When it comes to global icons, the Great Wall of China is almost unsurpassed. It has become the supreme symbol of a unique civilisation that is as remarkable for its longevity as it is for its magnificence. It is also the object of a patriotic cult. ‘Let us love our country and restore our Great Wall,’ declared Deng Xiaoping in 1984, launching a programme of refurbishment designed to end decades of neglect and establish the ‘meaning’ of the Great Wall in the consciousness of a people whom Chairman Mao had often taught to despise and destroy the feudal past. The Great Wall, as thousands of contemporary Chinese brand names, logos, works of art and other phenomena declare, is China. It is the monument of Chinese self-definition.
Yet as Julia Lovell argues, the ‘meaning’ of the visually stunning ribbon of fortifications and watchtowers that still stretches, if often now in ramshackle condition, for hundreds of miles across northern China is open to very different interpretations. A correct ‘reading’ of the Wall requires the peeling back of layers