Nothing to Declare: The Meaning of Greatness

By Lisa Qian


For a 97-degree Accuweather-assessed August day, the air ambling through Mutianyu was surprisingly cool, certainly chilly enough to counteract the glare from the sun.


At an hour and a half outside of Beijing, Mutianyu has less visitors than Badaling, the most visited section of the Great Wall, but still typically has its fair share of crowds.  But today was different–for long stretches, I could count the number of people I saw on one hand.  The heat saturating the ground eight meters below, I assumed, was the hindrance.


From above, it was a different world.  Something about the thud each stride made against the silvered brick, something about the untouched, rugged mountains thundering into the horizon, just like the Fu Baoshi watercolors I grew up admiring, something about the plush, leafy flora oozing out of the cracks and dribbling into the valley—all of that made it difficult not to be transported back a century and a half, envisioning the laborers diligently erecting the wall, stone by stone.  If I blinked, the image changed—now it was families weeping, tears shed for their fallen sons.  Sons gone from storming across the borders of safety, gone from reaching to lay that one last brick or from fracturing their bones against the skulls of stone, gone from the spears of the Manchurian invasions, from the swords of the Mongols, from the arrogance of the Imperialists.


For more than a thousand years, Chinese people have looked to the Great Wall as a symbol of their strength.  Dynasties have come and gone, foreign occupations have come and gone, but the Great Wall has stayed a constant.  The magnitude of the history that is steeped in the stone fissures, the extent of the honor that ripples outwards, the scope of the secrets the bricks whisper—there’s little in America that reminds me of how proud I am to be Chinese, but standing alone in a watch tower filled me with an ineffable fulfillment.


I wasn’t the only one.  Climbing the Great Wall that day was a communal activity, where people easily traded conversation, usually in English or Chinese, but sometimes in a tongue that we could practice.  An Italian mother and her two daughters told my sister that she was experiencing something spiritual, something she hadn’t felt since mass in the Vatican.  A little British boy exclaimed loudly that he felt like God must have built the wall, so unfathomable was its physical power.  For all of humanity, not just the Chinese, the Great Wall is a testament to humanity’s vitality and resilience.


There’s something so powerful in knowing that people who could have never imagined the world we live in today, whose lives seem so removed from our own, once appreciated the same view.  In a way, it speaks to the cruelty of nature, so easy to forget what once was there.  But at the same time, it is a comfort to know that as much as the world changes, some things stay ever the same.

Lisa Qian ’19 is a freshman in Silliman College. Lisa can be reached at