Evocative as it is, the name ‘The Great Wall of China’ creates much misunderstanding. It reveals a little and conceals a lot.
To explain what ‘The Great Wall of China’ is, I usually start by explaining what it is not. Fundamentally, the term is misleading because of the definitive article: ‘The’ suggests that there is just one Great Wall. Yet, over a period of two millennia many border defense systems, or Great Walls, were built by different dynasties. Strictly speaking, these should collectively be termed ‘The Great Walls of China.’ In my articles ‘the Great Wall’ is used as an umbrella term for this series of structures, while terms such as the Han Wall or the Ming Wall etc., are used when referring to structures from specific dynastic periods.
Second, the ‘Wall’ consists of many different architectural components, scattered like pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle, and with missing pieces. I recall in the first year of my Great Wall explorations, in 1986, how I was skeptical when told that so many apparently disparate ruins were part of the Great Wall. In the ensuing decades I have seen parts, large and small, of this puzzle extant across a vast swathe of northeastern Asia, on terrain as diverse as gobi, grasslands, mountains, river valleys and the coastal plain. These ruins comprise not only sections of long walls, but trenches, towers of various shape and size, gates, fortresses and barracks. They exist in quantity and scale, displaying architectural diversity and morphological variation.
Sometimes they are physically connected, sometimes unattached, meandering even beyond China’s borders. A barely discernible mound, way north and stretching across steppe land, is also part of a Great Wall, even though it is described by a Mongolian as ‘The Wall of Genghis Khan.’
It appears that this, and other parts of certain Great Walls of China exist in today’s Republic of Mongolia, Russia and perhaps North Korea, evidencing the expansion and contraction of Chinese territory from dynasty to dynasty. However, the vast majority of the structures’ remains, whether landlocked by more than 2,500 km, overlooking the Yellow River, or running down to the ocean’s edge are ‘of China’: locals living close by any of these scattered fortifications may not share the same pronunciation and accent, but the name they use for them is the same: it’s the Wan Li Chang Cheng.