In September, 1792, King George III dispatched the first British trade mission to China, a delegation of 700 emissaries that included diplomats, painters, musicians, and even the pilot of a hot-air balloon.
On three large man-o-wars, they brought along the latest achievements of scientific progress. They intended to persuade Emperor Qianlong to open his country for trade with the West. The Brits, under the leadership of Lord George Macartney, stoically endured the Chinese stalling tactics for months and whiled away their time exploring the country as tourists. A two-day journey from Beijing, at the Gubeiko Pass, a view that few Europeans had seen before, awaited the Englishmen: the Great Wall – a monument in stone that wound its way across mountains, valleys and verdant plains.
Macartney believed that this was the most amazing structure ever created by human hands, and this was a perception of the “Great Wall” that would endure to this very day. It was the birth of a myth that actually applied to two walls: the physical and the mental one.
Since the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368–1644), China had tried to shut herself off from the outside world. The Forbidden City had become a prison for the emperors who lived there. Although the northern frontiers were fortified with giant walls, Mongol and later the Manchu invaders found gaps. One of the most tenacious opponents was Altan Khan (16th century), who even dared to lay siege to Beijing – which was very humiliating to the Chinese, since it proved that their magnificent walls could not offer the protection they had hoped for.
As a result, the walls were fortified even further, fortresses and garrisons were built. Finally, the wall reached the sea. Experts were called in: architects, structural engineers, and brickworkers. Socagers were replaced by soldiers who drudged under deplorable conditions to protect the land. The Wall enclosed their own Chinese universe, while it shut out anything foreign, now and in the future.
Eventually, this attitude was the Ming Dynasty’s undoing. In 1644, a rebel – a Manchu – took the Dragon Throne. Macartney’s mission (in the late 18th century) was a colossal failure, but his assessment of the Great Wall remained deeply engrained in the minds of Westerners, a myth that shrouds the true story of the Wall even today. It had never been a symbol of national power. It is simply a monument to a culture that tried to live by itself.
Apart from fascinating and unusual locations and views of the Great Wall in different seasons throughout the year, painstakingly dramatized reenactments, CG animation, and the latest scientific findings add up to a colorful mosaic of one of the key phases in the construction of the Great Wall.