Arise, you who refuse to be slaves!
With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!
— March of the Volunteers, National Anthem of the PRC
The Long Wall of China is arguably the only wall that holds a positive connotation in the sense that its existence is seen as the physical expression of the great history of the Chinese nation and its people. The Wall stretches for 21,196 km (13,171 miles) and although it is a series of fortifications made of various materials —from bricks to simple soil— the popular perception is that the Wall is a continuous stone dragon that has always been there since the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi (220-210 BC) until today. Its appeal and grandeur are so rooted in our imagination that it is perceived to be not only somehow endless in space and time, but also thought to be the only human construction visible from space. The existence of the Wall and the Chinese nation seems therefore to be mutually linked: one cannot exist and never existed without the other.
However, this assumption is incorrect for two reasons. First, the Wall was created, improved and restored many times along the centuries and it has never been a unique fortification. During the Ming dynasty especially, the Wall was fortified and improved to defend China from the invasions of the Mongol tribes first and then the Manchus, who became —maybe quite ironically— the last Chinese dynasty. It can be argued then that the Wall was not the symbol of how far the Chinese empire had expanded, but the physical separation between two ways of life. One was the life of the sedentary Chinese people who lived on agriculture; the other was the nomadic life of the Mongol and Manchu tribes who lived on herding and hunting. The Wall —and it is important to remember that any wall shares this characteristic— was the physical expression of cultural and economic diversity. As Owen Lattimore wrote: “the Great Wall was an attempt to establish a permanent cultural demarcation between the lands of the nomad tribes and the lands held by settled people.”
The second reason concerns the definition of the word nation. The national question in China aroused as a consequence of the arrival of Western powers on Chinese soil, i.e. the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion and later on, the unfair treatment that China received at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. In his study on Chinese nationalism, James Townsend explains that “the primary Chinese identity was cultural, with no perception of a Chinese state or nation apart from the cultural heritage.” The frustration that these encounters brought to China found its expression in the May Fourth Movement of 1919. The Movement was a turning point for the country as it saw the emergence of Chinese nationalism and sparked the debate on the validity of the traditional Confucian values to bring China into the 20th century. How to build a new, modern China became therefore the primary preoccupation of Chinese intellectuals and politicians for the years to come. When Japan started its advance into Manchuria in 1931 and then into the Chinese territory in 1937, the two major political factions —the Guomindang (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)— had to face not only the military issue of the invasion and the consequent loss of territories but also the cultural question of how to bring the country together. Which type of identity would China need to fight and win against Japan?
Both parties used oral, visual and written propaganda as a way to bring together the Chinese people to fight and save their motherland from the Japanese threat. In this context, it became consequently necessary for both propaganda machines to find symbols, and therefore a language, that would bring the people together as a nation. The emergence of the Chinese national awareness —and the consequent need fornational symbols— can be therefore understood as a result of an external military and cultural threat. While Japanese nationalism was outward-directed in the sense that it took the form of imperialism on the basis of Japanese racial supremacy in the Asian continent, Chinese nationalism was an “inward-directed sentiment” whose purpose was to keep the country together. It is exactly in this context then that the Long Wall was chosen and used to symbolise the everlasting existence, strength, and unity of China.
From a visual propaganda perspective, the Long Wall was used as the symbol of the resistance of the Chinese people both by the GMD and the CCP. In the poster above, made in 1937 by the Cartoon Propaganda Corps, a fully armed Chinese soldier is standing on the Wall in a pose that conveys bravery and strength. Among the many images that featured soldiers and the Wall, the most famous one is the photograph “Soldiers of the Eighth Route Army Fighting over the Great Wall” taken by Sha Fei in 1938. Sha Fei was a CCP affiliated photographer who greatly contributed to the development of the Communist propaganda organisation. The photograph was published on the Jin Cha Ji Pictorial, the first photographic propaganda magazine of the Communist Party that was established in the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei (Jin Cha Ji) region. “Soldiers of the Eighth Route Army” appeared as part of the photo-essay “The victories of the Eighth Route Army” on the 4th number of the Pictorial in September 1943.
