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Early Modern Times – a breach too far

Early Modern Times - a breach too far

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Dear readers,

The Orange Potentate of our southern neighbour now claims that building a border wall is a national emergency–which it wasn’t for the past two years, for some reason. Let us consider how effective border walls and border security were for our early modern predecessors. The most famous border wall in history is, of course, the Great Wall of China–a misnomer, as it’s actually a series of walls built over millennia, beginning with the Great Wall built by the First Emperor in his short reign during the third century BCE. Walls have a long history in Chinese culture, surrounding cities, villages, and households, and so the first Great Wall was originally designed to be a larger-scale version of a city wall but eventually extended over 3000 kilometres on the northern border of the empire to keep out invaders. The Great Wall pictured above and most familiar to tourists was in fact built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)–a fact which seems not to have bothered the makers and viewers of the atrocious 2016 movie The Great Wall starring Matt Damon, set in the 11th century but filmed on the Ming dynasty Great Wall built centuries later. Clearly, the movie dealt with serious breaches of historical accuracy as well as border security; and its monstrosities are not limited to alien invaders or its ‘Damonic’ white protagonist.

Although the Ming dynasty Great Wall is unquestionably majestic and formidable, it failed to serve as a ‘wall to end all wars.’ Indeed, we may draw the lesson that even with the best wall in the world, a strong-walled people is only secure against foreign enemies if it is united within. While the final work put into the Great Wall by 1600 made it stronger than ever, internal turmoil rendered the Ming regime a fragile vase. The capital had been moved to the northern city of Beijing (or ‘Peking’ according to the older system of transliteration), which was dangerously close to the Great Wall. By the early 17th century, China faced Manchurian incursions on the northern border, and thus potential invaders ‘Peking’ through the Great Wall. Internally, the balance of power had shifted to court eunuchs, who were often more interested in securing the reins of government than resisting aggression from abroad, thus emasculating the regime (as eunuchs will do).

Now, General Wu Sangui had been given a ‘eunuch’ opportunity to defend the gates of the Great Wall near Beijing against Manchurian incursions. But the rebel leader Li Zicheng took advantage of the widespread antipathy to the corrupt administration of the court eunuchs and seized control of much of the Chinese heartland and imperial capital in the early 1640s. Li marched to where General Wu and his troops were stationed, bringing with him Wu’s father and the son of the last Ming emperor to convince Wu to acquiesce to his authority. Wu, however, had already reached an agreement with the Manchurians, and would not be Wu-ed. He declared his loyalty to the Ming regime, whereupon Li had Wu’s father executed before the general. In response, the enraged Wu opened the gates to the waiting 20,000 Manchu horses (not Manchu-ing their cud but rather chomping at the bit) and their riders, who scattered Li’s forces and presumably subjected them to wall-hanging. The northerners swept across China and installed a Manchurian candidate as the first emperor of the new Qing (pronounced ‘Ching’) dynasty. Thus in the face of Li’s rebellion, Wu went ‘a-wall’ and created a breach between two cultures. And while brea-Qing the wall, the Manchurians and their wall-mounted troops effected the conquest of China. The deposed Ming rulers should have seen that the writing was on the Great Wall.

The sixteenth-century Florentine political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli would not have been at all surprised that the Great Wall failed to prevent the downfall of the Ming dynasty. In chapter 20 of The Prince, he remarks that fortresses and other kinds of fortifications may be useful to a skilled prince in certain circumstances, but that princes should never rely on fortresses rather their own virtù. The best fortress, he writes, is not to be hated by the people: in other words, building walls, citadels, and other fortifications–especially to quell potential rebellions–only makes princes of-fence-ive to their subjects (not to mention the fact that the apathetic soldiers protecting fortifications tend to be bored-er guards).

In book 2, chapter 24 of his lengthier treatise on republics, Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli is harsher in his judgement: fortresses are more harmful than useful in all cases. His ideal republic, that of ancient Rome, never built fortresses: perhaps they weren’t so concerned with protecting borders with walls because they were constantly ‘Roman’ around. Machiavelli remarks that to hold cities by force, the Romans tore down walls rather than building them: walls and fortresses are unnecessary if you have good armies, and if you don’t have good armies, they are useless and even harmful if used against you. In other words, to rely on border fortifications is to get wall-oped by your foes, because where there’s a wall, there’s always a way (to get in).

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Wall-intentioned Studies Program


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