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What do the Chinese call ‘The Great Wall’?

By William Lindesay

May 31

In Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, chronicler Sima Qian (c. 145-86 B.C.) stated: ‘Meng Tian built a Changcheng (Long Wall), constructing its defiles and passes according to the terrain, starting at Lintao and extending to Liaodong, a distance of more than 10,000 li…’

In Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, chronicler Sima Qian (c. 145-86 B.C.) stated: ‘Meng Tian built a Changcheng (Long Wall), constructing its defiles and passes according to the terrain, starting at Lintao and extending to Liaodong, a distance of more than 10,000 li…’

Today the Chinese people refer to the structure as Wanli Changcheng, or just Changcheng for short. These four Chinese characters (万里长城) first appeared in proximity within a short biography of General Meng Tian (lived late third century B.C., died 210 B.C). Meng was charged by Emperor Qin Shihuang with the dual tasks of driving out the Xiongnu (Huns) from within the great loop of the Yellow River, and consolidating existing fortifications in order to fend-off further invasions. In Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, chronicler Sima Qian (c. 145-86 B.C.) stated: ‘Meng Tian built a Changcheng (Long Wall), constructing its defiles and passes according to the terrain, starting at Lintao and extending to Liaodong, a distance of more than 10,000 li…’ (the li is a Chinese unit of distance, equivalent to about 500 meters.)

Following this ancient debut, the term was used only sparingly over the ensuing centuries to describe other Great Walls that were built by successive dynasties. This literary absence can be explained by the flourishing of the legend of Lady Meng Jiangnú, one of China’s Four Great Folktales, a story that has evolved over the centuries. Lady Meng’s husband was conscripted to build the Wall, and died at the construction site from the rigours of hard labour. Thereafter, Wanli Changcheng was considered by the masses to be a place of no return. Governments thus avoided use of its name, preferring the alternative term biansai, or border defence.

[Photo provided to China.org.cn by William Lindesay]
Wanli Changcheng was used by the military as a metaphor to stress both the strength of an individual, and of his army to the country. In the Northern and Southern Dynasties period (420- 589 A.D.), a time when a previously large empire fragmented into many small states, General Tan Daoji of the Liu Song was arrested for treason and warned: “You are destroying the country’s Wanli Changcheng.” During the concluding Great Wall building era, the Ming Dynasty, engraved tablets placed at intervals along the structure refer to the fortifications as biancheng, or border wall.

The term Wanli Changcheng began to make a faltering comeback from the mid Qing (1644-1911). It was recorded in what is perhaps the earliest detailed description of the Great Wall made by a foreigner, Captain William Parish, attached to Earl Macartney’s British Embassy to China in 1793. The captain’s sketchbook, collected by the British Library, records three characters, Wan Licheng, clearly an abbreviated form of Wanli Changcheng. The name, provided by a local mandarin, being of Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) origin and used by the Chinese to describe not only Qin fortifications but those constructed by all subsequent dynasties, confused the British. They would erroneously inform their readership that the particular fortifications they had viewed were more than 2,000 years old. The structure they surveyed, however, was of Ming age, upgraded with new tower designs as recently as the late sixteenth century, making it just two centuries old at the time of their visit. It is apparent that, by this time, the Chinese used Wanli Changcheng in an all embracing way, to describe a national defence project that spanned the centuries.

Foreign failures to appreciate the cultural nuances and historical breadth of the subtle term have certainly underlain misconceptions about the Walls: what they are, what they encompass, their ages and length. Rigidly translated therefore, as it usually is, the term Wanli Changcheng becomes the ‘Ten Thousand Li Long Wall’, while a literal metric version would be the “Five Thousand Kilometre Long Wall’. Confusingly, both are incorrect. An enlightened erudition is ‘The Endless Wall’, a name that relays a sense of its boundless length. A further nuance is the veritable age of the Wall, not only extending for unknown distances, but also spanning two millennia. Strictly speaking, Wanli Changcheng refers to imperial Walls (post Qin), since the term was first used to identify the subcontinental- scale structure linked-up under the supervision of General Meng Tian. Walls: what they are, what they encompass, their discrete ages, and their individual lengths. Translated comprehension of Wanli Changcheng into English is exacerbated by the fact that three of the four characters have multiple or ambiguous meanings. Only one character has a fixed, single meaning, and that is chang, meaning ‘long’.

Strictly, Wan is the Chinese numerical unit of ‘ten thousand’, although it is used metaphorically to express a sense of infinity or to imply immeasurability. Li is a Chinese unit of distance, dubbed the ‘Chinese mile’ by early European travelers. Equivalent to about half a kilometer, it was used among the peasantry of China over the centuries to express the physical effort required to undertake a journey on foot, on horseback or in a cart. The li was ‘stretched’ or ‘compressed’ accordingly to convey a sense of the difficulty, or ease, that a particular journey entailed. Finally, the character cheng means both ‘wall’ and ‘walled city’: in the minds of early Chinese communities a settlement was expected to provide not only shelter and that would reduce pre–imperial, local-scale, Walls (pre-221 B.C.) to the status of being merely Changcheng or Long Walls.

In contemporary China Wanli Changcheng, or ‘The Endless Wall’, is used in a comprehensive way to describe all the linear defensive fortifications of China, irrespective of the period in which they were built. Interestingly, since the time that the term was coined by Sima Qian, some 2,200 years ago, Wanli Changcheng has become increasingly appropriate. As dynasties rose and fell, the total length of the Wall increased over the centuries, becoming a series of structures that literally grew into the name.

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

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