Book review: The Great Wall in 50 Objects is a brilliant achievement of alternative history

William Lindesay has put a lifetime of knowledge into this quirky yet illuminating volume, a collage of the cultures that were arrayed on both sides of the Wall

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 12:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2015, 12:58pm

The Great Wall in 50 Objects

by William Lindesay


William Lindesay’s The Great Wall in 50 Objects is a quirky yet illuminating alternative history of China and its relationship to the nomadic peoples and territories of the north. It bears an obvious debt in concept and title to A History of the World in 100 Objects, the British Museum’s joint project with the BBC, acknowledgment of which is strangely buried deep in the final notes. A formula it may be, but it is an adaptable and winning one.

Lindesay has selected 50 different objects, from maps to bricks and weapons; rather than a coherent, single narrative, the result is a collage whose discontinuities and very unevenness illuminate history in an entirely different way. Only a particularly pedantic historian would, it seems to me, take issue with the approach.

Each of the 50 chapters functions as a stand-alone – and almost invariably interesting and accessible – essay. While they can be read linearly – there is a chronology and the whole is considerably more than the sum of its parts – each essay can also be read individually in almost any order. Structurally, this is no mean achievement.

Any choice of a few dozen objects representing something as extensive, long-lasting and complex as the Great Wall would be subjective and no set could possibly be definitive. But Lindesay’s “objects” (some are a bit less physical than others) have obviously been chosen with care. He has a thing for maps, Chinese and Western, hardly surprising given the importance of geography.

Another set of objects contains writing by or about those that worked on or fought along the Wall, together with objets d’art that actually depict the various peoples – Chinese, nomads, Central Asians – that lived on both sides of the Wall. These get us about as close as one can to actually becoming acquainted with the people – princes, soldiers, workers – of these past periods. A stand-out is a tiny second century BC ornament of a Xiongnu face. Another astounding piece is an extraordinary silver Qidan funerary mask. These two, and some others, come from the Museum of the Great Hunnu Empire in Ulan Bator, not a place one might normally go searching for items to illustrate a history of China.

A third set of objects revolves around technology, mostly military, as befits the Wall’s primary purpose. These include the stirrup, which “greatly accelerated the pace and ferocity of cavalry warfare”; the Mongol composite bow, the Kalashnikov of its day, with which “no other archers could compete”; a fascinating crossbow trigger mechanism, the sedentary population’s answer to the mounted archer; and various early gunpowder devices: landmines, grenades, a blunderbuss and a cannon.

Lindesay’s descriptions of the mechanics of these devices – how they were manufactured, how they were operated and their role in battle – are superb. His admiration for the ingenuity and, above all, craftsmanship – some of which, thankfully, can still be found in a few contemporary workshops – is clearly evident.

The Wall kept things in as much as it kept things out – but, even more than either, the Wall in fact acted to bind together the peoples on either side

A few of the “objects” are less than entirely concrete. One, perhaps the most touching, is the story of Lady Wang Travels Beyond the Wall, manifested here as an early 20th-century print. Having been neglected by the Emperor and victimised by court corruption, Lady Wang was betrothed to a barbarian on the edge of the known world as part of a policy of pacification. The Mongolian horse is itself listed as an “object”, as are the so-called “wolf-smoke alarm signals” that were used along the Wall.

These objects, together with Lindesay’s clear and often insightful discussion putting each piece in its wider context, build up a mosaic whose subtlety and tenuousness belies the solidity of the very large object it nominally depicts. For what this collection shows is that this Wall kept things in as much as it kept things out – but, even more than either, the Wall in fact acted to bind together the peoples on either side. It defined and focused their interaction. Rather than separating China from the wider region, the Wall becomes the axis of this wider, always interacting, region.

No selection of objects could ever be perfect. In the final few objects, Lindesay turns to the cultural impact and legacy of the Wall. These include photos of an early 20th-century car rally, a short story by Kafka, and a painting of Deng Xiaoping. The Great Wall features in each, but it seems a part in someone else’s play.

One might have thought that in a book so grandly titled, each of the fifty objects would come with its own colour photo. But, alas, the majority of the objects only score a black and white image; only a few are given plates in the middle of this otherwise monochrome volume. (Yes, a complete set of colour images would have cost more, but it is the Great Wall, after all.)

None of this, however, detracts from Lindesay’s fascinating and excellently constructed narrative. This is not a coffee table book, although it easily could have been conceived as one; The Great Wall in 50 Objects stands out for its writing.

Asian Review of Books