Great Wall named top dangerous location in Beijing

January 13th, 2011

Beijing’s hiking community had a mixed reaction to news that one of its favourite spots was being viewed as dangerous and could be off limits.

A report released by the Bluesky rescue team reveals that a section of the Great Wall is the most dangerous outdoor recreation site in Beijing.

It states that the Jiankou section of the wall in Huairou district saw the most outdoor accidents in 2010, followed by Haituo Mountain in Yanqing county and Jiulong Mountain in Mentougou district.

The report said six accidents were reported for the Jiankou section of the wall during the year. Three were reported from Haituo Mountain.

American Tyler Cotton said the natural beauty of the area and the few people who go there make it worth the risk.

“I know people can be a bit cavalier about where they hike and if you choose to go to a dangerous spot, you should know what you’re doing,” he said.

People should carefully plan their trips and travel in groups if possible to minimize the danger, he added.

Hong Gao, a hiking guide with 90 per cent Travel, which takes hikers to un-restored sections of the wall, said a professional guide will also minimize any risks.

“It’s a calculated risk, for people who are well trained or who have a professional guide, it’s achievable,” he said. “But for amateur hikers, I wouldn’t advise going there.”

Zhang Ye, 34, who has visited Jiankou several times, said the report will not dampen his passion for the outdoors.

“We know the danger of mountaineering but that is definitely the charm of the sport,” he said.

There were 26 reported outdoor accidents in 2010, involving 99 people. One person died and six were injured. One of the people who was injured last year was a hiker from South Korea who broke a leg while climbing along a section of the un-restored Great Wall.

Kaweah man hopes to make movie about Great Wall of China journey

January 13th, 2011

Kevin Foster’s greatest accomplishment almost didn’t happen because of a global upheaval.

Foster — who has called Kaweah, near Three Rivers, home since 1990 — was scheduled to ride his bicycle on the Great Wall of China in 1989, but the Tiananmen Square incident that saw the Chinese government crush a student revolt happened in spring.

After negotiations and delays, Foster would not be able to ride atop the Great Wall until May 1990.

Two decades later, momentum is building toward making a movie about his China experience, Foster said.

A screenplay has been completed and the Chinese government has tentatively offered $25 million to partially finance the film.

That’s roughly half the movie’s budget, Foster said.

The trick now is to fill out the rest of the proposed budget, choose a lead actor and start filming as early as 2012, Foster said.
Movie moves forward

Judging from Foster’s experience making films and his tireless pursuit of this goal, the movie will be made, experts say.

“I would not even be involved in this if I didn’t think Kevin could get the job done,” said Kim Holland, who works as a consultant for American companies trying to do business in China. She has acted as liaison between Foster and the Chinese.

“The Chinese are very serious about this. China is a blossoming superpower with a lot at stake with tooling their image,” she said.

The key to the project is to find the right actor to star in the film, Foster said.

The targeted actor? Jake Gyllenhaal, star of “Brokeback Mountain” and other critically acclaimed films in recent years, is Foster’s favorite.

“It’s a great fit,” Foster said. “Jake is 30, my age when I rode on the Great Wall.”

Gyllenhaal’s management company has taken an interest in the story and passed it on to the actor, who is interested in the project, Foster said.

The Gyllenhaal possibility will put traction behind the idea, Holland said.
Shocking start

Foster’s life was almost cut short.

Foster says he actually started living on July 2, 1968, when he was 8 years old. A tree-climbing contest in Connecticut ended when he touched not a branch, but a live electrical line that sent 65,000 volts coursing through his body.

“I died,” Foster said. “My mind was blank. I remembered nothing about those previous eight years.”

He was written off by his doctors, relatives and associates alike.

This pessimism appeared to galvanize Foster for what was to come.

Childhood friend Phil Duarte, a musician who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area, recalls the first time Foster declared he wanted to ride a bicycle on the Great Wall of China was in middle school while watching President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.

