Between 1995 and 2002, I studied Chinese philosophy during summers at Peking University. Hiking – and skateboarding – on the Great Wall quickly became my favorite activity, outside of attending lectures and campus life.
Each time I traveled to the Wall, I learned something new, and the more I visited different areas, the more I wanted to learn about the history and culture behind this amazing symbol of the Chinese people.
Skate the Wall
Our sleek private taxi wove its way between big trucks and buses, tiny cars and vans, zooming motorcycles and buzzing scooters. The silent bikes and carts yielded without stress, smoothly avoiding us as if doing Tai Chi.
Radiating from Beijing, the traffic faded into tranquility. We, students from the University of Hawaii, headed due north with our driver, a kind-hearted Chinese man with dark glasses and a love for classic Western rock music.
We gave him a thumbs-up and nodded when his stereo played Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.
Around us, wheat and corn formed a checkerboard landscape, as hills graduated to small mountains with riverbanks planted with weeping willows, walnut and peach trees, thriving under deep blue sky. Slender poplar trees cast zebra-striped shadows which flickered on our faces while we blazed on.
It was a perfect day to skate the Wall.
Just as philosophical attitudes of Chinese and Americans may differ, so too have their reactions to my skating on the Wall.
Photos from my early trips in 1995 shocked some Western friends to contend, “You mean they allow you to do that?”
In contrast, Chinese friends were enthusiastic and positive.
The first time I skated the Wall, a guard stationed at the Wall shouted in Mandarin and took my board. To my surprise, he traded me his rifle for my skateboard and tried to ride it, shooting down the hill out of control, skidding to a halt, and tearing holes in his clothes.
Bruised and bleeding, he reacted with a smile, and raced up the hill for another try.
Unexpectedly, we had a marvelous hour together, sharing the moment and cultural experiences.
I realized that the function of the Wall had changed from combat to sport, from exclusive to inclusive, from military to peaceful – attracting tourists and hikers, students and teachers, philosophers and politicians.
The Wall had become fun and exciting, as if suddenly transformed into the world’s greatest skatepark.
Meng Jiang Nu
In contrast to the touristic carnival-like atmosphere experienced at many sections of the Wall today, truth is, the Great Wall is no laughing matter.
Hiking the Wall on a hot summers day, exhausted at the onset of heat stroke, I could feel the blood, sweat and tears of the conscripts and prisoners who built it.
Sometimes called the "World’s longest tombstone," the Wall was a place where men were sent to toil and suffer until they died and their bodies were buried near the Wall.
Set in the Qin dynasty (221BC-206BC), one story still resonates among the collective memory of the Chinese, the dramatic separation of a loving couple and their tragic ending as a result of building the Wall.
Ancient literature, paintings, poems, music, and modest temples throughout China, Japan, and Korea honor the heartbreak of Meng Jiang Nu (Lady Meng Jiang), who searched the entire length before finding her beloved dying husband, Fan Qiliang. Legends tell she cried so hard that the wall collapsed where she found him.
Modern cartoons, videos and films in recent years continue to romanticize her story, representing the ruthlessness of the emperor, the tragedy of the Great Wall, and the kindness of a gentle woman.
Her story is a recurring theme in Chinese folklore, with literary evidence dating back more than two-thousand years. One of the many treasures of Chinese historical literature, a Bianwen manuscript (c. 9-11 century) of the story was discovered at Dunhuang, Gansu province, an important stop on the Silk Road.
Iconic guardian of China
A great unification of the Wall took place under Emperor Qin Shi Huanghi, the legendary ruthless ruler who founded the Chin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and hence gave his name to China. He also left behind his personal terracotta army of Xian, the larger-than-life clay soldiers built supposedly to guard him in the afterlife.
A continuous project, the Chin fortifications that began in strategic mountain passes now string together to stretch thousands of miles across China, from Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, winding westward to Jaiyuguan, Gansu Province, in the Gobi Desert.
The Wall is an iconic guardian of China, towering over the fertile river-valleys and plains of the south, protecting them from invasion by the marauding bandits of the Mongolian plateau to the north.
The northern face of the Wall is always sheer, often 30 feet tall, or perched on the rim of a high cliff, while the southern face is sometimes only ground level.
Today, the Wall with all its branches, if placed end to end, would stretch more than 30,000 miles.
The World's first internet
The Great Wall can be justly described as the world's first information superhighway. Timely information could be sent across the entire country in a single day – smoke by day, and fire by night.
