The Great Wall of ChinaDecember 7, 2014 • By Kelly Glynn
I made it to the Great Wall of China and it’s AMAZING!!!!! AWESOME!!!!! BREATHTAKING!!!
I’ve tried to reserve using the word amazing for special circumstances having been named AKG, “the amazing Kelly Glynn,” by some New York friends who strongly believe it’s the only adjective I learned in grade school but seeing the Great Wall up close and personal warrants an infinity of amazing words. I’ve been blessed to visit some incredible man-made and natural wonders of the world and the Great Wall scores as high as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Iguazu Falls in South America and even the Grand Canyon.
Officially, the Great Wall is 5,500 miles long but when taking into consideration the independent sections it’s probably closer to 13,170 miles. Peasants, convicts and war prisoners are just some of the more than 1 million people who died in building the Great Wall. It passes through mountain ranges; plains and a desert winding through the countryside up and down like a roller coaster. It is not one long uniform gate as people assume but rather several strategic walls and it’s importance is just as significant today as it was 2,000 years ago.
Mountains surround sixty percent of Beijing creating a natural border of protection. Perched high atop Yan Shan Mountain at about 1,600 feet is the Great Wall of China, the world’s largest wall. It was first erected in 476 BC during the warring states period when China consisted of many individual kingdoms fighting for control. Emperor Chu of the Chu State is credited with building the first “great wall” to keep enemies at bay and shortly after other districts followed suit. Thus, creating several “walled” boundaries. It’s difficult to imagine a wall made of mud, twigs, animal dung and sometimes even rice flour intimidating enemies but it worked and the trend continued.
Emperor Shi Huang (221 BC-206 BC) revered for unifying China turned his attention to strengthening his territory and ordered the expansion of the wall. It is believed that the workers used the remains from the destroyed wall to rebuild. They joined part of the “walls” together and extended it another 3,000 miles mainly to protect the land from the Mongolian and Manchu enemies to the north.
In total, twenty dynasties used the Great Wall as a defense system in China. Some like the Han allowed the wall to deteriorate, while others restored and expanded it. The Yuan dynasty 1206-1368 (Genghis Khan) used the wall to protect merchants and those traveling along vital trade routes. It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1644) that new sections of the wall were created and fortified with brick and stone. They constructed guard towers and fortresses at strategic points along the wall. Soldiers who manned the towers utilized animal waste to create smoke and twigs to strike fire to warn officials on the ground of imminent attack. Construction of the Great Wall visible today likely began around 1474 and extended from the Yalu Rive in Liaoning Province to the eastern bank of the Taolai River in Gansu Province. The “Ming Wall” as it stands can be viewed across seven provinces.
I visited Mutianyu, a less touristy section of the wall about an hour and half by car from Beijing’s city center. Constructed between 1404-1568, the Mutianyu section is considered the best-preserved part of the wall. During the Cultural Revolution, many people took bricks from the Great Wall to use in building homes or farms therefore extensive restoration took place in the 70s and 80s. This part of the wall was originally built with slabs of granite and brick and stone and contains 22 watchtowers overlooking a spectrum of pine trees and cypresses. On a clear day, they say you can see Mongolia. I don’t know what Mongolia looks like just yet but the winds from yesterday whisked in a perfect pollution free clear day. I expected greatness and the wall delivered it.
My guide and I traveled by cable car to the top but if weather and time allow, the wall can be hiked. At the top, I climbed a few steep steps and then connected my feet, my body and my soul to this Chinese emblem. The flag represents the People’s Republic of China but the Great Wall stands for hard work, loss, perseverance and hope for its people. I turned around looked far into the horizon and then again at the Great Wall and then slowly started to walk and as I imagined each brick being placed with purpose. I wanted to treasure the moment. My guide and I continued for a few miles along the natural curve of the mountain – up and down and flat before we retreated. To stand on the Great Wall is exhilarating; it’s freeing and it’s heartening. The wall’s design resembles more of an H – the two sides representing the gate or the fortress with a “road” or path in the middle. It supposedly did not prevent invaders from entering the country but the Great Wall like other inanimate objects in Chinese culture represented strength and courage. It reminded me of the “Yellow Brick Road” from the Wizard of Oz – a path through turbulent times but the path ends at home. Our ancestors built several types of walls such as palace gates, moats, prisons, paths and bridges and they all served a purpose to stop, protect, capture, isolate, divide and even to scare. Walls continue to exist today in one form or another.
