“Walls, walls, and yet again walls, form the framework of every Chinese city,” wrote the Swedish art historian Osvald Sirøn in the 1930s.
They surround it, they divide it into lots and compounds, they mark more than any other structures the basic features of the Chinese communities . . . there is no such thing as a city without a wall. It would be just as inconceivable as a house without a roof . . . There is hardly a village of any age or size in northern China which has not at least a mud wall, or remnants of a wall.
The Chinese love of enclosing walls is written deep into the language itself. The earliest versions (roughly 1200 BC) of the ideograms for “settlement” and “defence” represent walled compounds; both concepts were clearly unthinkable without four-sided enclosures. Later classical Chinese used the same word for city and city wall: cheng. The character meaning “capital city” (pronounced jing) was originally a picture of a guardhouse over a city gate.
Wall-building and the written language have intertwined to define Chinese civilization both physically and figuratively ever since it came into existence, dividing and distinguishing China’s peoples and settlements from their less settled, less literate neighbours to the north. To understand the millennia-old Chinese impulse to wall-building, to understand the conflict that created the wall, we need to trace the origins of these two incompatibly different, geographically adjoining cultures: that of agrarian, self-confidently literate, walled China and that of the pastoral nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppe.
Some fifteen years ago, as soon as the Chinese Communist Party had attended to its most pressing tasks in the aftermath of its crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters—clearing civilian bodies from the streets, issuing a most-wanted list and rounding up those activists who had not managed to smuggle themselves out of the country—it turned its thoughts to political re-education. Once, Party leaders correctly surmised, the guns of the People’s Liberation Army had been turned on the People themselves, Communist principles alone would not suffice to persuade the Chinese of the legitimacy of autocratic socialist rule. Searching for a new, state-sponsored religion around which the country could rally, the Party hit upon a fairly old-fashioned version of an old-fashioned idea: anti-foreign nationalism fuelled by angry suspicion of a West determined, as the Chinese masses were persistently lectured, to contain a rising China.
In order to convince their subjects—who, between 1989 and 1991, had seen Communist states expire across Europe—that open, Western-style democracy was fundamentally unsuited to one-party socialist China, the Communists set about proving, through an energetic countrywide campaign of patriotic education, that China possessed a unique “national condition” (guoqing) as yet unready for democracy. Chinese history, or a particular view of that history, quickly became one of the most important weapons in the Party’s armoury of patriotic propaganda: the proposition that the Communists were simply the inheritors of a tried and tested model of the unified, authoritarian Chinese nation supposedly established 5,000 years ago—a date that coincides roughly with the period attributed to the reign of the Yellow Emperor, China’s mythical founding ancestor, said to have ruled early in the third millennium BC. (In 1994, a member of the Politburo demonstrated his respectful belief in his legendary precursor by laying flowers and planting a tree at a memorial ceremony in his honour.) Capitalizing on a long-held, though hazy, Chinese public pride in the antiquity of their state, the Communist patriotic education campaign transformed the idea that the Chinese nation leapt, fully formed, into existence thousands of years ago into a clich” spouted tirelessly by agents of the Chinese Politburo, by a number of opportunistic academics and by lazy tour guides, to bludgeon anyone listening—Chinese or foreign—into believing that this is how China always was; and evermore shall be (until the Communists say differently).
And, in the way of all great propaganda, it isn’t true; not least because the Yellow Emperor was quite possibly the invention of a collection of power-hungry aristocrats in 450 BC. There are, in fact, strong grounds for arguing that the Chinese nation was born as recently as 100 years ago when, cast violently into the modern system of international relations that the West had constructed in its own image, seeing their country invaded by foreign powers, torn apart by internal rebellion, stymied by a reactionary, decadent dynasty and hidebound by a two-millennia-old educational and ethical system that wanted little to do with Western science and the modern world, Chinese thinkers and politicians embraced the idea of nationalist revival to rescue their country from the threat of imminent collapse. Before then, the Chinese did not even possess a single, universal term for “China”; at anyone time, the country was generally referred to by the name of the dynasty in power. Although indisputably powerful and enduring across millennia, the idea of the Chinese empire was much looser and vaguer than the rigidities of modern nationalism—with its textbooks, museums and store-cupboard ancestors—allow, a concept broadly defined by slow processes of social, economic, political and cultural evolution that began some 10,000 years ago. The fixity of a single, unified, 5,000-year-old China is a twentieth-century fiction.
