The Great Wall of China as Propaganda

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The word propaganda can be traced back to its use in the religious context, established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV in The Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (“Congregation for propagating the Faith”) as a way to further spread the Catholic missionary activity and the doctrine of the Catholic church to non-believers. While propaganda was traditionally defined as a form of religious indoctrination in its early uses, the word “propaganda” was revitalized around the First World War, by the early twentieth century to define political rather than religious indoctrination. Katherine Fitzmaurice argues that “The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s evolution: the systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, to promote a political cause or point of view.” Starting here, propaganda was used as a political weapon to force or persuade a mass audience to conform or change into a particular point of view. Propaganda is traditionally communicated through government and new reports, books, leaflets, posters, and historical revision. As time evolves, so do the techniques of manipulation. As we enter the 21st century, propaganda comes in many different forms but is ever so subtle that the audiences sometimes miss or overlook the clues of manipulation coming their way. One of the subtle forms of propaganda is the use of architectural monuments or plans as a way to input a certain ideology, belief, or reputation of some sort into the mass audiences. The most prominent cause of using an architectural monument as a tool for propaganda can be seen in the Chinese usage of the Great Wall of China (see fig.1) as their tool for political propaganda. The essay will explore the Great Wall of China as a propaganda tool in three different aspects, a brief history of the wall, domestic propaganda in the past, and foreign propaganda of the present that was used based on the Great Wall.

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The Great Wall of China is the collective name for the series of fortification systems built across the northern borders of China. The wall has a long history of over 2,300 years. Even though it’s often said that the first emperor of Qin built the Great Wall, it is simply not true. One of the earliest walls was built during the pre-warring states period, where the Qi state duke first built walls to prevent invasion from other states. Other state overlords also built their own state border walls Emperor Qin united the whole of China, connect and built walls to secure its northern border. The Han dynasty wall was built and extended to protect their trade route. Most of what we see today on the Great Wall was built and restored in the Ming dynasty. The last walls were built during the Ming dynasty. The wall was built strategically across thousands of miles of different terrains ranging from desert to riverside, from mountains to plains. The wall designers make use of the natural terrain from natural barriers to save labor and materials. Watchtowers and bacon towers were built for observation and commutations across different areas using fire or smoke signals. The earliest walls were built using local soil that was rammed into compact layers, forming the wall, while most of the Ming dynasty wall was built using cut stone blocks or slabs when those materials were not available tramped earth, uncut stones, word, and even reeds were used as local materials since it’s difficult to transport materials across the mountain ridges. Since the structure was massive, it was built over by millions of soldiers, peasants, prisoners over multiple generations.

After the civil unrest and war between the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Communist of China (CPC), the communist party of China emerged as a founder and ruling political party of the newly formed People’s Republic of China. The Mao Zedong-led era of China is known for its constant use of propaganda as a tool to legitimize the state and the policies of the leaders. While propaganda was communicated into the general republic of China in many different ways, the use of the Great Wall of China as a symbol of unity, longevity, and grandeur does not come as a surprise. The Great Wall of China has long been an icon of positive connotation among the general Chinese population as it is believed to be a physical representation of the great history of China, its nation, and its people. Many people perceived that the wall is a continuous stone dragon (as mentioned in one of Mao Zedong’s poems as the dark blue dragon), which is believed to symbolize power, strength, and good luck. Therefore, the existence of the Chinese nation and the wall seems to be mutually linked. The perfect example of their connection can be seen in the National Anthem of China called March of the Volunteers “Arise, you who refuse to be slaves! With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!” The National Anthem, a tool for propaganda can be seen using the Great Wall as a symbol of unity and patriotism suggesting that by building the “new Great Wall” with their flesh and blood they will achieve the unity and prosperity that they so desired. But of course, the idea of the wall being this icon of longevity existed since the time of the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, and that the wall is a continuous stone dragon is simply not true. The wall as stated by John Man is a collection of disconnected walls ranging from man-made barriers to natural barriers when required. It had also existed even beyond the time of the Qin rule as stated in the earlier paragraph. Even though the wall was built as a way to protect its northern borders, it was never much of a unique fortification but as Owen Lattimore stated “ the Great Wall was an attempt to establish a permeant cultural demarcation between the lands of the nomad tribes and lands held by settled people.” As stated above, the wall never really served as a function to unify but rather to separate a demarcation between the Chinese from the Mongols and the Manchus due to their different ways of life. One being the more settled agriculture and the others leading the nomadic life.

