Fryer, Jonathan.The Great Wall of China.

South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1975.

I have a longstanding interest in military history, but since it focuses on Europe, or at least the Western world, I’ve never paid much attention to China. In rereading Keegan’s A History of Warfare, however, I came across his discussion of the military reasons behind the piecemeal construction, over a period of a thousand years or so, of the Great Wall, the most massive construction in the history of Man — roughly 4,000 miles, total.

He cites Fryer, who actually turns out to have written just about the only general historical treatment of the subject in English, and I went searching for the book — huzzah for Inter-Library Loan! — and found the book to be well worth the reading.

Writing only a couple of years after Nixon’s visit to China (and his stroll on the Wall), which arguably began the latest reopening of interest in China in the West, Fryer had to work with a paucity of sources. It helps that he had considerable experience with the country and the language himself. I was interested to discover that the Wall wasn’t just thrown up in a defensive panic to keep the steppe nomads out. Chinese culture actually has a long, long affair with walls — around houses, around towns, around cities, so why not around the entire country? Except that the mountains and the ocean protected three sides of China, so a wall actually was needed only in the north. Nor was the Wall constructed all at once (which I knew), nor all to a single plan. Rather, it was the result of a number of shorter, local walls put up for particular purposes and later stitched together on imperial orders. Which explains all the dead ends and redundancies.

What I was mostly interested in, however, was the military motivations for the Wall and the engineering aspects of its erection, and while all of that is here, it constitutes only a small fraction of the book. The rest is given over to extended discussions of the political and cultural development of China generally — which, while interesting, is rather a distraction. I wish someone would tackle the narrower subject of the Wall with the advantage of GPS, satellite mapping, and the most recent thirty-five years of archaeology.


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