Like all tourists since Genghis Khan, we also made the trip to the Great Wall of China.
First, despite its being one of the all-time greatest ‘tourist attractions’ in the world, it is without a doubt worth the trip. Nothing prepares you for the breathtaking scope of this remarkable man-made achievement. Like the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat, no matter how cynical one may be, you can only look at this thing and go ‘Jeez, that is pretty impressive’.
And it is.
The Great Wall, of course, despite its phenomenal cost both in treasure and lives, did not succeed. Created to keep the Mongols out of China, it was soon breached by Genghis Khan, whose descendants would soon be absorbed into the greater Chinese culture, conquerers though they were.
Standing here on a bright cold January morning, there are several ‘lessons’ that come to mind about the inadequacy of trying to build walls to keep out the inevitable. However, as one walks along the Great Wall (and there is little else to do, once you get to the top), you cannot help but notice the endless scrawl of graffiti that lines the wall – much of it in Chinese, some of it probably quite old, but a great deal of it as recent at the last rainfall.
While the Wall bespeak a desire of an Emperor and an Empire to hold back the tide, the graffiti speaks of a deeper human desire to leave one’s own personal mark.
Since the Great Pyramids were first erected, people have been scrawling their names on monuments in some kind of hope of leaving a lasting mark on a lasting mark.
Go visit the Temple of Dendur in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to see what I mean. Rescued from the rising tide of the Nile after the construction of the High Aswan dam in the 60s, the Temple stands complete and reconstructed, just as it did in 15BC, when it was first built. A long line of ‘tourists’ from Roman footsoldiers to British conquerers made their mark by carving their names and dates into the Temple of Dendur, much as they did, and continue to do on the Great Wall of China.
Is this not the Facebook of it’s era? The Myspace? The etched-in-stone version of Youtube? What resonates more with something deep in the human DNA than the urge to make your mark? To say, “I was here”, if only for a moment? To hope for recognition.
So Steven Kok, whoever you are, here’s to you.