By Jack Souther
Ever since our first ancestors descended from the forest canopy and drew a line in the sand human beings have been protecting their turf with barriers of one sort or another. In medieval times trenches filled with water or burning oil had limited success. France's heavily fortified Maginot Line didn't stop Hitler's armies from going around it. And when people decided they didn't really want to be separated the Berlin Wall was knocked down. Other more ephemeral barriers, Russia's iron curtain and China's bamboo curtain, no longer serve a purpose but even as they fade into history new barriers are being built to keep Palestinians out of Israel and Mexicans out of Texas. But of all mankind's "lines in the sand" the Great Wall of China is in a class of its own.
Local guides insist it is one of the few man-made structures large enough to be seen from the moon — a dubious claim since much of the wall had crumbled into dust long before Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind". But you don't need an astronaut's perspective to appreciate the enormity of China's Great Wall or the human effort that went into its making. Standing atop one of the watchtowers, high above Juyong Pass I am overwhelmed by the size of this massive stone structure snaking up precipitous slopes and along narrow-crested mountain ridges for as far the eye can see.
We elected to visit Juyong Pass, only 50 km northwest of Beijing, rather than the more popular, and crowded, section of the wall at Badaling, 20 km farther into the mountains. Both of these sections have been extensively repaired, but the reconstruction is faithful to the original and does not detract from the wall's grandeur. Badaling, which Betty visited on her 1977 tour of China, was first restored and opened to tourists in 1957 but it wasn't until Richard Nixon's visit in 1972 that the tourism industry took much notice. His remark, "it sure is a great wall", brought a flood of visitors and today millions of tourists come each year to clamber over its remains.
Not surprisingly the wall's history has received a facelift, along with its bricks and mortar. The popular concept of a single wall designed and built to keep out the barbarian hordes and stretching more than 5,000 km across the northern frontiers of China is mostly myth. Wall building in China goes back to earliest times and, during the "Warring States period" (457-221 BC) each little kingdom had its own wall. Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, is usually credited with building the original "Great Wall". After unifying the country in 221 BC he conscripted peasant labour to link up the existing walls of the warring states into a continuous barrier across the top of his new empire. That was almost 2,000 years before the Juyong Pass and Badaling sections of the Great Wall were built. Local guides and most guidebooks gloss over this period of two millennia by asserting that subsequent dynasties repaired and rebuilt the wall, maintaining Qin Shi Huang's original structure throughout most of Chinese history. But, according to historian Arthur Waldron, the real story is much more complicated.