The Great Wall: China against the world 1000BC - AD2000, by Julia Lovell

Strangers from the steppes
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Contrary to popular imagination and Chinese tourist propaganda, the Great Wall of China did not exist continuously for 2,000 years, was never a single line of fortifications, and even failed to keep out invaders. English-speakers have been able to know this since Arthur Waldron's The Great Wall of China: from history to myth, but as specialists ruefully acknowledge, it will take a blockbuster of Wild Swans proportions before such "new" information becomes embedded as popular wisdom. The Great Wall may be that blockbuster.

The Great Wall we see today is a post-Mao restoration of a hugely expensive defence system built chiefly in the 16th century under the Ming dynasty. Julia Lovell places this in the context of 3,000 years of varied Chinese frontier defences against the northern nomads of the inner Asian steppes. In a somewhat disjointed narrative (interspersed with capsule explanations of concepts such as the examination system), we see how Chinese policy alternated between defence and aggression, with walled fortifications, usually in discontinuous sections and often more than one layer deep, frequently playing a part in both. Walls built to reinforce the mountain passes leading into the North China plain tended to be defensive, as in the Ming. Those built far out in the steppe may have been bases for colonial occupation, as in the fourth century BC, before there even was a Chinese empire.

Lovell attempts to do more than trace the changing functions of frontier walls. She wants to use the variety of attitudes towards wall-building as a way of exploring the shifting relationship of Chinese governments to the outside world.

This is a story of change and variety exciting enough not to need the sensationalist treatment (or the facetious tone) which the author sometimes adopts. It is becoming recognised that it is no longer enough to treat China as a monolith: unchanging, exotic, shockingly different. In the last generation, the isolationism of the Mao years has given way to an accelerating opening of markets and popular culture - though not of politics - to outside influences and foreign imports.

In keeping with this dramatic shift, recent popular works have often rejected the idea of China as a "hermit kingdom" and instead emphasised the tendencies towards openness in past dynasties. Joanna Waley-Cohen's Sextants of Beijing traces the adoption of Jesuit and other ideas in the 18th century, while Valerie Hansen's Open Empire draws attention to an even wider range of earlier borrowings, not least Buddhism. (Less reputable are the claims of Gavin Menzies about Chinese cartography in 1421).

Lovell is less optimistic. Turning away from technology and culture to politics at the highest level, she finds openness only by treating Chinese imperial expansionism as a twisted form of internationalism. Her chief concern is with the efforts of successive dynasties to close out the threat posed by nomadic northerners. Here, Lovell's fascinating description of the variety of approaches to wall-building becomes mired in a set of persistent stereotypes that specialists have been working to debunk for a decade or more.

To pursue her wider goal of examining the roots of the modern Chinese mindset, Lovell feels it necessary to maintain a sharp historical distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese. Since wall-building is her route into the twists and turns of Chinese thinking over three millennia, she argues that walls must be a uniquely Chinese solution to dealing with the neighbours.

How, then, to explain why many non-Chinese regimes who ruled parts or all of North China and the southern steppe - notably the Jin dynasty, founded by the semi-nomadic Jurchen of Manchuria - also built walls? Why, by first becoming "sinicised" into honorary Chinese, of course. And how do you know that someone has become sinicised? Because they use Chinese methods, such as wall-building.

The circularity of this outdated analysis obviates what could have been a much more interesting discussion of the foreign-relations complexities of China's "Middle Period" - roughly the 10th to the 14th centuries. Why, for instance, did the (non-Chinese) Jin build walls against their northern neighbours in the 12th century when their southern neighbours, the long-lasting (Chinese) Song dynasty, made little use of "long walls" despite being on the defensive against determined attack from the steppe?

Explaining Jin wall-building under the rubric of "sinicisation" undercuts Lovell's own persuasive thesis that walls were used differently - or not at all - by defensive and expansionist rulers. It is a pity that in debunking one central myth about China for what is likely to be a large popular audience, the book introduces other canards that will need to be demolished in their turn.

So is it really a question of China against the world? Certainly, Lovell's focus is on walls as physical manifestations of antagonism between rapacious barbarians and agricultural Chinese, who are mostly on the defensive. But this leaves little space to consider non-military interactions, such as the trade relations which nomads frequently sought from China's dynasties, which may have kept the peace when granted.

Nor is there room to address the significance of Lovell's observation that Chinese warlords could sometimes become "more aggressive, opportunistic and risk-taking even than the nomads themselves." Issues like these demand explanations that move beyond an essentialist view of cultural differences into areas such as economics and realpolitik - not just at a governmental level but also in a wide range of borderland localities.

One thing that Lovell's account shows without doubt is that Chinese imperial courts were rarely in full control of their northern frontiers, just as today's Chinese authorities cannot exercise total command of the internet (nor, indeed, of migration across the Siberian and Xinjiang borders). Then, as now, government intentions were frequently disrupted, diverted or subverted by local realities, which in some cases became the drivers of events at state level.

As China comes into wider and deeper contact with the rest of the world, it is not only government thinking on international relations that we must understand, but also the range of attitudes held by Chinese individuals in their interactions with foreigners. As Lovell says, the devil is in the detail, but therein also lies the better understanding that we so urgently need.

Naomi Standen teaches Chinese history at Newcastle University; her book 'Unbounded loyalty: frontier crossings in Liao China' is forthcoming from Hawaii University Press