Eighteen years later, that’s precisely what happened.
Other adventures

After Foster’s ride on the Great Wall of China, his next great project was to ride his bicycle over every high point in each state of the U.S. — including Alaska’s Mt. Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley.

That mid-1990s expedition took place when the federal government was dealing with the likes of the Waco massacre of the Branch Davidians in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

Finally, Foster’s last major “bicycle adventure,” a sojourn across Castro’s Cuba, happened in 1997 — delayed a year because of a 1996 flyover and shoot-down of an anti-Castro propaganda leaflet-dropping airplane.

By that time, not many people cared, and most of the world came into knowledge of the Cuban ride only because of his book, released in 2010, describing his trip.

In short, if you’ve never heard of Kevin Foster, blame it on political firestorms that flared up at the same time.

“That’s the only thing that really bothers me about Kevin,” said Foster’s 82-year-old mother, Stella Rogers, a Wisconsin resident. “He’s never really received the full credit for the inspirational life he has led.”

Still, Foster’s amazing bicycle exploits are but one facet of a life in which the 50-year-old adventurer has written books, produced movies and CDs, and acted on stage and screen — including the 2009 film “Yesterday’s Dreams,” which debuted at the Visalia Fox Theatre.
The Moon and Mars

After he gets his movie made about his adventure on the Great Wall of China, Foster has talked about figuring out a way to get to the moon and ride a bicycle there.

“Instead of a spacewalk, how about a bikewalk?” Foster said. “Can you imagine me on the bike, with spacesuit, imaged against a backdrop of the Earth? Now that’s a ride.”

In fact, Foster has called NASA about a trip to the moon.

“The head guy said if I could raise $5 billion in three years, NASA could get me to the moon with my bicycle,” Foster said. “After the meeting, he pulled me into his office and said: ‘Hey, if you can raise $5 billion, let’s just send you to Mars. We could get you there in six months.’ ”

Foster’s friends and family don’t discount the space-travel notion.

“I was not about to doubt Kevin on anything he said,” Duarte said.

Treks along the Famed Great Wall of China

June 11th, 2010

It was a case of East meets West and South joins North when the Chabad Great Wall trek got underway in Beijing. Adventurers and spiritual-seekers from London, Israel and South Africa teamed up for the traditional blend of soul/body challenge that has made Chabad of Hendon’s annual treks so appealing. The eleven participants, aged sixteen to seventy, flew to China to hike along the famed Great Wall. China’s Wall snakes over mountain tops and along cliffs through almost 4000 miles of varied and breathtaking landscape. The Chabad team tasted a smidgen of the experience during the four days they spent hiking a fraction the wall- and that was a challenge in its own right.

This year marked the fifth year that Rabbi Dovid Katz of Chabad Hendon has led a Jewish expedition to an exotic destination. In previous years, his groups have trekked through Nepal, India, Tanzania and Peru. Rabbi Ari Shishler of Chabad Strathavon joined Rabbi Katz for the second time, this time bringing some members of his own community.

Bussing out of Beijing to start the trek, the group members got down to meeting. “Under normal circumstances,” one of the chevra remarked, “we would pass each other on the street without greeting.” Englishmen, Israelis and South Africans of widely differing religious levels most likely would never have spoken and certainly had not dreamed of spending a week together. By the end of the trip, every one of the team felt he was part of a single unit.

“This trip,” Rabbi Katz explained, “unified Jews from around the world and brought together three Chabad communities: Hendon in London, Strathavon in Johannesburg and Beijing. It was worth traveling across the globe just to create this unity.”

Each day’s hike began with Shacharis, a simple breakfast and then the team headed off for the day’s challenge. Sturdy and breathtaking in parts and crumbling in others, the Wall provided a physical challenge with its endless stairways, some almost vertical. It also provided opportunity for reflection and learning. Along the way, the rabbis shared insights from Chassidus, peppered with lessons from the Wall experience. The group farbrenged together and each person took on a resolution at the hike’s end. One member put on Tefillin for the first time in almost sixty years.

