Dismantling China

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Review of 'The Great Wall', Julia Lovell, Atlantic £19.95

The Great Wall of China is popularly seen as one of the world's oldest monuments, the only human artefact that can be seen from the moon. This new history debunks the myths, and offers a very different history of the walls that have marked the shifting borders of China.

There are a lot of myths to debunk - even the moon story is wrong. What astronaut Neil Armstrong saw from space was clouds. Many histories still repeat as fact that the wall was built by the first emperor of China in the 3rd century BC. In fact, what he did was to link up walls which the feudal states he conquered had built, primarily against each other. The present structure dates from the 16th century, with later repairs.

What was it for? For most of Chinese history, the biggest military threat the rulers faced was from the nomadic peoples living north of China. Dismissed by Chinese historians as "barbarians", they often lived in complex, highly structured societies, which traded with China as often as they went to war. Lovell does an excellent job of explaining the changing relationships between China and these societies over time, and corrects the picture of them as simply bloodthirsty raiders.

She also challenges Chinese nationalist myths of the walls as being peaceful, defensive structures, showing that the biggest bouts of wall-building came from Chinese dynasties actively attacking the nomadic societies. The walls were in fact marking out ambitious attempts to grab the steppe land that the nomads lived on. The author stresses the parallel with Israel's wall in the West Bank today.

However, the Chinese attempts failed. Material shortages drove the conflict - the steppe lands were not fertile enough to support settled farming, only nomadic herders. While Chinese dynasties could grab the land, they could not settle it. But they wasted enormous sums of money in trying, often leaving the empire so weak that it was easy prey for nomadic peoples to invade. The most successful of these attempts was by the founders of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), who resolved the problem of the northern frontier by extending their control both sides of the wall.

The Great Wall is a lively and thoroughly accessible history of China as seen through the prism of the development of the Wall. There is one big "but". The history of the wall isn't the history of China, though the author seems on occasion to conflate the two. Early Chinese civilisation made its greatest advances under the Song dynasty (960-1279), which abandoned the north and derived its riches from the more fertile south. But Lovell writes just a few lines on the Song's achievements, emphasising rather their defeats by nomadic peoples.

Similarly, the Qing dynasty is mostly passed over in her account, despite it being the period of the greatest economic developments since the Song, and her account of the 20th century is decidedly sketchy. But none of this should put you off reading the book. Lovell's account brings early Chinese history to life, and it's shot through with compassion for those who were forced to build and man the wall.