David Spindler and the Great Wall

This week, tens of thousands of people will be reading Peter Hessler's New Yorker article on David Spindler and his Great Wall project.  Here I offer a brief testament in support of David's work.


David and Andrew in a tower on the Chenjiabao section of Great Wall near Badaling, Nov 2006 

The Great Wall is a mythic structure, surrounded by legends and fantasies.  Like the Pyramids of ancient Egypt, the Parthenon of Athens, or the Colliseum of Rome, the Great Wall has come to symbolize China more than any other physical structure.  Mythic notions persist, such as the idea that the Great Wall is an unbroken line stretching thousands of miles along China's northern border.  The notion that it is an ancient structure dating back to the First Emperor is also a common myth, as is the idea that it can be seen from space.  Overall, the Great Wall has come to symbolize China's "closedness" to foreign people and influences.

These myths become apparent to anybody who spends some time hiking along the Great Wall.  It is both less and more than legend suggests.  Rather than a long continuous line, the Great Wall is actually a series, or better yet, a network of walls and towers that snake along mountain ridges (I have never been to the Great Wall west of Beijing, so I am describing the areas north of the capital).  While not as imposing as it may seem in the imagination, a visit to the Great Wall in any of the five major tourist sites north of Beijing--Badaling, Mutianyu, Gubeikou, Jinshanling, and Simatai--is an unforgettable experience. 

While millions of people visit the Great Wall on an annual basis, very few people understand the history behind this structure.  In the Western world, Arthur Waldron's book _The Great Wall of China:  From History to Myth_ is currently the definitive myth-busting account of the political and strategic maneuvering behind the building of the Great Wall from ancient times to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

David's research on the Great Wall is qualitatively different to that of Waldron.  While Waldron uses government documents from the Ming period to recount the court debates surrounding the building of the Ming Great Wall, particularly in the Ordos region (present-day Shaanxi Province), his discussion of wallbuilding in the Beijing area is less developed.  David's unique combination of field research and library research has allowed him to put together a set of stories behind the building of the Beijing-area walls in the late 1500s-early 1600s that had remained obscure for centuries, as well as enabling him to describe the structures and functions of the walls and towers in far greater detail than anybody has done before.

David is a very meticulous researcher with an incredible mind for details.  As Peter Hessler attests in his article, his memory is astounding.  Of course, those of us with detail-oriented minds sometimes lose sight of the big picture.  This is why, in an interview with Peter, I told him that I am encouraging David to ensconse himself in an academic setting (Harvard comes to mind, though any major research university with a strong Asian Studies program would do).  All those wonderful details and stories need to be mined and sifted and woven into a grand narrative that captures the importance of wallbuilding in the Beijing area to the Chinese empire in late imperial times.

David and I grew up in neighboring towns outside of Boston (he lived in Lincoln, I lived in Acton), and we both went to Dartmouth (he was an '89, I was a '91) where we majored in Asian Studies with a China focus.  In 1996, I renewed my acquaintance with David while living in Beijing.  I went on my first Great Wall hike with David and a few other friends in January 1997 (see my Great Wall journal), and since then I've spent over 20 days hiking on the Wall with David in several different counties north of Beijing.  But I did not get to know the details of his research until last year, when I filmed him hiking and recounting the history of the five major historical/tourist sites. 

I encourage anybody involved in the field of Ming-dynasty political and military history to contact David and engage in a dialogue with him, and perhaps even a collaboration.  Independent scholars of his calibre are rare in any field, and should be treated as great treasures.  Let us not forget the story of Michael Ventris, the amateur scholar who cracked one of the great puzzles of the 20th century:  the ancient language known as Linear B.