But thanks to archaeological discoveries of the last century, we can at least draw up an approximate timeline for the prehistoric cultural developments and innovations from which a recognizably Chinese empire would eventually arise. Farming—the crucial underpinning of the Chinese way of life—began in the northern provinces of the country around 8000 BC. Visitors today might not imagine the crumbly yellow plains of Shanxi and Shaanxi a particularly hospitable environment for novice farmers, but the lightly forested and easily worked loess soils of north China, irrigated by the lower Yellow River, encouraged the pursuit of a primitive agriculture as early as 10,000 years ago, a time when southern China remained an unmanageable jungle.
The shift towards agriculture directed Chinese society along a more fixed evolutionary path. Long-term security in farming depended on large-scale water control, which in turn required ever more sophisticated forms of social and political organization. Not surprisingly, then, one of China’s favourite ancient legendary heroes—all of whom are venerated for contributing to prehistoric China a key technical, political or cultural innovation (fire, writing, medicine and so on)—is Yu, a self-taught hydraulic engineer and builder of flood channels thought to have lived near the start of the second millennium BC. By 2000 BC, farmers in northern China were leaving behind relics of an increasingly complex civilization: ambitious and extravagant bronze vessels, bells and weapons, bones used for divination, traces of large-scale building works and burial pits. This already was a highly ritualized society capable of organizing labour for massive public projects, such as construction and mining.
Chinese civilization emerges into the written record only in the thirteenth century BC, thanks to Wang Yirong, a nineteenth-century epigraphist and civil servant whose sharp eyes made one of the most sensational discoveries of modern Chinese archaeology. In 1899, as a malaria epidemic raged through Beijing, one of the reputedly more effective and more popular cures peddled to panicked, sickening residents was soup made of ground-up dragon bones. Given the scarcity of the medicine’s chief ingredient in fin-de-si”cle Beijing, pharmacists anxious to make supply meet demand passed cattle scapulas and turtle shells off as dismantled dragons, ready for pulverization. When a relative brought one of these bones home, Wang Yirong spotted mysterious scratches on its surface, looked closer and identified them as ancient Chinese characters. He lost no time in buying up the pharmacist’s entire supply, thereby saving the earliest-known versions of Chinese writing from destruction. The inscribed bones were next traced back to their source in Anyang, a town in central China, where commercially minded peasants had dug them out of the ground and sold them to city apothecaries. The farmers, too, had spotted the scratches on them but, afraid they would lower their value as medicine, had rubbed many of them off; the bones that Wang chanced upon were a lucky exception.
The Anyang scapulas and shells—the oldest of which were dated back to around 1200 BC—became known as “oracle bones,” used for divination by the Shang, the first historically verifiable dynasty to rule parts of China (between approximately 1700 and 1025 BC). The Shang king would formulate a positive or negative hypothesis to which he wanted a yes-or-no confirmation (such as “Today it will not rain”), the bones would be heated and the cracks caused by the heat examined and interpreted by shamans, with the original hypothesis, and sometimes the prognosis and answer, inscribed alongside on the bone. Together with other discoveries from Anyang—ornate bronzes, burial pits, jade artefacts—the oracle bones afford insights into a society three and a half millennia old whose fundamental concerns and beliefs have shaped Chinese society ever since.
Although the Shang kingdom bore little geographical resemblance to the country now known as China (the political core of the Shang was located in Henan and Shandong—central and north-eastern China), the cultural, political and social similarities are remarkable. Shang society was centralized, stratified and agricultural, ruled by a single king who, through his administrative staff, extracted agricultural surpluses from his subject peasants and set them to work on vast public projects, such as royal tombs and military campaigns. It was a highly ritualized culture, which constantly sought the approval of ancestors and heavenly powers through sacrifice and divination. Describing the outcome of a consort’s pregnancy, one oracle bone also tells us that, like many Chinese today, the Shang preferred boys to girls: “She gave birth. It really was not good. It was a girl.” The Shang even ate like modern Chinese, serving their rice separately from their meat and vegetables.
