Redefining the Great Wall


Not the Changcheng

As China seeks to expand the influence of its culture abroad, more attention is being given to the importance of translation. Not just in the most obvious contexts – the embarrassment of mechanical translations and errors caused by ignorance, or the mind-bending officialese found in state organs – but more subtle issues involving specific aspects of Chinese culture. Do existing translations fail to capture all of the nuances of certain cultural phenomena? Or worse, are they misleading enough to actively obstruct the successful spread of Chinese culture worldwide?

Zhao Qizheng, former director of the State Council Information Office, has argued that Peking Opera should really be called “Jingju” so it is not confused with the European art form, and the traditional form of stand-up comedy sometimes called “crosstalk” is just as often referred to in English as “xiangsheng.” The dragon is another example: the true majesty and benevolence of the Chinese variety is obscured by the malevolence of the western mythical creature that also goes by that name. The issue also crops up in relation to government buzzwords, but in those situations, there often is considerable debate among the Chinese public over the proper interpretation of certain terms.

But it’s not just concepts from art or politics that are contested. Even something as concrete as the Great Wall is a victim of misleading English, argues Pei Yu (裴钰), a columnist who writes about the tourism industry.

Pei’s article, published in the China Youth Daily as part of a series of columns on cultural tourism, discusses the need for proper protection of the Great Wall as a monument of world cultural heritage. He asserts that the current English translation harms the cause of cultural heritage preservation because it represents only one small aspect of an integrated cultural heritage experience.

Pei’s piece concludes by recommending an unorthodox (and to my mind, at least equally misleading) replacement translation for “Great Wall.” Although he does not suggest using the romanization “Changcheng” (长城), for the sake of clarity, that is the term used in the translation below in place of the usual English rendition.

My Opinion of the Incorrect English Name for the Changcheng

by Pei Yu / CYD

Returning from a research trip to the Changcheng, I had the intense feeling that its English name, “The Great Wall,” is incorrect. This translation to a large extent not only affects the appreciation of China’s Changcheng on an international level, but also directly influences our own preservation, development, and utilization of the Changcheng.

Viewed as cultural heritage, the Changcheng is not a ‘wall’ () but rather an ancient Chinese frontier “town” (城镇); not merely solitary mountain passes, but an ancient Chinese cultural system comprising army posts, residences, supply depots, and border trade, and which included various ethnic groups with different folk traditions. In the context of ancient military affairs, the Changcheng is a “town defense,” the “wall” being just one part of the frontier town. The ancient town of Chadao, for example, was a military post at the Ming Dynasty Badaling Changcheng, but it was also a hub through which border trade passed, as well as a typical Ming Dynasty town.

The Changcheng is a world cultural heritage site, and from the perspective of heritage preservation, the frontier towns should all be systematically protected. Full and systematic protection of the town regions, including the Changcheng wall, means “area” preservation of each and every town region, not “point” protection of beacon fires and watchtowers. Since ancient times, the Changcheng has never been just a wall or a series of beacon fires; it was always a series of defense towns. And the “Great Wall of Ten-Thousand Li” is not a wall extending ten thousand li, but rather a defensive region formed out of the many frontier towns. The emphasis of Changcheng preservation should be on the “town” (城) and not on the “wall” (墙) so that an overall plan and systematic protection of these frontier towns can be achieved.

A primary goal of heritage preservation is reviving traditional culture and folk customs. The cultural heritage of the Changcheng lies not merely in military defense, but is also founded on traditional Chinese frontier culture and multi-ethnic engagement and exchange, giving it rich resources of ancient ethnic folk customs. Therefore, cultural preservation of the Changcheng is the preservation not of an individual artifact (the wall) but of a cultural system (people and customs).

From the perspective of heritage development, the Changcheng is a “town” rather than a “wall.” Beacon fires, watchtowers, and wall supports are scenic spots, but the scenic area must be fully developed and expanded into ancient town areas. Mao Zedong once wrote in a poem, “Until you reach the Changcheng, you are not a real man.” The word “reach” here is quite correct, and expresses the idea of reaching the Changcheng’s towns and personally experience ancient frontier life and traditional folk customs through sightseeing, lodging, entertainment, and shopping. This is the integrated concept of “cultural tourism.”

What is known as “climbing the Changcheng” is an erroneous term for what is just climbing a wall. The Changcheng experience shared by American presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Obama, who came to China over the course of more than three decades, was that of walking along a section of the Changcheng wall, and this has its origin in the misleading term “Great Wall.” The “Great Wall” mentality disrupts the development and utilization of the Changcheng scenic area. Today, the area is less a tourist area than an “open-air museum,” and the Changcheng has been subject to narrow “preservation” as a wall standing atop a mountain range. Domestic and international tourists come in droves to climb the wall, but then they turn around and leave. Most travel agencies schedule between 90 and 120 minutes for visiting the Changcheng, insufficient time for recreation, entertainment, and shopping. This is why existing Changcheng scenic areas typically rely heavily on ticket revenue. There has been little expansion into related sectors and the service industry is highly underdeveloped. Although annual tourist capacity is enormous, tourism development has been lingering at a modest, primitive, low quality level for some time, a situation completely at odds with its status as “world cultural heritage.”

The English name of the Gugong (故宫) is “Palace Museum,” but the World Heritage List gives it as The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which means that in the view of world heritage, the Gugong is preserved as an “imperial city.” World heritage tourism today does not mean turning cultural heritage into unconnected, isolated artifacts or museums. The Changcheng is not a “wall,” nor is the Gugong a “museum”; rather, both must be incorporated into a systematic structure of cultural heritage which includes systematic preservation and systematic development.

In personal opinion, from the perspective of the preservation and utilization of cultural heritage, “Changcheng” should be more accurately translated into English as “The Great Town.” Nitpicking the English name of the Changcheng is not my purpose here; rather, I wish to take the opportunity to clearly distinguish the Changcheng’s properties as cultural heritage. The Changcheng is cultural heritage, not a cultural artifact, and in the next five years, its scenic areas will become new hot-spots of ancient frontier town cultural tourism.

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