When Trump made “a great, great” wall on the US-Mexico border a signature of his campaign, the Chinese emperors from the Qin dynasty in 221 BC to the Ming and successive dynasties until the 18th century — had they been alive — would have ecstatically cheered “Long live Trump!”
Little had these powerful builders of the Great Wall of China expected to see such an endearing reverberation of their walled mindset and middle-kingdom values in the 21st century. Whether in ancient China or in contemporary U.S., can a border wall really deter invaders and crossers alike, while defending, unifying, and guarding the “purity” of the culture and the safety of the subjects that it encircles?
In the Chinese Middle Kingdom those of Han descent believed that they could only remain “superior” to others—namely the northern “barbarians” and nomadic people like Xiongnu, Qian, Li, and later the Mongols among others — if they divided their civilized world from others. They felt that once the line of the Great Wall got drawn, the divide between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarians would become absolute and immovable. Such a line delineated a culture that excluded and built a vertical Middle Kingdom in the hope of outliving anything and anyone who was different and was perceived as a threat.
The Trump Wall has its foundation cemented on fear, bigotry, and above all, fundamental intolerance for difference. A loud and clear message is written on the wall that immigrants (legal and illegal) steal jobs, exploit public services, and pose security risks. The caravan from Central America is a group of invaders, so has Trump said and so would the Chinese emperors have said. Underneath the architectural resemblance, the Trump Wall resonates remarkably with the core purpose of the Great Wall of China: “border crossers” steal what is ours, erode our national and imperial identity, and contaminate our culture and language; they must be stopped with a wall.
History has proven time and again that, with all the epic effort to defend and protect, the Great Wall of China was never ironclad. In fact, so porous, permeable and penetrable it was that the very “barbarians” or the Mongols that the Wall intended to keep out ruled the Middle Kingdom from 1271-1368. The Silk Road also “broke through” the Great Wall creating a Eurasian land-based route for a two-way commercial conduit between China and the West, far beyond where the Great Wall could possibly encircle. This trade route established critical connections that promoted trade, commerce, and the exchange of ideas between China and the West.
Trump now shuts down the government and manufactures a border crisis in order to secure funding for the border wall. Should he succeed, the Trump Wall will not be able to stop illegal immigrants who will continue to pursue their “American Dream” in the north, but appeal to those who live in the 21st century American “Middle Kingdom,” with the notion of one single race, one single creed, and one single culture. In the meantime, the Trump Wall stokes fear and bigotry, standing in this land as an antithesis to the Statue of Liberty.
Mimi Yang is a professor of Modern Languages and Asian Studies at Carthage College in Kenosha.