As we wonder about the utility of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Great American Wall, it might be instructive to look at the history of China’s Great Wall as a barrier against barbarians beyond.
The Chinese have been some of the world’s great wall-builders for thousands of years. Some of the earliest walls date to 700 BC. Walls were built to fend off attacks from neighbouring states, but mostly as protection for the wealthier, settled communities along the Yellow River plain against raiding parties from poorer, nomadic pastoralist bands roaming the Eurasian steppe grasslands to the north.
China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, built the first complete version of what we call the Great Wall of China over a 10-year period starting in 221 BC. Perhaps as many as a million forced labourers constructed a massive rammed-earth barrier that stretched more than 5,000 kilometres, from the foot of the Tibetan plateau in the west across the barren steppe boundary of rugged hills and desert wastes to the sea at the Korean peninsula. Historians estimate the undertaking cost the lives of several hundred thousand souls.
Nomadic tribes north of the boundary coalesced about this time into a powerful confederacy called the Xiongnu. Their ethnic makeup is unclear, and might have included Caucasian elements. The Xiongnu seem to have been on an equal military footing with the Qin, while dominating other nomads in the region. In 176 BC, the Xiongnu drove the Yuezhi, an Indo-European horde, from Gansu province; the Yuezhi migrated westward into Afghanistan and India 200 years later.
The Han dynasty (202 BC to AD 220 ) succeeded the short-lived Qin when rebellions broke out caused by the harsh forced-labour demands of the Qin court. To contend with the dreaded Xiongnu, in 127 BC, the Han adopted a new tactic, sending large cavalry units (before they had relied on cumbersome chariots) out into the steppe to confront them on their own turf. In less than 10 years, the Han utterly defeated the Xiongnu.
Han control then spread westward beyond the edges of Xinjiang province into southern Kazakhstan — more than 2,000 kilometres beyond the Great Wall. The Han maintained the Qin wall, extending it somewhat to defend the Silk Road to the Middle East.
Subsequent dynasties alternated between controlling the steppe hinterlands directly through military campaigns and retreating behind walls maintained along the line of the Qin-Han Great Wall. The Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to 907 ) ruled China during one of China’s “golden ages” and dominated much of the eastern Eurasian steppe as did the Han, using military outposts and intervention rather than walls. When Tang China broke apart from internal rebellion, weaker states that controlled only northern China fell back on rebuilding walls in the north. But when the formidable Mongols overran China in 1271, the walls again lost much of their significance.
The last great wall builders, the Ming (1368 to 1644), seem to have been the weakest of the great dynasties to govern all of China. In a little-known battle in 1449 — referred to by historians as the Tumu Crisis, an epic defeat — a massive Ming army of 500,000 soldiers was trapped without water beyond the walls and almost obliterated by a small Mongol force of 20,000 horsemen. The Ming emperor was taken prisoner.
In the wake of this political earthquake, where Chinese forces evaporated against their steppe opponents, furious wall building re-commenced. Bricks replaced rammed earth, 25,000 watch towers dotted the great barricade and a road ran along its top (this Ming wall is what tourists view today). The Ming, alone among the great Chinese dynasties, adopted a defensive posture toward the steppe nomad threat. When the irresponsible Ming dynasty collapsed from rebellion, the incoming Manchu Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) left the fortifications to decay and marched back out to reclaim the steppe with its armies.
In this context, then, the Great Wall of China represents a second-best response to the challenge of troublesome outsiders. The real answer, instead, seems to be to strike at the source of problem.
This lesson might prove useful regarding Trump’s Great American Wall. Walls might be really only a second-best solution, with the better strategy to secure the border by tackling the problem at the root. Among other things, this would mean a more enlightened drug-control policy — instead of the current one that boosts narco-economies and spreads chaos in Central and Latin America — and more support for human rights.
John Wysham retired from the U.S. State Department. He lives in Victoria.