Under a burning sun, today our trip to the Great Wall of China confronted us with breathtaking views of natural paths as well as new perspectives on its modern society. One cannot fail to remember that the Great Wall occupies a special place in the history of orientalism. In the European imagination, the Wall was the perfect symbol of a China that was seen as static and incapable of advancing beyond its pre-industrial greatness. For European visitors today, to see the Wall is to complete one’s visit to China. When we arrived, what struck us was the sheer number of affluent Chinese tourists: the perfect symbol of a China that is in the full flood of change and demonstrably advancing far beyond western notions of industrial greatness.
The constant movement of the crowds trying to reach the highest peaks and enjoying moments of conviviality along the way brought up the contradiction performed by the wall as a strategy of control. The wall must be the most used and most failed technology in human history. It always fails to keep out. It always fails to keep in. It always fails to control. Yet, humans never fail to keep building it: Hadrian's Wall, Great Wall of Gorgan, The Great Wall of China, Walls of Constantinople, Walls of Jericho, London Wall, the Berlin Wall, US-Mexico Border and the Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. For all their differences, what do they share? As we walked on the Great Wall today it was impossible to forget the weight of the paradox called the wall.
Indeed, this paradox is inscribed in the very shape of the Great Wall. The imposing solidity of its architecture emerges in a strange contrast with its own landscape. The wall is in the middle of pure nature, with no inside or outside to distinguish and qualify. Being suspended in the apolitical stasis of mountains and trees, the wall appears like a proud echo, which keeps fluctuating in the space but no longer remembers the original place and time and purpose of its own motif.
Yet, we were reminded that the Great Wall not only served as a defense against invaders from the North but also as a path to transport goods more quickly and efficiently across the country. Today, carrying up just our lunch box along the way reminded us of how exhausting and difficult it is to go across endless sets of steep stairs and slippery slopes built along a mountain ridge. However, as a path of communication and a market route, the wall has a human face: at the bottom of it, street sellers attract tourists to their souvenir stalls. People sit and chat. Two older Chinese women with short grey hair had explosive laughs. Their eyes seem to carry history, and all that history cares not to see.
“How long have you been selling things to tourists?”
“A long time.”
It is this public culture of Beijing that did not stop exciting new thoughts. Moving out of monumental motorways, we stepped into the more human scale of the streets, where groups of local residents were playing cards, mahjong, and Chinese chess. Small crowds of people surround them and watch them play. Are they betting? Is that why they look so keen? Probably yes. But we could see a strong sense of community too. Street games seem to create a space of locality and intimacy, despite the fact that the city had been 'invaded' by many 'outsiders' for centuries and has been a home for millions of migrants from all over China for the past several decades.
Finally, our exploration of Chinese convivial culture ended in a restaurant that specializes in duck. This was a fitting choice given that Beijing is famous for its 'Peking duck', a dish many are so fond of in Britain (at least in its crispy shredded variant). Yet it was fitting for another reason. The tradition of roasting a duck in China supposedly originated in the dynastic capital of Nanjing and has only more recently become a 'national' dish of China, albeit with modifications over the years. As the dish became a national favourite, a culinary export and has long since traveled to the current centre of Chinese power, Beijing, its travels also marks a significant reordering of how the foreigner consumes China. Much like the wall whose boundaries now serve tourism, the duck pancake whose overwhelming popularity lies beyond China enables the consumption of the historical dynastic China as a product and testament of modern Beijing.
- The Oecumene Team, 3 June 2013