But most importantly of all, the Shang used the same script as later Chinese. The awkwardness of scratching ideograms on to bones dictated an elliptical conciseness of expression that defined literary Chinese until 1921, when the wordy vernacular replaced spare classical Chinese as the official written language. It is hard to overestimate the importance of a shared writing system in forging Chinese identity through the millennia: although hundreds of mutually incomprehensible dialects are spoken across China and the global Chinese diaspora, all use the same written characters. Give literate Chinese from opposite ends of the country or globe a pen or brush, and they can communicate. Still today, Chinese across a broad range of social strata—academics, barmen, janitors and taxi drivers—unite in taking a fierce pride in their three-millennia-old literary tradition that has no contemporary analogue in most Western countries, comparing unfavourably the “simple, superficial languages of the West” with the infinite subtlety and complexity of written Chinese.
Much, of course, was to change in China over the next 3,000 years—not least dynasties and frontiers. In 1025 BC, less than two centuries after the first extant inscribed oracle bone, the Shang were conquered by the Zhou dynasty, the royal house that would nominally claim to command the loyalty, until 256 BC, of the handful of kingdoms north of the Yangtze River whose culture could be recognizably identified as Chinese. But the basic elements of Chinese civilization—elements that Confucius, China’s pre-eminent philosopher, would make the foundation of his own political and social worldview more than 500 years later—were already in place: a nexus of patriarchal custom and political organization held together by the tremendous ritual power of the written Chinese language.
And as soon as there was a coherent Chinese culture and society, there was wall-building: within and without villages, towns and cities. Today, the Chinese love of walls is no longer as immediately visible to the casual observer as it once was. A twentieth century of revolutions, wars and Communism has turned hundreds of miles of Chinese walls into just so much rubble, one of the most egregious instances of wilful destruction being Mao Zedong’s replacement of the old Beijing city wall in the 1950s with a ringroad. But earlier Chinese settlements were a mass of walls, and the very earliest have been unearthed in excavations around the Longshan district of Shandong, north-east China, dating from the third millennium BC. The most impressive surviving wall from the second millennium BC (c.1500 BC) encircles the Shang city of Ao, north of modern Zhengzhou in Henan for about seven kilometres, and is still more than nine metres high in places. It was during these two millennia that the fundamental technique of Chinese wall construction—still in use in the Ming heyday of wall-building—was learned: tamping. Planks of wood or courses of bricks were erected to create the outer shell, between which common-or-garden earth was pounded down to form the core of the wall. As they were constructed mainly from materials already on site, tamped-earth walls had the great advantage of being fast and cheap to erect—crucial considerations for a civilization that would come to build as many walls as the Chinese empire.
While people living in northern China were gradually becoming Chinese, writing characters, worshipping ancestors and building walls, the north of their kingdom remained immovably bordered by land—present-day Central Asia, Mongolia and northern Manchuria—whose ecology did not encourage intensive farming or rigid social organization. It was these areas that produced the nomadic tribesmen—identified variously in China and the West as the Rong, the Di, the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Manchus and the Huns—who would worry at the Chinese frontier and motivate wall-building for the next two and a half millennia.
But until the end of the second millennium BC, the contrast in way of life between northern China and the areas further north was probably not all that dramatic, as the land often morphed only slowly from farmable loess plain into steppe and desert. Until then, the Chinese frontier regions were host not to terrifying hordes of nomadic warriors but to peaceable, relatively settled tribes, who lived off a combination of scratch farming and animal husbandry. To the north-west, via occasionally fertile Turkestan (now Gansu and Xinjiang), over the tall, thickly glaciated Tianshan mountains, China merged into the deserts and steppes of the Jungaria and Tarim basins, around whose oases primitive but sedentary herders domesticated animals. To the north-east, the rivers of lower Manchuria supported a Chinese-style agriculture, before arable land faded out further north into steppe territory more favourable to hunting and fishing. Directly north of contemporary Beijing, a range of forested mountains drew a clearer line between China proper and the Gobi desert and Mongolia, with the ecology of these latter regions far less mixed than that of the frontier zones to the far east and west. But on the western side of central northern China, the landscape blurred into steppe through the Ordos, a region delineated and irrigated by the northern loop of the Yellow River that lent itself to both agrarian and pastoral nomadic ways of life.
