"The Great Wall in 50 Objects"
My quest for ‘the Wall’ – which is actually a discontinuous series of fortifications surviving from numerous dynastic ages, in diverse shapes, forms and conditions – has led me since 1986 to trace their remains across deserts, steppeland and mountains. The Walls themselves were always my main pathways, direct routes – until 2012.
'You rarely find a perfect story of the distant past, complete and in one place, and certainly not for such the complex series of landmarking structures that is known simplistically as the Great Wall of China. Rather, you must embark on a journey, gather the parts of the story and slowly piece them together. '
That year I decided to come down from the Wall, so to speak, so I could investigate stories that were below and beside it, inside it and outside it, and sometimes very far away from it. This foraging took me into farmyards, museums, libraries, galleries, universities, workshops and collectors’ homes. I was looking for things which, one way or another, were inextricably linked to the story of the Wall, yet physically were no longer part of it, or perhaps had never been.
'The Great Wall in 50 Objects' chronicles my efforts in following leads, hunting objects down, gathering them up, piecing them together and making connections between them – all in order to elucidate unknown, overlooked or misunderstood episodes of the Great Wall story. Though a scattered and disparate lot, the items I investigated shared a common quality: all were storytelling objects. I became increasingly attracted to them, these solid sources, confident they’d help me further penetrate the Wall’s mysteries, and discover more of its elusive personality.
Through these objects, I wanted to tell a comprehensive Wall story, from its reasons to its ruins. For two years I curtailed my time at the Wall itself and travelled more widely – I went to places where there was just one object to see, one person to meet, one point to learn.
From initiation to completion, this work was carried out over twenty-five months – for good reason, as explained below.
I had identified four groups of possible objects: items that were missing (that had been taken from the Wall), artefacts that needed ‘jailbreaking’ in museums (that were in glass cabinets with only brief captions), things on the ‘other side’ (outside the Wall, in Mongolia), and aspects that had become international. They were like four threads, I realised, whose full beauty could only be seen once they were woven together.
On the back of several successful print features in National Geographic Magazine (Chinese edition), and an online report which became the most popular on the magazine’s flagship English-language website, the then editor of the magazine, Ye Nan in Beijing, asked me for further Great Wall story ideas.
This was my opportunity to entwine my four threads as a serialised ‘Virtual Exhibition of the Great Wall’. My proposal was accepted and run as monthly features — 2 objects per magazine for 25 months. It was both a stimulating and intimidating challenge to regularly deliver so many Great Wall stories for readers of the magazine in China.
Fifty objects worked out at one object every forty-five years or so throughout the 2300-year lifetime of the Great Wall. While setting them in context and highlighting each epoch’s major political movements and cultural currents, I choose the bulk of my objects to stand at the twists and turns of the Great Wall’s story, and a few to explain some absences and to account for the major nomadic intrusions. This was the broader Great Wall story, played out between the north and south across a wide frontier that may be described as the Great Wall theatre of war.
The series launched in National Geographic's September 2012 issue, telling the very contrasting stories of how foreigners and Chinese commonly first learned about the existence of a ‘Great Wall’. This pairing formed part of a longer introduction, to be followed by objects arranged chronologically, according to the stories they told, although not always strictly based on their dates of production, up to the modern era.
Of all my Great Wall travels, the journey I took in visiting my fifty objects for this virtual exhibition was the longest, and the most unusual. These objects touch upon every episode of the Wall’s history, and reach into every important era of China’s past and present. They reveal how the Great Wall was built, operated, attacked, abandoned, regarded, mythologised, misunderstood, explored, mapped, photographed and politicised – and how it became a worldwide story. Although I didn’t realise it at the outset, by the journey’s end I had compiled not just my own personal history of the Great Wall, but also a Great Wall personnel history.
An English-language edition of the work is published by Penguin Viking under the title of 'The Great Wall in 50 Objects'.
I am now continuing the project to collect and contextualise the material culture of the Great Wall via the ‘50+ initiative’ to be published on this website: ‘The Great Wall in 50+ Objects’.