Walls Don’t Work

As the Great Wall’s history shows, border fortifications are expensive, divisive—and useful political tools.

A Chinese policeman secures an area ahead of the arrival of U.S. First Lady Melania Trump on the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing on Nov. 10, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
A Chinese policeman secures an area ahead of the arrival of U.S. First Lady Melania Trump on the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing on Nov. 10, 2017. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

The idea of throwing up a border wall to prevent incomers is pretty old and has never worked very well. History is adorned with famous walls, from the Sumerian Wall of Mardu 4,000 years ago onward, and the moments their defensive pretensions collapsed. The ruins today remind us that using a wall to prevent incursions is the oldest and weakest idea in the arsenal of the state—one reason why almost nobody has tried to make them work for the last thousand years.

The most romanticized wall, the Great Wall of China, reminds us that walls are nevertheless good for something. The origins of the wall lay in a network of local walls built by the separate principalities of ancient China before its unification under a central ruler in 221 B.C. That ruler, known to history as Qin Shi Huang, cobbled together the northerly facing walls and built them higher. Then as now, China had three other sides, but they were protected by mountains and by the sea.

China had an enemy on the northern side of the wall, the formidable nomadic Xiongnu, who could muster a hundred thousand riders or more. The wall could force the Xiongnu to ride around it, or at least around its strongest sections, expending the supplies, time, and energy of horse and man. Infantry who wanted to climb the wall found it hazardous and laborious, though not impossible. It did not amount to much in the way of security, but it certainly created an interesting obstacle course for anybody invading from the north.

The Great Wall of China’s greatest material uses were for surveillance and for customs regulation. The elevated towers on the wall allowed effective survey of the landscape and any movement on the other side. Like other historical walls, the Great Wall was a fancy way of getting large contingents of watchmen up where they could see.

And like many other walls, the Great Wall had fairly regularly spaced gates—all vulnerable to being burned and hacked by determined enemies. In this case they could be opened to allow Chinese armies out on those occasions when some ruler based in China decided to invade Mongolia or Manchuria. But they were most useful as customs stations. China has traded vigorously with all neighbors and a large number of distant lands for most of its history. Along with that, it has always attempted to regulate trade and suppress contraband. A series of big gates separated by an imposing wall was just the thing. Weary merchants with lumbering camels generally chose to enter through the gate and be taxed rather than attempt to clamber over the walls.

There was another use for the wall. In China as elsewhere, hewn granite blocks and good bricks were appreciated as pilferable materials for the construction of streets, churches, temples, houses, and pigsties, causing walls to shrink and practical architecture to sprout throughout the ancient and medieval worlds.

Yet even beyond these advantages, the true magic of the wall was and is its value as a political tool. It was the first emperor’s first public works project. It symbolized the vast scale of his personal rule. The imposition of forced labor to get the wall to the desired size demonstrated his coercive power. The tight control he exercised over income—all to the glory of the wall—and expenditure strengthened his grip on the bureaucracy and the army. His demands for more revenue for the wall caused the state to steadily enlarge.

Similar effects resulted any time a ruler based in China decided upon a program to repair and augment the wall. In the Ming dynasty, which ran from 1368 to 1644, the most extravagant project produced the look of the wall recognized today. And from Ming times to the present the wall was invoked, in words or in image, to represent the integrity of China as it faced its perpetual challengers from the north, the imposing power of Chinese rulership, and the universal magnificence of China past, present, and future.

That is the sense in which the wall has been employed through the 20th and 21st centuries—as the all-purpose brand name of products intended to show China’s technical and commercial prowess: cigarettes, playing cards, underwear, cameras, herbal medicines, computers, and an SUV that Americans can expect to have in their showrooms by 2022. For patriotic displays, nothing beats a video of the Great Wall with flags flying from every turret while some ecstatic chorus belts out the national anthem. The Great Wall is so critical to Chinese pride that the formidable length of its distinct Ming period manifestation (about 5,500 miles) is for purposes of state statistics inflated by the addition of virtually every bit of wall rubble in north China, for a grand total of over 13,000 miles. When it comes to a symbol of executive power or national pride, facts are no object.

Now a U.S. president is going on about a wall. The year is 2019, and defensive walls have been abandoned for hundreds of years, seeing as how people can now fly. The historical surveillance advantages of watchtowers have been more than adequately superseded by drones, satellites, aerial reconnaissance, and even binoculars, which the emperors of China never had. The shining inspiration for President Donald Trump’s wall—or fence, or series of slats—appears to be the 400 miles or so of razor wire that Hungary’s illiberal authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has constructed to force aspiring migrants to his country to trickle through Slovenia.

Trump’s theory is that people who have walked a few hundred miles without adequate food, water, rest, or medical care will find a wall/fence/barrier discouraging, and no doubt many will. Others, as has always been the case, will find the challenge of a wall an insufficient counterweight to the rewards of getting over, under, or around it. They may even remember that the United States has two long coasts, one attached to each end of the hypothetical wall, and that along the way they will find that American smugglers, hunters, ranchers, sovereign citizen landowners, and all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts will have made plenty of punctures in the grand barrier itself.

The security aspects of walls have always been problematic. Today they’re even weaker than in the Middle Ages, suggesting that the immaterial benefits of the wall are what really attract the president. Like that first emperor of China, Trump has used the prospect of the wall as a tool to demonstrate his coercive power and tighten his grip on income and expenditure, to the point that the government has been throttled into unconsciousness. Perhaps the president imagines himself on video, gesticulating benevolently while superimposed on a panorama of a glinting razor wire trammel studded with surveillance scaffolds, each proudly flying the Stars and Stripes, as an ecstatic chorus belts out the national anthem.

The president might think of history for a moment. That first emperor of China, the one who conceived of the so-called Great Wall, had a very brief rule; the people rose up angrily against his fiscal and labor demands. The Yongle Emperor, the Ming leader most associated with aggrandizing the wall, had his outsized ambitions repudiated after his death. Public scorn of his budget-busting vanity projects was so thorough that he was denounced as a tool, and possibly an active agent, of the most imposing Ming hostiles—the Mongols.

And the American public in their turn would do well to remember the one thing that walls have actually proven effective at: keeping people in. Medieval tyrants used them to keep the yeomen from deserting, every serious prison or internment facility has one of some kind, the Berlin Wall worked on most people, and Israel uses one to keep Palestinians in their place. Modern wall-building does not have to be physical: It can be economic, cultural, and psychological.

The Great Wall of China today is a nagging drain on the Chinese treasury; it crumbles relentlessly, but the state is obliged to keep gluing it back together (or, as in the latest “restoration,” cementing it over) because since the days of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s famous tour it has been regarded as the lodestar not only of national pride, but also of the tourist industry.

The insularity, parochialism, xenophobia, paranoia, and generalized small-mindedness that inevitably come from living behind a wall was what U.S. President Ronald Reagan meant when he demanded that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev tear his down. And while Trump may be willing to settle for any kind of feeble obstacle he can wring from the U.S. Congress, it is clear that a wall, in that Reagan sense, is very much what he has in mind. When his plans for a southern barrier have become dust and blown away, he will continue as long as he is in office to induce Americans to build walls of the mind.

Pamela Kyle Crossley is Collis Professor of History at Dartmouth College and a specialist on the Qing empire and modern China. She also writes on Central and Inner Asian history, global history, and the history of horsemanship in Eurasia before the modern period. Her most recent book is The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretive History (2010).

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