Around 1500 BC, however, climate change dried out the vast Mongolian plateau (2.7 million square kilometres) into the grassy steppes of the Gobi desert. This, together with a general tendency towards increased specialization in means of livelihood, decisively shifted the focus of life there from the sedentary and agricultural to the pastoral and nomadic—a world apart from tightly governed and densely populated and farmed north China. Unable themselves to feed directly off badly irrigated grasslands, Mongolians turned them over to pasturing herds (in particular, horses and sheep) and hunting. This change required extra mobility, as feeding grounds became seasonally depleted, and exceptional horse-handling skills, to control animals set loose to pasture. The nomadic inhabitants of the steppe rode the stocky, enduring Przhevalski pony, armed themselves with a small, light bow that was ideal for use on horseback and lived mostly off their herds. They recycled their animals ingeniously, into food, clothing and other daily essentials, but there were some things—principally grain, metal and desirable luxury goods such as silk—that could be obtained only from their southern, Chinese neighbours, either through mutual agreement (trade) or force (raiding and pillaging).
At the start of the first millennium BC, peaceful coexistence between these two ways of life—the settled agrarian and nomadic pastoral—began to appear increasingly untenable. The key theatre of conflict (and, in centuries to come, of wall-building) between settled and nomadic peoples was the Ordos, sandwiched between the steppe proper and the plains of China. The region was explored by an American geographer called George B. Cressey in the 1920s, a decade of profound internal disorder in China. His visits coincided with the heyday of the regional warlord, a period in which local power and loyalties changed course as easily as the desert sands he was charting. More than once Cressey found himself beaten back in his investigations by disorganized soldiers, at one point being forced into retreat by an approaching gang of 200 bandits (this despite his own thirty-six-strong cavalry escort). During more peaceful interludes, however, Cressey had the leisure to find the greater part of the area “an arid desolate plain … an inhospitable waste” of climatic extremes (reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, minus 40 in winter) covered in “[s]hifting sands held here and there by low scrub or wiry grass … where nature offers but little to man, and yields that little grudgingly.” Almost everywhere, Cressey found, “the surface of the Ordos is . . . composed of shifting sands . . . brownish ochre in color . . . From the mulling over of the shifting sands, quantities of finer particles are lifted into the air,” thus filling the air with a characteristic “yellow haze” carried out of the Ordos and scattered over adjoining regions “as though dropped from a giant flour sifter.” Out of fifty-eight summer days spent in the Ordos, Cressey experienced rain on only five, reporting that, in any case, the “air can be so thirsty any rain evaporates before reaching the ground.” But in other parts, particularly in low basins or where ground water lurks close to the surface, Cressey noted, “natural vegetation … nearly carpets the ground. Short grasses afford some feed for animals and make this area better for nomad and farmer.” The Ordos was strategically all-important precisely because of its frontier position between two types of society, and because it contained both pastoral and farming land; it thus offered an economic base for domination of the steppe by either nomads or Chinese.
The first major clashes mentioned in the Chinese sources date from the ninth century BC, when poems record that a northern tribe, the Xianyun, attacked the very heart of the Zhou dominion, the capital in north-west China (just east of present-day Xi’an):
In the sixth month all was bustle and excitement.The war-chariots had been made ready . . . The Xianyun were in blazing force,There was no time to lose.The king had ordered the expeditionTo deliver the royal kingdom.13
On one campaign, the Zhou forces emphatically “smote the Xianyun / And achieved great merit / . . . We smote the Xianyun / As far as the Great Plain.” But neither was there any long-term safety in numbers: “We shall have no leisure to rest / Because of the Xianyun . . . Yes, we must be always on our guard,” the poem warns, “the Xianyun are furious in attack.” The speed attributed to the enemy assault suggests that this may be the first historical appearance of the fleet, horse-mounted nomad warriors who would harass the Chinese frontier for millennia to come. What had suddenly gone so badly wrong in a relationship that, theoretically at least, could have been peacefully regulated for the next 3,000 years by trade and diplomacy, rather than by bankrupting wars and walls?
