The Great Wall: A Cultural History by Carlos Rojas Harvard University Press HK$220 Great myths deserve great books, and few more so than the Great Wall of China. The wall is a common trope in modern propaganda, often snaking behind photoshopped PLA soldiers allegorically guarding the frontier. Often, the wall joins launching rockets, Tiananmen Gate fronted by those marble cloud pillars, and happy, colourful ethnic minorities in the cluster of symbols signalling a modern, prosperous, harmonious society on large billboards around China. The notion of definitional boundaries underlies words such as guanwai - outside the pass, a dreaded fate for exiled officials - or guannei - inside the pass, where invading barbarians are decidedly unwelcome. The Great Wall name adorns bottles of local wine while its visual motifs grace the facade of the Sheraton Great Wall Hotel in central Beijing. Historians of 20th-century China have ably chronicled the wall's links to notions of nationalism. Outside China, the structure has begat a few good one-liners - Nixon's 'It sure is a great wall'. Singers Billy Joel and Tori Amos, cartoon shows The Simpsons and Futurama, and Chinese restaurants from Montreal to Melbourne have all made mention. Needless to say, the wall is a resonant icon in Chinese-foreign relations. After a series of raves frequented by foreigners left the wall's Jinshanling section trashed, the parties were banned amid a distinct whiff of xenophobia. Barbarian dignitaries received in the Great Hall of the People are often photographed with a Great Wall mosaic backdrop. All these constitute rich historical and symbolic material to mine for a cultural history of the Great Wall. Unfortunate, then, that none are mentioned in The Great Wall: a Cultural History. This is a shame. Carlos Rojas is, by all accounts, well-liked by his students and colleagues at Duke University. Harvard University Press is a reputable academic publishing house. But there is simply no excuse for such painfully unreadable, weakly reasoned work. And whatever decent scholarship may lie beneath the obtuse prose is tainted by association with many specious claims and comparisons, and at least one egregious mistranslation. It's not just the bad puns ('snowglobalization') and predictably lame nod to Pink Floyd ('another brick'). Nor is it merely the run-on sentences. Worse by far is the use of the word 'could', usually in 'could be seen as', 'could be understood as', 'could be compared with' and so on. These typically herald rambling, free-associative parallels of negligible historical significance or demonstrative power. For example: 'Upon concluding his [Great Wall] photo shoot, Obama reportedly [remarked] 'I also think I'm glad I didn't carry a camera.' The president was presumably expressing his relief at not having to hold a camera on that bitterly cold day, but his remark could also be seen as a comment on the impossibility of ever being able to capture an accurate representation of the wall.' It could be, sure. Any evidence why it would or should? Does that prove anything? Of the Olympics opening ceremony: 'The dissolution of the image into a sea of flowers could be seen as a commentary on the process by which the wall itself is continually being transformed and reinvented, while the subsequent emergence of the young men from inside the blocks evokes the memory of the labourers who are said to have been sacrificially buried beneath the wall.' Could be. But maybe it was just time for the flower segment. And again, what does this prove? And: 'Ma Liuming's performance could be seen as underscoring a contrast between the artist's transgendered performance and the legendary solidity of the wall, or it could be understood as presenting a parallel between the artist's gender transformation and the wall's own phoenix-like cycle of destruction and rebirth. Alternatively, it could even be interpreted as a metacommentary on these underlying issues of continuity and rupture as they relate to the relationship between performance representation - asking, in effect, what it means to preserve (and own) a stable image of an inherently transient performance.' Ugh. The gaping omissions are bad enough, but overemphasis on stories tangential or unrelated to the wall beggars belief. Ignore the propaganda billboards if you must. But then spare us a long 'analysis' of a pile of bricks in the film Dragon Gate Inn that shirks pertinent fact-finding to wander incoherently from anecdote to anecdote. There is some straight history of the wall, mostly imperial-era; little seems to represent original work. A friend at Duke assures me of Rojas' excellent command of Chinese, and I take him at his word. All the same, extended disquisitions on han ('ethnic Han' or 'Han dynasty' or a suffix meaning 'man') and the wan in wanli (meaning literally 10,000 but often just 'many' or 'extremely') make semiotic mountains out of semantic molehills. Where is the sense of proportion? Or, at the very least, the hard evidence? Most embarrassing - cringeworthy, really - is the mistranslation of Jiayuguan. Famed as the wall's westernmost edge, this town and Ming dynasty fortress is known to millions of Chinese as, roughly, 'Precious/Excellent Valley Pass'. Rojas contends it is Precious Jade Pass - homophonous, but a different logograph with no etymological or even visual resemblance. This is basic and unforgivable. Your reviewer has neither the time nor training to fact-check the whole book, but apparently Harvard University Press couldn't be bothered either. If both author and publisher flub such a basic fact, what makes the rest of this turgid volume worth your time or money? Attention must be paid. Intellectual laziness and faddish jargon endanger the reputation of the scholarly endeavour; they waste grant money and ink, and scarce university posts. We - the readers, taxpayers, students and public - deserve better.