The Great Wall of China is perhaps the wonder of the world that has most captured the human imagination, and as the quotes about it indicate, the wall has acquired special significance even outside of China. The places and ways in which it has taken hold vary greatly, but one thing is certain: The Great Wall of China is as amazing as it is mysterious, and it’s as mundane as it is magical.
Naturally the Wall has become the most recognizable symbol of China, used for both aggrandizement and criticism. Nationalists see it as a symbol of China’s peaceful nature, engineering capability, and historic longevity while detractors see the wall as the embodiment of China’s backwardness, closed-mindedness, and hubris. While history allots arguments for the claims of each side, both of them are colored by Great Wall mythology and current geopolitical concerns. Though the wall can symbolize all of these things about China, it is important to remember that the many long walls, upon some of which the current landmark was constructed, were put up by specific people for specific purposes.
The first step to a more accurate conception of the wall is getting a better understanding of its name because “The Great Wall of China” is a misleading label. More accurately it may be called the “Great Walls of China,” for several dynasties beginning early in Chinese history built fortifications of some kind, usually to the north. These constructions were alternately expanded, connected, dismantled, or neglected depending on the circumstances and preferences of those in charge.