The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - 2000 AD Review

The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - 2000 AD
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The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - 2000 AD ReviewAn extraordinarily pedestrian and highly derivative (she even uses a secondary source for a biblical quote) walk through the history of China through Lovell's self-imagined vehicle of "The Great Wall". Made even more so as Lovell repeatedly reminds us that the construct "Great Wall" is mainly a Western view. Lovell appears to be curiously ignorant of the philosophical underpinnings of Chinese culture and society, and as a result provides us with an extraordinarily ethnocentric and biased view of Chinese history. She loses no opportunity to belittle or castigate virtually every participant in Chinese history.
While Lovell appears to unflinchingly accept both pejorative views of China's relationship with the world and fanciful descriptions of Chinese customs and culture as described by disenchanted English emissaries, she fails to take into account recent accounts of China's historical trade and interactive relationship with Asia and the rest of the world. Her analysis (using the English 1793 abortive mission as the signature event) leads her to argue that, regardless of whether the Chinese were constructing or not constructing walls; whether they were going on voyages of discovery or trade or restricting travel; whether they were allowing outsiders in or keeping them out; whatever they were doing was proof of her thesis that it was China Against the World. Of the 1793 mission, she comments how the British had to "suffer through hours of Chinese Theatre, being laughed at during banquets for their ineptitude with chopsticks", how their "impressive list of presents submitted to the emperor was rendered into gibberish", and finally of the emperors gifts to the British: "a few auspiciously shaped lumps of jade, boxes of china and lengths of cloth, some of which appeared to be recycled items of tribute from Korean, Muslim and Burmese vassals." Both their, and her, ignorance of Chinese customs and culture could not be more clearly defined. It is unclear how the British emissaries knew their list was being mis-translated, as they could neither speak nor write Chinese. For Lovell to parrot (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt here, even though she fails to give citations for this view) "auspiciously shaped lumps of jade" without comment is egregious, to say the least. Anyone with even the slightest familiarity with historical China is well aware of the singular importance attached to jade. Of course, at no point are we given what the Chinese view of the mission must have been.
A telling instance of her bias is when she tries to argue that the English instigated Opium Wars were primarily a result of the English desiring free trade. Is it possible that she is unaware of England's Colonial history? Having, or in the process of, colonizing the Indian subcontinent and Burma (for the purpose of opium production and trade), and trying, but failing in their attempts to colonize Tibet and Thailand, England desired to colonize China. Instead they had to settle on providing a safe haven for their drug trade, along with the temporary theft of Hong Kong - the recent return of which to China she particularly laments, equating the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control after 100 years of British Colonialist rule with a symbolic retreat of China to her obtusely-constructed "Great Wall mentality". She even argues that the Crusades provided legitimization for Western (English) utilization of force of arms to gain conquest and concessions from China (and elsewhere). As the Crusades were defeats for the Europeans, this is much like arguing that Vietnam provided the legitimization for the invasion of Iraq.
While she castigates Voltaire's positive assessment of the Great Wall because he never visited the Great Wall, she also castigates those who have visited it and come away with a similar positive assessment, insisting that they could not have seen more than the small portion near Beijing. Woe unto those who do not share her viewpoint - the Jesuits, for example, who she labels "The Jesuit Cult of the Great Wall." (She appears to have a special vendetta against Catholics, including a completely gratuitous and preposterous account of their role in the colonization of the Americas.) On the other hand, she regards those who minimize the status of walls in a favorable light. For example, she appears to regard Daniel Defoe quite highly, despite the fact that he never visited China. Perhaps it's because she subscribes to his fictional view.
A few quotes will serve as defining her attempts to contrast China with the West: "in the contemporary West, where occupation and invasion are, at present, happily the stuff of millennia past, wall-building seems a quaintly old-fashioned idea...", "With the recent notable exception of the invasion of Iraq, for Western powers, committing ground troops in the long term to zones of conflict is a potentially vote-losing last resort.", "Walls and barriers are monuments of a lost, pre-1989 world" If we look at just the period following WWII, we have Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the Falklands, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, etc., etc. As for Western walls and barriers post-1989; U.S. wall against Mexico, Israel's wall against the Palestinians, the English wall in Northern Ireland and the barriers separating North and South Korea to name a few. As for other barriers, one can easily find a myriad of immigration/emigration restrictions in the West.
A few additional points: Only a colonialist could come up with the descriptive phase "Hong-Kongese" to describe Chinese residents of Hong Kong, or consider the Indian nationalists who opposed English colonialism "radicals".
Wherever does Lovell get her date of 1025 for the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty, as she provides no reference for her chronology of dynasties? I've seen 1122 and 11th C as traditional dates; 1027 as a date accepted until recents years by modern scholars; and 1050, 1046, 1045 and 1040 as the most current years (a rather hot - and sometimes vindictive - debate is going on about which of these current dates is correct), but never 1025.
Lovell says Sun Yixian (Sun Yat-sen, as she calls him) resigned his position as president of the new Republic of China "after barely one year in office." Actually he only served from Jan. 1 to March 12, 1912. Lovell argues that Sun Yixian was no classical scholar (as if she could possibly know) since he adopted the wall as a symbol of Chinese construction and endurance. As his constructs were clearly for public consumption, intended to provide a rallying point for the Chinese, what would she have had him do?
Lovell on Martino Martini, whose Atlas Sinensis she proclaims as being, when they were published, the "most complete and authoritative maps of China to date": his "wild generalizations about the state of the entire wall [were] based , presumably, only on observations of its condition near Beijing." Setting aside her lack of substantive proof of the allegation and that the condition of the wall more than 350 years ago just might have been somewhat different than it is today, would not his maps have the same drawback?
Lovell goes on about how the Qianlong emperor's disdain of the mechanical trinkets brought to him by the English must have been as a result of prior dealings with Europeans having supplied China with earlier mechanical devices. Not possible that the Chinese, in fact, were well aware of such devices due to their own discoveries? Lovell might be surprised to know that the Chinese discovered/invented (just to name a few): quantitative cartography, Mercator-map projection, the first relief maps, Equatorial astronomical instruments, essentials of the steam engine, matches, the mechanical clock, block and mechanical type printing, the decimal system, "zero", the first compasses, dial and pointer devices, magnetic declination of the Earth's magnetic field and the seismograph. All of these hundreds or thousands of years before they were adopted or recognized in the West.
For a parallel, and earlier, book on the Great Wall which Lovell seems to eerily mimic, see Arthur Waldron's The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth.
In sum, I am aghast that Lovell would be actually teaching Chinese history and literature at the University of Cambridge.The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC - 2000 AD Overview

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