The Great Wall as Space-craft

This article is part of the series:

The Great Wall of China is not the barrier to barbarians it is sometimes thought to be. These days, it does not seem to bound anything [1], in and of itself. Did it ever? The wall is not an iron curtain of the impenetrable sort, heavily policed (though its flows have been managed, at times and in places). Nor, though it makes a difference in space, defining a certain “north of” and a certain “south of” [3], does the Wall produce an internal purity or an effective immunity from alien organisms [11]. Did it ever?

The aim of this essay is allegorical, an effort to unfold the powers condensed in a fetishized object into practice and history [4, 8, 9]. At the end of The Fold, his study of Leibniz and Baroque philosophy, Gilles Deleuze says: “Leibniz occasionally sums it up in the triad, ‘scenography, definitions, points  of view’.” (126) These are strategies of writing and thinking, and they are allied in Deleuze’s discussion to the uses of allegory. He notes Walter Benjamin’s argument that allegory makes an event of the object, and suggests that allegory introduces time into the logical spaces of representation and signification. Rather than drawing maps of meaningful spaces, then, Benjamin (and Deleuze, and perhaps even Leibniz) look for and deploy stories that unfold some lessons of experience, from a point of view, through time.

I here propose a historical “scenography” of the great Wall, seeking – allegorically – to show how boundary walls appear to craft space, and also how they fail to produce purities [3, 11]. This scenography attends, then, to events of definition, tracing how differences can be made between proper inside spaces and possibly wild out-sides [5], defining (and at times fetishizing) objects (China?  The Qing Dynasty? The Mongol Hordes?) and then reminding us that bounding – especially when it seems to produce a solid barrier – only makes sense from a point of view [1, 2].

Scenography, or historical description, depicts something envisioned by a particular situated viewer, even though it sometimes claims an objective view from nowhere. Definitions delimit objects for the use of and in the hands of particular communities (themselves made in an always partial process of bounding). Deleuze’s commentary provides an even wider frame justifying my strategy here: “The Baroque introduces a new kind of story, in which, following [these] three traits, description replaces the object, the concept becomes narrative, and the subject becomes point of view or subject of expression.” (127) So here I begin by replacing the well-known object of The Great Wall with a description of the practices gathered around and along its path [6], proposing that Leibniz’s strategies be a resource for thinking not only about fetishized borders elsewhere (the immune system, the Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone…[2, 11]) but about implications of spacecrafting very broadly.

Scenography: Standing on the Great Wall – the restored parts, which express an ambition and glory the historical wall may have never enjoyed – you see it snaking its massive way across quite high mountains. Walking along its wide stone-cobbled top, you sometimes have to climb steeply and sometimes have to slip and slither down severe inclines. It curves, folds [4], and snakes (actually, it dragons) up and down, left and right over very uncompromising mountains [7]. Looking north and south, east and west from the top of the wall, one sees these mountains going on as far as the eye can see. From some vantage points, there are a few towns visible at a distance. What’s inside the Wall (would this be the real China?) is not different from what’s outside it, as far as one can see [3, 11].

It is impossible to avoid the question: Why was a wall wanted here? Surely no more would be needed to protect the flatter lands to the south from the steppes to the north than these trackless and forested mountains themselves. I can’t imagine an army crossing this range and surviving the rigors of the journey to attack and plunder the Chinese heartland [2, 3, 5, 10, 11]. Indeed, as far as I know, no army ever did. When in the 17th Century the Manchu troops entered China and toppled the Ming, that wall-loving dynasty, we are told they bribed their way in through the low gate at Shan Hai Guan, the Pass between the Mountains and the Sea [6], marching in across the rolling coastal terrain with the greatest of ease.

