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Posted on Wed, Mar 13, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Asia & U.S.: Great Wall of China, fact or fiction?

By Wayne Baker

0313 Heartlocks photo from Asia by Cheryl Baker.jpg

Photo by Cheryl Baker.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing Asia and the United States.

Territorial boundaries are a key dimension of national identity, separating those who are in from those who are out. China’s Great Wall is one of the best known boundaries of all. Today, this 20,000-kilometer-long structure in northern China is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Is what you know about the great wall — fact or fiction?

Here’s how UNESCO describes the Great Wall, or what the Chinese call the Long Wall of Ten Thousand Li: In about 220 BC, under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defense system against invasions from the north. Construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure. Its historic and strategic importance is matched only by its architectural significance.

Here are three widely accepted facts about Great Wall. But, are they true

CLAIM 1: It’s the only human-made object you can see from space — even from the moon.

FACT or FICTION? Almost universally accepted as fact, it’s not true. Here’s what NASA has to say: It has become a space-based myth. The Great Wall of China, frequently billed as the only man-made object visible from space, generally isn’t, at least to the unaided eye in low Earth orbit. It certainly isn’t visible from the Moon. Yang Liwei, China’s astronaut, caused a lot of controversy and consternation when he said that he couldn’t see it. The Egyptian pyramids, in contrast, are clearly visible to the naked eye from space.

CLAIM 2: The purpose of the Great Wall was to keep out barbarian invaders.

FACT or FICTION? This is true, but it’s not the whole story. The Great Wall was built to keep people in as well as out. As Professor James C. Scott explains in The Art of Not Being Governed, “…the Great Wall(s) and the anti-Miao walls of Hunan were seen officially as a barrier to barbarians, whereas, in fact, they were built just as surely to hold a taxpaying, sedentary, cultivating population within the ambit of state power.”

CLAIM 3: The Great Wall has nothing to do with love.

FACT or FICTION? This might have been true at some point in the past, but not so today. When we visited the Great Wall, climbing a portion of it in the snow, I marveled at the hundreds, if not thousands, of locks that were affixed to the Great Wall. Chinese couples inscribe their initials on a padlock, lock it on a bar or chain on the Great Wall, and throw away the key — thus signifying their eternal love for one another.

Had you heard these claims about the Great Wall?

Were you surprised by the truths today?

Do you have a fourth fact (or fiction) to add to today's list?

Wayne Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at or on Facebook.