Over Shabbos, the hikers joined 200 guests at Chabad of Beijing, where Rabbi Shimon and Dini Freundlich hosted them like VIPs as they also opened their home to an Israeli tour group, Americans, Canadians, English, Irish and French tourists, as well as frum business people, exchange students from the USA and many of the local Jewish residents. Shul was standing room only over Shabbos and the meals reverberated with singing and divrei Torah.

As the trekkers prepared to return home, they recalled trying to explain to Chinese villagers (their hosts, who spoke no English) why they could not use their stoves, putting Tefillin on Israeli tourists at the “Forbidden City”, farbrenging on the Wall and witnessing the power of the Rebbe’s shlichus at work in the far-flung, tiny Jewish community of Beijing. They had traveled to see a foreign nation’s heritage and returned with a renewed appreciation of their own heritage.

Canada, China Linked by ‘Friendship’ Pact

June 11th, 2010

As we all know that both the Rideau Canal and the Great Wall of China are labelled world heritage sites from United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In a bid to increase cross-promotion between them, officials from Ottawa Tourism signed an agreement in the federal capital Thursday to provide more advertising for Beijing’s Great Wall of China.

The agreement on Thursday is a follow-on to another pact signed at the Great Wall in April, and extends the work on Chinese-Ottawa relations that Ottawa Tourism has been building on to take advantage of the growing Asian economy.

Representatives also have taken part in several trade trips to China since Ottawa Tourism decided tohook into the country in 2005.

“I have fond memories of the signing ceremony at the Great Wall,” stated Noel Buckley, the head of Ottawa Tourism.

“This is an important further step in the cooperation and friendship between Beijing and Ottawa, who have been sister cities for 10 years now.”

This event continues Ottawa Tourism’s outreach to the Chinese market, which has been ongoing since 2005.

How the Great Wall Worked

May 21st, 2009

Now if you have traveled to China for a vacation holiday or on a business trip, people will inevitably ask you whether you have visited The Great Wall of China? Why is this tourist attraction in China so attractive? It is because if you have not gone sightseeing at the Great Wall of China, then your China vacation is missing out a great deal. Here is why.

There are many watch towers, which were actually barracks for soldiers and warehouses for arms and were spaced close enough that soldiers from one barracks could quickly come to the aid of a besieged group at another watchtower.

I don’t know how long their tours of duty lasted, but it must have played hob with family life. I sometimes wonder how China got to be so overpopulated with all the famines, wars, and military tours of duty.

The Great Wall has crenellations as are found in European castle walls. Soldiers could survey the countryside through them, then shoot at invaders through the embrasures below.

A communications system grew up with signal towers spreading across the countryside. Fuel was stored—animal dung being a favorite because it smokes like crazy—to be lit when an enemy was approaching. Seeing the smoke and fire, the watchman at the next signal tower then lit his dung heap and so on, passing the word to the city and villages in the enemy’s path. This was quick and effective in the days before radio, telephones, and internet. Ingenious.

Reflecting the multi-culturalism of early China, the section of wall at Juyong Pass (30 miles from downtown Beijing) has a marble platform with bas-relief sculptures of the four Heavenly Kings, with Buddhist incantations in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Uygur, Han, and Xixia. Niches in the wall contain 2,000 Buddhist sculptures. Genghis Khan fought a major battle in this area, and I’d like to see it. Next trip, maybe.

Much of the roadway on top of the wall is now overgrown with bushes and even trees making passage difficult. The Bedaling section is nicely restored and free of vegetation, however, awaiting visitors. A couple of men in our group hiked to the end of the restoration and said it ended abruptly in a drop-off. I’ll take their word for it.