Because the Chinese have always been better at writing things down than the nomads, it is their version of events that has dominated views of the conflict between the settled and nomadic populations. In the Chinese sources, the nomads are always portrayed as the greedy, aggressive hordes who descended in terrifying raids on the peace-loving Chinese. Chinese sources are full of hostile descriptions of rapacious barbarian nomads from the north as “birds and beasts,” “wolves to whom no indulgence should be given.” These inhuman specimens were “covetous for gain, human-faced but animal-hearted”, living in “swamps and saline wastes, unfit for human habitation.” The Chinese belief that their non-Chinese neighbours were no better than animals seeped deep into the written language: the characters for the tribes north (the Di) and south (the Man) of the central loess plain contain ideogram radicals depicting dogs and worms respectively. The northern tribes, sniffed one Chinese commentary of the seventh century BC, were tone-deaf, colourblind, treacherous fiends—in other words, deeply uncivilized.
The Chinese are far from alone in their horror of nomads. Ever since the Scythians, the horse-mounted destroyers of the Assyrian empire, rocked the classical world early in the first millennium BC, Western Europe has worked every bit as hard as the Chinese to demonize the horseback “barbarians” at its borders: the Huns (“they could easily be called the most terrible of all warriors”—Ammianus Marcellinus, c. AD 390); the Avars (their “life is war”—Theodoros Synkellus, c. 626); the Hungarian Tatars (“who live like wild beasts rather than like human beings”—Abbott Regino, c. 889). True, the burning and pillaging unleashed throughout thirteenth-century Asia and Europe by Genghis Khan, the most famous nomad in world history, has hardly been a good advertisement for the peace-loving qualities of the Mongolian steppe-dwellers. Equally, a certain tendency towards aggression is inseparable from nomadism and its unsettled, peripatetic way of life. Indeed, over the centuries, warfare and military discipline became such an integral part of existence for nomadic tribes in Inner Asia that neither Turkic nor Mongolian languages developed separate, native terms for soldier, war or peace. (Pre-modern Chinese records, by contrast, had at their disposal seven different terms for border raids.21)
All the same, we should not accept at face value the Chinese characterization of their northern neighbours as insatiably violent, barbarian invaders. Chinese prejudices against the northerners sprang directly from a stridently Sino-centric worldview that, like the idea of China itself, came into being during the second and first millennia BC. As Chinese geographical orthodoxy had it, China—the full extent of the world as it was then known to its inhabitants—was divided into concentric zones: the inner were ruled directly by the Chinese king, the outer were occupied by subordinate barbarians. Although the belief that China occupied the centre of the civilized world was not fully refined and institutionalized until the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), as early as the Shang the Chinese state began devising the diplomatic protocol that dominated Chinese foreign relations until the nineteenth century: the tribute system, which defined all outer zones as subject vassals owing homage to the Chinese ruler. The idea that the world revolves around China persists today in the Chinese language, whose word for China, Zhongguo, literally translates as “the middle kingdom”.
China’s high cultural self-esteem resulted in a knee-jerk tendency to view the non-Chinese northern tribes as politically and socially inferior, as barely human and certainly not as worthy trade partners or targets of diplomacy. And if Chinese rulers were too contemptuous of the nomads to consider dealing or trading with them, the nomads were left little choice but to extract the goods they needed through raiding.
There is also much evidence to suggest that, until the first millennium BC, Chinese states did more than just snub their northern neighbours; that the inhabitants of the frontier territories were more often targets of Chinese aggression than aggressors themselves. Until about 1000 BC, the archaeological remains of the peoples living around the Great Wall zone do not appear particularly warlike. Archaeologists have uncovered traces of a pastoral, sheep-rearing culture, quite civilized enough to leave behind painted pottery, ritual vessels and jade. Graves unearthed in Central Asia contain no weapons: life was clearly not so violently uncertain that it was considered necessary to give the dead man weapons for his passage to the next world. Under the Shang, the northern barbarians seem to have suffered far more at the hands of the Chinese than vice versa. The Shang were constantly at war with the frontier, non-Chinese people they called the Qiang, hunting, capturing and disposing of them as human sacrifices (up to 500 at a time) and slaves.
China, in fact, has a far more impressive record of conquest and expansion than its nomadic neighbours. From its original heartland in present-day north China, the Chinese imperium spread to colonize the jungle-covered south of the country. The history of much of the area south of the Yangtze River between the first millennia BC and AD is one of an aboriginal land being colonized by Han Chinese from the northern provinces of the country. Nomadic tribes, by contrast, have less often had ambitions of conquest; those nomadic warriors who came to rule substantial parts of China were the exception rather than the rule. The annexation of China by the most notorious of them, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his descendants, was more the consequence of an over-extended plundering expedition than of a calculated imperialist schema.
