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The Great Wall

The Great Wall

by John Man

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China’s Great Wall north of Beijing is one of the world’s most famous sights. Millions every year climb the line of stone snaking over mountains. We all feel we know the Wall. But we are wrong. It is too big, too varied, too complex to be captured by a few images or a day-trip.

Myths surround it. Many believe that the stone barrier marches


China’s Great Wall north of Beijing is one of the world’s most famous sights. Millions every year climb the line of stone snaking over mountains. We all feel we know the Wall. But we are wrong. It is too big, too varied, too complex to be captured by a few images or a day-trip.

Myths surround it. Many believe that the stone barrier marches across all China, that it has been in existence for over 2,000 years, and that it is the only man-made structure visible from the Moon. In fact, most of it is made of earth, and much of it is not there at all. It cannot even be seen from earth orbit, let alone the Moon. Estimates of its length vary from 1,500 to 5,000 miles. Even its name is deceptive: it is not an it, a single entity, but many walls (hence the uncertain length), built at different times.

Yet behind the confusion are great simplicities. The many walls are united by two ideas — self-protection and unity — which go back to the First Emperor, who founded the nation in 221 BC. For 2,000 years, the Wall marked the border between China and nomadic peoples to the north and west. Mutual hostility inspired centuries of attacks, counter-attacks and Wall-building, until the northward spread of China in the 20th century made the Wall redundant.

For this riveting account, John Man travelled the Wall from the far western deserts to the Pacific, exploring the grandest sections and many “wild” ones. He is the first writer to describe two unknown walls in Mongolia. He covers two millennia of history, from the country’s first unification to the present day, when the Great Wall, built and rebuilt over centuries of war, has become a symbol of tranquility.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

According to Man, in his second book this year after Terra Cotta Army, China's Great Wall is really a series of walls, part stone, part rammed earth, that were built in different eras and do not form a continuous line. Traveling the wall end to end from Mongolia to Lanzhou, the capital of China's Gansu province, Man learns that the first Great Wall sprang from the towering ambition and brutal policies of the first emperor, Zheng, who around 214 B.C. repaired and joined up a collection of little walls totaling 2,500 kilometers in length. In 1138, China's Jin rulers built 4,000 kilometers of wall, but the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, burst through the wall in the 13th century and stayed for 150 years. To ensure that they never returned, the 15th-century Ming Dynasty built its wall. Mao co-opted the wall, which no longer served any defense purpose, as a symbolic monument to the achievement of ordinary, suffering people. This engrossing and well-researched history of China's most famous architectural project whets the reader's appetite to tread in Man's footsteps. Photos, maps. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

If you didn't get to China this summer, these two books will help make up for it. In his elegantly produced volume, Lindesay (founder, International Friends of the Great Wall; Alone on the Great Wall) pairs 72 historic 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of sites along the Great Wall with his own beautiful and informative photos of the same views taken when he revisited the sites in the last few years. Sometimes there is great change, other times little at all. Lindesay provides graceful essays on the lives of the earlier photographers and histories of the local communities around the sites, often with maps, excerpts from the writings of earlier visitors, or drawings.

Man's earlier books (e.g., The Terra Cotta Army: China's First Emperor and the Birth of a Nation) combine travel and history. His latest amounts to a readable history of relations between the Chinese dynasties and inner Asia as he tells of the various walls in successive periods. He also regales us with his adventures traveling along the present-day Great Wall. His tone is knowledgeable, breezy, and sometimes a little breathless as he skillfully debunks what is left of the myths about the wall-no, it cannot be seen from space with the naked eye. In fact, the wall is not an "it" but a "them," that is, not a single thing but a process whose length cannot be measured because it is composed of overlapping bits made at different times. Both books acknowledge and make good use of recent Chinese scholarship, and both are recommended for larger public libraries, with Lindesay's also appropriate for college and special collections.
—Charles W. Hayford

Kirkus Reviews
A learned, lively history of the Great Wall's evolution that cuts it down to size without diminishing its allure. No, you can't see it from the moon. Nor is it an unbroken, serpentine glory of many thousand kilometers, all dressed stone and watchtowers; much of it is simply rammed dirt, sometimes a yard high. As a stone curtain keeping the northern barbarians at bay it was more of a sieve, though it did have its military uses. Sinophile Man (The Terra Cotta Army, 2008, etc.) offers a close, informed reading of historical documents as well as his observations based on many hours spent Wall-side. What emerges is a shifting, kaleidoscopic portrait-cultural, geopolitical, symbolic-that puts the mighty edifice into perspective. Man suggests that the Great Wall started as an expression of Chinese expansionism, rather than protectionism. Under the First Emperor, as China moved from city-state to nation-state in the third century BCE, the Wall marked borders, but they were fairly porous; "its main function [was] to serve China's internal political purposes: to define itself, to declare its identity to itself-and to keep its own people in line." The Han dynasty added to the Wall, which by the first century BCE also served as a road to transport goods, provide traders with safe houses and garrison soldiers. The pastoral-nomadic Mongols had no use for it and let it decay during the 12th century. After pushing them from power, the Ming dynasty embarked on a 200-year building spree designed to keep the Mongols on the other side of the Wall. The author's intent is not to diminish the Wall, but to ascertain its purposes and paint its many attitudes, from rude earth-and-reed bulwark to the fairy-taleadornment of the landscape. Man presents readers with a Wall for every season, even more awe-inspiring in its workaday clothes than in its romantic garb.

Product Details

Transworld Publishers Limited
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

John Man is a historian and travel writer with a special interest in Mongolia. After reading German and French at Oxford he did two postgraduate courses, one in the history of science at Oxford , the other in Mongolian at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His Gobi: Tracking the Desert (Weidenfeld, 1997) was the first book on the subject in English since the 1920s. He is also the author of The Atlas of the Year 1000, (Penguin 1999), Alpha Beta (Headline, 2000) on the roots of the Roman alphabet, The Gutenberg Revolution (Headline 2002) on the origins and impact of printing, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Kublai Khan.

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