During his latest valedictory speech from campaign headquarters in Florida, Donald Trump invoked the Great Wall of China when justifying the feasibility of his plan to erect a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"The Great Wall of China, built 2,000 years ago, is 13,000 miles long, folks," the Republican presidential front-runner said. "And they didn't have ... tractors, they didn't have cranes, they didn't have excavation equipment."
His remarks echoed comments made in August — roughly 2,000 years ago, in campaign terms — when he told Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly that his proposed border wall would be "peanuts" compared with what the ancient Chinese accomplished.
While Trump's departure from his usual loud complaints about China is welcome, WorldViews wonders whether the country's renowned heritage site is really the best metaphor for his ambitions. Here's some context Trump should perhaps keep in mind the next time he draws the parallel.
It's not one contiguous wall ...
Yes, Trump is technically right that the Great Wall of China spans about 13,000 miles. A landmark survey by Chinese authorities in 2012 found that its overlapping series of fortifications measured up to 21,196 kilometers, or about 13,170 miles — more than double previous estimates. But the Great Wall, as you can see in the above map, was built over an extended period in different phases and locations.
... and it took a VERY long time to build.
The wall's construction began more than 2,000 years ago during an age known as the Warring States period, when a host of small kingdoms battled for supremacy in the Yangtze River valley heartlands of eastern China. The triumphant Qin dynasty embarked on the first ambitious wall project in the 3rd-century B.C., attempting to erect a barrier against rival factions and marauding tribes that would stretch from the plateaus of the hinterland to the sea.
Over the centuries, successive dynasties would add and develop the fortifications, which crisscross a stunning diversity of terrain. The spectacular ruins now traversed by tourists are all largely the work of the Ming dynasty, which began its segments of the Great Wall in the 15th century after making Beijing its capital. The wall, ultimately, didn't protect the dynasty, which was swept away by invading Manchu armies that went on to set up the Qing dynasty.
A lot of people died building it.
Sure, the Chinese did not have Caterpillar equipment or John Deere tractors, as Trump giddily exclaimed. But they did have a feudal system of enforced labor that enabled the wall's construction. Some historical accounts estimate that as many as half a million workers perished building the fortification, a statistic that defines an era when the brutal power of the central state was paramount. It's said that many of the dead were buried within the wall's foundations.
That grim legacy had a real effect on Chinese culture. "Because [the Great Wall's] construction implied suffering, it is one of the essential references in Chinese literature, being found in works like the 'Soldier's Ballad' of Tch'en Lin (c. 200 A.D.) or the poems of Tu Fu (712-770) and the popular novels of the Ming period," notes the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO.
It didn't quite do the job Trump thinks it did.
And, of course, the Great Wall of China, for all its majesty, was very porous. While a towering monument to Chinese civilization, it was hardly impregnable. The Mongols, Manchus and others all breached this great defense and went on to establish their dominion behind its ramparts. Perhaps that's the best way for Trump to understand the Great Wall's significance — not as a security barrier, but as a work of political propaganda.
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