But whichever side was the primary aggressor—northern tribes greedy for Chinese goods or Chinese greedy for foreign vassals—it was clear that China’s rulers and armies were unable either to defeat the northerners militarily or to contemplate compromise or negotiation. And so, in the ninth century BC, according to a poem of two centuries later, the Chinese first turned to a policy that would remain a comforting, albeit counterproductive, last resort for the next 2,000 years: wall-building.
The King charged [his general] Nan ZhongTo go and build a wall in the region.How numerous were his chariots!How splendid his dragon, his tortoise and serpent flags!The Son of Heaven had charged usTo build a wall in that northern region,Awe-inspiring was Nan Zhong;The Xianyun were sure to be swept away!24
Fighting talk, but also famous last words: although the kingdom of Zhou nominally survived until 256 BC, continued depredations from the north (by the Xianyun, the Rong and the Di tribes) drove the Zhou out of their north-western capital in 771 BC and effectively brought about the collapse of Zhou as an effective ruling house around this time. The invaders were helped by the fecklessness of the Zhou king, who sometimes entertained himself and his favourite queen by lighting the capital’s beacon towers—built to summon the barons to the capital in the event of barbarian attack—and enjoying the look on their panicked faces when they rushed to the palace and found not a barbarian in sight. When the barbarians finally did come, of course, the barons took no notice of the beacons, thinking they were just another practical joke, and stayed at home, no doubt grumbling about their monarch’s sense of humour, while the capital was sacked. The lesson of this first failed set of fortifications was, however, entirely lost on the Chinese, who continued to build bigger, more expensive but ultimately futile walls for the next 2,000 years.
After the decline of Zhou, the Chinese empire was split into a collection of smaller states, the largest of which—Qin to the west, Wei, Zhao and Yan to the north and north-east, and Chu to the south—jostled among each other for supremacy all the way up to and throughout the Warring States period (c. 481-221 BC), so called for the condition of almost permanent war existing between kingdoms. When the Chinese states were not fighting each other, they were contending with escalating attacks by their northern neighbours. The most serious of these was the near-destruction of Wei in 660 BC by the Di tribe, in which the Wei army was almost totally wiped out and the capital devastated, leaving only 730 survivors. The Chinese fought back vigorously and brutally—in one instance, a force of non-Chinese northerners was bludgeoned to death with copper ladles—weakening the Di and Rong by a combination of means both fair and foul: false surrenders, intriguing between non-Chinese ministers and rulers, and breaking treaties whenever convenient.
But the Chinese were in the end victims of their own success. Although troublesome, the Di and the Rong—now thought to have been predominantly farming shepherds or mountain-dwellers—had provided a usefully inhabited barrier (in contemporary Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei) between northern China and Mongolia, insulating China from purely nomadic tribes further north. The Chinese destruction of the Di and the Rong around the middle of the millennium erased this buffer zone and brought the Chinese into direct contact with horse-riding warriors of the Mongolian steppe proper, at a time when the tenor of life on the steppe was becoming ever more nomadic and warlike. In the seventh century BC, Central Asian warriors began to be buried with their horses and weapons; in one grave, archaeologists found the bronze tip of an arrow still buried in the knee of a skeleton.
The strategic imperatives that came with the new proximity of the nomads—for whom a new term, Hu, was coined in the Chinese sources in 457 B—had two major consequences for the Chinese way of life: the introduction of nomadic fighting techniques (and nomadic fighters themselves) into the Chinese repertoire of warfare and the construction of the greatest walls that China had thus far seen.
In 307 BC—in the middle of the Warring States period—King Wuling of the northern state of Zhao started a court debate about fashion: should upper garments be buttoned to the left or down the middle? Behind this seemingly frivolous and innocuous question of style lay a strategic issue of huge political and cultural significance. King Wuling planned to swap the traditional Chinese gown for the side-buttoning tunic of the nomads, and the aristocratic Chinese chariot for their mounted archers. Contained within this mooted change of dress was a revolution in worldview: an acceptance of the military superiority of the nomads and of the need to fight them on their own terms. “I propose,” proclaimed King Wuling, “to adopt the horseman’s clothing of the Hu nomads and will teach my people their mounted archery—and how the world will talk!”