In the foreground we can see two armed soldiers —a third is hidden by the grass in the middle ground— straining forward the Long Wall over the Xifengkou Pass. The background of the image is occupied by the serpentine shape of the Wall that runs along the crest of the mountain. While it is not completely in focus, the Wall is evidently the other main protagonist of the shot: an endless, solid construction that had always protected China from menace.
The absence of the enemy from the photograph suggests that the image was staged and that the identity of the enemy was not central for the message that Sha Fei wanted to convey. An invisible enemy would add more temporal value to the image as it would implicitly state that the enemy was not bound to a specific time, in this case the Resistance War, but it would be whoever might want to endanger China. The political message was therefore that whichever force may threaten China it would not find the country unprepared or weak. The soldiers of the Eighth Route Army, and by extent the Party and the Chinese people, were and will always be ready to protect and fight for their nation.
Through these kinds of propaganda images, the CCP was able to create a temporal and cultural bridge between the Party’s history, the Wall and the history of China. The greatness of the Chinese nation was seen as the direct result of the construction of the Wall that had protected China and made it possible for the country to develop and grow. In this context the CCP appeared as the only political force able to preserve and carry on the ‘unbroken continuity’ of China, as the Wall physically symbolised, into the modern era. Moreover, the association between the heroic venture of the Long March with the Long Wall was frequently used to add more legitimisation to the CCP claim to power. Although the March was actually more of a desperate flight from the GMD, formed of a series of marches where many had to endure starvation and others died, it became part of the CCP’s mythology and symbolism. The iconography of the March and the Wall are also strikingly similar: an endless serpentine procession of people walking along the crest of mountains just like the Wall does.
The role of the Long Wall as a cultural landscape for political legitimation and a symbol of national unity did not disappear with the end of the Resistance War, but it has been used along the decades for commemorative purposes and it is frequently featured in new propaganda images. It is also used on stamps, banknotes, and coins, and on educational posters such as the ones produced in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the victory against Japan (http://chineseposters.net/themes/patriotic-education-1994.php). In recent years, the Wall has been used as the symbol of patriotism and love for the country, while the defensive role that was traditionally central seems to have been abandoned.
What should be clear after this brief analysis is that the importance of the Wall for Chinese identity and political history cannot and should not be underestimated, especially because, as Carlos Rojas points out “our ability to perceive the Wall as [...] stable and unitary identity is made possible by the fact that the symbolic core of that identity is [...] constantly being reinvented and reimagined.” In this particular historical moment where walls seem to be a response to the insecurities given by unstable economies and migration flows, it becomes even more paramount to study and understand the relationship between walls, national identity and their symbolic, propagandistic value. In the case of China, it is central to remember that although the Long Wall is now perceived as a unifying, everlasting, embracing construction, it was initially built with the intent to divide and protect from the unknown, from what lies beyond it. However, this Wall did not stop the Mongols, the Manchus, nor Japan even if some of the CCP photographs may suggest so. The greatness of the Chinese empire first, and nation then, was also the result of the cultural, economic and political differences brought by those who breached the Wall along the centuries.
Written by Maria-Caterina Bellinetti
Maria-Caterina Bellinetti is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture & Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. Her research explores the construction of modern China through CCP’s propaganda images taken and published during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The thesis investigates how and with which ideological and visual constructs these images may have influenced the re-birth of nationalism and the consequent creation of modern China under the guidance of the CCP.
She received a MChS in Chinese Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 2013. Prior to this, she completed a BA in East Asian Languages and Culture (2005-08) and a MA in International Relations (2008-10), both at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. She is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in History of Art at the University of Glasgow and she is part of the SCCR (Scottish Centre for China Research). In early 2016, she was awarded two research travel grants: the first from the UCCL, the second from the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities.
 Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers 1928-1958 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 58.
 James Townsend, “Chinese Nationalism,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 27 (January 1992), p. 98.
 John L. Comaroff and Paul Stern, “New Perspective on Nationalism and War”, Perspective on Nationalism and War, eds John L. Comaroff and Paul Stern, (Amsterdam: Gordon&Breach, 1995), qtd in Suisheng Zhao, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 5.
 Carlos Rojas, The Great Wall: A Cultural History (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 144.
 Ibidem, p. 146