5 objects that tell the story of the Great Wall

William Lindesay breaks down 2,300 years of history into five objects

Great Wall from shutterstock.com

In 1986, William Lindesay first set foot on the Great Wall. Now, he’s one of the Wall’s foremost experts, with four books on the 5,000km-long beast under his belt.


In his most recent volume, The Great Wall in 50 Objects, Lindesay patches together a new, idiosyncratic look at the Wall’s story through an artefact-oriented history, encompassing everything from the first world atlas in 1584 to Franz Kafka’s fictional 1917 short story and a 1994 watercolour of Deng Xiaoping surveying the Wall. ‘As a building, the Great Wall may be 100 percent Chinese,’ Lindesay describes, ‘but as a story it had two sides [Chinese and Mongolian].’ These five objects tell it best.


1. Jizhen military map


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‘We get a simplified picture of the defences in Jizhen, one of the Ming Wall’s nine military regions, in a ‘modern’ cartographic classic: a strip map from the 1580s, more than three centuries before Mr Beck’s iconic 1930s straightforward diagram of the London tube. No twist and turns on this Wall: it’s straight for simplicity. Built towers are in black, planned ones are in red.'


'This is a miracle map almost destroyed by man, then nature: it was saved from attacking Manchus and Mao’s Red Guards. Forgotten in hiding it went mouldy during humid summers and to dust during dry winters, before being renovated at the National Museum of China.’



2. Bronze mirror


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‘Great defences are inspired by a great enemy, or fears, or both. The engraved obverse of a bronze mirror dates from circa 8th century BC and shows a clash between two mounted warriors. They are dual-tasking – riding and fighting both at the same time. The skill of archery while riding a charging horse was such a feat of one-upmanship that the combo en masse – cavalry – routed the Chinese, whose forces consisted of slow infantry and clumsy chariots.'


'The Chinese couldn’t beat them, so they tried to develop their own cavalry. But still they were no match against men whose skills were necessities of life for hunters and herders. How could the Chinese stop these cavalry archers? They built ‘Long Walls’. As high barriers they brought horses to a halt. The same height gave defenders extra force of gravity behind whatever they shot or threw. Walls were an effective means of levelling the battlefi eld.’



3. Xiongnu warrior


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‘Just as Qin Shihuang unified China out of ‘warring states’, so did a nomadic chieftain in 2nd century BC, uniting numerous tribes on the steppe, federating them and becoming their ‘Shanyu’. But while we have thousands of lifelike images of Qin soldiers as terracotta warriors, their enemies, the legendary Xiongnu, who were said to have disfigured their faces to appear more bellicose, were a faceless name – until the discovery of a small bronze belt decoration. This is the only visual ID we have on the founders of the first nomadic empire that prompted the mighty Qin and Han dynasties to build the first Great Wall.’



4. Roof guardian


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‘The only object [in this abridged selection] that was originally part of any actual Great Wall is a fired-clay roof guardian from the 16th century, found in the rubble of a Ming watchtower. Appropriately, it had a bird’s-eye view for its life, perched on a rooftop of a tower overlooking Black Dragon Gorge (so I dubbed it the ‘Black Dragon Phoenix’). Roof guardians signified a structure’s imperial clout – and supposedly brought good fortune to the occupants of the building. Oddly though, it was probably struck down by lightening, as tower locations were often upon peaks.’



5. Spirit banner trident


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‘This gold-tipped trident is a late-12th-century symbol of tribal unity that was achieved outstandingly. A “sulde” consisted of such a trident placed on the end of a wooden pole and it had strands of horse-tails attached beneath it, which was believed to empower its owner and his followers. While the Great Wall that Genghis faced – built by the Western Xia and Jin dynasties – did little to slow his cavalry’s invasion of North China, posthumously he did have a monumental Great Wall effect.'


'Once the Mongols were ousted by the nascent Ming, they set about building the Wall that the world still sees to this day. Genghis Khan was the man behind – or rather, whose history demanded – that structure’s greatness. It was built to stop his likes invading again. It is the Mongols’ greatest epitaph.’



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