The Great Wall was only a metaphor – a symbol and a sign, the coat of arms and the escutcheon of what had been a nation of walls for millennia. The Great Wall demarcated the empire’s northern borders; but walls were also were also erected between warring principalities, between regions and even neighbourhoods. The structures defended cities and villages, passes and bridges. They guarded palaces, government buildings, temples, and markets. Barracks, police stations, and prisons. Walls encircled private homes, separate neighbour from neighbour, family from family. If one assumes that the Chinese built walls uninterruptedly for hundreds, even thousands of years, and if one factors in the population – enormous throughout the national history – their dedication and devotion, their example of discipline and antlike purposefulness then one reckons with hundreds upon hundreds of millions of hours spent building walls, hours which in this poor country could have been spent learning to read, acquiring a profession, cultivating new fields, and breeding robust cattle.
This is how the world’s energy is wasted. In complete irrationality! Complete futility! For the Great Wall – and it is gigantic, a wall fortress, stretching for thousands of kilometres through inhabited mountains and wilderness, an object of pride and one of the wonders of the world – it is also proof of a kind of human weakness, of an aberration, of a horrifying mistake: it is evidence of a historical inability of people in this part of the planet to communicate, to confer and jointly determine how best to deploy enormous reserves of human energy and intellect.
Ryszard Kapuściński in Travels with Herodotus