Though the Great Wall certainly makes a line, folding and unfolding its way across the ridges and peaks, and that indeed is one of its greatest beauties to the visitor’s eye, the wall is not a boundary line [1, 4]. What was it, in its prime? Better, what did it do? [2, 3, 7] We can guess. We can guess when we visit the watchtowers, the buildings that punctuate the curve of the wall, most of them with room to garrison a small brigade of soldiers, store weapons, cook meals. We can guess when we are told that signals were sent from tower to tower, segment to segment of the wall with bonfires on top of the most highly placed watchtowers, those visible from the greatest distances. People were stationed here, worked here, and communicated here [7]. Even more important, they could travel from place to place along the wall [6]. This wall, you realize as you climb it, is actually a road. Its form is meant to accommodate the troops stationed at the border, to allow them to move through the forests and mountains rapidly, covering great distances, carrying their gear. They move not among the roots and underbrush of the forest cover but one story up, along the top of the wall. They were able to gaze over the treetops, assess the landscape (perhaps never really expecting the mounted armies of Inner Asian invaders), and control the nearby space from various points of view. It was the vertical and horizontal folding of the terrain and the stonework that allowed this multiplicity of points of view [4].

Nowadays there are a few villages nestled up against the restored or disintegrating sides of the Great Wall. Indeed, local farmers have been parasitic on the historic wall for no-one knows how long, repurposing cobbles and bricks to build houses, retaining walls, mountain paths. There is no longer an “international” boundary marked by any part of the Great Wall. There probably never was, depending on how you define international, though Marta Hanson has shown that the Manchu rulers of the “foreign” Qing Dynasty worried that “Chinese” hospitality to endemic smallpox would infect the smallpox-free Northern invaders as they moved to the south. For the “foreign” Manchus, the wall marked an epidemiological divide between presence and absence of disease risk [1, 9, 11].

In some of the most beautifully restored parts of the wall, it runs along the divide between Beijing City and Hebei Province. Certain stubborn differences are marked by the Wall along that part of the boundary; it runs between the capital city’s metropolitan district and the far-from-wealthy rural parts of the surrounding province. Water in this dry region flows in significant directions: on both sides of the wall the agricultural villages are parched, as water is channeled toward the city via the Miyun and other reservoirs [2, 3, 5], becoming unavailable for irrigation. But some water is also diverted northwestward toward a broad re-forestation zone, planted to stem the encroachments [3, 11] of the desert into the capital city and the agricultural heartland. In some western regions, moreover, the remains of the wall cross expanding deserts, the spread of their waterless dunes unimpeded by human-made structures such as historic cities.

It matters that the Wall draws tour groups, trekkers, hawkers, souvenir-mongers, delivery people, photographers, village entrepreneurs offering lodging and meals, campers, food venders, and probably thieves, all of whom spread themselves out along the Wall [6] and move back and forth along the fraying line it doesn’t quite make. Indeed, looked at in its longest aspect, the Wall is more fray than line. Kafka guessed this in his allegorical story “The Great Wall of China;” it would seem that he understood the impossibility of a long continuous barrier wall, even in theory. Even the segments that have been restored in the Hebei/Beijing area (ranging in length from a few hundred meters to four kilometers) have offshoots that confuse the hiker – will this path on the right end up in a north-facing watchtower with no egress? Or does this path on the left connect with the (mythical) whole wall, and carry me further to the west? [7] From many vantage points on the wall, it is impossible to tell which is the “right” choice among the folds, or to get any sense of which way you are really heading.

Segments between watchtowers are not necessarily straight; rather, because the terrain is so rippled and folded, pieces of wall curve with the slope [4, 9]. Towers are certainly vantage points but they are also nodes where things once collected: people, equipment, food, stories, graffiti. Gates that penetrate the Wall are few, but there are enough of them to remind us that there has been transverse movement across this barrier; entry into “China” and exit from it along this way has been controlled but not barred [2]. People and goods, ideas and skills have moved along capacious pathways throughout the region, more often crossing the zone of the wall than stopping at its heights or flowing along its path. [6, 7]