After visiting the Great Wall, I feasted on “Xanthoxylum-Bungeanum” or commonly referred to in English as fried flowers dipped in salt and pepper. I worked up a bit of an appetite but did not anticipate that the flowers placed in front of me could be so tasty and filling. Without Google, I cannot tell you exactly what I ate and since we know I don’t cook I am not capable of giving you a comparison but let’s just say it tasted a little something like rosemary or lavender – maybe? This being my last day in China I also ordered up a batch of cabbage and egg dumplings. Ohh la la there is nothing like a good dumpling.
Chinese lunch complete, we headed to the Summer Palace constructed as a gift to Emperor Qianlong’s mother for her 60th birthday in 1750. When the British and French invaded China in 1860, they looted the treasures from the palace and set the entire complex on fire. It was all but destroyed. Empress Dowager Cixi, China’s only empress, spent money intended for the Navy on restoring the entire complex and she moved the seat of government from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace in 1903. She controlled China from the Summer Palace –even imprisoning her nephew after his uprising failed– until her death in 1908. The people nicknamed Empress Cixi “Dragon Lady” which my guide said is given to independent, strong willed single (maybe selfish?) women. When I later tried to explain why I am not married, my guide popped up, “You are dragon lady.” I never thought it that way but yes maybe that’s it. HA!
Today, the Summer Palace is a 700-acre park with a man-made lake, a pagoda and a series of temples. It’s a beautiful spot even in winter as the sun glistened on the lake. Locals flock to ice skate on Lake Kunming’s waters and people spend an entire day here walking the outskirts of the lake, enjoying a picnic or simply taking respite from the heat in the numerous pavilions on the grounds. Empress Cixi’s residence, the Hall of Joyful Longevity, is furnished and decorated as she left it and the long corridor connecting the various halls that runs about a half mile long is painted with thousands of scenes from nature. It’s definitely worth a visit.
On this trip, I have thoroughly enjoyed each of my tour guides. Their knowledge and their candor provided me in some cases with a rare opportunity to understand a city or a historical moment. A window open gives a traveler a great learning experience and a window closed frustrates a traveler and leaves a bad impression – warranted or not. I am most appreciative of the clear view my guides generously gave to me.
My guide “Faye” in Beijing came from working class parents and at 41 (my age) she acknowledged struggling financially more than perhaps my younger guides. Born in 1973, Faye was a child when a new China was emerging. Factory workers – considered government workers – her parents were provided with meager housing. Faye, her sister and parents lived in a complex with 200 families of which 30 lived on one floor sharing a kitchen and two communal toilets. She explained it did not make for easy use of the bathroom. I guess not! The government also supplied coupons for food and she remembers vividly one time her father only brought home two eggs. Her mother used the fat from the pork as oil and saved the cloth for an entire year to make the children clothes. The first apartment she lived in consisted of one room at 100 square feet. The entire family slept in one bed. At age 6, the family moved to a larger apartment – still government provided- at 140 square feet but this time only three families shared a kitchen and a toilet. While we might consider this lower class or poor, Faye said she would have been considered middle to lower class. By age 10 and now 1984, the country’s position as well as Faye’s family’s finances improved and the government set them up in a 600 square foot apartment with new furniture. This apartment contained two bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and living room. The hard times passed.
Communism = Socialism and Chairman Mao declared everyone equal under the People’s Republic of China so workers received the same wage. I asked Faye the question I posed to all my guides, “Will Communism last in your lifetime?” She answered without hesitation, “It can’t. We are growing too fast and socialism makes us lazy.” She asserts that capitalism and competition have already crept into this socialist country and sooner or later it will collapse. People want more. For me, it’s the assertion of control that I do not understand. Block Google, Twitter, Facebook and blackout the negative news I am confident anyone under 40 has uncovered the truth at some juncture.
Similar to her parents, Faye sacrifices much for her family. I’m not a mother (as we know), but I’m often struck by the sacrifices my friends make for their children–yes my mom too. When I visit these developing or even less developed countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, India etc, the mothers hold the family together. They provide food, shelter and opportunity for their children. My guide Faye is doing the same for her nine-year-old son. Today, she owns a beautiful three-bedroom apartment near her sister and parents but lives with her mother-in-law (who sounds like a monster) in a 600 square feet apartment to afford her son the best possible education.
