant millennium countdown clock, the auditorium showing films about the Great Wall and the cable car with blaring Chinese pop music (for those who prefer to skip the 1,000-m climb to the top) are among the manmade additions at Badaling that disappoint less commercially minded visitors. So are the hordes of hawkers selling T-shirts, postcards and soft drinks. "The saddest part of our visit was the vendors," laments Richard Melville, an accountant from Vancouver who visited Badaling with his wife.

Tourist trappings aside, most foreigners feel a visit to the Wall is worthwhile. "The horrible, brutal history represented by the Wall," says Patty Chiang, a first-generation Chinese-American who recently toured the country for the first time, "is also a symbol of my pride-rich heritage and endurance I have never fully appreciated." As for the best ways to see the Wall: buses for Badaling depart hourly from the entrance to the Beijing Zoo, and for Mutianyu from in front of the Worker's Stadium. For the most rigorous climbing experience of the Wall, hail a mini-bus at Dongzhimen station and head to the ruins at Simatai. Fact or fantasy, the Great Wall is a powerful cultural icon and a stunning visual experience.


March 15, 1999

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