The Wall served as a secure connection network, offering enough band-width to allow soldiers to ride two-abreast and travel in both directions, garrisons serving as safe terminals, battlements providing the firewall, vats of hot oil ready to be poured on the heads of potential hackers.
From the east, China streamed live to the world – and from west, the world steamed live to China.
The Silk Road
The Great Wall was heavily fortified, serving as the military power line of the Silk Road as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when caravans of horses and camels transported men and women, trade wares and silks, plants and animals, technologies and religions.
Perhaps no other exchange of information was as profound as what occurred leading up to the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy (Tang Dynasty, AD 618-907), when Indian Buddhism flowed into China along the trade routes of the Silk Road, carrying information and ideas that changed how the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans think.
For example, ancient Buddhism and art, illuminated with Greek and Persian influences, flourished in Western China, a sign that east-west cultural communication and collaboration is much older, and much better developed, than previously thought. (Visit my Silk Road and Pakistan pages to learn more about Grecco-Buddhist culture and China, or see the works of Sir Aurel Stein and Sir John Marshall).
The Ming Dynasty (AD 1368-1644) earned the reputation for hosting China’s most masterful wall builders, creating faultless square-cut bricks, which still appear clean, tight, and engineered into perfect function.
The most famous Ming Dynasty wall remains Jaiyuguan Fort, the western terminus of the Great Wall in the Gobi Desert, fabled end – or beginning – of the civilized world, depending on one's perspective.
Perhaps the most told story of Jaiyuguan Fort is about the designer who was in charge of construction. Upon ordering the massive number of bricks required to build the fort, which he calculated down to a specific number, he was warned that it had better be enough. With confidence he agreed and added one brick to the order just in case.
When the complex was completed, only one brick remained. The story is a testament to Chinese ingenuity.
Four characters inscribed near the front gate roughly translate to mean: Strongest fort under heaven.
Acuity and continuity
Layers of architecture attest to the acuity and continuity of Chinese culture and philosophy as the wall, like the art of the earth, rises in chronological order from a subterranean foundation.
I have stood at sections where the base was built during Chin Dynasty, the middle during Han, the upper during Ming, the watchtowers Qing (AD 1644-1911) while the surface was only one week old.
I’ve watched as farmers bashed bricks off the Wall with sledge hammers, loading them on donkey carts to use on their farms, while in the distance I could see contemporary building crews adding a fresh face, handrails, stairs, and toilets for tourists.
Can we see the Wall from Space?
It is often said that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure recognizable from space, but when I asked Colonel Scott Horowitz of the US Air Force, commander of four Space Shuttle missions, he told me:
“It's nearly impossible to see the Great Wall, even from low orbit, because the color of the bricks and building materials match the colors of the corresponding landscapes, and also due to the heavily polluted skies over China.”
Scott said that it was just about possible to make out the line traced across China by the Wall, with a little imagination, on a crystal-clear day. On the other hand, he said that the Great Pyramid, in Giza, Egypt, was clearly visible throughout the hours of daylight, and especially in the early morning and late evening, due to its long shadow.
Prof Yang Xin | Peking University
Returning to Peking University after a trip to the Wall, I asked my philosophy professor, Yang Xin, a specialist in Great Wall aesthetics, “Why Great Wall, and not simply long wall or border wall?”
He explained, “Although the original name may have implied long wall (wall of 10,000 Li), the significance matured and greatness was attributed. One brick is only one, with function limited, yet when they combine, a great animation is formed, just like the Chinese culture.”
He added, “The Wall unifies mankind with heavenly forces, as if an enormous composition of cursive calligraphy, its aspects constantly altered through time and seasonal changes."
We’re all just bricks in the Wall
When I first visited the Wall in 1995, I was shocked by its grandeur; later its spiritual aspects overcame me as I saw it as a symbol of both the Chinese people and the human race.
From some viewpoints the Wall looks like a coiling dragon, reaching to the sky, riding on the backs of mountains. From other angles, it resembles a growing plant, following the earth’s natural curves.
After skating the Wall, I could imagine the ancient battlements reflecting rhythmic, piano-key-shaped shadows playing rock-n-roll upon the earth, zigzagging up the mountain in harmony with nature.
Ultimately, the greatness of the Great Wall stands for the greatness of humanity, as well as the suffering of humanity – we’re all just bricks in the Wall.
Thank you for visiting my Great Wall Learning Adventure page.
I hope you enjoy the photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this topic or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.