Faye is more serious. At first, she seemed cold but as she allowed me to glimpse into her life I realized it’s more about determination and survival for her. I misjudged her. She has struggled and worked hard to be where she is and she is proud. Life is not easy. Her husband is a police office making her the breadwinner. The husband’s father, a blood donor during the war, died of Hepatitis at a young age as Chinese hospitals re-used needles in the 50s and 60s leaving the son and mother to forge a deep bound – almost too much. Faye used to be a wedge between them but she made up her mind she doesn’t care. In the mother-in-law’s apartment, Faye sleeps with her son and the mother-in-law her son (twin beds). I thought this to be so strange and tried learning more about the marriage. Faye said that the grandmother could not sleep with the grandson because she spent all night checking on him so this is the arrangement that worked. My mind went to the obvious and before I could ask the question Faye responded, “yes it’s a little bit weird.” I forged a bond with her and although we don’t have much in common, I respected her drive and I smiled on her good fortune. Knowing where she has been, and seeing where she is going I expect Faye will achieve whatever she intends.
Side note: (Faye had three wedding dresses: White, Traditional Red and another Red and even though her husband’s family did not have much they paid for the dresses, wedding and the “down payment” on the partnership which Faye used to seal the deal on her apartment)
As a tourist, I came to China with many misconceptions and some misinformation. It’s why traveling is important. The news delivers the stories of the day in 15-30 second sound bites but never the full story. I’ve learned that this country has endured and continues to overcome challenges. The people have suffered. Many have died others have escaped. They have celebrated greatness and they have retreated in defeat. They are a proud people and their history is long but maybe not deep. They are a new country with dates on a calendar that have been erased. They like pork – a lot and eat parts of an animal I would eat if raised in a foreign land. They love technology and the latest fashions and they are active consumers. China is rich with natural resources and economic opportunities abound. It works – for now. There are 1.4 billion people. The rate of growth is rapid but can it continue? Are there enough jobs? Will capitalism force the end of socialism? Will this country at some point become a Democracy? Time will tell. The Chinese are not shy despite what they may say so watch out because if they can stop smoking and spitting they just might be your neighbor, boss, co-worker, friend, relative.
Few other little tidbits before I sign off from China:
- The Chinese give new meaning to “travel chic.” They dress up on vacation because unlike Western cultures, they do not take simple shots of buildings mountains etc. They take photos with people IN them. Travel is a luxury so they think they should dress appropriate for the occasion. This explains the 3-inch heels and the skirts in 10-degree weather.
- “Shanghai Husband” – Men in Shanghai are known to the rest of the country for catering to their wives. They cook, clean, and do all the housework, while women go shopping. I gathered this to be a wise tale but as more and more people referred to this phenomenon I may believe that fairytales do exist.
- Feet binding or “Lotus Feet” – This is one custom that I will never understand and it was practiced until about 1930-40 in China. In wealthy families, women’s feet were essentially broken and bound with bandages to create mini-feet. The ideal size was 3 inches!!!! Feet binding dates back to the 10th or 11th century and over the years there were unsuccessful attempts to stop it. This likely goes without saying but it created severe disabilities for women. There are various theories as to why it continued some people say bound feet were considered erotic. In the Qing Dynasty, sex manuals (yep) listed different ways in which men could play with a woman’s bound feet. The irony being that the feet remained in bandages because bound feet would have been grotesquely deformed. Eventually the practice spread to lower-class families and the eldest daughter may have had her feet bound to show the family intended to raise the daughter as a lady. There were even these special shoes made of embroidery and silk for the women who bound their feet. As one can imagine, a woman’s mobility was severely limited and made her dependent on a husband or family.
- Warm water – The Chinese think that anything cold is bad for the lungs, the stomach, the mind etc. They will tell you their stomachs cannot take cold things. They only eat and drink hot milk, hot water, hot soda, hot congee. I am not sure whether it stems from superstition or not but every Chinese person holds onto this practice. There is plenty of free hot water all over China.
- The golden week(s) – A week in January or February for Chinese Lunar New Year and for the National Day in October when the Chinese are given vacation. The non-essential factories are closed and the tollways are free. The policy was created to expand domestic tourism and improve the national standard of living for those who live especially long distances from their family but now that the work week changed from 6 days to 5 days there is discussion of taking away one of the weeks.
You are AKG – we love you!