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How is the term ‘The Great Wall’ defined?

By William Lindesay

June 6

Visually the Great Walls are diverse in appearance, but most commonly they consist of rammed earth, stone and brick.

Visually the Great Walls are diverse in appearance, but most commonly they consist of rammed earth, stone and brick.

[Photo provided to by William Lindesay]
The Xiandai Hanyu Cidian, or Modern Chinese Dictionary, published in 2004 and a bestselling dictionary of contemporary China, contains a two-part entry for Changcheng or Long Wall, which reads: (1) Our country’s defence project in ancient times, commenced during the Warring States period. After Qin unified China, Walls of the Qin, Zhao and Yan were connected to make a longer and stronger defence, which became known as Wanli Changcheng (Wall of 10,000 Li). Post Qin, other dynasties built new Walls and repaired earlier ones. (2) A metaphor to describe an invincible force or insurmountable barrier, for example ‘The People’s Liberation Army is an iron and steel Great Wall for the defence of China’.

There is no definition of a Great Wall or the Chinese Wall in English-or European-language dictionaries, which is surprising given the unique nature of these essentially Chinese defence structures. In The Chamber’s Dictionary (10th Edition) published 2006, we find ‘wall’ defined as ‘an erection of brick, stone etc., for security or to enclose a space such as a piece of land’, but there is no sub-entry for a Great Wall. The omission illustrates the misconception that the Great Wall is seen as a place (i.e. deemed a proper noun rather than a common noun), and as such it belongs to the gazetteer of the atlas. Paradoxically, yet quite deservedly, we do find the crenellated symbol denoting the Great Wall of China in most atlases, reflecting its very significant landscape status, but it is not indexed.

Any definition should express and summarize the common, essential – defining, of course – characteristics of such a structure, irrespective of its historical provenance. However, in China there is no absolute consensus among experts on the necessary criteria such a structure must possess, or have possessed, before it, or its remnants, are verified as being a Great Wall. In compiling a definition therefore it is necessary to accept majority views and discard minority ones.

There is agreement that linear shape and very long length are the two fundamental characteristics of a Great Wall. There are exceptions to this rule: parts of the Ming Wall for example are enclosing. In some areas loop structures were constructed, but overall the entire system of fortifications is linear. Concerning length, some experts demand a qualifying structure be at least 200 km in length.

Other elements of the definition should describe what it looks like, when it was built, where it can be found and why it was built.

[Photo provided to by William Lindesay]
Visually the Great Walls are diverse in appearance, but most commonly they consist of rammed earth, stone and brick. Also, these defence systems contain more than just ‘walls’. There are other architectural components, the main ones being watchtowers, fortresses and gates.

The answer to the question ‘when’ is from at least the late fourth century B.C. to the mid seventeenth century A.D., but for succinctness the word ‘ancient’ will suffice. As for the location of the Walls, I have already touched upon their wide distribution, but for essential brevity, the term Northern China is largely correct, despite that in the past Chinese territorial influence sometimes extended beyond the current borders of today’s China, and Walls were built there. Answering the question ‘why’ presents the most difficulty. The simplest and most obvious answer, albeit not that elucidating, would be as a military defence, but it would be better to identify the common enemy. Most pre–imperial Walls – five out of the eight – served to defend ethnic Han states from other ethnic Han states. The other three, and all the imperial Walls – totaling 16 Walls out of 21 – had a common purpose: they functioned as defences against northern nomads. Perhaps the best way to solve this problem is to include ‘mainly’.

Finally, to account for the complex bureaucratic and military organization behind these labor-intensive construction projects we should note that the political and social climate required for such mega constructions was stability, and the force behind such implementation was imperial authority, the power to mobilize a huge number of laborers.

Using the above answers I can piece together a reasonably comprehensive and succinct definition of a Great Wall that reads:

An ancient Chinese military defence system, initiated and operated under imperial authority during many periods and dynasties, consisting principally of linear ramparts extending for extraordinary lengths across the north of that country, composed of various materials including rammed earth, stone and bricks, complemented by additional structures along its course such as watchtowers, fortresses and gates, and collectively functioning in the main to defend Chinese land from nomadic invasion.

Copyright information: Text and photos from ‘The Great Wall Explained’ by William Lindesay.

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