Scott, ever the champion of the people (See China: Tiananmen Square) told us the wall was built using clay and rice as a binder. If you’ve ever clogged your kitchen sink drain by washing out your rice pot, you know how gummy rice can be. Scott said the wall was built at great cost to human life at a time when rice was scarce and many peasants were starving.

We asked about the rumor we’d heard that bodies of workmen were entombed in the wall. He said, “Of course. The workmen were overworked and underfed and thousands died. What were they going to do with the bodies? It’s logical they would become part of the structure.” It gave us an eerie feeling as we gazed at the magnificent wall. I was glad we were there in the daytime.

In the days before modern weapons, the wall did a good job of defending China. I’d heard that the enemy just did an end run around it, but that’s not entirely true . According to the website of Travel China Guide, China fell to the Mongols due to weak government and poverty of the peasants.

Then again, in 1644 AD, the Manchus crossed the wall by convincing (threats? bribes?) a Chinese guard to open the gates of Shanhai Pass. Legend has it that it took three whole days for the Manchu army to enter. And that was the end of the Ming Dynasty.

The Myth of the Great Wall

May 21st, 2009

Neither the Qin wall nor the Ming fortifications were called the “Great Wall of China” by their Chinese contemporaries. That label, and the myths that have come with it, appear to have originated in the West. Europeans who visited China in the 17th and 18th centuries confused the Ming fortifications with the Qin wall or walls mentioned in dynastic histories. They also assumed incorrectly that impressive masonry walls like those surrounding Beijing at the time also extended far to the west. As a result, a description developed in the West of a vast wall that had secured peace for the civilized Chinese for thousands of years by excluding the nomads. This idea captured the imagination of Westerners, and by the late 19th century a visit to the ‘Great Wall of China’ had become a staple of the Western tourist’s itinerary.

In the 20th century the Chinese also began to adopt the idea of the Great Wall, despite the evidence presented by their own historical records. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, who was instrumental in establishing the Republic of China in 1912, wrote about the wall in glowing terms consistent with the Western myth. Although some Chinese scholars pointed out Sun’s errors, they never succeeded in halting the myth’s progress. Patriotic fervor during World War II (1939-1945) popularized the myth of the Great Wall, and some renovation was done to the Ming fortifications in the early 1950s. The tide changed, however, under Communist leader Mao Zedong, who came to power in 1949. In 1966 Mao launched the political campaign known as the Cultural Revolution, during which he appealed to the Chinese people to destroy anything associated with traditional culture. Unappreciated for its historic value, the magnificent wall surrounding Beijing was torn down for quarrying during this period. Other wall ruins were also destroyed.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976, the political climate changed in China, evidenced in part by a rise in nationalism. In the years that followed, the myth of the Great Wall was officially propagated throughout the country. In the 1980s the Ming walls began to undergo extensive renovation at their most visited locations. In the 1990s, however, historians in both China and the West began to reestablish the actual history of Chinese wall building and to explore the development of the folklore surrounding the Ming walls.

Great Wall

May 21st, 2009

Great Wall (China), popular name for a semi-legendary wall built to protect China’s northern border in the 3rd century bc, and for impressive stone and earthen fortifications built along a different northern border in the 15th and 16th centuries ad, long after the ancient structure had mostly disappeared. Ruins of the later wall are found today along former border areas from Bo Hai (a gulf of the Yellow Sea) in the east to Gansu Province in the west. The Great Wall is visited often near Beijing, at a site called Ju-yong-guan, and at its eastern and western extremes.