The king’s culturally conservative advisers were vehemently opposed to abandoning the high ground of Chinese culture: “I have heard the Middle Kingdoms described as the home of all wisdom and learning,” the king’s uncle preached, “the place where all things needful to life are found, where saints and sages taught, where humanity and justice prevail . . . But now the king would discard all this and wear the habit of foreign regions. Let him think carefully, for he is changing the teachings of our ancients, turning from the ways of former times, going counter to the desires of his people, offending scholars, and ceasing to be part of the Middle Kingdoms.” Nonetheless, pragmatism and political and military necessity won out: as Fei Yi, the king’s wily adviser pointed out, “who scruples much achieves little”. Zhao was surrounded by dangerous enemies: by the state of Yan and the Hu barbarians to the north, by Qin to the west. Mounted archers, Wuling chided his relative, were essential to warding off invasion and defeat: ‘my uncle strains so at the gnat of departure from custom in clothing, yet he is swallowing the elephant of his country’s disgraces.” Thus swatting aside his critics, the king “thereafter, in barbarian garments, led his horsemen against the Hu … reached the midst of the Hu and opened a thousand li of territory.”
However distasteful and humiliating it felt, acknowledging and adapting to the cultural and military reality of the northern frontier had become crucial to the survival of Chinese states. Despite opposition from traditionalists, swift, mounted archers soon outmoded the chariot-based warfare of the old Zhou aristocracy. And it was the states that adapted fastest to the new methods which emerged victorious in the inter-state wars that racked the second half of the millennium. Zhao’s innovation was copied so successfully by the north-western state of Qin that it in fact managed to crush Zhao around 260 BC. The elimination of Zhao, Qin’s most threatening political rival, cleared the way for the conquest of the rest of China in 221 BC, a reunification that established the model of Chinese political unity that lasts up to the present day.
King Wuling’s cultural pragmatism did not stop the individual states from continuing to favour a more traditionally Chinese solution to frontier problems: wall-building. From the middle of the seventh century BC, the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Yan, Chu and Qi began building up a lattice of walls all over China, some in the very heart of the mainland, to counter external threats—both from other states and from the steppe. Wall-building became so popular that even the non-Chinese northerners themselves began to follow this quaintly Chinese vogue: some time after 453 BC, the Yiju barbarians of the Ordos area built a double wall in selfdefence against the northernmost Chinese states, and against Qin in particular.
But the walls that most concern us here are those built to protect the northern frontier: the Qin, Zhao and Yan walls, all undertaken at approximately the same historical moment—the close of the fourth century BC. The Qin wall went up in the north-west amidst a frenzy of sexual diplomacy and double-crossing. During the reign of King Zhaoxiang (306-251 BC), the dowager queen Xuan seduced and had two sons by the king of the Yiju barbarians. Unencumbered by sentiment, she later ‘deceived and murdered him at the Palace of Sweet Springs and eventually raised an army and sent it to attack and ravage the lands of the Yiju.” This bout of Qin conquest seized land spanning from Gansu in the far north-west to the east of the Ordos region in the Yellow River loop; to protect its new gains, Qin “built long walls to act as a defence against the barbarians.”
During the reign of King Zhao (311-279 BC), the state of Yan expanded to the north-east, towards the area that came to be known later as Manchuria, drove the Eastern Hu back “a thousand li” and “built a long wall . . . in order to resist the nomads.” The kingdom of Zhao, under the direction of the cavalry-loving King Wuling (325-299 BC), also built a double, roughly parallel set of walls: a shorter rampart north-west of Beijing, then a slighdy longer wall driving further north into Mongolia.
The engineering technology for the building of these early walls had not changed much since the tamped-earth method developed in the second and third millennia BC. Although not as durable as brick constructions, some of these walls survive in fragmentary form today: in Henan, low-lying ramparts of closely packed stone and earth mark the frontier line that divided the great southern state of Chu from its northern neighbours; in Shandong, a dotted line of rubble snakes across a stubbly hillside; in Shaanxi, only overgrown earthy mounds bristling with scrubby trees and grass, six metres high and eight metres wide in places, remain of the wall erected futilely by the Wei to defend themselves from the aggressive Qin. Ruins of the Zhao wall rising up alongside a road in Inner Mongolia are at first glance barely distinguishable from local contours, until closer inspection reveals their tightly packed man-made layers. Differentiating the Yan wall, in contemporary Hebei, from the grassy ground that lies either side and has long since reclaimed the surface of the heaped earth ramparts can be a similarly challenging task.