While some oral propaganda was used revolving around the Great Wall, the use of visual propaganda outnumbers the oral, as many posters with the Great Wall as the backdrop or the sub-subject can be found in many of the early 1920s to 1980s China. As most of the Chinese population was illiterate during the early 20th century, the use of visual perspective in propaganda manipulation can be seen as more effective as the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The poster below (see fig.2) created by the Cartoon Propaganda Crops in 1937, a solider can be seen carrying a gun with the color red (usually associated with good luck and prosperity in China) is being used throughout the poster with the Great Wall as one of the backdrops along with the red high mountain ranges. For the people during the population in civil unrest at the time, this poster would have provided or shifted them towards positive afflictions with the army and also evoke inner feelings of patriotism and might even recruit into the army. This goes back to the idea of unity as one and serving the country to protect as dutiful citizens of the nation of China. Using the Great Wall was no accident either as the wall has long been associated with Chinese history and the perseverance as the wall has been around for a long time. One of the more obvious photo operations using the Great wall again as a tool for propaganda is the photograph that was taken by Sha Fei, a CCP affiliated photograph who has contributed to the propaganda programs of the CCP. The photograph named Soldiers of the Eighth Route Army Fighting on the Great Wall, (Fig.3) consist of two soldiers in their military attire “fighting” along the mighty Great Wall. The reason why this photo can be ruled as a photo operation is that there were clearly no enemies from the opposing army present in the photo and it’s too much of a burden letting only two soldiers protect a whole section of the great wall and fight all alone. But the real subject of this photograph is the Great Wall, the wall can be seen photographed in a shape of the long line due to the angle of the camera but due to the general believes of the wall representing a dragon, it can be denoted that the wall was photographed to resemble a shape of a dragon, symbolizing the country’s longevity and unity.

Kingsley Edney wrote, “As China modernizes and opens itself up to the world its leadership is faced with tough choices about how to manage globalization so that the country receives the benefits that go along with greater international integration while avoiding the associated risks.” With China embracing national capitalism, the country is more open than it used to in the past and as a result, propaganda on the global scale is needed for their global dominance and how outsiders would perceive China while maintaining their communist propaganda efforts in the country. One of the examples of how they use propaganda at the international level is through the world of cinema. One of the movies that were funded by China that were talked about and debated about a lot during its release was the fantasy period fiction movie called The Great Wall. The movie again like many of the visual propaganda before them relies on the backdrop of the Great Wall of China where a group of a white man from Europe embark on an expedition east with promises of finding a mysterious black powder (i.e. Gunpowder) that will make them rich but was attacked by a vicious monster on the journey. Matt Damon and one friend survives and was caught by the Chinese along the Great Wall. The truth finally revealed that the Great Wall was built to keep out a gigantic hoard of mutating monsters that attack every 60 years. But of course, since the movie was funded by Chinese companies, the film showcase, how technologically advanced China is during the setting of the film promoting image-based propaganda using the Great Wall as a medium to get the message across. The message of unity was also relevant throughout the movie as the Chinese army was entirely devoted to protecting their country against the mutating monsters, again communicating an image of unity across all Chinese, reiterating the narrative of one unified China and patriotism. By putting out a movie that is filled with Chinese propaganda narrative of their advancement in technology and unity. The movie is working as a medium between the Chinese and the international community, to communicate an image of the new China of the 21st century as one of the developed countries with advancements in technology and one unified China.

In conclusion, propaganda had always been and will always be a tool not only for China but all of the countries in the world to get their idea and massage across. But by using an architectural monument with such rich history and positive connotations attached like the Great Wall of China (Fig.1) can be an extremely useful tactic as people already have such personal connections to the wall, and by linking the history and the symbols of the wall to the CCP, the government was able to legitimize their ideals and their rule aligning with the beliefs of the population.  

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