Called the “Ten-Thousand Mile Long Wall” (万里长城) in Chinese, the Great Wall was meant to serve as an impregnable bulwark for all dynasties to repel invaders for more than 2,000 years. It was rebuilt many times, most recently during the Ming period. In the meantime, the People’s Republic has discovered it as a national symbol of its imperial grandeur, and uses it as a soft power symbol for true strength and recognition of its global claim to the outside world.
Beijing’s most famous section of the wall, Badaling, has long since become an international catwalk. Until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 520 heads of state and government from around the world paraded on Beijing’s wall, competing to see who could climb higher on its steps.
On the night of February 24, 1972, there was heavy snowfall in Beijing. At around 9:30 PM, Premier Zhou Enlai abruptly stood up in the sports stadium. He left his guest of honor, US President Richard Nixon, without a word. Not long after, Zhou came back and watched the end of the matches with Mr. and Mrs. Nixon. Afterward, he had them both driven to the Diaoyutai State Guest House.
50 years later, Hong Kong TV channel Phoenix revealed why the prime minister disappeared so suddenly at that time. He instructed Beijing’s authorities to mobilize all forces so that Nixon could visit the Great Wall at Badaling Pass the next morning.
Until the early morning, legions of helpers cleared and swept all access roads from the state guesthouse 80 kilometers away to the Wall free of ice and snow. The city leadership rounded up 800,000 men for the operation. Nixon was so impressed by the organizational power of Mao’s Communists that he warned in his memoirs that the US would have to “cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that ever existed in the history of the world.” (Richard Nixon, Memoirs, Ullstein 1981. p. 594.)
Today, there is a heated debate in Washington about whether such and similar assumptions contributed to a naïve US-China strategy that turned the People’s Republic into the adversary that once was feared it could become.
Host Mao Zedong approached the USA in 1972 because he wanted to win them over as a counterweight to the increasingly menacing Soviet Union. He therefore pulled out all the stops of Chinese hospitality for Nixon. The trip to the Great Wall crowned the elaborate visit program. Mao himself did not understand the Western enthusiasm for the dilapidated, weathered ruins and remnants of feudalistic times. No photograph shows him with or on the Wall. In 1952, however, he was persuaded by his friend, the polymath and culture minister Guo Moruo, to have at least part of this bulwark renovated as a place of interest.
The run for the wall began with Nixon
Premier Zhou shouldered the task. From 1952 to 1958, he had the best-preserved Beijing Pass near Badaling restored to a length of 3,741 meters. In October 1954, he accompanied India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the first foreign visitor to the wall. During the 1950s, Beijing would arrange trips to the Wall for only three dignitaries. Nine were added in the 1960s. It was not until Nixon’s visit and the start of reforms and liberalization in 1978 that the great run on the Wall began, and it became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987.
To better promote the structure, Mao, of all people, provided China’s propagandists with a catchy advertising slogan. “He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man” (不到长城非好汉) Mao had once poetized. From then on, it became a must for international leaders to climb the Badaling Wall and receive a Mao facsimile as recognition that they were “true men”.
More than 520 leading politicians (including six US presidents and nearly ten German chancellors and presidents) climbed the Badaling Wall after Nixon, China’s cultural authority announced in February 2022 at the launch of a series of short videos, “外国领导人登长城.” Wall expert Xie Jiuzhong, author of official chronicles on “China’s State Guests and the Wall,” kept a record of the illustrious visitors. Badaling had become an “eternal monument in China’s diplomatic history.”
The names say it all: In the 1970s, the first to make a pilgrimage to China were the representatives of diplomatic newcomers: the heads of state of Japan, Western Europe and the USA climbed the wall. In the second half of the 1980s, after the end of the schism between Beijing and Moscow, the leaders of the still socialist Eastern Bloc went hiking. Poland’s Jaruzelski and East Germany’s Erich Honnecker (1986), the Czechs Štrougal and Husák and Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov – they all climbed the Wall. It was the last appearance of “true men” of real socialism. At the end, when the fall of the other wall built in 1962 was already imminent, Gorbachev and his Raissa climbed the structure on May 17, 1989.
China loved them all, and they loved China’s Wall: tyrants, democrats, emperors (Japan’s Akihito) or kings (Elizabeth II): On December 3, 2002, Vladimir Putin posed on the Great Wall with his then-wife Lyudmila Putina. In February, George W. Bush and his wife had already posed there, and a year earlier Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. All three received the prestigious trophy for being “true men”.
However, Mao’s praise was not meant for them at all. It came from his poem written in October 1935, when he had crossed the Liupan Shan mountain range in China’s northwest Ningxia on the Long March. The guerrilla leader wanted to inspire his exhausted troops. They would not be far from northern China, where the Great Wall runs. They would have to make it there if they were true men.
At the end of 1978, the magazine “Cultural Goods of the Revolution” (革命文物) published Mao’s 1961 calligraphic copy of his poem. The line about the true men took on a life of its own and became a popular saying. US President Bush felt inspired in February 2002. The Texan climbed up to behind the third watchtower. Before that, he kept asking how far Richard Nixon had once climbed, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman recalled. When they reached the spot where Nixon ran out of breath at elevation 760 on February 24, 1972, Bush rejoiced, “Now I’m going farther.”
There was also competition among Germans, for example between SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his opponent, CSU leader Franz Josef Strauß, China’s former ambassador to Bonn Wang Shu, who accompanied them both, told me. Schmidt had asked him during the climb in late October 1975 how far Strauß (who had climbed the Wall in January 1975) had gotten. When Wang pointed to the spot, the Hamburg native and his wife Loki continued to struggle up the wall. “For me, there is no other choice. I have to get higher.”
Nowadays, China’s Great Wall has become a beaten path of mass tourism. “For the first time, the enemy is coming from within,” lamented British historian and author Willam Lindesay, who lives in China. Since 1987, he has devoted himself to exploring and, above all, protecting the Great Wall from littering and environmental degradation.
On long excursions, he explored the course of the Great Wall through a dozen Chinese provinces. From 2009 onwards, geologists and researchers began to systematically survey the course of the wall using GPS, infrared and high-resolution surface photos. They discovered buried ancient precursors and border ramparts. Instead of the official length of 8,851.8 kilometers for the Ming-era rebuilt wall, they now calculate an original length of 21,196.18 kilometers. ” 16 out of the 66 dynasties in China’s history built walls to defend themselves,” Lindesay discovered.
Beijing’s current rulers do things differently. Since the early 1980s, they have used the Great Wall as a new synonym for China. After taking office in 2013, President Xi Jinping even promoted it to a national icon and symbol of China’s power, which is now expanding outward. During his televised New Year’s speeches, he always sits in front of the state flag and the painting of the Great Wall. Its original meaning has since been reversed.