The yellow sand rises as high as white cloud;
The lonely town is lost amid the mountains proud.
Why should the Mongol flute complain no willows grow?
Beyond the Jade Gate vernal wind will never blow!
These words of poet Wang Zhihuan (688-742) echoes through the centuries as he speaks of the Jade Gate in the Great Wall of China. To the Chinese of old, this gate in Xinjiang was the edge of the known world and an outpost before the legendary far Western regions of the world.
The liminal, mythological role of the Jade Gate in Chinese thinking is what the poem allures to and whether keeping some enemies out or not, great walls and their gates seem to be a lot more about the mythologies and makings of us and them.
The ruins of the Jade Gate lie in a final, large bend of the Great Wall, to the west of the last border town of Dunhuang and on the rim of the vast Taklamakan desert. Its name refers to caravans full of jade that entered it from the desert kingdom of Khotan to be transported east along the Silk Road to central China. You can get here today by a 80 km bus ride from Dunhuang, which is well worth a visit also for other reasons.
The Great Wall of China is rather a whole range of walls in different places that were built, changed and rebuilt over more than 2 000 years. Construction of these walls started in the Warring States era in the 7th or 6th century BC and went on until 17th century Ming dynasty times. The main idea was to protect against raids and invasions from nomadic groups from the Steppes in the north.
Chinese walls protected against some invasions, though many raiders and invaders managed to cross them without too much trouble, most obviously the Mongols conquering all of China in the 13th century.
The Great Wall is a main tourist attraction today, of course, and especially some reconstructed parts of it to the north of Beijing. It should best be seen as dark heritage since the cost in human lives building these walls must have been truly terrible.
Entering China proper at Jiayuguan
The western end of the major stretch of the Ming era Great Wall was in the Jiayu Pass at Jiayuguan city in Gansu province. Like the reconstructed sections outside Beijing this is also a major tourist site, where you get to visit a system of rebuilt and touristified fortresses and gates. It’s impressive for sure.
Ming walls at Mutianyu
Most majestic of the preserved walls are the Ming era ones in the mountains to the north of Beijing, which you visit on day tours from the city. I had a look myself at a place called Mutianyu where you can have ice cream, buy souvenirs and walk some kilometres of ancient wall.
The pointlessness of walls such as these seems to me a monument over human ambition and stupidity. In the long run they do not keep people out or prevent invasions but inflict vast collective, mental damage to entire peoples by separating us and strengthen the making of mutually excluding us and others.
In Berlin, the wall may have fallen, but similar walls between people are on the rise worldwide though we should have known much better by now.