David Spindler’s Great Wall


Beijing, Miyun County, scene of a battle on September 26, 1550

David Spindler is a self-motivated and self-funded scholar of the Great Wall, who has probably walked and climbed on more parts of the Wall around Beijing than any other living person.

His approach to his studies has been unorthodox: he has an M.A. in history from Peking University, but his Great Wall research has been conducted outside of the university system. Nonetheless, his combination of highly athletic field research — the Wall around Beijing is built on some very steep and tall mountains — and more conventional academic research has started to bear fruit.

In the first public exhibition of his research, Spindler has collaborated with photographer Jonathan Ball to produce a series of large-scale, historically-based photographs of the Great Wall.

The photos are on display in an exhibition titled “China’s Great Wall: The Forgotten Story”, which opened in September and runs until October 22 in the 3A Gallery in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood (details at bottom of post). You can also see the images in New York at the offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund through June 2010. To see this exhibition, please contact Leona Hewitt at lhewitt -at- rbf.org.

The photographs show parts of the the Wall where important Mongol and Manchu raids occurred in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, taken on the anniversaries of the raids, at approximately the time of day when the fighting happened. Each photograph stands over three feet tall, and stretches from 9 feet to over 30 feet wide. They are captioned with stories about the battles, drawn from Spindler’s research.

Spindler says “These photographs put you as close as possible in the modern era to the point of view of people who attacked or defended the Great Wall during these battles—the vegetation is the same, the light is the same, the time of year and even the time of day is the same.”

Danwei asked Spindler some questions about the exhibition and his ongoing work:

Q: What happened at the place in the photograph above?

A: On the night of September 26, 1550, a group of Mongol warriors took picks and shovels and pushed apart the unmortared stone wall protecting the gully in this photograph.

They suddenly appeared behind the main Chinese defensive force just east of this spot, surprised them, routed the defenders, and for the next two weeks looted, burned, and pillaged the northern suburbs of Beijing. The only extant account that quantifies the casualties (though certainly an exaggerated one) mentions sixty thousand Chinese killed, forty thousand taken captive, and millions of head of livestock lost as a result of this raid. One of the main Chinese responses to this raid was to rebuild much of the eastern sections of the Great Wall with mortar over the following twenty or so years.

Q: Do you think you have found something you want to do for the rest of your life? Is the Great Wall your calling, or will you turn to other types of history or archeology after you have walked on every bit of Great Wall fortification in China or around Beijing?

A: I’m not sure. At this point, I don’t have a long list of other projects I’d like to work on. I’ll just take it one step at a time.

Q: You often hear foreigners say “And it didn’t even keep the Mongolians out” when talking about the Great Wall. On the other hand, the SInologist Arthur Waldron, if I’ve read his book ‘The Great Wall of China’ right suggests that the Wall was one of three defensive strategies that successive dynasties used to deal with Manchurians. Mongolians and other northern barbarians:

1. Intermarriage and diplomacy

2. Scorched earth military campaigns into the barbarians own territory

3. Defensive wall building

Waldron suggests that the third strategy was the weakest, and that it was only in the more paranoid later Ming Dynasty that the strategy really took hold. I think Julia Lovell’s book on the Wall follows the same reasoning.

What’s your take on all this?

A: First, there are several important examples of the Chinese using the Great Wall to fend off raids of several thousand Mongols, mostly in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. There are many more examples of the Chinese successfully using the Great Wall to defend against smaller raids in a much longer span of time. One of the objectives of this photo project is to depict some of the sites of successful Chinese defensive efforts in the face of large-scale Mongol raids.

Waldron, and the later scholar Alastair Johnston, have done an excellent job of teasing out from imperial China’s strategic culture the three strands you mention. It’s very important as we look at the physically impressive and massive Great Wall to remember what Waldron and Johnston have stressed—that wall-building was only one means that China used to defend itself in the north.

Where I depart from Waldron is that he sees individual officials as advocating one of these strategies to the exclusion of the others and wall-building as a compromise policy when advocates of the first two cannot agree. All three of these strategies coexisted throughout nearly the entire Ming dynasty and were simply applied in different mixtures, at different times and in different places.

There was no such thing as an advocate of wall-building at the exclusion of all other strategies, or someone who believed that diplomacy or pre-emptive strikes were the only way to make China strong on its northern border. In my opinion, wall-building wasn’t a compromise policy but an important strategy in its own right.

Below is an interview with Spindler conducted by PBS’ Frontline (also available here).

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