These walls made use of natural resources wherever possible, following the defensive contours of the land—precipices, ravines and narrow gullies. One possible reason why the remains of, say, the Qin wall, which meander 1,755 kilometres across north-west China up to Inner Mongolia, are so fragmentary is that they never formed a continuous line: across mountainous areas, which offered natural defensive advantages, all that was needed by way of man-made structures may have been the occasional lookout post or short stretch of wall to block a pass. The Qin wall’s path follows the relief lines of the region, its twists and turns dictated by the need to keep to more easily defended, higher ground. Where the land was flatter, lacking natural obstacles, and artifice was required to impede invaders, ramparts were constructed of pounded earth and stones, wherever possible on sloping terrain, to raise the inner side above the outer. Both regularly and irregularly spaced mounds—three to four every kilometre—have been discovered scattered along surviving walls: perhaps platforms, towers and lookout posts. Inside the wall, archaeologists have found stone enclosures sometimes ten thousand metres square, presumably citadels and forts, and traces of nearby roads, hinting at the huge military presence and logistical effort required to man and supply the thousands of kilometers of Warring States walls.
Given that the sources claim the main motive for wall-building was to “guard against” or “resist the barbarians,” the curious thing about these northern walls is how remote most of them are from farmable land, and how close to the steppe proper—in some cases, far inside present-day Mongolia. (South of the boundary marked by the Yan walls, for example, archaeologists have turned up assuredly non-Chinese artefacts—horse fittings, animal-style ornamental plaques—that belong to the earliest pastoral nomadic cultures found in northern China and Mongolia.) Indeed, the position of these walls gives the sense that they were designed not to defend China but to occupy foreign territory, to drive the nomadic inhabitants out of their land and to facilitate the setting up of military posts that would police the movement of people across these areas. King Wuling’s pioneering use of cavalry had made the Chinese reluctantly dependent on the nomads for horses. The only way of escaping this humiliating reliance on trade with the despised northerners was, presumably, to invade and control their areas of production.
None of this elevates the nomads to the status of innocent victims in the millennia-old conflict between China and the steppe, but it does at least suggest we should slightly rethink the way in which they have been demonized for thousands of years in both China and the West. Traditionally, the Chinese are always the wronged parties, terrorized by the evil Huns north of the Great Wall line. But if the first frontier walls, the precursors to 2,000 more years of hostility and wall-building between China and the steppe, were designed to expand, not defend, China, they illuminate a previously ignored factor in wall history: aggressive, acquisitive Chinese imperialism. This does not, of course, mean we should excuse the subsequent 2,000 years of nomad raids as an exercise in working through colonial trauma. Nor does it make Genghis Khan any more historically sympathetic or desirable as a neighbour. But it does reconfigure the simplistic Chinese propaganda picture—first drawn in the first millennium BC—of innocent Chinese farmers defending themselves against greedy nomad raiders. It also shows that walls do not always have to be defensive: build them in the middle of newly invaded and occupied territory and they become a prop to expansionist colonialism.
Whatever the true political and military reasons for Warring States wall-building, it soon proved strategically counterproductive for almost every state that undertook it. If, on the one hand, wall-building was driven by Chinese imperialism rather than by purely defensive concerns, the net diplomatic result was to produce out of the fractured nomadic tribes a unified opposition force—the Xiongnu—that would plague China’s northern borders for the next five or six centuries. If, on the other hand, the walls were purely defensive in purpose, their failure was even more serious. As future centuries would repeatedly demonstrate, frontier walls proved little obstacle to conquering, semi-barbarian hordes from the north—and specifically, at this historical juncture, to the armies of the north-western state of Qin, which stormed over, round or through every single one of the inter-state defences on their progress towards unifying China in 221 BC under the rule of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor (259-210 BC). But the border these barriers established defined the zone of conflict over which walls would be built and frontier battles fought for the next two millennia.