Still working in the dimension of scenography, or description, still standing on the wall and looking, trivial encounters also count. There are “local products” sold there, for example: purchasers can taste and buy walnuts and dried fruit, apricots and raisins and almonds and a few herbal medicines [3]. There are “farm family joy” inns (with their “clean and pure” food and air), very popular among weekending urbanites from Beijing [10]. The wall has rhythms, times when people are many or few; people and things gather and disperse in daily and seasonal patterns: I once met a water vendor who traveled two and a half hours each way carrying bottled water. And commiserated with souvenir-hawking mothers walking an hour back to the village to meet their kids coming home from school. Mystical or erotic experiences accumulate in the stories of trekking students and vacationers. This is an experiential destination, a magical one. Perhaps it should be seen as actually long, continuous, and impassable precisely because it is so in the imaginations and experiences of so many [1, 8].

Now, it’s true that the “inner” side of the wall in Hebei appears to be much more thick with activity than the immediate outer side. This would invite an immunity image [11], where all manner of agents are drawn to the wall area itself to reinforce its line and thicken its effectiveness as a boundary [2], othering the outside [3, 11]. But if we extend our gaze a little further (helped, for example, by Google Maps, and yet still standing on top of the wall and looking around) we can see that there are lively villages and towns on both sides of the wall, some of them quite established and of considerable size, Miyun and Huairou, for example. Probably in the Ming and Qing there were standing military bases in these places, and as everywhere in these parts there would have been distribution networks centering in the towns [7]. Traders gathered and shipped things like furs, ginseng, paper, medicinal and gourmet animal parts, fruit and nuts. There were brides, bondservants, traveling monks, scholars, shamans, herbalists traversing this border zone [1, 2]. In the 18th and early 19th century, emperors traveled north through the Wall to Chengde to host Inner Asian lords on something closer to their “own turf” [9].

Definition: If we hover in Spacecraft Google above Beijing, and northern Hebei, and Liaoning, keeping the Great Wall in the center of our sights, and fill this image with what we know, or could know, about the activity organized along and around this “line” – what we then see is not only a pathway to be followed and a barrier to be crossed but a broad zone [2], a swathe of life cutting across modern political boundaries and rendering impossible any hermetic sealing off of the inside from the outside that the wall might appear to do [11]. After all, now (and probably all the way back) the Great Wall is not one. There have always been pieces and gaps. Now of course, trekkers struggle through the rough parts, sometimes for hours, to get from the end of one piece to the beginning of another [6]. Out west, where the Wall becomes a long mound of packed earth, slowly eroding in sandstorms, overtaken by dunes, the gaps are longer than the physical remainders. How could this zone of imperfect walled-ness ever have “protected” “China” from “barbarians”? Is there, was there ever, an immunity function here? Is there any possible way of imagining a self-other, inside-outside divide marked by the Wall? Is the out-side defined by the Wall qualitatively different from the in-side, more savage, less sovereign [11]?

The answer is not a simple no. Whether we imagine earlier ways of managing the broad relations between northern and southern parts of the great north, such as the sometimes militarized border between Han and Manchu-Mongol domains in the Ming and Qing, or whether we consider the economic and environmental practices organized around the Great Wall in the 21st century, it’s easier to think of this extended (dragoning!) line/zone/pathway [2, 6] as a magnetic force field that organizes activity around itself, a space that draws much of the world to itself as center rather than periphery, and that pushes what it folds in [3] through a long – impossibly, amazingly, awesomely long – extension [10]. The Wall “throughs” (tong ), but in a way that gathers all sorts of things from its wide field [7]. And yet it remains frayed, a wall made of pieces.

