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« Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (part 2) | Main | The Passion of The Christ »

Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer (part 1)

First part to a story ("In the building of the Great Wall of China") by this Czech man of letters.  You can read the original here.

The Great Wall of China was completed on its northern side.  Advancements were made in construction on the southeastern and southwestern sides, which were in turn linked to the northern.  This system of partial construction was also maintained in the smaller sections within the two large workforces, that of the east and that of the west.  It so happened that groups were formed of about twenty laborers who were then tasked with the construction of wall sections of roughly five hundred meters in length; a facing wall of the same length was subsequently built by a neighboring group.  Once the unification of the sections was completed, construction at the end of these thousand meters did not proceed; rather, the laborers were dispatched to distant areas to work on other sections.  In this way, of course, many broad gaps arose that only gradually came to be filled; many were even filled only after the Great Wall had already been declared complete.  Yes, there are said to be gaps which have never yet been obstructed – a claim, in any case, that may belong amidst the many legends that have arisen about the building of the Wall.  Legends which, given the prolific extension of the Wall, are unverifiable, at least for the individual man equipped with his own eyes and measuring stick.          

Now one would not hesitate to believe it more advantageous in every sense of the word to have unified the Wall, or at least connected it within its two main sections.  As is widely known, the Wall was conceived of to protect against the northern nations.  And yet how can an unconnected wall offer any protection?  Not only can such a wall fail as a means of defense, further construction can also be imperiled.   The pieces of the Wall left standing in some deserted region could easily be destroyed by nomadic tribes.  All the more since, at the time, the nomads, terrified by the construction of the Wall, shifted their encampments with the incomprehensible stealth of locusts, which may have afforded them a better overview over the construction's progress than was available even to us, the builders.  Nevertheless, the Wall could not have been built in any other way.  To understand this one should keep the following in mind: the Wall was intended as protection that would last for centuries.  The most meticulous construction, the exploitation of all known theories of construction from all ages and nations, the persistent feeling of personal responsibility on the part of the builders – all these were indispensable prerequisites for the project.  For some of the piece-work unknowing day laborers from our nation could be used, men, women and children who had their eye on some good money.  But a man trained in construction would have to be responsible for every four day laborers that were hired; a man, as it were, capable of enormous empathy given the matter at hand.  And the greater the contribution, the more demanding the work became.  And many such men were in fact available, if not perhaps in the quantity that this work would have required.    

Planning of the project was not taken lightly.  Fifty years before construction began, the art and knowledge of building, in particular of masonry, had been declared all over China to be the most important of all sciences.  China, after all, was to be surrounded by a wall, and all other disciplines were acknowledged only as they pertained to this goal.  I remember clearly how we were little, still wobbly children standing about our teacher's garden and tasked with building a sort of wall out of pebbles.  I also remember how our teacher, using his frock as a shield, would then ram into the wall – scattering the pieces, of course – and then upbraid us so harshly for the weakness of our wall that we would all  run off howling to our parents.  A minor event, but indicative of the spirit of the times.   

Fortunately the construction of the Wall began just when I, twenty years old at the time, had passed the top-level exam of the lowest school.  I say fortunate because many who had previously reached the top level available to them had not known what to do with their education.  Mulling over the most grandiose building plans, they had idled about uselessly for years and gone to rack and ruin.  Yet those who ultimately became engineers and builders, even of the lowest rank, were quite deserving of such positions.  These were masons who had long thought about the construction and never ceased to imagine how, upon the placement of the first stone in the ground, they were not cut out for the task.  Naturally such masons were driven by not only the desire to carry out the most thorough work possible, but also the impatience of seeing the construction rise in its complete and perfect form.  The day laborer has no such impatience; he is motivated only by wage.  And the upper-level foremen (even, I would say, the middle-level foremen) see enough of the multifariousness of the construction to keep their spirits high.  Yet for the lower ranks, men whose intellect dwarfs the minor projects they are assigned, other measures must be taken.  They could not, for example, be asked to lay stone after stone for months or even years in some uninhabited mountain region, hundreds of miles from their home.  The hopelessness of such diligent if aimless work, aimless even in the course of a long life, would bring them to despair and, more importantly, render their work worthless. 

This is why the system of partial construction was devised.  Five hundred meters could be completed in roughly five years; by that time, of course, all the engineers and foremen were usually exhausted, having lost all faith in themselves, in the construction, in the world.  For that reason, then, were they dispatched, often to very, very distant locations, while still drunk on the image of the unification of their thousand meters.  On their journey to these places they would cast their eyes upon the completed pieces of the Wall jutting out here and there, pass quarters of the top engineers and foremen who appeared to pay their respects, hear the rousing cheers of newly arrived workforces streaming in from the heartland of their nation, see how forests were felled for the sake of Wall equipment and supplies, watch mountains be smashed into building stones, and catch the songs of the Pious Completion of the Building invoked at the holy sites.  Spending some time amidst the peaceful life of their homeland strengthened them: the notion of respect for all of the building, the believer's humility with which their reports were received, and the trust the simple, quiet citizen placed in the eventual completion of the Wall all tugged on the heartstrings.   Like ever-hopeful children they bid their homes farewell, as the desire to return to this national project was unconquerable.  They left their houses earlier than would have been necessary and were accompanied for a long stretch by practically half their village.  And all along these paths were groups of men, pennants, flags: never before had they noticed how great and rich and beautiful and lovely their land really was.  Every compatriot was a brother for whom they were building a protective wall and this brother would be grateful, in all that he had and in all that he was, his whole life long.  Unity!  Unity!  Chest to chest, a circle dance of the nation, blood, no longer trapped in the meager circulation of the body, and now instead rolling sweetly through, and then back through, endless China.     

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