Ordinarily I might have paused to catch my breath, but hiking up to the Great Wall of China is never an ordinary affair. Its silhouetted battlements running along the skyline spur me on. Sweating, straining, I’m injected with new enthusiasm when I spot bricks from the wall lying at the side of the rocky path, weighing perhaps 30 pounds each. I press on, doubtless in the footsteps of the army of builders who carried and levered the wall up—brick by brick, block by block—from 1,200 feet below. Then, instead of getting lighter as expected, the horizon darkens: A 20-foot-high barrier of light gray stone confronts me, its massive blocks laid in straight courses, perfectly interlocking. More than 2,000 pounds each, I estimate, and nine courses high. Insurmountable. An archway gives me the only access into this stronghold, and I climb steps onto the top of the wall, a stone highway stretching into the distance. From here I get a view down to the valley, my route, the builders’ route. I wonder how the builders transported all the material, for I’m atop a 2,600-foot-highridge, a formidable thing. Then nature paints over that logistical enigma with a pale pink sunlight, which illuminates a scene virtually unchanged for 430 years. My map-reading has been good: I am on a section of the “wild wall,” where nothing modern deforms the vista, not a power line or a road; there is only this ancient road of sorts, the Great Wall of China.

Quarried and baked from the mountains and earth that it crosses, rising along the line where traditional Chinese ways of life clashed against the free, roving ways of northern nomads, the Great Wall here complements nature, even enhances it. Before and behind me the glowing ramparts dominate the landscape for miles around. I know by the symbol on my map that the wall comes from where the sun rises and goes to where it sets.

I am standing all alone, high up on the Great Wall, with the whole day before me to walk along my very own section of the world’s most spectacular open-air museum. I need no other vantage point to know the wall’s true greatness: It is far more than history, far more than a landmark—it is part of the very geography of China, of Asia, of the world, and even beyond.
The Great Wall is probably China’s best-known monument and one of its most popular tourist destinations. In 1987 it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Great Wall is not a single, continuous structure. Rather, it consists of a network of walls and towers that leaves the frontier open in places. Estimates of the total length of the monument vary, depending on which sections are included and how they are measured. The Great Wall is about 2,400 km (about 1,500 mi) long, according to conservative estimates. Other estimates cite a length of 6,400 km (4,000 mi), or even longer. Some long-standing myths about the wall have been dispelled in recent decades. The existing wall is not several thousand years old, nor is it, as has been widely asserted, visible with the naked eye from outer space. (Astronauts have confirmed this. However, some of the wall is discernible in special radar images taken by satellites.)

Great Wall – the Endearment of a Massachusetts Man

December 11th, 2008

David Spindler an American, 41, is an unlikely, almost accidental scholar of one of China’s most beloved landmarks, a Harvard Law School graduate who left his job as a consultant and lived off savings to pursue his grand obsession thousands of miles from his Massachusetts roots. Someday soon, he hopes to publish a book on all he has learned. He stands along a crenelated crown of the Great Wall and gestures toward a river valley that snakes away northward into the gloom. “Over there,” he says, his voice lilting in a sense of discovery. “That’s the direction from which the Mongols attacked.”

For two hours on Oct. 23, 1554, a bloody battle raged. The raiders used ropes to reach the Chinese defenders, climbing the wall “like ants,” Spindler explains. He talks of a Chinese soldier who hacked off the hand of an attacker only to be killed moments later, his head pierced by an enemy arrow.

Spindler has done his homework, much of it in the National Library of China, where he has pored over government reports and military archives detailing the clash along this isolated mountain ridge 75 miles northwest of Beijing, deciphering the ancient Chinese characters that hold clues to a past 454 years old.

Without academic affiliation or funding, Spindler has spent 14 years traveling across China. And he has spent more than 830 days clambering over the Greatwall’s far-flung ramparts around Beijing, enough to wear through several pairs of hiking boots.

Dressed in a wide-brimmed Tilley hat, red-checked hunting jacket, and arm-length work gloves, he has endured the humid 100-degree days of summer and shortened snow-blown days of December.

Spindler’s relationship with the Great Wall was not love at first sight. He initially visited there as a tourist in 1987 while on a summer study program in China.

Years later, after moving to Beijing to study premodern Chinese history, he still saw the wall less as its own destination than as a respite from the stress of a teeming foreign capital with 17 million residents.

