Friday, February 24, 2012

Chang Cheng by Eric Enno Tamm

Despite its name, the Great Wall of China is not great. It is certainly long – some ten thousand kilometers – which is why the Chinese dub it Chang Cheng, the Long Wall. China’s first emperor unified the country through its construction. The Qin Dynasty (221 -206 BC) began building the wall after all else failed to deter “barbarian” invaders. However, a chink soon developed ion the dynasty’s armour. “The strength of walls depends on the courage of those who guard them,” Genghis Khan once said. Indeed, the wall failed to keep out the marauding Mongols, who conquered China in 1279.

After routing the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty revived wall building. The fortress Jiayuguan was completed in 1372, during a period when the Ming rapidly expanded the wall westward to protect against another invasion. But by the end of the dynasty, the wall had become of military weakness and ineptitude. “Up went the Long Wall and down came the empire,” wrote one seventeenth-century official.

Yet the wall wasn’t just defensive. In the museum at Jiayuguan, I saw not just bows, battleaxes, spears and swords but a rich collection of farming implements too: iron ploughs, stone mills, hoes, ceramic jugs. “The Qin Dynasty saw the start of farming garrisons,” states a display, “when a large number of peasants were immigrating to border areas for both cultivation and defense of the frontiers. The Ming Dynasty expanded this system on a “vast scale” in the Hexi Corridor. Through irrigation and sheer tenacity, Han Chinese farmers turned steppe, alpine forest and desert – traditional territories of Mongol, Tibetan and Turkic peoples – into settled agricultural lands. The Great Wall fortified these farming garrisons. “These walls look less land-protecting than land-grabbing,” writes one historian, “designed to enable the Chinese to police peoples whose way of life differed from their own, and to control lucrative trade routes.”

The Jiayuguan fortress is practically empty now. Outer ramparts protect an Old Town that consists of a few tourist shops, restaurants and a dim, smoky temple dedicated to the God of War, a red-faced deity whose crazed expression looks like something out of Japanese manga. Inside the fort, I wandered an expansive gravel yard where barracks and warehouses once stood. Only a replica yamen (office and residence) of the military commander remains. It was nearly closing time, and so the massive fort was unusually devoid of visitors.

I climbed a wide brick staircase to the three-storey pagoda over the main gate. Like a sentry, I stood looking out over the parapet into the desert valley. A soft, orange sun was slipping toward the hazy horizon. The earthen ramparts turned tangerine in the glow. A train shooting in from Xinjiang reminded me of the long, bobbing camel caravans of yore laden with melons, spices, jade and gold. I squinted into the sunset and imagined the processions of the old Silk Road trotting toward me over the undulating plain.

I then turned around to look at modern Jiayuguan. The contrast was jarring. The scene was out of a Charles Dickens novel: clouds of steam, inky trails of smoke and brown smog oozed up over concrete apartments, a forest of brick chimneys, power plants and industrial mills.

Back in my room I pulled out Baron Mannerheim’s journal for bedtime reading. In 1907 Mannerheim stayed in a caravanseri below a corner tower inside the fortress. His Uyghur cooked prepared pilaf and murmured his evening prayer over a gurgling pot. As the sun began to set, the Baron heard the “monotonous drawn-out notes” of the evening tattoo, an army drum call, echoing in the night. “These were followed by gunfire warning honest folk to hasten home,” he wrote, “and then I heard the Chinese Empire being locked up securely behind five massive iron gates, and there we all were safe and sound under lock and key.”

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds; A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China by Eric Enno Tamm; Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011

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