The Great Wall of China rightfully earns a place on every Top-20 must-see lists of world sites. Its scale is simply jaw-dropping, straddling jagged mountain ridges and deserts 6,259.6 kilometres (3889.5 miles) across China. What strikes me is the stark contrast of its humble design versus flashy modern Chinese bling architecture.
The simplicity of the Great Wall, like much of China’s ancient and medieveal architecture, is representative of the endearing humbleness of Chinese culture. Similar periods of architecture from other parts of world are much more ornate and grandiose. But as China rediscovers itself, it’s creating the most showy, shiny and shameless buildings on the planet. Some are simply beautiful examples of how far engineering has come such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Opera House and modern-day cryptic Arche de Triomphe CCTV buildings in Beijing, the Shanghai Financial Centre and under-construction Shanghai Tower, but there are also many shiny, pillared, faux gold monstrosities and countless constructions straight from a Jetsons cartoon. It makes for interesting cityscapes.
The fascinating metamorphosis of Chinese architecture had me wondering just how the Great Wall of China might look if it was constructed in 2011.
The first sections of China’s Great Wall date back to the fifth century BC, with various dynasties adding to and maintaining it until the 16th century. Over that time, tens of millons of workers moved 240 million cubic metres (8.5 billion cubic feet) of compacted rocks and soil, then bricks and stone slabs, mostly by the Chinese-invented wheel barrow. Much of The Wall was held together by mortar made from rice flour, and some say, the bones of some of the million workers estimated to have died building it.
The Great Wall’s intention of keeping out invading Mongols, Manchus and various nomadic tribes didn’t go as planned. Because it was discontinuous, Genghis Khan and his band of Mongols stormed through the gaps and conquered most of northern China between 1211 to 1223AD, ruling over the land until they were defeated by the Mings in 1368. Defensively, it was helpful as a way of communicating enemy movements back to Beijing, by burning wolf poop to make smoke signals between the towers.
If they were to build the Great Wall in 2011, it wouldn’t be for defence reasons. China has an army with more than 3 million soldiers fit for service and a fast developing military capacity that mean it is unlikely that anyone would dare invade them. Nowdays, the Great Wall would be built as a symbol of China’s might; its ability to construct the biggest, longest and highest of everything.
We’ll start with the watch towers. In the main cities they’d be glistening towers clad with numerous hues of glass – quite likely gold glazing. Away from the big centres, most of the exteriors would be covered with white tiles. The interiors would be furnished with shiny granite tiles, shiny dark wood and inbuilt fish tanks.
Between the towers, outdoor escalators would make the inclines much easier for local tourists visiting the Wall in stilettos. Every twenty yards, there’d be an LCD TV beaming the latest products. Just a few decades ago, the lack of tubes in China was implied in David Bowie’s 1983 hit China Girl with his lyrics “I’ll Give You Television”. These days, there are more TVs in China than anywhere else in the world; they’re everywhere – massive screens on the side of buildings, in lifts, in lift foyers, in most taxis and walking down a main street, just as there would be in our modern Great Wall.
Today’s Great Wall of China would be most spectacular by night. It would be covered with neon and illuminated in prime colours that require another six Three-Gorges Dam projects just to power it.
In all seriousness, the Great Wall as it stands today is a spectactular site, and will hopefully stay that way. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1978) leaders felt that the Great Wall represented despotism and encouraged citizens to take bricks from it to use on their houses and farms. Since then, Chinese authorities have recognised its significance and are now restoring parts of it. There are definitely some shiny blocks and a few gondolas ferrying tourists, but not the glistening granite and fish tanks of our modern version.
And as far as the Great Wall being the only man-made thing visible from the moon, you’d need bionic eyesight. At its widest, it is only ten metres (30 feet) in width and the earthy colours make it even harder to spot. By comparison, there are plenty of 16-lane highways that aren’t visible. But it’s well worth seeing the Great Wall from the ground. As the famous Chinese saying goes, “bù dào cháng chéng fēi hǎo hàn” – if you haven’t been to The Great Wall, you are not a real man!