In 1994, a friend suggested that they take an overnight hiking trip there. Always athletic – he was a collegiate rower and cross-country skier – Spindler was challenged by the physical exertion of tracing the structure’s roller-coaster rises and falls.

In the fall of 1997, he returned to the United States to attend Harvard Law School. But Spindler kept a map of his beloved barricade over his dorm room desk.

In 2000, he returned to Beijing and worked as a management consultant as he pursued his research. In early 2002, Spindler surprised even his closest friends: He left his consulting job and soon began to study the wall full time.

“He manages to communicate his love for this subject and the excitement he feels when he gets up on the stones and gazes out over the hills and the twists and turns of the wall.”

Spindler’s research has also separated myth from fact.

He has learned, for example, that the Great Wall is not one continuous structure but a series of fortifications, built with various materials, including packed earth, bricks and mortar, field stones and quarried rock. In some places, it isn’t a wall at all, but a string of unconnected signal towers. No one has determined exactly how long it runs, but estimates vary from thousands to tens of thousands of miles.

He plans to finish a book on the Great Wall by the end of 2010. But no one, least of all Spindler, thinks that will mark the closing chapter of his adventure.

He has hiked for days without seeing another soul, explored abandoned villages, gotten lost, and watched fellow hikers break arms and legs in falls – all while tracing the route and origins of the meandering wall.

“I always like sitting around here and looking around,” he says during a recent hike. “I see new things all the time. It’s also a great vista.” He paused, then spoke again. “This is a wonderful workplace.”

A Good Snowfall to Beijing

December 11th, 2008

Today is Dec.11 2008. Beijing’s first snowfall this winter will be helpful to reduce its air pollution. As we are know that Beijing is surrounded by three mountain ranges and the coming rain, winds and snow could have a positive impact on the capital’s air quality.

On Tuesday, Beijing experienced one of its most polluted days, with the air pollution index (API) hitting 247 citywide and 399 in the southern outskirts. Meteorological authorities said that the index dropped from a high of 247 on Tuesday to 162 Wednesday. But it is sitll high. An API of 51 to 100 indicates fairly good air quality, the China Environmental Monitoring Center said. An index of 101 to 150 means slight pollution, while an API in excess of 200 means severe air pollution.

People walk along a snow-covered section of the Great Wall in Beijing Wednesday. A cold front is forecast for the capital in the coming week and will further reduce the API to about 100, barring a big change in emissions, Li Xin, chief engineer of the Beijing municipal environment protection bureau, said.

The coming snowfalls and winds could also help Great Wall.

The Great Wall: China against the world 1000BC – AD2000

November 25th, 2008

Contrary to popular imagination and Chinese tourist propaganda, the Great Wall of China did not exist continuously for 2,000 years, was never a single line of fortifications, and even failed to keep out invaders. English-speakers have been able to know this since Arthur Waldron’s The Great Wall of China: from history to myth, but as specialists ruefully acknowledge, it will take a blockbuster of Wild Swans proportions before such “new” information becomes embedded as popular wisdom. The Great Wall may be that blockbuster.

The Great Wall we see today is a post-Mao restoration of a hugely expensive defence system built chiefly in the 16th century under the Ming dynasty. Julia Lovell places this in the context of 3,000 years of varied Chinese frontier defences against the northern nomads of the inner Asian steppes. In a somewhat disjointed narrative (interspersed with capsule explanations of concepts such as the examination system), we see how Chinese policy alternated between defence and aggression, with walled fortifications, usually in discontinuous sections and often more than one layer deep, frequently playing a part in both. Walls built to reinforce the mountain passes leading into the North China plain tended to be defensive, as in the Ming. Those built far out in the steppe may have been bases for colonial occupation, as in the fourth century BC, before there even was a Chinese empire.

Lovell attempts to do more than trace the changing functions of frontier walls. She wants to use the variety of attitudes towards wall-building as a way of exploring the shifting relationship of Chinese governments to the outside world.