Points of view: Recent commentaries on the Great Wall have been touristic, historical, and artistic.  Historians have begun to argue that very little (if any) of the Great Wall dates from the classic Qin-Han period (3rd century B.C.E.-3rd century C.E.) of song and story; rather, most of the stone and brick, watch-towered, fortressed, and gated length of the Wall was built in the Ming (15th-17th C.), and it has been falling apart and cannibalized for other purposes almost from the beginning of its life as a military structure (Waldron 1990, Hay 1994). Tourists and trekkers do a lot of research, sharing their experiential and remote sensing findings online; especially interested in walking along “the” line or path of the Great Wall, these ad hoc historians are hyper-aware of ruins, breaks, and discontinuities, and they decry local restoration projects as insensitive and ugly. Artists have exploited, nationalistically or ironically, the visual image of a long folding line of Wall [4], so easy to see as such from some vantage points on a clear day. They have directed performances that have filled its crenellated road with “the people,” clothed or unclothed, or installed banners and other red things that speak of “China.” Banquets are held on the Great Wall to benefit arts organizations, and haute couture has been modeled among its stones for magazine advertisements [8].

Finally, the Great Wall seems to be on a great many “bucket lists” around the world. My father was thrilled to make it to the restored Wall at Badaling in 1983, when he was in his late 60s, only to find it socked in with heavy fog. Standing on the top of the damp and slippery wall, he ruefully remarked, “Those Mongol hordes had it all over us, at least they could see the damn thing.”

Indeed, who can see what of this Wall, and when? Though we have long been told that it is the only “man-made structure visible from space,” in fact it can’t be reliably seen even in Google Earth images taken from rather nearby satellites. Riding north in a bus from Beijing toward Chengde, it stands to reason that you would have to pass “through” the Great Wall [7].[a] Passengers need to be told when to look, though, so that, craning their necks and pointing, they can photograph little segments of wall through the windows of the bus as it hurtles northeast. At one point they pass the gate to the Jinshanling restored portion of the Wall, and they may even stop to buy fruit and use the toilets there. But you can’t see much from that spot.

I have argued here that the Great Wall is not an effective barrier and does not make a discrete boundary [1, 2]. Though the parts of the Wall are certainly made of earth, bricks, stones, mortar, and wood, it is not one structure, not the classic continuous line dragoning its way across the whole north of China, which decorates the global tourist’s bucket list [4]. My father’s anachronistic idea that the Wall kept “the Mongol Hordes” out of “China” was always historically ridiculous [11] – especially if most of the Wall was built in the Ming, since the Mongol-imposed Yuan Dynasty had already come and gone before it existed – but this Great Wall is still an undeniably amazing thing.

What happens in our crafting of space if we remember to treat the Wall as allegory, and thus render the object as an event; if we avoid temptations to dissolve all structure into process, and yet see the Wall as a zone of multidirectional mobilities [6]; if we seek no pure civilization (“the Chinese”) in an inside nor any pure wildness (“the barbarian hordes”) on the outside [1, 2, 3, 7], yet ask what immunities and communities might be broadly configured by the action of the Wall [11]; and if we constantly enrich this allegory with others: the throughness of tong (Scheid) [7], the pouring in and giving back made possible by a cultivated emptiness (Cochrane) [5], the ethical and political choice made necessary by a pathway that is also a barrier (Twomey) [8, 9], the comfort sought by historical efforts to make a caring and habitable world in the nihilist cold (Duclos) [11]. A Great Wall indeed!


Works cited:

John Hay, 1994, Introduction.  Boundaries in China. London: Reaktion Books.

James A. Millward et al., 2004, New Qing Imperial History: The making of Inner Asian empire at Qing Chengde.  London & New York: Routledge Curzon.

Arthur Waldron, 1990, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



[a] Representations are easier to read but much less powerful than Spacecraft Wall itself. In Chengde, a world heritage site not far from the Beijing/Hebei parts of the Wall, one finds an 18th century version of a historical theme park, with a vast inner park representing beautiful and wealthy China, a miniature Great Wall curving around the north side of the park, and an array of Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese temples outside the Wall.  For a reading of the political and cosmological vision materialized in this “hunting retreat” of the Qing emperors, and a discussion of its diplomatic uses, see Millward et al. 2004.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *