A WALL OR NOT THE QUESTION SHAKING UP AMERICA
By Harold Stephens
“There’s something about a wall,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem The Mending Wall, and then he asked—“is a wall is to keep someone in or to keep something out.”
That seems to be the question in America these days: should the government build a wall along its southern boarder between the U.S. and Mexico? US President Donald Trump is having difficulty convincing Americans a wall is necessary.
From experience, let me tell readers something about a wall. I believe I had visited every wall, and walked on top of some, all across Asia to the Middle East. I just like walls.
I learned about walls when I was a kid on the farm in America and my father and I began building a wall that separated the barn from the house with rocks and stones we gathered in the fields. We worked on the wall for years, and never finished it. Wall of China had 10,000 workers at any given time.
Robert Frost was writing about the stonewalls in the farmlands of New England. I often wonder what he would have written had he traveled in Asia. Asia is one continuous wall after another. Here he would have concluded, certainly, that walls are to keep someone out.
My fascination with the walls of Asia came when I saw the coast of the Chinese mainland from a troop ship. The war was over and I was aboard a troop transport carrying a detachment of US Marines to China to repatriate the Japanese forces there. When the sea turned yellow we were nearing the coast. Early one morning we saw land, a faint silhouette in the distance. A voice came over the PA system telling us it was the southeast coast of the Shantung Peninsula.
Gradually the land came into view. There was something that looked strange. Near a village was a long and narrow line, as if someone had taken draftsmen’s dividers and had drawn a pencil mark from the edge of the sea to a diminishing point in the far mountains. It was a wall, a wall without apparent purpose.
We landed in Tsingtao, and from there I was sent to Chinese language school in Peking, or Beijing as it is called today. My introduction to walls was about to begin. For the next three years I would be surrounded by walls.
I traveled to Peking by train, an ancient conveyance that must have served the Marines during the Boxer Rebellion. The coal-burning engine huffed and puffed and sent out belches of steam and messy black soot. The land was arid and dust-swept. Being young and impatient, I found it much more interesting to climb up the ladder between the coaches and sit on the roof with my legs hanging down. Since we moved slowly, there was not too much wind.
For hours every day I studied the unattainable horizon. The tracks before us unrolled like a black ribbon upon an endless waste, and behind us we left a finger of smoke that lingered motionless in the lacquered sky. I became dust-covered––my eyelashes, my hair, my clothing. Then I saw it—the wall around Peking.
The great city loomed up like a picture in a child’s storybook, Peking, the mighty and ancient capital of Cathay. It seemed hours to close the distance. The track led through an opening in the wall that surrounded the city, and hardly enough room for me to sit on top of the car. When I attempted to return to the compartment, the conductor had locked the door. I came out of the tunnel coughing and covered with black soot.
But I soon forgot my discomfort. A new and fascinating world flashed before me, strange and unbelieving. Everything caught my attention. I wanted to stop the train then and there, as though once we passed it might be all gone forever.
Peking was an exciting place to live, if you liked living behind a wall or two. There was the massive, 40-foot thick outer wall around the city, and then there was a second wall which enclosed the Tartar City, and within that a third wall around the Imperial City. And in the very centre of these walls was another walled city, the grandest one of them all—the Forbidden City.
There were other walls, like the Whispering Wall of China, a true masterpiece of masonry. You could stand next to the wall and talk to a friend a hundred meters away, and no one else could hear.
And then there was the greatest discovery of all —the Great Wall of China. It is the greatest man-made structure of all times, ancient and modern, a masterpiece of man’s incredible determination to survive. Construction began in the Third Century BC when Rome was only a trading post. It varies from 15 to 50 feet high and in places is 25 feet wide. If it were relocated to America, it would stretch from New York to the Mississippi or in Europe from Moscow to Paris.
I drove by jeep a hundred miles along the wall, stopping every now and then to climb to the top. My dream then, after my discharge, was to follow it from end to end. A dream of youth, of course. The wall took more than a thousand years to complete. It would take years to cover its distance today for that Great Wall of China is not one wall but a series of walls.
When asked about restoration that’s taking place on the Great Wall, Dong Yaohui, general secretary of the Great Wall Society of China, told reporters, “It’s a matter of funds. If it took more than a thousands years to build, what can we do in a generation? It’s better to keep it as it was if we can’t repair ft properly.”
Some cities did stand firm regarding their walls. Xi-an was one. When you first see Xi-an, the city kind of leaps out at you. The reason, the city is surrounded by a massive wall. To enter you must pass through one of ten gates, and when you do, it’s like passing into another world.
The original wall begun 2,000 years ago is still there. It measures 19 miles in circumference, and was rebuilt in the early period of the Ming Dynasty. It has ten gates, 5,984 arrow-shooting holes and 998 ramparts. The wall of Xi-an is the biggest and best-preserved city wall of ancient China.
An impressive drive is by motorized trishaw around the outside of the wall. There’s a moat, and in places the trees are dense, and through the tress you can see the creanalled wall with towers and open embrasures. A drive along the inside of the wall is an entirely different show. The most interesting is inside the South Gate. You find yourself in old China.
When people ask what is my favorite wall, I have to say the Great Wall. But many cities outside of China also have walls. Take Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Mengrai the Great built Chiang Mai and fortified the town with a massive wall and wide moat. That was more than a thousand years ago. In the years that followed the Burmese and Khmers, the Mongols and T’ais, and all the rival states from the north and south, they all tried time and time again with their warrior elephants to capture the fortress and in each case it was the wall that kept them out.
The Tha Phae Gate is still there. Much of the wall has been restored. At some points the wall is hidden, and in others it stands out in all its grandeur. Once you begin to take notice of the wall and fortifications, you discover that Chiang Mai is, really, one vast wall.
Ayutthaya, Siam’s ancient capital, was once a walled city of great importance. Many vestiges of this past can still be seen by traveling from Bangkok by boat upriver to Ayutthaya. Several walled fortresses appear along the banks.
Before World War II, Manila was the great city of the East. She had a wall and was called Intramuros. Construction began in 1590 under the Spanish. The walls were massive, 28 feet thick and 14 feet high. There were seven main gates to the city, and inside there were 15 churches, six monasteries and most of the Spanish population.
Those who remember the city speak of it with the highest praise. Intramuros stood for 350 years, and then came World War II. The destruction was one of the great tragedies of the war. There was an effort over the years to rebuild the walled city, and some of the walls and gates have been refurbished.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost in The Mending Wall. He may have been right, that that “something” was obviously to keep marauding armies out of their cities. Today these walls are a mark of beauty.
We can’t forget that Angkor Wat had a wall, and there is wall around the Kremlin in Moscow. I am photographing the wall while standing on my camper.
US President Donald Trump wants a wall, and let’s hope it becomes a beautiful wall that people a hundred years from now will admire.