This is a story of change and variety exciting enough not to need the sensationalist treatment (or the facetious tone) which the author sometimes adopts. It is becoming recognised that it is no longer enough to treat China as a monolith: unchanging, exotic, shockingly different. In the last generation, the isolationism of the Mao years has given way to an accelerating opening of markets and popular culture – though not of politics – to outside influences and foreign imports.

In keeping with this dramatic shift, recent popular works have often rejected the idea of China as a “hermit kingdom” and instead emphasised the tendencies towards openness in past dynasties. Joanna Waley-Cohen’s Sextants of Beijing traces the adoption of Jesuit and other ideas in the 18th century, while Valerie Hansen’s Open Empire draws attention to an even wider range of earlier borrowings, not least Buddhism. (Less reputable are the claims of Gavin Menzies about Chinese cartography in 1421).

Lovell is less optimistic. Turning away from technology and culture to politics at the highest level, she finds openness only by treating Chinese imperial expansionism as a twisted form of internationalism. Her chief concern is with the efforts of successive dynasties to close out the threat posed by nomadic northerners. Here, Lovell’s fascinating description of the variety of approaches to wall-building becomes mired in a set of persistent stereotypes that specialists have been working to debunk for a decade or more.

To pursue her wider goal of examining the roots of the modern Chinese mindset, Lovell feels it necessary to maintain a sharp historical distinction between Chinese and non-Chinese. Since wall-building is her route into the twists and turns of Chinese thinking over three millennia, she argues that walls must be a uniquely Chinese solution to dealing with the neighbours.

How, then, to explain why many non-Chinese regimes who ruled parts or all of North China and the southern steppe – notably the Jin dynasty, founded by the semi-nomadic Jurchen of Manchuria – also built walls? Why, by first becoming “sinicised” into honorary Chinese, of course. And how do you know that someone has become sinicised? Because they use Chinese methods, such as wall-building.

The circularity of this outdated analysis obviates what could have been a much more interesting discussion of the foreign-relations complexities of China’s “Middle Period” – roughly the 10th to the 14th centuries. Why, for instance, did the (non-Chinese) Jin build walls against their northern neighbours in the 12th century when their southern neighbours, the long-lasting (Chinese) Song dynasty, made little use of “long walls” despite being on the defensive against determined attack from the steppe?

Explaining Jin wall-building under the rubric of “sinicisation” undercuts Lovell’s own persuasive thesis that walls were used differently – or not at all – by defensive and expansionist rulers. It is a pity that in debunking one central myth about China for what is likely to be a large popular audience, the book introduces other canards that will need to be demolished in their turn.

So is it really a question of China against the world? Certainly, Lovell’s focus is on walls as physical manifestations of antagonism between rapacious barbarians and agricultural Chinese, who are mostly on the defensive. But this leaves little space to consider non-military interactions, such as the trade relations which nomads frequently sought from China’s dynasties, which may have kept the peace when granted.

Nor is there room to address the significance of Lovell’s observation that Chinese warlords could sometimes become “more aggressive, opportunistic and risk-taking even than the nomads themselves.” Issues like these demand explanations that move beyond an essentialist view of cultural differences into areas such as economics and realpolitik – not just at a governmental level but also in a wide range of borderland localities.

One thing that Lovell’s account shows without doubt is that Chinese imperial courts were rarely in full control of their northern frontiers, just as today’s Chinese authorities cannot exercise total command of the internet (nor, indeed, of migration across the Siberian and Xinjiang borders). Then, as now, government intentions were frequently disrupted, diverted or subverted by local realities, which in some cases became the drivers of events at state level.

As China comes into wider and deeper contact with the rest of the world, it is not only government thinking on international relations that we must understand, but also the range of attitudes held by Chinese individuals in their interactions with foreigners. As Lovell says, the devil is in the detail, but therein also lies the better understanding that we so urgently need.