china debates whether to build a wall -- 5/21/19

Today's selection -- from The Secret History of Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. The Great Wall of China was built largely in the 1500s and 1600s as China's Ming dynasty tried repeatedly to stave off the encroachment of the Mongols, Manchus and others from the north. The wall was ultimately deemed a failure, as it continuously taxed and weakened Ming financial strength, and was finally breached in 1644 as the Manchus conquered the Ming and established their Qing dynasty over China. This excerpt details the debate within the Ming dynasty in the late 1400s as to whether to build a wall:

"In a series of elegant battlefront reports that survive from the Ming commander Wang Yue, a clear picture of the issues emerges. He suggested a novel tactic of using trade to lure in the Mongols and then attacking them. Because it proved difficult for the Chinese sol­diers to go out and find the Mongols, Wang Yue proposed that govern­ment officials should send out large supply trains whose movements could be easily monitored by the Mongols and which would pose tempting targets for their raids. Thus the Mongols could be lured in close and then attacked by the waiting military. Although the policy would not prevent Mongol raids entirely, it would discourage them 'to dare to penetrate deeply.' Wang Yue began implementation of his pol­icy with campaigns against the Mongols in the summer of 1470 and again in 1471. Although they produced few casualties, they succeeded in heightening the tensions along the border.

"After only seven months on his assignment at the frontier a rival officer, Commander Yu Zijun, opposed Wang's offensive strategy. Yu prepared an alternative report, hoping to prevent the Mongols from raiding the frontier settlement at Yulin by reviving an ancient, but long neglected, approach of building a wall. According to his proposal, the wall should be made stronger and larger than the walls of earlier dynasties by constructing it of earth to a height of about thirty feet. Rather than just enclosing specific populated areas, it should be erected along the top ridges of the mountains to provide maximum visibility for spotting approaching marauders and for the relay of sig­nals from one part to another. The signaling alone allowed the cre­ation of an unprecedented long-distance communication network, permitting information to travel faster than a horse, thereby creating the possibility for the coordination of military action along a lengthy line at a much faster rate than the attacking cavalry could facilitate.

Great Wall of China

"Yu proposed building the wall as a more humane response to the Mongol problem, and, as such, it seemed to him more appropriate for a beneficent, civilized nation such as China. The wall would prevent invasion without harming the barbarians. Then, as the Chinese literati had maintained for hundreds of years, the exposure to the complete superiority of Chinese culture would, inevitably in its own natural way, pacify and civilize the steppe warriors. Thus, unable any longer to wage war on the Chinese, the Mongols would become civilized.

"The wall would cut across the base of the Great Loop that the Mongols had called the Ordos; eventually, the wall would begin and end at the Yellow River, thereby protecting the agriculturally produc­tive lands within the loop. Yu saw no reason to allocate men and resources to defend empty land that was not productive.

"The senior military officials rejected Yu's plan as too expensive, whereupon, at the end of 1472, he wrote another report offering a cost-benefit analysis that showed how his superiors could, in the long run, save money by building the wall. The financial argument also car­ried a strongly implied but unstated message. The wall would prevent the soldier-farmers stationed on the border from selling their crops to the Mongols or, worse yet, deserting to the Mongols and farming for them. The desertion rates on the border had risen steadily, and the openness of the border prevented the central authorities from exercis­ing power not merely over the steppe tribes, but also over their own soldiers. The carefully constructed wall would keep the Mongols out and keep the Chinese in. From the wall and it's watchtowers, the guards could just as easily keep watch over the farming soldiers as they could the approach of potential enemies from the steppe."


Jack Weatherford


The Secret History of the Mongol Queens


Broadway Books


Copyright 2010 Jack Weatherford


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment