The President and the Wall
45 years ago this month the big news around the globe was about the President and the Wall. President Richard Nixon was going to visit the Great Wall of China. Sitting around the JMM lunchroom the other day I realized that many staff were too young to remember this historic event. Moreover, given the way that Asian history is so often ignored in school, many were unfamiliar with the history of the Wall itself (Mulan doesn’t count as a documentary).
Brushing off my textbooks from my days as an East Asian Studies major, I thought I might share some basic facts. The Great Wall of China was a project started in 220 BCE by China’s first unifier, Qin Shih Huang Ti to keep out Hsiung-nu tribesmen to the north. The Great Wall was built at a great cost, many of the corvée laborers and convicts who built the wall lie buried inside it. The Wall was improved by various dynasties over the next 2,000 years. The majority of the existing wall is less than 600 years old. Over the centuries the Great Wall was a tremendous symbol of Chinese pride – but perhaps not such a success in achieving its original purpose. Time and again, northern invaders ended up controlling territory on both sides of the Wall – most famously the Mongols, but also the Liao, the Jin and eventually the Manchu. The so-called “barbarians” often benefited from civil strife and corruption within China – the Wall offered absolutely no protection against these ailments. When China is finally carved up by the “Western barbarians” and later Japan, the Great Wall was totally useless. The Wall was a defensive barrier against a singular threat, when in reality China, like all nations, actually faced multiple, evolving threats across its long history. It turns out that China was strongest during periods when it had adaptive strategies to a changing environment.
In researching the topic on the Internet, I also found this rather intriguing quote from Nixon’s conversation with reporters at the Great Wall on February 24, 1972. Nixon said:
What is most important is that we have an open world. As we look at this Wall, we do not want walls of any kind between peoples. I think one of the results of our trip, we hope, may be that the walls that are erected, whether they are physical walls like this or whether they are other walls, ideology or philosophy, will not divide peoples in the world; that peoples, regardless of their differences and backgrounds and their philosophies, will have an opportunity to communicate with each other, to know each other, and to share with each other those particular endeavors that will mean peaceful progress in the years ahead.
If you had asked me in February 1972, sitting in my dorm room at Brandeis, whether I would ever write a blog post favorably quoting Richard Nixon, I would first have asked, “what’s a blog post?” and then I would have responded “are you crazy?”
From Jericho to Venice to Warsaw, Jewish history too has had its share of experience with walls – perhaps enough to join former President Nixon in questioning their efficacy.
Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.